I remember the first time we had contact with my child’s biological mother with open adoption. I felt like I was being pulled simultaneously in two directions–I wanted so badly to protect my child, but I also wanted to allow access to this very important relationship. As I opened the door to this relationship, I recognized that grief had once again wriggled its way into my relationship with my child. I was grieving the lack of normalcy within our family. I selfishly wanted the name “mom” for myself. But I am not her only mom, and I never will be. She forever will have two mothers, two fathers, two families. We cannot pretend like birth parents do not exist, do not deeply and fiercely love those children, do not wish that those birth mothers and fathers could have parented the children. And as an adoptive parent, it is important to recognize the invaluable role that birth parents play in my children’s lives. The grief that I experienced during this initial conversation with the birth mother is nothing in comparison to the overwhelming grief my children have undergone due to the loss of birth families. In many ways, I am thankful for this grief, as it helps me to understand in some small way the grief that my children face. Open adoption provides pathways to redemption for all members of the adoption triad. It honors birth parents, it contributes to healing for the adoptee, and it expands the definition of family for adoptive parents.
What Are Open Adoptions?
In an effort to protect adoptees from uncovering undesirable information about birth parents, many adoptions in the United States were closed adoptions. This means that the adoptees had absolutely no contact with birth families. Additionally, adoptees’ medical history and birth records were sealed. However, what was meant for protection turned out to be detrimental, mostly for the adoptee. Not having access to information about –or contact with– biological family is harmful in more ways than one. This not only negatively impacted medical well-being (medical history is an important aspect of health) but it also negatively affected personal mental health and the journey towards healing.
While open adoptions have always existed, there has been a movement away from closed adoptions because of the negative impact caused on adoptees. The result of this movement has been two different types of adoption: semi-open and open adoption. In a semi-open adoption, birth parents and adoptees can interact through an intermediary contact–an agency or a lawyer. Adoptive parents can send letters, emails, and photos through the agency to the birth parents, and vice versa.
In an open adoption, there are varying degrees of contact, but open contact nonetheless. Children can video call, email, and even visit birth parents. Many people with open adoptions treat birth parents like extended family members, inviting birth mothers and fathers to birthday parties or quarterly dinners with the family. This allows the child to share milestones with birth parents, gain access to birth and medical records, and view the birth parents in a healthy way–one in which the child recognizes and values a birth family’s important role in life, but also understand the important role of the adoptive parents.
In our experience, open adoption has allowed us to witness restoration in relationships that our children have with the birth families. Having a level of openness with the birth family has created stability in our family when I thought it might have the opposite effect. Our children’s birth families are not just a part of a personal story; the birth parents, in a very real way, are a part of the child. When adoptees know that the birth families are celebrated, cherished, and loved, the children start to feel celebrated, cherished, and loved individually.
The Beauty of Open Adoptions
Non-adoptees may have a hard time understanding an adoptee’s longing to know a birth family. From the outside looking in, it seems that an adoptee should be “thankful” that an adoptive family brought him into the family when he needed one. While it’s true that adoption provides a child with a forever family, that fact does not negate the deep loss adoptees experience in adoption. Adoptees are losing a connection with the birth mother that she developed during pregnancy. Adoptees are losing relationships with people with shared genetic and personality characteristics. Finally, many adoptees are losing direct access to culture (though hopefully some of this can still be preserved through adoption).
We all have a natural longing to know and have relationships with our families. Non-adoptees may not even recognize a time when we longed for this, but that is likely because we never had to. I knew that I had my grandma’s eyes and personality and that I had my dad’s chin. I knew that I had certain aspects of both parents’ personalities. We had the privilege of talking about those similarities, laughing about characteristics, or even fighting about our similarities and differences. These commonalities bind us as a family in ways that we don’t even realize unless we don’t have those experiences. Having an open adoption allows the adoptee the opportunity to identify her whole self. It gives her the treasure of knowing who she shares characteristics with and, in a sense, redeems her relationship, even if it is not the traditional parent-child relationship.
The biological bond between a mother, father, and the child cannot be matched. It is a unique relationship, as that child began life and received nourishment during pregnancy. Therefore, when birth parents place a beloved child for adoption, the adoptee is not the only member of the triad that is experiencing deep loss. The birth parents also experience tremendous grief as a result of adoption. It is grief that birth mothers and fathers have chosen to endure for the sake of the child, but it is still grief. Open adoption provides birth parents with a redemptive relationship with the children, even if she was not ready for parenthood when she gave birth to her child.
Finally, open adoption positively impacts the third member of the triad as well–adoptive parents. Although the relationships may be awkward and bring up difficult feelings in your home, it provides your child with a holistic view of himself and his family. Not only that, but open adoption also broadens an adoptive parents’ view of the family. So often, we limit the family to those who share our blood. While adoption already dismantles this concept of family, open adoption expands and changes our definition of a family even further. It gives the adoptive family the opportunity to welcome and celebrate birth families, which then helps adoptees feel welcomed and celebrated, as the birth families are an integral part of who adoptees are. Relationships with children’s birth families can be beneficial, life-giving, and enjoyable for adoptive parents as well. These relationships also can help develop compassion and grace for the parents of the children, which can positively contribute to the health of the adoptive family as well as the birth family.
The Difficulty of Open Adoptions
The beauty of open adoption does not cancel out the complexity and difficulty that accompanies it. I have not always had positive feelings about open adoption, and there are things about it that are difficult to navigate. It is important to remember that the level of openness varies and that each adoptive family should consider what is best for the family and the adoptee.
Admitting this is difficult, but our journey in open adoption has naturally led to feelings of jealousy, worry, and fear. Hearing my child call another woman mom can bring out jealousy. Hearing my child laugh and enjoy time with their biological mother, someone with whom they have an unmatched bond, can bring feelings of worry and fear. It can raise questions within adoptive parents, such as:
- Will my child one day leave our family to reunite with the birth family?
- What if my child denies me?
- What if my child runs away to be with the birth family?
These are all completely natural feelings. We don’t think of it as ideal for children to be separated from birth parents. We normally don’t think of children as having two sets of parents. But unfortunately, things do not always work out the way we think it should, and adoption is a valid solution to this problem. But since adoption is not how we envision a life for our children most of the time, it makes sense that these feelings of jealousy and fear would emerge.
When facing these feelings, it is essential to remember the simple truth that adoption is not about adoptive parents and the making of our families, but rather about providing a child with a family. With open adoption, you are not only providing a child with a family but also allowing connections with biological parents who do not get to experience the joys of the children on an everyday basis. When we remember that adoption is for the adoptee, we can put our minds at ease and focus on the child instead of ourselves.
While worry and fear can easily creep in during your open adoption journey, remember that open adoption provides your child with more stability and security, not less. Having relationships with and/or information about birth families help adoptees in the formation of identity. It also helps adoptees because it shows that adoptive parents care about the whole selves – adoptees’ lives pre-adoption and post-adoption.
Practical Tips for Open Adoptions
There are no special rules for how you should navigate open adoption and birth parent relationships. This relationship can be awkward and, as with any relationship, will require flexibility and willingness to change based on the needs at the time. You may start with very little contact and end up inviting the birth parents to birthday parties after a year. Or you may start with inviting birth parents to birthday parties and then find that you need to scale back the visits. Here are some ways that you can practically do that.
Set Healthy Boundaries
This is important because it sets the expectation upfront for all members of the triad. If at any point, the visits or phone calls become too frequent or too infrequent, you can always make a change, but it is helpful to have a system in place at the very beginning. Make sure everyone is aware of the expectations. You could also ask the birth parents what the expectations are for phone calls and visits to get an idea of what those individuals want through this open adoption. If you sense that there are mental health issues, inappropriate topics being discussed, or addiction issues, it’s important that you lovingly revisit the expectations with the birth parents and possibly scale back on visits or phone calls for a specified amount of time.
Find Ways to Love The Birth Parents
As I said earlier, showing that you care about birth parents goes a long way, for both your child and the birth parents. Some easy ideas are to send cards for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, send pictures of the child’s milestones and accomplishments, or even make a yearly photo book with your child to send to birth parents.
Honor Birth Parents
Adoptive parents may not approve of birth parents’ choices. But adoptive parents can always honor them with words. Adoptive parents can honor birth parents by speaking kindly of the birth mother and birth father, including birth parents in bedtime prayers, and celebrating shared characteristics. Adoptees can and should form personal opinions about both birth parents and adoptive parents. Having a negative outlook on birth parents can be detrimental to your adopted child.
Open adoption is equal parts beautiful and difficult. If I am not careful, I can let fear creep in and steal the joy of the present moment with my children. I can let fear dictate how I view birth parents, but I will miss out on witnessing the beauty of redemption that can be found within an open adoption. Instead, as an adoptive parent, I will choose to replace the way of fear with the way of love.
Karly Pancake is a foster and adoptive mom, Spanish teacher, and wife to TJ. They live in Denton, Texas, where they adopted two children through foster care. Her children have changed her life forever in all the best ways. Nothing about her journey to motherhood has been what she expected, but she has certainly loved the adventurous ride. Karly is a big fan of University of Kentucky Basketball, running, and, of course, pancakes. She is passionate about fostering and adopting older children in the foster care system and has been a foster parent since 2017. She started writing to process adoption and becoming a mother, and she hopes to help others on the adoption and foster care journey through her writing. You can find more of her writing at her blog Foster Truth or on her Instagram WeFosterTruth.