Now that I’m a few years into our adoption journey, open adoption feels natural. That wasn’t always the case. “What is an open adoption?” is important to consider. I remember sitting in the agency meeting room with our first birth mother discussing open adoption. We both knew we wanted an open adoption. However, we had no idea what any of that would look like. Neither of us knew how to love or trust the person in front of us so completely and so soon, and yet we were already intimately connected.
An open adoption is not a one-size-fits-all relationship. We have adopted three children, all with different biological parents, and each relationship looks vastly different. For many families, open adoption can be intimidating. Building a relationship can feel strained and unnatural. In some instances, that dissipates almost immediately. And in other relationships, it feels like each meeting is a brand new experience.
Each parent experience is different. In some cases, even within the same adoption relationships with the birth father and birth mother look very different. One of my children came to us through domestic infant adoption. My two younger children came to us through adoption from the foster care system. These are completely different worlds within adoption. Though these processes are vastly different and a completely unique set of circumstances, each provides richness and peace to our children. When the hard questions come, our children can get the answers each is looking for.
There have been many changes in our open adoption stories this year. Up until the past couple of months, none of my children had involvement from the biological paternal side of the family. For one of my children, we had no information on the birth father at all. We had no name and no pictures. I quite literally had nothing to tell my child about an entire half of the birth family. For another one of my children, his paternal family was near, living only a few miles away. And yet, we had no interaction from that birth father.
That all changed with a friend request on social media. When the Coronavirus became a reality and turned the world upside down just before our son’s birthday, we panicked. He has a very hard time feeling special and loved, and we had no idea how to do that on lockdown. I sent out a request asking for family and friends to please send cards. From there, his biological grandma and great-grandma reached out. On the day of his birthday, droves of cards and gifts arrived. And so did his biological grandma, great-grandma, aunt and birth father. It was amazing. We made the appropriate social distancing adjustments and our son’s birth family showed up with letters, cards, and a mountain of gifts. It was a very special day for all of us. I watched my husband embrace and get to know the birth father. It was truly perfect.
An open adoption can also bring answers to unanswered questions about our children’s history, beginnings, and birth families. Our children like to talk a lot about biological families. We try to always keep the dialogue open and welcome. Sometimes, we simply don’t have answers to certain questions, and, in those cases, we always tell the truth. We just don’t know. The beauty of open adoption is that we are able to communicate with the birth mothers to ask those questions. Sometimes, it’s extremely uncomfortable. Recently, our youngest child asked about her birth father. Her birth mother always eluded to the fact that she knew who the birth father was, but that he wouldn’t give her his location because he didn’t want to be on the hook for child support. Once the birth mother had her parental rights terminated, then he claimed the child and took responsibility. For years, that is all that she would tell us, that she knew. After a conversation with our other children, our daughter was just so sad. I reached out to her birth mom and asked her for a name, picture, anything. We received both. It was still very little information. In addition, our daughter is very caucasian in appearance. She is, in fact, our lightest child. We submitted a DNA test kit because the picture her birth mother sent revealed that our daughter was bi-racial. We realized that her birth father was African American. We were curious and wanted to learn more. We soon discovered that our daughter is indeed bi-racial. DNA is fascinating.
For our oldest son, we have an open adoption with his birth mom. However, his birth father requested a closed adoption. While that makes us sad for our son, we want to be respectful of his birth father’s choice. We continue to tell his birth mother that we are open, and I know that she’s passed our information along with a time or two. That being said, it leaves us with very little information about our son’s heritage. We recently ordered DNA tests for him to help him discover just a little bit more about himself and where he comes from.
An open adoption is really about love. We have cultivated the mindset that the more that our children are loved, by all sides of the families, the more comfortable and at peace, each child will be. I know that we are fortunate, lucky even, that all of our children’s birth families have shown us such great respect. I know that’s not always the case. We have had to set stricter boundaries with one of our son’s biological mothers due to substance abuse and her own history of trauma. It is hard for us to do that, but safety for our children is always our number one priority.
We started building relationships with birth parents by getting to know each one. It started through a text conversation and grew to in-person/dinner conversations. I will admit, sometimes it was just really, really awkward. But, with time, we got to know each birth parent, and the birth parents got to know us. We sent birth mothers and fathers pictures of big days in our kids’ lives. I’m sure, at times, that doesn’t feel like enough. When days are hard like holidays and birthdays, birth mothers and fathers will often reach out to us for a glimpse of the child. We try to always honor birth mothers on Mother’s Day and both birth parents on other holidays. With two of our children’s birth mothers, those women don’t have parents. In some ways, it feels like we have filled that role at times.
We have provided emotional support when a birth mother spent time in jail. We have helped set birth parents up in an apartment when the birth parent left a homeless shelter. When our son’s birth mother was pregnant again, we threw her a baby shower. We are planning to attend a graduation party for an aunt and the wedding of a birth father and his fiance. In all of this, we just want the birth parents to know that each is loved, as well as the children. It gets messy really fast when substances are involved. During those times, we usually maintain relationships and contact via text and hold off on in-person visits until the birth parent is in a healthier place.
For some families, an open adoption will look very different. It may be a yearly update letter sent through the agency. A photo may be included, or maybe not. It’s not always healthy for the child to have contact with a birth parent. You need to know your child, your situation, and make the best possible decision for your child. That’s all that truly matters. It can be hard to admit that sometimes, it’s best to just have no contact at all. Mental health, years of abuse, addiction, etc, can make a relationship volatile and unsafe. I know several families who have had to make this very difficult decision. Knowing that in a perfect world, parents would want to love and support someone, but truly just cannot safely involve birth parents, is a hard road to walk. It leaves unanswered questions for everyone in the adoption triad.
An open adoption is ever-changing. I can imagine that this will be the case for our family for many years to come. Our children are still very young and excited about birth families. I can imagine that there will come a time when each of our children will realize that all of this makes him or her different and want no part of it. I truly hope that doesn’t happen. My husband and I have already started having conversations about what we will do if our children become uninterested in a relationship with birth families. I suspect that we will maintain contact, and respect the wishes of our children. I can also imagine that each of our kids will have very different feelings on the subject. I don’t believe that we would ever completely sever contact with a family member unless of course, the situation becomes unsafe.
Our belief has always been to talk through each and every scenario before it ever becomes an issue. While we have provided items for our birth parents, we have never given birth parents money. I would say that this has become our one hard and fast rule. I have provided diapers, toilet paper, groceries, furniture, and other items, but never cash. It’s hard to see someone struggle. This conversation has come up in many uncomfortable situations. Even though these decisions can be difficult, I believe it’s imperative to know where you and your spouse stand. Knowing where the line in the sand is will help immensely when you find yourself in a tense or emotional situation. This happened in one of our relationships when a birth mother was released from jail. She had missed her renewal period for public assistance and asked for cash. We knew that we wouldn’t give cash, so I asked what she needed. I purchased those items and gave her resources for other needs that were not as immediate.
As with any relationship, there will be highs and lows. We will sometimes go months without contact. I’ve learned not to worry, and allow life to handle itself. I’ve tried to understand that sometimes, birth parents are just busy living the life that each has in the here and now, and not reliving the past. This is not about me. It’s hard not to worry about safety and sobriety, but I also know that birth parents don’t owe me anything, and I have to just trust that each birth parent is doing the best possible. Sometimes, it’s just a quote, bible verse, or song. Sometimes, we have long talks about life and its ups and downs. Sometimes, birth parents express gratitude, and sometimes, express frustration and anger.
For our oldest son, his relationship with his birth mother is changing in a very positive way. She recently sent me a message via social media wishing him a happy birthday. I showed him the message, which he is now able to read. I asked if he wanted me to write a reply and instead, he wrote a cute message of thanks. He also added that he loved her. My son and his birth mother chatted for a little while and he was so happy. That little bit right there is what makes the uncomfortable first moments so worth it.
In the beginning, filled with fear, we nearly passed up on an opportunity to have a loving, open relationship. I’m so happy that we followed our hearts and not our fear. These relationships have become imperative for the happiness of our children. The interactions and connections have also become some of the most important relationships that we have. Some I consider my sisters, others my daughters. The bottom line is that birth parents all love our children. Each adds peace and comfort to the lives of our children.
Some day, there will be hard questions and hard answers. While I may have questions for birth parents, my kids will have more questions. I do not have those answers. But birth families do. I have already been able to ask hard questions and get real answers. Some of those I will share with my children. Some I will not. To know that my kids will be able to ask what’s in his or her heart, hopefully without fear of rejection, is worth every moment working towards and through these relationships.
If the situation is right, I would encourage you to seek out an open adoption. It will be hard work, and while that can feel overwhelming at first, it is so, so worth it.
Karla King is a passionate open adoption advocate, adoptive mom, foster mom, wife, reader, avid creator of food, stay-at-home mom, and Christian. She loves taking care of her family, supporting others on the adoption journey, and watching the world through her children’s eyes.