When my husband and I started looking into adoption more than 12 years ago, we were initially fearful of open adoption. We did not know anyone that had an open adoption at the time. We asked ourselves, “What is open adoption, and is it for us?” We did not know how much of a blessing it could be for us, our child, and his birth parents. After becoming immersed in the adoption community, we started meeting other adoptive parents. At adoption conferences, we listened to members of the adoption triad (birth parents, adoptive parents, and children who were adopted) speak about their experiences. Their stories were all different, but one thing that stood out to us was that open adoption was not something to be feared. In the movie, Warm Bodies, I heard a quote that said, “What wonderful thing didn’t start out scary?” I found this to be true as we started our open adoption journey. Let’s talk about what open adoption is and how it may start out scary but can turn into a wonderful thing for everyone involved. 

What is Open Adoption?

Open adoption is defined as any communication between birth parents and adoptive parents. This communication can be varied. It can be direct communication or communication through an intermediary. Direct communication is more common in the recent past with all the tools at our fingertips such as email, texts, and video calling. Pictures, presents, and visits are all common parts of open adoption. Communication through an intermediary would entail sending letters and pictures to an agency or caseworker with no identifying information. Prior to being comfortable with open adoption, my husband and I needed to recognize and work through our normal feelings of fear. We were not able to have biological children and grieved that and then went into adoption knowing that it would be different. By educating ourselves about open adoption, we recognized the benefits that would come from an open adoption. Expectant parents may be fearful of open adoption possibly thinking that it might be easier to forget about the pregnancy and adoption. Birth parents won’t forget their children and will grieve the loss of them. Choosing an open adoption plan can help birth parents work through the normal emotions of grief.

One of the most significant benefits in open adoption is that the expectant parents have more control during the process of choosing an adoptive family for their child. They are able to talk to different families and find a family that they are comfortable with. Expectant parents that are considering adoption make lists of what they want to find in an adoptive family. They can talk with and visit these families and find one that has similar goals and ideas. 

When making a list of traits, one of the things that expectant parents will want to think about is the amount of contact they want with the adoptive family. What are you comfortable with? Do you want visits? Do you want to receive pictures and updates? When our son’s birth mother chose us, she knew that she wanted to see him grow up. She wanted to have visits, see pictures, and receive texts and emails. We sent her regular updates and pictures. We had a blog that his birth family could access and see videos of him learning to clap, walking for the first time, and normal everyday activities. This made them feel like they were close by even though they were a thousand miles away. Flying to see them was something that we were able to do yearly or every other year. We missed our last visit due to Covid-19, but plan to go as soon as things open up more. As an adoptive family together with our son’s birth family we were in control and in charge of the adoption experience. The control over our adoption was not in the hands of an adoption agency or any other intermediary. I was able to text a picture of my son’s first day of kindergarten to his birth mother. My son writes thank you notes to his birth grandma for the birthday and Christmas presents that she sent. He sends silly pictures and videos to his birth father. For our son, there are so many people that love and care about him. We all want what is best for him.

Benefits of Open Adoption

Open adoption can help provide answers and may eliminate some of the myths or misunderstandings in adoption. Adoption is a lifelong process and doesn’t just end when the relinquishment papers are signed. Adoptions that are open are healthier and psychologically sounder. This is why open adoptions are in the best interests of the child, the birth parents, and the adoptive parents.

Open Adoption and the Child

Children who were adopted are the primary beneficiaries of open adoption as it enables them to grow up in an atmosphere of honesty and openness. There are no secrets. Open adoption helps answer some of the normal questions that an adoptee might have such as where they came from, medical history, and why they were placed for adoption. My son can call his birth parents and ask them if they had braces or glasses. His birth mother tells him how she loved math growing up and that might be why he loves it. He is not being disloyal to us as his adoptive parents by being curious or asking questions about his birth parents. If he has a question, I can text one of them or he can call them for a quick answer. Our son knows his adoption story and understands why his birth parents placed him for adoption. He knows that they love him and searched for a family for him that would be good parents for him. 

What is open adoption to a child? It is more love and people to care for a child. It is being able to get answers to normal questions about where they came from. It is knowing that they have a clear picture of his adoption story.

Birth Parents

Birth parents who have an open adoption plan and relationship with the child and their adoptive parents are more at peace with their decision to place the child for adoption. They are better able to process those feelings of grief that come with this huge decision. Birth parents can feel positive about giving the child the gift of life. They won’t have to live in fear that the child will not know that they love him or her. I heard a story of a young woman, who had been adopted years earlier, watching a movie about adoption. She was touched by the scene in the movie where a young mother was saying goodbye to her baby and then placed him into his adoptive parents’ arms. As she watched this, she said, “I never knew that my birth mother loved me that much.”

In an open adoption, the child will know that they were placed for adoption because of the love that his birth parents have for him. An adoption caseworker, Fred Riley, said: “Adoption is not simply a legal function—it is a process of the heart, in which caring, willing birth parents and adoptive parents make loving decisions in the best interest of the child.” By maintaining contact with the child and adoptive parents after the adoption, birth parents come to see the reasons why they chose adoption played out. They are able to see that the baby is learning and growing, and is secure, happy, and loved. 

My son’s birth mother wrote: “When I was 20 years old I placed my son for adoption. Despite being one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life, it has come with plenty of blessings, One of the things I never thought about when I became a birth mom, was the relationship I was going to build with my birth son’s mother. This has been the best part of being a birth mom. I also inherited a family that is truly the best. I cannot stress how welcome and included I feel when I am with them.” What is open adoption to birth parents? It is choosing an adoptive family for their child, seeing the child grow and develop, and being able to show and express their love and support of the child. It is forming a relationship and bond with the adoptive parents.

Adoptive Parents

Adoptive parents might have fears of an unknown birth parent. They may fear that a birth parent may come into the child’s life and threaten their relationship. But with open adoption, there is a deep connection. An expectant parent may have looked at many different families and decided to choose one family to adopt the baby. This helps the adoptive family feel at peace that the expectant parents chose them. This way there are no fantasy images to deal with, but, instead, the reality of a real and caring person. 

The adoptive parents feel a genuine connection and closeness to the birth parents. Through open adoption, the birth parents give permission and control to the adoptive parents to be parents. The first contact from my son’s birth mother was an email. She wrote: “Ever since I found out I was pregnant I never felt much like it was supposed to be mine. Please let me know if you can consider adopting my son. I know you will be a great choice.” I immediately felt so much love, respect, and admiration for her. We instantly started a beautiful relationship. She has become a dear friend and family member to my husband and me. When people ask us about our relationship with her, we say that it is almost like she is a younger sister. We are fiercely protective of her. She gave us hope and the ultimate gift of a child that we could not have on our own. There is a popular adoption quote by Desha Wood, “He is mine in a way he will never be hers, yet he is hers in a way he will never be mine. Together we are motherhood.” My son’s birth mom and I have talked about this and feel a tight bond and connection with each other. She is a wife and a mother to four daughters and we frequently talk. My relationship with her is one of the best things that I never knew I needed when I first started on the adoption journey. We also have a great relationship with my son’s birth father and his family. My son was actually the ring bearer at his wedding three years ago. They celebrated my son’s birthday with us at Chuck E. Cheese’s. 

What is open adoption to adoptive parents? It is a wonderful blessing to know that they were chosen by the birth parents and now trying to be the best parents they can for the child. It is developing a relationship with the birth parents based on trust and confidence. It is gaining more family and people that love and care for the child. 

Extended Family

We first met our son’s birth father’s mother while we were at the hospital the day after his birth. She came in and was understandably very emotional. She thought that she was coming to the hospital to say “Hello” and “Goodbye” to her first grandchild. In a letter she wrote to us after that first meeting, she told us, “I found myself being very disappointed in my son for not being against giving up a child for adoption. I made him promise me that he would not make a decision until the baby was born and he actually held him. I had hopes that he would change his mind. Instead, he made me proud of him. He told me that if he was done with school and had a job, he would have kept him, he also said that if he hadn’t met the two of you, he would have kept him. He said, ‘Mom, they are really great people, nice, and down to earth and they can’t have children, so I can give them a great gift. And they can give my child a good life.’ I know that you can give him a good life, too.” 

After we met her, we told her that we wanted an open adoption and that this wasn’t goodbye. She asked, “What is open adoption?” We explained how we wanted them to be a part of our son’s life and for him to be a part of their lives. It has evolved into a great relationship. His mother sends my son birthday and Christmas presents. When we go to visit the state they live in, we try to spend a week there because there are so many people that we want to see and be with. Our son knows that there are so many people that love him and want what is best for him. 

My Open Adoption Today

Adoptions have changed and evolved especially in the last 20 years. Openness in adoption has been shown to benefit the child, the birth parents, and the adoptive parents. The level of openness will vary from one adoption to the next. It is something that all parties should communicate about. It will evolve and everyone should be able to express their feelings and comfort levels. At first, I was the one updating my son’s blog and sending pictures, and setting up times we could visit, but now my son can text his birth parents from my phone. He can video call them and chat with them. Both of his birth parents have other children and he loves to see them, play with them, and talk about all of his siblings. He feels a strong connection with them and as his mother, I support his independence and his relationship with them. It is one of the best things to come from this open adoption.

Alicia Nelson is a wife and a mother to three rambunctious boys. She is an online teacher and teaches English to Chinese children. Adoption has become her passion. She loves connecting with others on infertility, adoption, and foster care. She enjoys woodworking, being outdoors, listening to podcasts, and reading good books. She lives in Washington state with her family.