The word “open adoption” comes with a lot of misconceptions. When we hear this term, we may imagine an adoptive family and child sending pictures and letters to the child’s birth family, or perhaps we imagine visits between both parties, or phone calls. Contact between parties is generally one of the most focused and feared aspects of an open adoption, for all parties. While open adoption does include contact, it is about so much more.
Open adoption also means loving your child’s birth family, loving your child’s story, and demonstrating that love through words and actions. As an adoption professional, navigating the needs of the birth family, the child, and the adoptive parents can be quite challenging. When an expectant parent comes to us, we let her decide her level of openness, but we also spend a lot of time educating her about her child’s future. We are not just talking about a baby but a whole person who will have wants and desires and needs. Those needs and desires will change as her child grows. That means, the openness between she and the adoptive family will also need to be fluid.
Prospective adoptive families often come to us a bit fearful of the term “open adoption”. They worry that an open adoption will cause confusion for their child or they worry about safety. We also educate prospective adoptive parents about navigating openness over time.
I am a child of step-parent adoption. (For the sake of clarity in this blog, I will refer to my adoptive father as my dad and my birth father as my birth father.) My desires for openness with my birth father’s family were well navigated by all parties, but there were some missteps along the way. The biggest reason for success in navigating openness was the love my mother and paternal grandmother had for me, and the great love they had for each other that grew over time.
When embarking on an adoption journey, whether an expectant parent or a prospective adoptive parent, there is a tendency to think only in the present. In the present, we only imagine openness as it exists today, it is difficult to imagine what it might look like when your child is 5, 10, or 15 years old.
When I was growing up, my paternal birth grandmother wrote me a letter every week. She and my grandfather would make a trip to visit me at least twice a year. My mom and dad had 3 children after me, and my paternal grandmother considered them her own grandchildren. She sent them all birthday cards with cash, the same as she did for me. She sent Christmas presents for all of us, and when she came to visit, she brought gifts for everyone. She instinctively knew that though I was her biological grandchild, my siblings were not to be left out. My siblings always knew my story, and they understood who Grandma and Grandpa D were officially, but they also knew them as their grandparents. My mother referred to them as Grandma and Grandpa D and so did we all. My birth father was an alcoholic and struggled with addiction until the day he died. My relationship with him was nonexistent most of my life because he was in and out of jail and not a great influence. But, my grandparents were my rock. When I had questions about my birth father, my grandparents and my mother were there to answer them in love, and they always told the truth, even when the truth wasn’t pretty. My grandparents never pressured me or my mother to have a certain type of relationship with my birth father. They were realistic about who he was and never made me feel guilty or uncomfortable about the love I had for my dad. Once I was a teenager, I began to see my birth father at family events (he would attend the D family Christmas party or reunion). Though, our relationship was never close, I was able to navigate those awkward encounters because my identity in who I was had been built with a strong foundation thanks to my mother and extended family on both sides.
Often, I hear stories of adoptive parents not following through on their commitment to open relationships with birth parents. Or, I hear stories of birth parents who feel rejected by the adoptive family, even if they have continued contact as planned. I know there are birth family situations that are unsafe or unhealthy for children and there are times when adoptive parents have to make hard decisions. I also know that sometimes adoptive parents make decisions out of fear and not love. The one question I want every adoptive parent to ask themselves when they are faced with such decisions is this, “When your child grows up and sits down with their birth parent(s) to hear their story - when they ask them how they were treated by you, what do hope they will hear?” Are you doing everything you can to love your child’s birth family? Are you loving them in the way you speak about them and the way you speak to them? Are you loving them despite their flaws? Are you loving them even if they have hurt you or your child? No matter what, your child will still identify in part with her birth family. She will notice how you feel about them and she will internalize this to know how you feel about her. Your child’s identity needs a strong foundation, and that foundation will be built by her whole story and her whole family.
I encourage you to think more about openness beyond contact. What does it mean to love your child’s birth family, even if you don’t know them? How can you show love and support for your child’s identity through her birth family? I highly recommend the book The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption by Lori Holden for some practical ways to navigate this experience. Every child is different, every adoption is different, and every story is different. You will need a lot of tools to navigate your child’s specific identity needs. God calls us to love beyond what we ourselves are capable, but when we lean into Him, He gives us all that we need to love BIG.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8
By Lisa Prather, LMSW