When *A* and I first started researching adoption, we had a couple of notions in our heads about what the adoption process and raising an adopted child might be like. Collectively, we’ve known a few people who were adopted, and have known at least one family who adopted. Prior to cracking a few books on the subject of adoption, we didn’t have a whole lot to go on, other than the always reliable media (*snort*) and any other information we’d managed to gather for ourselves over the years. Undoubtedly, unless you and/or your family have a specific tie to adoption, this is probably how you came to your understanding of the process, too. The topic of adoption is certainly discussed by lots of people…but the information we all gather from how it’s discussed is usually pretty fragmented. Paste the fragments together—and you end up with a sort-of outdated idea that’s generally not all that accurate. In fact, what you “learned” as “fact” (substitute air quotes here to lighten the tone at your will) might have actually be downright derogatory and/or offensive to adoptive parents, to adopted children, and to birthparents.
Since we made our decision to adopt, we’ve become super-conscious of how adoption is talked about, especially after we talk about our own hopes and the way we’ve chosen to go about the process. Everyone has an opinion and a hairy, scary story of someone’s aunt’s-brother’s-cousin’s-nephew’s-friend’s-next-door-neighbor-and-her-husband, and advice on how we should be careful. Media representation ranges from snide remarks about celebrities adopting because it’s the “in” thing (?!) to refrences to various Lifetime worst-case-scenario movies. These instances are no help at all, but they have informed our thinking to some extent, so to counter-act them, that’s another reason we’ve been reading like mad (more book reviews to come, don’t you worry!) about open adoption, specifically. I have to admit that I’ve been avoiding this post because I wanted to make sure I could fully articulate what open adoption means for all parties involved. I’m by no means an expert–keep that in mind as I stumble through an explanation about the adoptive parents’ side of open adoption.
Open adoption, as defined by Children of Open Adoption by Kathleen Silber and Patricia Martinez Dorner, “includes the birthparents and adoptive parents meeting one another, sharing full identifying information, and having access to ongoing contact over the years (all three components must occur to fit this definition). The form of ongoing contact (letters, emails, texts, visitation) and the frequency are determined by the individuals involved in each particular case.”
Open adoption is different from semi-open adoption (in which adoptive parents and birthparents do not meet but exchange letters or photographs through the adoption coordinator at the adoption agency) and from closed adoption (there is no contact between adoptive parents or the adopted child and the birthparents at any point). Our agency, the Independent Adoption Center (IAC) was one of the first agencies in the U.S. to coordinate open adoptions. There were other deciding factors that made us choose the IAC. In the very beginning, the thought of openness in adoption was terrifying. It took some time, a lot of self-education, and a lot of discussion between the two of us to get on board.
Have you ever seen the movie Juno? For some reason (this isn’t our usual genre), we’ve always liked it, but until we really thought about it, we never realized how much this movie informed our thoughts about open adoption – that it might be a good thing, and might actually be preferable to everyone involved. In the movie, 16 or 17-year old Juno gets pregnant and after some deliberation about what she should do, she makes the decision to make an adoption plan. A friend finds an advertisement about a hopeful adoptive couple in a cheap newspaper, so she contacts them. At their first meeting, she decides they fit her “criteria” – they look normal enough, though disappointingly, Vanessa, the adoptive mom, is decidedly not a “cute Asian chick who likes to rock out on the bass guitar”.
The adoptive couple’s lawyer is present at that first meeting, and begins to ask Juno questions about compensation and how she wants contact to happen after the birth. Juno is confused, and says “Wait, can’t we just kick this old-school? You know, like Moses and the reeds?” Everybody looks around in surprise until the lawyer stumbles out a response: “So we’re all agreed, a traditional closed adoption is in everyone’s best interest?” The adoptive parents look relieved, as if that’s what they preferred all along, Juno asserts that she’s just too young, she’s “ill-equipped,” and the lawyer just looks glad to not have to deal with more paperwork to negotiate openness.
We’ve seen this movie a dozen times, never putting ourselves in the adoptive parents’ shoes in that particular scene. Now that we’re hoping to adopt, and we plan to have an open relationship with the birth parents of our child, there’s so much about that one scene that is uncomfortable. What we’ve realized is that there’s one person who should be considered more than anyone else in any adoption scenario: the actual child, who has no voice in the matter. In Juno, the adoptive parents are thinking that their future with their child will be much less complicated if they don’t have to take a relationship with their child’s birthmother into consideration, and Juno is scripted as thinking that she’s got her whole life ahead of her and doesn’t want to be tied down with a relationship with a kid when she’s, say, going off to college in a couple of years. No one’s thinking about the kid, and how he will wonder about his birth mom out of natural curiosity, and if she really just “didn’t want” him.
We’ve learned a lot about the evolution of adoption in the United States. Even in the past 100 years, things have changed drastically. Adoption, unless it was “taking in” a family member, was typically closed, the adoption never discussed with the child, and the adoptive parents likely pretended that that child had been born to them. In another movie we’ve always liked but never picked apart until we were there ourselves, Penny Serenade, a 1941 film starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne (Dunne, incidentally, adopted a child in real life in 1938), the star couple is unable to have children, and they decide to adopt. They meet with a social worker at an agency, who makes notes about their criteria (a boy, blond hair – curly, and blue eyes) and at some point, they are ushered into a room of waiting children. Maybe this is an orphanage. I don’t recall any discussion in the film about that. They look around, picking out a child who fit their criteria, but who was already “promised” to another couple. The social worker seems to know just what they need and calls them a couple of days later, and they take home their child- a brown-haired, brown-eyed, girl - right away.
In addition to movies like these, what furthered our muddled thinking in the early part of our decision-making process was that many of the books we’ve read are outdated. Children of Open Adoption, co-authored by Kathleen Silber, who is now our agency’s clinical director and is deemed an expert in the field, is supposed to be one of the primary texts on the topic and is required reading by our agency. It was published in 1990 and references as a form of primary contact, letter-writing. Now, I like to write letters, and letter-writing played a big part in the development of our relationship as a couple, but we’re pretty old-school in a lot of ways. To expect actual snail-mail from a birth mom these days would leave you waiting at the mail box for quite a while, I imagine. It’s outdated in other ways, too. The book was written at a time when open adoption was still a pretty new idea, and there’s an undertone that seems to be propaganda-pushing, but without the information we needed in the beginning to make a good decision, like how children who have grown up in open adoptions feel about it. What were their challenges? Did they understand who their parents were? Did they feel more secure because they knew “where they came from”? Frustratingly, this book didn’t answer those questions from a teenage or adult adoptee perspective.
What ended up helping us, more than anything, was going to the information session our agency offered before we decided to become their clients. We sat in a room with a half-dozen or so other couples or individuals who had the same fears we did. We talked about them. We learned that we weren’t alone in our fears. We learned that birthmothers and birthparents have fears too. We learned that openness is good. We learned that adopted children aren’t confused about who their parents are. We leaned that openness can evolve. We learned that openness doesn’t mean co-parenting, and the birthparents aren’t going to live with us. They might not live anywhere near us, and if they do, we can have mutually agreed-upon rules or boundaries so that they don’t drop in unexpectedly, nor will we descend upon them unannounced.
We learned that birthparents, having taken the time to make an adoption plan and choose adoptive parents for their child, actually want the adoptive parents to parent the child – instances of “reclaiming” a child after the relinquishment period has expired (this time period differs per state – and is another post entirely), are few and far between and are almost never seen as justifiable in court. We learned that if everyone does their part, this can be the best, healthiest scenario for the little person in question. The relationships developed between the adopted child and their birth parent(s), the adoptive parents and the birth parent(s), and the adopted child and their parents (the adoption triangle, as depicted in this illustration) can work out to be good for everyone.
When we decided to sign on with the IAC and attended their Weekend Intensive Workshop in March, we met a couple who had just adopted a few months previously and got to talk to them about their experiences of openness. This month, we attended our agency’s annual picnic, and got to meet lots of folks who have open adoptions with their kids, including a birth mother. Everyone’s story was different. Their level of contact with birthparents varied widely, and for some, was a source of frustration, as they dealt with birthparents moving on to other life goals while their children asked difficult questions like, “but doesn’t [birth parent's name] miss me?” Not everything we heard was entirely positive. But it was real. Talking to actual people and hearing the variety of experiences, both good and bad, having the opportunity to ask questions, helped tremendously. Some of those original worries aren’t completely gone, but they aren’t keeping us from forward motion like they were threatening to a year ago. We can see the benefits of ongoing contact for everyone involved, and because of that we’re prepared to help our child have the best relationship they can with their birth parent(s). That doesn’t threaten our position as parents. If anything, it strengthens it.