I remember the first adoption panel I ever attended. It was 2009. My husband and I were sitting in a church classroom. Hidden behind rows of heads in front of us, we swapped terrified looks as we listened to a family—birth mom, birth grandma, and adoptive parents—talk about how open their relationship was.
“We never have to worry about finding a babysitter,” the adoptive mom said. “They are always eager to keep our son and it gives us some much-needed time to reconnect as a couple.” I remember thinking there was no way I could ever be that open. I mean, everyone has limits, and my line would certainly have to be drawn long before babysitting.
Fast-forward nearly six years. We have two children—a 5-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter—and our relationships with their birth families are just as open as that panel family’s. We went from people who said we’d prefer a closed or semi-open adoption to people who have kicked the doors and windows of our adoptions wide open.
But it took some time for us to get there. And I’d like to share with you some things we did to open ourselves up to openness. Before I do, however, I want you to know that everyone has to take this journey at their own pace. What was right for me might not be right for you. But you owe it to yourself—and to your children—to take the journey of openness. Sitting stagnant, tightly clutching your “reasons” for keeping things closed, isn’t fair to anyone.
If openness is hard for you, figure out why.
As I’ve mentored adoptive parents over the years, I’ve heard this a lot, especially during the first year post-placement. “We thought that openness would be a good thing, but it just doesn’t seem to be working out. Don’t get me wrong, we won’t close the adoption, but I think we all just need a little space, so we’re going to have to pull back significantly.”
When I sit down with these parents to help them identify why exactly they think openness can’t work anymore, in at least ¾ of these cases, at the root of the issue is their own insecurities.
Let’s not sugarcoat things: Open adoption can create hard times. For adoptive families who have struggled and waited for a child to love, the responsibilities that come with an open adoption can feel like a damper on the joys of new parenthood.
Many adoptive parents are simply looking for an excuse to put walls up around them and their children to block out a birth mother’s grief, which can seriously cramp your style in this new gig as happy parents. Sounds crass when it’s laid out in black and white, right? Somehow, the thought doesn’t sound so bad when it’s swirling around in your brain as an adoptive parent who just wants to enjoy parenthood like everyone else.
Also, infertility insecurities have a way of bubbling to the surface when you see your baby being held by his/her birth mother. Know that security can only be gained by sticking it out and working through those emotions over time. The bond that grows between you and your baby takes time, but pulling away from birth family isn’t going to help those insecurities go away; you will become stronger and more connected by facing them head-on.
Don’t let judgment stand in your way.
Maybe your child’s birth mother has blown up at you over something very small. Maybe she’s said some really hateful things to you. Maybe she’s pulling back, so you see this as a good reason for you to pull back too. Perhaps she is drowning in drugs and alcohol to handle the grief, and you think, “I did not sign up for this!”
Know this: if you can push through it and jump those hurdles alongside her, acting as an example of what selfless love and family looks like, you will be a light in her life. What’s more, you will learn skills that you will desperately need to help your own child someday.
No one said this was going to be easy, but work through the hard stuff. Step up to the plate and put your judgments aside. Making openness work may require some creative boundary-setting for a little while; work with a therapist or counselor who specializes in open adoptions to make that possible. Many specialists will do appointments over the phone, so search far and wide for the best of the best if you need a mediator or professional’s help.
Embrace what makes you different.
Okay, so you’re not cookie-cutter or vanilla anymore. Your family may look different and you may do things differently than your friends, but that’s what makes life fun. Your friends may think the openness you foster with your kids’ birth parents is weird, or unnatural, or too difficult for you to deal with. They may offer you excuses for why you don’t need to put so much effort into this relationship. They may question how healthy it is for your children.
Take heart in understanding that they know very little about your situation, your kids’ birth parents, your intentions, their intentions, or your child’s needs. Be the bigger person, be unique, and be proud. Never let someone else’s opinion of you and your family stand in your way of doing what you know is right. Better yet, make friends with families who really get it. Don’t hesitate to join Facebook groups for open adoption that can link you with families across the nation. The people in these groups can provide much-needed support and encouragement when times get tough.
Love them where they are.
A woman I really look up to said this once, and it is something I return to over and over in our open adoption relationships. This means that your kids’ birth parents may not be in a place in their lives that you fully understand or condone, or they may be caught up in anger or grief, or they may not be reaching out to you like you wish they would—BUT, wherever they are, take your love there.
Realize that you have built your own set of standards because of your personal life experiences, and you can’t expect people who have had a completely different upbringing to rise to your standards. Push judgment out of the way, along with any anger or resentment. Don’t expect them to do things the way you would, don’t try to fix them, and never demand things of them. Don’t hold their child over their head in an attempt to make them change.
I tell my 5-year-old all the time to “focus on gratitude, not attitude,” and I apply this same thought to our open adoptions. My entire perspective can be changed when I focus on what I feel grateful about instead of what I feel bitter about. Life isn’t perfect, but it’s the imperfections that make us stronger.