From the 1940s–1980s, adoptions were primarily closed. It was believed that complete secrecy was necessary for the child’s well-being. A few brave souls began to recognize that change was possible, and began to advocate for open adoption. A few agencies began offering some levels of openness, with many positive results. Since that time, open adoption has caught hold. It has become the new normal, with over 95% of domestic adoptions having some degree of openness. And with the advent of social media, many closed adoptions have opened up. Questions have been answered, wounds have been healed, and relationships have been formed. We have been able to see how wonderful open adoption can be.

When people find out that I adopted a child, the first question they ask is, “Do you still have any contact with the birth parents?” I am pleased to tell them that we have a wonderful open adoption with both his birth mother and birth father. With that statement, more questions follow. I am able to tell them how they have come to visit, we have attended their weddings, we video chat and follow each other on social media.

We know that these incredible people changed our lives for the better when they placed our son in our arms. Our lives continue to be better because they are a part of it. There are a lot of misconceptions and Hollywood has managed to paint a picture of open adoption that is nothing close to reality. I hope that when people have a chance to hear about what a healthy open adoption can look like, they become more comfortable with the idea.

An acquaintance, who was adopted at birth, was full of questions for me about open adoption. She had always felt a connection to her birth family, but had no idea if or how to begin a relationship. It seemed like something impossible to her. She is now a grown woman with children and even grandchildren of her own. Recently she was able to do the unimaginable. She has made a connection with her birth mom. She has had many of her questions answered and enjoyed getting to know that part of her life. Although it wasn’t something that was anticipated when she was a child, with the changes in the world of adoption, it has changed her life as well.

There are many levels of openness. Some have contact when the child is an infant. Others have frequent visits throughout a lifetime. Although not all open adoptions are the same or perfect, there are a few characteristics that tend to be present in healthy open adoptions.

1 – Trust

One of the main concerns people have with open adoption is when someone violates trust. Keeping commitments is essential for a healthy relationship. When you have an appointment, be there. When you have said you would send a letter, send it.

It is much easier to add openness than to take it away. It is best to open the flood gates slowly. If you are uncertain how the relationship will develop, don’t overcommit. Don’t make promises you aren’t certain you can keep. Be honest. Make sure that what you say and do can be trusted. We had a very clear commitment from day one on how often we would be in contact. We would send an email update with pictures on a schedule outlined for the course of a year. Occasionally we would send a little bonus picture or text. It was a priority for us to connect the way we had promised. But as we continued to make contact, it wasn’t just something to check off the list, but something we looked forward to doing.

2 – Boundaries

Setting boundaries is one of the best ways to maintain trust. When we were determining a level of openness for our son’s adoption, we thought about what sort of boundaries would be important to us. We are very busy and lived in a completely different time zone. We didn’t want to upset anyone by not answering phone calls on the first attempt. For us, it was important for our contact to be primarily through messaging. Online messaging and texts are easier to give a quick response and work better when schedules don’t match up. Ask straightforward questions and be honest with your answers. What will you call birth parents? What about birth grandparents? Is it OK to have surprise contact?

3 – Comfort

There are very few experts in the world of adoption. Most of us are trying to do what feels right and we learn as we go. Because of the relative “newness” of open adoption, people can let the unknown affect their decisions. Overcoming fear is one of the most important factors in a healthy relationship. Don’t let your decisions be based on fear. Let them be based on love and respect.

We are fortunate to have a wonderful relationship with my son’s birth parents. If we had met under other circumstances, we undoubtedly would still be friends. As we got to know each other better, our level of comfort increased. But this didn’t all come at once. It takes time. I have admitted to my son’s birth mom that when she first started emailing us, I was certain she was a scammer. It seemed like she had far too much in common with me to be real. As it turns out, she is real. And we really do have a lot in common.

4 – Patience

People make mistakes. Relationships change. Don’t get hung up on how things “used to be.” Enjoy the journey that lies ahead. Your attitude will make or break the success of your open adoption.

5 – The child is strengthened. 

Ultimately, what everyone is concerned about is the health of the child. These needs will inevitably change as a child grows. Sometimes there is a need to develop connections with birth parents. Sometimes it is needed to have a tight knit relationship with the family they have been placed with. Relationships are never built on force. Parents cannot determine the way a child connects with another person. While the needs of birth parents and adoptive parents should also be considered, in the end it comes down to what is best for the child.

Are some of these signs missing in your adoption? It isn’t too late. People change and relationships can be healed. Look at what you can do to help without overstepping boundaries or violating commitments. Time may be all that is needed to help your open adoption become as beautiful as it can be.

Please share what has made your open adoption successful! What do you think is the most important attribute?

Source: Vandivere, S., Malm, K., & Radel, L. (2009). Adoption USA: A chartbook based on the 2007 National Survey of Adoptive Parents. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/09/NSAP/chartbook/index.pdf