I was adopted at 2 1/2 weeks old (above is a picture of me with my biological and adoptive parents) and have had ongoing contact with both of my birth parents ever since. Frequency and type of contact (e.g. letters/emails vs. face-to-face) has varied, but contact has always been open. It’s incredibly meaningful to not only have the right to know who my birth parents are, but to also have all my parents on board to stay closely connected for the 30 years following my adoption.
For adoptees, openness doesn’t eliminate questions of identity and belonging, nor does it guarantee freedom from confusion about roles and boundaries; it simply changes them. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in exploring my experiences as an adoptee has been discovering and embracing both positive and “negative” thoughts, feelings, and beliefs around what it means to be adopted. What we typically called negative feelings are not something I see as a problem or as anyone’s fault; these are reflections on what I would consider natural “side effects” of openness in adoption and simply need to be embraced and worked through.
Based on my experience as an adoptee and my work as a psychotherapist, I’m offering seven reasons why adoptive and birth parents (and the adoption system as a whole) serve adoptees and themselves best when they are allowed to explore all facets of the adoption experience. It’s important to keep child and adult development in mind when considering the thoughts and feelings prompted by the adoption experience. Thus, instead of providing a “snapshot” of a specific moment in time, the ideas I share below speak to the birds-eye view of the life of an adoptee from childhood through adulthood.
By embracing the challenging aspects of open adoption (or any experience) we can help create the following benefits:
1. An understanding that embracing emotional challenges gives way to more authentic gratitude.
Positive focus and gratitude are important, but can only be fully and authentically experienced if we’ve also had the opportunity to explore the flip side: the challenges and pain make the gratitude far deeper, more authentic, and congruent than it ever could be if we simply put on rose-colored glasses. Authenticity is about being your genuine self; congruence is alignment between your inner self and outer expression.
2. An appreciation for the value and growth that come from experiencing the full spectrum of emotions.
If we over-focus on the positive emotions, we risk teaching children that it’s not okay to feel the full spectrum of emotion in life—and this applies beyond adoption. From love, gratitude, and appreciation to resentment, guilt, rejection, and shame, it’s important that we teach that all emotions are welcome, even if they are uncomfortable.
3. Permission for the adoptee, adoptive parents, and birth parents to be honest and real about the depth of their adoption experience.
Focusing exclusively on the positive can create a sense of forced gratitude—comments like “You’re so lucky to have found a family that wants you” may be well intended (and may be true), yet they also insinuate that an adoptee must feel grateful for adoption. These comments also point out that the child started out in life not wanted, or at minimum not planned (which can feel like they are not wanted). Ironically, these kinds of comments can actually be helpful by prompting adoptees to ask questions that they may not have otherwise begun to explore as deeply.
4. A normalization of the potential for contradictory emotions and perceptions in the adoption experience.
Touting the idea that a child was placed for adoption out of love can send an inherently contradictory message, regardless of how true it may be: the felt-sense of the adoption experience is that being loved equals being left or abandoned. It also can cause the birth parents to disown the mixed emotions they likely felt when making the choice to place their child for adoption. While we can use logic to work our way around this, using logic can be an attempt to bypass a legitimate emotional and physical experience. The infant or child who experienced relinquishment went through that experience long before they become fully capable of logic (regardless of the age of placement).
5. The freedom for adoptees to develop their own adoption stories.
Sometimes in our well-intentioned efforts to help our children develop a positive view of their adoptions, it can go too far in that adoptees can end up telling their stories based on the emotions, thoughts, and beliefs of the birth and/or adoptive parents, rather than basing them on their own feelings, thoughts, and beliefs. Essentially, the adoption story is more about how parents and society would like the adoptee to feel about adoption rather than how the adoptee actually feels. As parents and family members, it takes courage and strength to be able to allow space for differing adoption stories in the same family.
6. An opportunity to promote open adoption.
Getting real about the full experience of openness in adoption helps promote open adoption. In consistently focusing on the positive aspects of adoption we can inadvertently sabotage our efforts to promote open adoption because it’s not fully honest. Everything in life has polarity (positive and negative). Yes, open adoption resolves many of the questions, concerns, and traumas that can occur in closed adoption. However, open adoption creates a whole new set of questions about important topics such as relationship, boundaries, identity exploration, and integrating differences or contradictions.
7. The gift of owning the complexities of each unique adoption experience.
As a birth or adoptive parent, being overly focused on the positive aspects of the adoption experience doesn’t just affect your child—you may also be disowning important aspects of your own experience. Acknowledging your joys and sorrows in the adoption process is crucial to your own authenticity and congruence. This approach teaches adoptees of all ages that they can be authentic and congruent while staying connected to you.
Openness in adoption can be an incredible gift, and I firmly believe that it is a much better alternative to the challenges created by the secrecy and fear in closed adoption. However, every adoption circumstance is unique and it isn’t realistic to propose a one-size-fits-all approach to adoption arrangements and type or structure of openness (e.g. open about the adoption story; contact via letters, face-to-face meetings). One flaw in open adoption can be the perfectionistic thinking that if it’s done “just right” then we can eliminate any painful aspects of the experience for any member of the adoption constellation.
The wonderful thing about encouraging adoption constellation members to embrace the challenge of the open adoption experience is that it applies universally, beyond the world of adoption. All of these ideas about identity, belonging, connection, authenticity, congruence, and meaning are not unique to adoption—they can be adjusted to apply to any child, individual, couple or family. All people need to experience freedom of emotional experience and the autonomy to explore and create meaning within their own life story. But for those of us touched by adoption, adoption is often our clearest catalyst for growth.