Why Open Adoption Scares Us

There’s an expectation in adoption to keep things as normal as possible. There is this unwritten rule that we should not talk about adoption as if it was something different. Treat your children as if they were born into your family. Don’t treat anyone differently. Don’t confuse anyone. Make this normal. Yet, in reality, there are some differences in adoption that we must address. It can sometimes be easier not to address these differences so that we can tell ourselves that the way we are treating adoption is normal and justified. However, if we don’t address these differences, then we are doing an injustice and are not recognizing the beauty and the love that can come from adoption.

The idea of open adoption can seem very foreign to those who have not experienced open adoption in any capacity. The idea of open adoption can even seem scary for those who have experienced it or are in the midst of an open adoption. Why does open adoption scare us so much especially as adoptive parents?

Before we even delve into open adoption, I am fully aware that there are situations in which open adoption is not possible or safe. I am not addressing those situations in terms of being scared of open adoption. Those are certainly valid reasons, and obviously, there are going to be times when open adoption is not the best. We are going to address situations where open adoption is avoided simply due to fears that revolve around hurt feelings, pride, and myths surrounding adoption.

While I am now one of the biggest advocates of open adoption, I will be the first to admit that the idea of open adoption has been very scary to me at times, and I was initially incredibly hesitant.

For the sake of honesty moving forward, it is often hard to admit the true reasons and the correlation that those reasons had with my pride. However, I’ve learned that fear is nothing to be ashamed of but something to address.

When it came to open adoption, I feel like I had the upper hand. When I married my husband, I was marrying into a family of not only my husband but his 10-year-old son. My stepson was incredibly fortunate to have a wonderful mom, and I was very fortunate to get along well with her. With this, we co-parented quite effectively and never had that sense of competition or replacement that you see in so many of those situations. I loved him as if he were my own but respected fully that he had a mom. With stepparenting, I was used to understanding that the position of mother can look many different ways and has many different relationships and meanings.

When my husband and I were given the chance to adopt, we wondered what our relationship would be like with our child’s birth family. In our case, the adoption was incredibly open as it was a kinship adoption. While I was happy to have more people to love my children, part of me was fearful at first. I did not want to acknowledge what the fear was about and made it more about multiple other issues. However, I realized that a majority of what I was worried about was having to “share” the title of “Mom.”

I knew all about what it was like to share a child in the terms of custody through joining my husband’s family and becoming a part of the agreement he had with his son’s mother. Yet, one of the reasons me and his mom got along so well is the fact that I never tried to replace her in any way. I respected the role of her as his mother and that title and never felt the need to force him to call me “Mom” or treat me like his mom. When I gave birth to my son, I also had an idea in my head of how much it might hurt to have to share the title of “Mom” with someone else who is not there in the wee hours of the morning, through every feeding and diaper change, and through every scrape and tear.

When we adopted our daughter from a family member, I did not know how open adoption would play out. I was still scared and still nervous about what it might look like. I felt very protective of her and nervous at the idea. Much of this was simply because I did not know what open adoption meant. I had heard so much about the idea of open adoption and the fears that others had. Rather than spell out those fears, here are how some people who are part of adoption or who have never adopted answered the question: “Why are we so scared of open adoption?”

“Open adoption scares us because it seems like it would be a fine line between open communication and co-parenting. Boundaries and limits are just hard for some people….Also, my adoptive mom was terrified my birth parents would change their minds and somehow take me back. (We’ve all seen the Lifetime movies.)” -Ashley

“Finally filling the dream of being a mother after lots of heartache only to have to still share and co-parent. This, of course, is assuming you’re only adopting because you can’t have your own children. There are plenty of reasons open adoption is not scary.” -Stephanie

“Everyone fears that one day the birth parent will be more important in your child’s life.” -Donnetta 

“The possibility of the birth parent potentially being abusive or counteractive in any way to the environment and values you are setting for the child to be raised in. Also the confusion that could potentially be created for the child, leaving torn feelings for them later in life.” -Jill

“We were always afraid they’d change their minds and try to get them back. Another thing is if they made empty promises and tried to get the kids’ hopes up for nothing. There has been several times they’ve backed out on a visit for some excuse. That and their lifestyle…drug/alcohol abuse. The confusion also to the children…fear it will cause tension. Part of the reason I tried open adoption was the fear that our children would think we tried to stand in the way of their parents trying to have contact with them and have resentment towards us in the long run….” -Nicole

When we brought our daughter home, I was very surprised at how my feelings changed. I loved her just as I had given birth to her. I knew that I would just as I had loved my stepson the same. However, just as I had shared with my stepson’s mother when things happened with him that were milestones or funny things that happened, I felt that desire to want to share these milestones with my daughter’s birth parents. When my daughter smiled or laughed or did something for the first time, I wanted her birth parents to have that joy too. Something in me just felt like they should know and get to experience those milestones along with me.

My childrens’ birth mother did not choose adoption out of a lack of love for her children. She chose adoption because it’s what she felt was best and what she had to do at the time. I felt the same way when I adopted my son as well. While I am their mother, they also have another mother who loves them. Their relationship with her does not change their relationship with me. Her placing them for adoption does not make her less their mother. Her placing them for adoption does not make me less their mother. Their birth father making that choice does not make him less their father. My husband and I will always be their only parents, but we both know that we share a title with their birth parents, and that is okay. The relationships are completely different, and a title does not make them the same nor threaten either one.

Once the pride of the title is stripped away, it still leaves some fears in open adoption. As mentioned above, there is a fear that it may cause confusion for the child. However, even at a very young age, my children are very aware of their situation. Adoption has always been their normal. They have always known through open adoption that they have other family. They are aware of other siblings, other aunts and uncles, other grandparents, and another mom and dad. While we do not see this family on a regular basis, some members not at all for varying reasons, my children know their stories of where they came from and know that they have the ability to reach out if they so choose.

As my children get older, they will begin to understand the intricacies of open adoption and the intricacies of their family a bit better. For now, there is no confusion. Any time they have a question, it is truthfully answered. It is explained until they understand at the level they are at. They understand who their birth parents are to them because they understand and have always known that they came from adoption. Just as I tell my biological children the story of their birth, I tell my children who were adopted their origin stories. Open adoption does not cause confusion when aligned with honesty.

I love that Ashley mentioned Lifetime movies. As an adoptee, she very much understands the myths of adoption, and the role the media plays in fueling the fire. The biggest fire that is fueled by these types of movies is the myth that birth parents will come and take the children away if you let them close. Barring situations where it is not safe for a birth parent to be in contact with their child, the situation is nothing to even lend a thought. When you have taken the legal steps to adopt a child and the adoption is finalized, it cannot be overturned. There is not a situation where a parent can come and request their child back after an adoption has been finalized if everything was done legally.

The idea that a birth parent is going to come in the night and swipe their child is a myth fueled by media horror stories. There seems to be a stereotype about birth parents that is perpetuated through stories in the media and these fears. This stereotype is that all birth parents are somehow dangerous or some level of a bad person. However, most of these birth parents have placed their children out of a love for their child. They have not placed them because they have some sort of ill intention or are too dangerous to be around their child. Of course, there are times where children are taken from a home, and you would protect your child in any situation, putting boundaries in place regardless because you are the parent. However, this idea that all birth parents are dangerous criminals is a media perpetuation and overall deplorable.

Can a birth parent regret their choice? Absolutely. Can a birth parent desire to have their child back? Absolutely. However, open adoption does not open the door for a child to be kidnapped or to be taken back by a birth family. Instead, it offers the opportunity for birth parents to know that their child is safe and loved. It gives them the opportunity to know that their child is healthy and to have communication with that child moving forward. It eliminates the wondering and fears for birth parents that their child is somehow in harm’s way or involved in something unknown. Just because they have chosen to place their child for adoption does not mean that they do not care what happens to their child or about their child’s future. They still worry and still have hopes and dreams for their child.

It is the unknowns of open adoption that scare us. We don’t know how our children will feel about open adoption. We don’t know what type of relationship they will have with their birth family. We don’t know how they will feel as they grow and what open adoption will look like moving forward. We don’t know the hard conversations we may have to have with our child’s parents when it comes to the ins-and-outs of open adoption. Yet, none of this changes the fact that open adoption gives life not only to our children but to their birth families as well. My children’s biological siblings did not choose adoption. Their biological grandparents did not choose adoption. Though their birth parents did choose adoption, there is nothing that is preventing me from giving them the chance along with my children to be a part of each other’s lives in the appropriate capacities.

Open adoption does not threaten my role as their mother. I believe that I will raise my children well enough and in a home that is loving and open enough that they will not ever feel a need to run from me or have to pick sides or loyalties. In fact, open adoption does just the opposite of that. Open adoption gives my children the chance to know their whole story and to know those who are involved in that story. It gives them the chance to have access to their history and to know the full story of love that made them.