Throughout the ages, non-biological families have existed in numerous forms. However, it has only been a little over a hundred years since the legalization of parent-child unions without defined genetic linkage has taken shape in the United States. Even more recently, “open adoption” has only gained traction within the past twenty-five years. Naturally, there is some skepticism about the logic, wisdom, and efficacy of adoptive and birth parents choosing to keep in contact after an adoptive placement. When my wife, Tara, and I began the process that eventually brought home our first child, I scoffed at the idea of having an ongoing relationship with my child’s birth parents. But eventually, as we navigated the uneven terrain and grew in understanding through the aid of our social workers and other families who’d traveled the journey before us, I began to understand what open adoption is and what it isn’t.
Fear and uncertainty about open adoption is often centered around three specific issues:
The Belief that Open Adoption is the Same Thing as Co-parenting
I remember thinking early on that agreeing to an open adoption meant I’d have to run every parental decision by my child’s birth parents. I had visions of having to check in to make sure our food preferences, choice of school, and even Halloween costumes were deemed satisfactory before getting the official green light. In my mind, it sounded like glorified babysitting. In reality, adoptive parents have sole decision-making power when it comes to raising their children. This isn’t some kind of hostile takeover. Rather, birth parents have chosen to delegate their parental rights and responsibilities and empower the adoptive parents with whom they’ve chosen to place their kids.
One area in which I’d recommend adoptive parents tread with particular sensitivity is in the lead up to the placement, specifically having to do with naming the child. Some expectant parents desire to place with families that will allow them to have a say in choosing the name, while others do not. My first child’s birth mother was interested in choosing the middle name; our second child’s birth mother wanted to leave names entirely up to us. While potentially surrendering the opportunity to name your child can feel like a legitimate loss, I highly encourage you to think about the respect you’d be showing the person(s) entrusting you with the awesome and humbling task of raising their own flesh and blood. My guess is you’ll probably also like the name your child’s birth parents pick!
The Belief that Birth Parents Can Regain Custody of Their Kids
This belief is based mostly on inaccurate TV movies and unusual adoption cases in the news that don’t represent the norm. In actuality, the window of time in which a birth parent can change his or her mind about an adoption plan following placement is called the revocation period, and it varies in length by state. In Pennsylvania, where I live, the revocation period is 30 days (as it is in many states). And I won’t lie—those 30 days following the placements of both of my daughters were each the longest 30 days of my life. But once a revocation period is over, birth parent rights are permanently terminated.
That being said, I’d urge you to turn this faulty viewpoint on its head and look at it from a different angle. Birth parents are not kidnappers, and they are not your enemy. In open adoption placements, they were the ones who chose you to parent their child. If anything, your child’s birth parents are your biggest cheerleaders. They want nothing more than to know their child is in the safest, most loving and nurturing environment within your home.
Since the time my older daughter, Kaylin, was born, Tara and I have shared a very close relationship with her birth mother, Chelsea. People have asked me from time-to-time if it’s really a good idea for us to get together with Chelsea as often as we do. The main sentiment is always the same: won’t spending so much time with Chelsea just make her want Kaylin back? Here’s what’s flawed about this perspective. There was never a time in which Chelsea didn’t want to raise Kaylin as her full-time mother. But because she loved her daughter so much, she chose what she knew in her heart of hearts was best for her. She put Kaylin’s interests ahead of her own, even though doing so would leave Chelsea a trail of pain, grief, and sadness in its wake. And so the times we spend with Chelsea only serve to confirm, not detract from, the wisdom of her decision.
The Belief that Your Kids Will Reject You in Favor of Their Birth Parents
Of all my open adoption fears, this one was the worst. The fear you won’t be accepted by your kids as their mom or dad is one that can haunt even the most rock solid of personalities. Coupled with this is the fear that having an open adoption will cause your child to become confused about each adult’s role. Thankfully, you have little to worry about. Be honest with your children early on about the way in which they came into your family. Let your kids know how much they’re loved on all sides and that the biggest way their birth parents could show that love was by making them your son or daughter. They will not reject you for this or cease to view you as Mom or Dad. On the contrary, they will come to trust you even more. It’s amazing how quickly kids pick up on who’s who—by the time Kaylin was two, she knew exactly who mommy and daddy were and also knew she grew in the belly of a really fun lady who gave her great presents and loved to playfully wrestle with her. The more time Kaylin’s spent with Chelsea, the deeper the bond we’ve seen solidify between them, a bond that has never come close to threatening the familial unit Tara and I share with our daughter. And now, with our younger daughter, Julia, we’re getting to enjoy it all over again. At only twenty months old, Julia knows exactly who Tara and I are, and she also lights up when she sees pictures of her birth mother. The best part is knowing we have front row seats to watch how these beautiful relationships will continue to play out in the coming years.