My husband and I have adopted two children, each with very different levels of openness. When we were beginning the adoption process, we weren’t sure how we felt about openness. I knew that a high level of openness was preferable to birth parents, but I didn’t know if it would be comfortable for us or best for our children. After much soul searching, pondering, and researching, we decided that an open adoption was something we should strive for.
But I have to admit that I still had some worries. Would it be confusing to our children to openly have two sets of parents? Would I be okay with sharing the role of “mother”? Would continued contact with birth parents be awkward, difficult, or emotional? I didn’t know. But I felt sure we were making the right decision, even if I didn’t know how it would all work out.
Fast forward to the day Rachel was born. On that day, I wasn’t anxiously awaiting a phone call at home. I was in the delivery room, along with the rest of Mindy’s closest family, watching Rachel being born. In the months between when Mindy chose us to be the adoptive parents and that day, we had grown very close to her and her family. We had stayed for days at a time at their house getting to know each other, sharing stories, playing games and telling jokes. Becoming family. By the time Rachel was born, this woman was my sister. Her parents were another set of parents to me. They joked that they were the ones adopting us. And it was perfect.
After Rachel’s birth and placement, we began our lives as parents and over the days, months, and years that followed, I watched in amazement as my worries about openness fell away until they seemed almost silly in retrospect. I honestly and truly loved sharing the role of “mother” with Mindy. As Rachel grew, she never seemed confused about being adopted or having two sets of parents. In fact, she understood it better than most adults I knew. Our relationship with Mindy and her family is as open as it can be, and we love it. It’s good for all of us. We also have an open relationship with Rachel’s birth father, who has come to see her soccer game or met us at the park to spend the day together. I dearly love these amazing people who gave Rachel life and gave to us the most incredible gift that a mother and father could ever give.
We adopted our second child, a son named Reed, when Rachel was 2. Having had an incredible experience with Rachel’s open adoption, we hoped for a similar experience with him. But we came to find out that no two adoptions are the same. Reed’s birth parents both had intellectual disabilities that not only necessitated the adoption in the first place, but also changed how open it could be. We still have visits with them, but they are always at an agency, supervised, and less frequent (once or twice a year).
The difference between our two adoptions, in terms of openness, is night and day. And having experienced both, I far prefer the level of openness in Rachel’s adoption. But we can’t change Reed’s situation, and the hardest part of that is trying to explain it to Reed. He’s 4 years old now, and still too young to understand the reasons he doesn’t get to see his birth parents as often as Rachel does. But he’s old enough to realize that there is a difference. When Rachel calls her “Mommy Mindy” on the phone, he can’t understand why he can’t just call up his birth mom too.
Right now I simply tell him that we don’t have her phone number, and he doesn’t ask for any more of an explanation. But I worry that as he gets older, he’ll have more difficult feelings and questions about it–questions that I’m not sure how to answer. I imagine him asking me, in coming years, why he can’t see his birth parents all the time like Rachel can, wondering if his birth parents love him less, questioning his worth. I think about all the questions he might ask and all the feelings he might have, and it breaks my heart.
We’re not there yet, but I keep trying to figure out what I’ll say when those tough questions come. But I also realize that helping my children understand their adoptions is a process. It always has been. There’s never been, nor will there ever be, a single moment in time when we “tell them they’re adopted.” It’s always just been a part of them. We explain adoption in a developmentally appropriate way, and as they grow, they continue to understand better. And if Reed has those hard questions someday when he’s older, I will do what any parent does when their child has hard questions: I will talk with him honestly and openly. I will listen to him and try to understand his feelings. I will acknowledge that it is hard, but that life holds hard things for everyone; we just all get different kinds of challenges to face. But I’ll face them with him.
One thing that I will certainly tell him is how incredibly much he is loved, by his birth parents, and by us. How we prayed and longed for him. How our family could never be complete without him. And I will tell him that I know, that I have always known in a place deep inside me, that he was always meant to be our son. Because at the heart of it all, behind all those questions, what he’s really asking for is love. And in that way, in terms of love, our adoptions are identical.