Adoption is a loving option for parents who are not ready for the responsibility of parenting or want a better life for their child than what they are able to provide. In open adoption, secrecy is replaced by trust between the adopting couple and the birth parents. For the birth mother, being able to stay in contact with her child is a significant change from handing over her baby to a social worker and knowing she may never see her child again. Open adoption allows the child to know that she has two sets of parents who love her—the mommy and daddy who are parenting her and the birth parents who loved her enough to choose a better life experience for her.
My husband and I speak from personal experience. Our lengthy, expensive, and emotionally painful time spent with infertility treatments and surgeries led us to the decision to form our family through adoption. We sought counsel from a well-known attorney in a distant city, went home from that meeting feeling excited and hopeful, and set about creating a networking letter that would help us find our baby.
Three months later, we received a phone call from an attorney in Southern California who represented a birth mother who had heard about us from a friend of a friend of ours.
Thus began our adventure in parenting and our entry into the world of adoption. As a result of our experience, I decided that I would dedicate the balance of my legal career to independent adoption. I officially opened my practice, and that is when my real education about open adoption began.
When our daughter, Elizabeth, was born, we fancied ourselves highly informed and enlightened regarding open adoption. We readily agreed to keep in touch with her birth mother by corresponding with her on an annual basis and exchanging pictures.
The birth mother was able to see for herself that her child was safe and well-loved. Our correspondence evolved to three or four times a year, and she sent us pictures of her family as well. This continued for more than seven years.
In the meantime, my adoption legal practice grew and so did my knowledge of birth mothers and their psychological needs. Through my law practice, I began networking with other professionals interested and involved in the adoption field. I expanded my understanding of the psychology of the child who was adopted and of parenting children who were adopted.
Four and a half years following the birth of our daughter, we were privileged to be chosen by another birth mother to parent our son, Timothy. His birth mother and grandmother knew immediately that they wanted a truly open adoption, including in-person visits, and not only to stay in touch, but to have an ongoing relationship with us and the child.
Last year, when Timothy was three, his birth mother was married in a beautiful formal wedding, and Timmy was in the wedding party. She invited our whole family as guests. Our adoption of Timothy did not replace his birth family; it simply extended our definition of family.
In a closed adoption, where there is no possibility of contact with the birth family, the child faces the possibility of a profound loss that he will cope with for the rest of his life. Part of our job as adoptive parents is to help the child deal with his or her loss. This loss is not imagined; it is about actual people missing from his or her life. Grieving almost always follows loss and may take the form of anger, depression, despair, helplessness, or hopelessness. It can be blocked or delayed, but it is the normal and healthy response to experiencing loss.
As adoptive parents armed with all this information and involved in one very successful open “kinship” adoption, we found ourselves in a slight predicament. Sibling rivalry is alive and well in families, and adoptive families are no exception. We have discovered that the sibling participating in an open adoption can be the object of the jealousy of a sibling without access to her birth family.
And so, to pick up where I left off in Elizabeth’s story, at about the time she was seven years old, we began noticing a subtle change in her personality. She seemed to be unusually and frequently unhappy, moody, sullen, and quiet. It finally dawned on us that this could be adoption-related loss and grieving behavior. She had a brother who frequently and regularly saw his entire birth family—birth mom, grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles. They treated her as a member of their family too, but they were not HER relatives; they were Timmy’s.
We began the process of opening her adoption further. Through her birth grandfather, we contacted her birth mother, and a visit was finally arranged. Elizabeth met Candy for the first time since birth. We had a fantastic weekend and, of course, took lots of pictures. This one visit had an immediate visible and positive effect on Elizabeth’s attitude. She became much more cheerful and much less negative.
Since that first visit in November, we took our children to Disneyland to celebrate Timmy’s fourth birthday. Both birth mothers joined us on this fun-filled family outing. The next day we had his birthday party at his birth grandmother’s house. His entire birth family attended. We took the opportunity of being in Southern California to invite Candy’s parents (Elizabeth’s birth grandparents) and her brother and sister (uncle and aunt) to join us. They accepted hesitantly and nervously and joined us, bringing presents for both children.
Elizabeth has now met her entire birth family and has framed pictures of them all in her room. We feel as if we have given our daughter the gift of that part of herself that was missing . . . the part that now makes her a whole person. We have always given her a loving family, but now she also has relatives like everybody else.
For us, parenting is about loving and nurturing our children unconditionally, regardless of the issues they face. As parents, we cannot predetermine our children’s direction, but can only travel with them and offer them support along the way. As parents of children who were adopted, we must recognize that our children face internal issues that are difficult to understand for those of us who were raised in our biological families.
For my husband and me, the answer is to assure our children of their genetic and historical link between themselves and their birth families. This way, they do not have a loss to grieve. There is no one missing from their lives. They will not feel abandoned nor rejected by their birth family because they will grow up knowing and experiencing their love, as well as ours.
This kind of open adoption is not possible in all circumstances, nor is it necessarily advisable in every circumstance. Each adoption should be approached in a case-by-case manner, taking into consideration the needs of the adoptive family, as well as the birth parents and the personalities and preferences of all parties. In many open adoptions, contact is maintained on a correspondence basis, sometimes regular, sometimes sporadic and infrequent. There is no right or wrong way to approach an adoption as long as it is comfortable for the cooperating parties.
Nanci R. Worcester is a member of of the Academy of California Adoption Lawyers and the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys.