Open Adoption: Why Under-Promising and Over-Delivering is Essential

Make your open adoption promises carefully . . . and then be sure to follow through, plus some.

Melissa Giarrosso May 10, 2016
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On September 27, 2010, I was staring into the eyes of a 17-year-old girl who was in the hospital all alone, giving birth to a child with no support and no one to help her through something as scary as adoption. We met her on the same day my son was born, and we spent the 48+ hours after his birth talking through a lot of wishes, dreams, and promises.

My husband and I were brand new on the adoption scene then and had only waited with an agency for about four months, but I’d done a lot of reading and researching during that time. Even with my diligence, nothing could prepare me for looking into the eyes of a woman who was about to entrust me with her child as I earnestly made promises about the future. I had to go with my gut and my sense of humanity, believing that I couldn’t extend promises that would be too hard to keep.

I knew, if she was ever going to be able to heal, that I had to under-promise and then strive to over-deliver. Adoption novice or not, treating her with respect has never steered me wrong. Now, nearly six years later, I’ve come to see how this model benefits all of us in the adoption triad.

When my daughter was born three years later, we had many months before her birth to get to know the couple that chose us. We spent many hours on the phone and in person discussing what our future together might look like. After our daughter was born, her birth mother asked for an afternoon together in the hospital to talk again about what the future would look like.

My husband and my daughter’s birth dad spent some time together while my daughter’s birth mom and I sat alone together, trading off on cuddling the little girl we both loved, as we talked about the very basics. “Only tell me what you are positive you can do,” she said.

I won’t ever forget those words. We’d had this talk a million times before, but there was something comforting about rehashing a plan for the future that brought us both peace. I modeled our promises against what our relationship with our son’s birth mom was like, and what I’d promised her, knowing we had been able to over-deliver.

Giving someone a promise gives them a bare minimum of hope and a foundation upon which to begin their healing. Our version of under-promising was to identify the bare minimum that were certain we could deliver on, no matter what happened in our lives. On top of that, however, we also had fun discussions with both birth families about what we really wanted the adoption relationships to flourish into. We all wanted visits where we could bond as a family unit, where our child felt celebrated, along with a less structured and more natural approach to open adoption. We wanted text messages and unexpected phone calls and a much less rigid structure than what we had put on paper.

But we all knew our dreams had to match the reality of what might unfold amid pain, grief, loss, and hurt feelings. We knew life would happen, and it wasn’t fair for our hopes to be dashed if—for whatever reason—we couldn’t rise to the occasion.

In our relationships, the birth parents offered bare minimum promises, too. They promised to assure we had a way to get in touch with them and that they would be available for medical questions throughout the years. They also agreed to be available should their child ever directly request to speak to them.

With these basic promises in place, we’ve grown stronger throughout the years. There have been when we’ve had to go back to the basics of our promises, and there have been times when our relationships have flourished. The one thing that has always given us peace through all the ups and downs is that we are all people of our word, and we all loved our child enough to fulfill our basic promises.

We’ve seen incredible relationships flourish throughout the years, and there have been points where we’ve all struggled to feel heard and respected, but we’ve come out stronger on the other side. Our relationships are far from perfect, but we’ve negated a lot of damage by not over-promising. During times of contention, fears have crept in, arguments have happened, feelings have gotten hurt, and people have needed breathing room, but we all knew our basic promises were in place and they gave us something to fall back on. Our basic promises always provide a soft landing place when difficulties arise. 

As the years pass, sometimes it’s our children who have anxiety and need breathing room. Our one condition to everyone’s promises, even the bare minimums, was that the adoptee has to be on board or all bets are off. If it comes time for an annual visit to Texas and the adoptee needs space, the adults need to have a discussion and a revision needs to take place.

We all had to agree that we understood openness was occurring for the benefit of the adoptee and that the adoptee’s voice would be heard louder and more clearly than any other in our relationship. That voice, above all, would be respected and honored in our relationship. Our bare minimum promise to our children is that we will listen when they need to be heard, we will be open and available when they need to talk, we will show respect for our child’s other parents, and we will rework our expectations to meet their needs.

Though we have basic promises to our children, the goal is always to exceed their expectations and over-deliver, even in the small decisions we make. To me, fully loving my child means showing respect to the people who gave him life. To my kids’ birth parents, part of fully loving their child is showing respect to the people who are raising him and enrich his life. We over-deliver by not only respecting one another, but working toward a genuine love for one another. Going above and beyond the basic promises we’ve made to the adoptee has enriched all of our lives—and it’s helped us love our child at a deeper level.

Throughout the years, the adults in our adoption relationships have found a way to put our relationship on cruise control. We’ve found comfort with each other and confidence that we’re all in this for the long haul, and I believe this is because we’ve all shown commitment to our basic promises. When we need to, we revert back to manual and use the basic promises we’ve made as our guardrails to keep us on track. We find that when we strive to over-deliver, our relationship flourishes again and we’re able to switch back over to cruise control.

As our children age, my hope is that the adults have worked together and become a cohesive unit that can provide love, support, and reassurance during times of need, and that we will have learned our lessons over the years about under-promising and over-delivering in ways that can benefit the adoptee who’s at the center of it all.

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Melissa Giarrosso

Melissa Giarrosso is a Staff Storyteller at Adoption.com and a mom to two quirky kids through open adoption, all thanks to infertility and the belief that adoption is never second best. She and her family reside in a suburb of Memphis, TN where they remain faithful members of numerous open adoption communities, gently advocating the opportunities that open adoption affords all members of the adoption triad.


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