*Names have been changed*
It was finally Friday, and the fifth-period bell rang. I wished a fellow teacher good luck as we prepared to teach our final classes of the day. I taught high school, and my class was largely made up of seniors ready to move on to the next stage of life. Not only that, but it was a Friday at the end of a long week—the first week back from holiday break. Needless to say, we were all pretty much done with the day. As I made my way to my classroom door, my pocket buzzed. A quick glance at my phone put all thoughts of my class and lesson out of my mind. It was a text message from my friend *Sarah. My relationship with Sarah was a unique one. We had only known each other for a month and had gotten connected with each other through a lawyer. Yet in the short time we’d known one another, we had exchanged texts regularly, and I had even driven nine hours into another state just a few weeks earlier to meet her face-to-face. Sarah was pregnant with a little girl, and she was intending to place that baby with me and my husband, *Dionte, as our adoptive daughter. That text message which I received on a cold Friday afternoon was telling me that she was going into labor and wanted Dionte and me to come to the hospital.
The next couple of days were some of the most emotional, frantic, stressful, and wonderful days I have ever experienced. Dionte and I drove the long drive to Sarah’s hometown as soon as that fifth-period class ended. Our daughter was born just several hours after our arrival. We spent the following 48 hours in the hospital with Sarah and our baby girl, watching TV, telling stories of our childhood, enjoying hospital food when we could, and sending Dionte out to fetch McDonalds when we couldn’t. When the day of discharge came, Dionte and I packed our newborn little one up snug in her car seat, said goodbye to Sarah, and went our separate ways. In the months that have followed since that day, we have continued to exchange texts and pictures with Sarah. I update a blog with pictures and stories of my little girl that only Sarah can see. We have even once made the trek back across states to visit her for a day. This friendship I have with Sarah is completely different from any other friendship I have ever had. It is a uniquely significant relationship, a bond created over and for this little girl who I’m lucky enough now to call my own. This relationship is open adoption in action.
Rewind to just a few months earlier before those long days in the hospital, before that life-changing text message, before I even knew Sarah existed. Dionte and I were in the midst of our adoption journey, learning all we could about this complicated process and fretting over funds and paperwork. A newbie to the adoption world, I wasn’t entirely familiar with what “open adoption” even meant, yet I had encountered the term more times than I could count. “How do you feel about open adoptions?” “Are you going for an open adoption?” “What about open adoption?” It had become glaringly obvious that I needed to establish an opinion about open adoption, but first, I had to figure out what in the world it even was.
“What is open adoption?” I typed the question into a search engine and found myself facing a daunting result list of more than 250 million links. There were news articles, adoption agencies, personal blogs, government websites; the list went on and on and on. And I was completely overwhelmed. Sifting through the resources, one clear definition emerged: open adoption is an adoption in which there is some level of communication and relationship between child, adoptive parents, and birth parents. This is as opposed to closed adoptions, where the different parties involved have no interaction or even knowledge of each other. (If you want more details on the definition of open adoption, check out this article for a longer explanation).
“Ok,” I thought to myself. “But what kind of communication and relationship?” I read stories of birth families and adoptive families celebrating birthdays and holidays together, stories of regular visits, of private Facebook pages, handwritten letters, Skype calls, the list goes on. With each example, I tried putting myself in the shoes of the adoptive parents involved. How would I feel with that arrangement? Could I do that? Would I want that? But as I continued to read and learn, another perspective emerged as well: that of the birth family. I could visualize in my head this unknown person and could see her asking those same questions about me, considering and analyzing a potential future relationship with me and my husband, just as I was sitting there at my laptop considering and analyzing a future relationship with her.
Open adoptions are curious things. They are situations that forge relationships unlike any other. And often in considering an open adoption, that idea can be daunting. A thousand “what-ifs?” can make open adoption intimidating and stressful. What if the adoptive parents cut me out? What if the birth family is too intrusive? What if my child thinks I don’t love him or her? What if my child gets confused? (If you’re worried about confusion, check out this article. Spoilers: you may need to give kids more credit when it comes to understanding adoption).
As Dionte and I considered all these what-ifs, we made a couple of important decisions that should be considered by anyone—birth family or adoptive family—when considering an open adoption.
First, we decided that we needed to be honest with ourselves and with any expectant parents we met with about what we were comfortable with in an open adoption relationship. And we expected them to be honest as well. Open adoptions are relationships, not negotiations, and each open adoption is unique to the persons involved.
Consider, for example, the open adoptions of two close friends of mine. One is a wonderful adoptive mother. She and her adopted child live in the same city as her child’s birth parents. For them, open adoption means regularly getting together for combined family activities, meals, and outings. They spend lots of time together and share their story frequently with others.
On the other hand, another dear friend of mine who is a birth mother to a daughter receives monthly letters from her daughter’s adoptive parents. She sometimes responds back, but usually, she doesn’t. She doesn’t want her updates any more frequently than once a month because it is sometimes very difficult for her to see pictures of the daughter she has placed. Her daughter knows of her, knows her situation, and even contributes to the letters at times. Their face-to-face interaction, however, has been fairly rare, especially when compared to my first friend’s open adoption. They are much less public with the nature of their relationship and are considerate of one another’s privacy.
Both of these situations are examples of open adoptions. They are very different but are fine-tuned to the individuals involved—as open adoptions should be. And these are just two examples. In trying to decide what we were comfortable with, Dionte and I found many more examples of happy open adoption relationships. We found people using private Facebook pages, private blogs, Skype, email, and texts. Basically, if there is a way to communicate with another person, someone somewhere is putting that method to use to communicate within an open adoption relationship.
As an expectant parent (or hopeful adoptive parent), you may feel uncomfortable with some of these methods of communication, or you may prefer one over the other. And that’s totally okay. Remember this is a relationship, and your open adoption may look completely different from someone else’s. That is why honesty is so important. Sometimes, adoptive parents may feel inclined to agree to any and everything an expectant mom proposes just because they want to make the best impression possible. The problem is, let’s say that after a child is placed, adoptive parents don’t feel comfortable with some of the things they promised before the child was born. They may decide to continue with whatever was predetermined but with feelings of resentment, or maybe they just decide to go back on their word, leaving a birth family hurting from broken promises. Neither of those situations is ideal. (Broken promises especially are not okay. Keep your promises!)
Instead of risking those futures, potential birth and adoptive families alike need to be open and honest with what they want out of a relationship. When Dionte and I met with Sarah for the first time, she had already determined that she wanted updates on our baby girl but didn’t want them super frequently so that she wouldn’t be “distracted” (her words). We worked out a system where if she texts me for pictures or updates, I respond. I don’t, however, initiate those texts or updates so that she doesn’t feel “ambushed” (again, her words). In order to give her more updates and pictures than the occasional text allows, I maintain a private blog that only she sees. That way, she can log on whenever she wants and when she is in the right mood. While this is how our open adoption functions currently, my relationship with Sarah is a friendship, not a legally mandated negotiation. Relationships change. They have ups and downs. There are times of more communication than others. There is flexibility. There is understanding. I’m sure that in the years to come, especially as my daughter grows, the particulars of our relationship will change as well. And that’s okay because Sarah and I have been honest with each other from the beginning, and I know I can trust her, and I know she trusts me.
In addition to being honest, Dionte and I also decided far in advance that, as far as open adoption went, we were willing to navigate this new relationship for the sake of our daughter. Open adoptions may involve just the adults at the beginning, but that entire relationship between the birth family and adoptive family exists because of that precious little child, and they cannot be left out of the equation.
There are lots of benefits for children involved in open adoptions. These include things as specific as adoptive parents knowing more about the medical history of their adopted child to things less concrete but equally important such as adopted children having a greater and more secure sense of identity and worth. Open adoption gives faces, names, and history to a child’s story rather than leaving her with a list of unknowns. And open adoption helps maintain a sense of love. When I met with Sarah for the first time and we explored the possibility of open adoption, one thing she said that I’ve never forgotten was that she never wanted her baby to think she was unloved. Adoption is difficult. I will not even pretend to know the emotions involved in a person’s decision to place her child. But I do know that, as far as my daughter’s situation is concerned, it was a decision made with so much love and hope for my little girl’s future. And, thanks to the relationship we have with Sarah, my baby girl will grow up knowing that. She won’t wonder if she was unwanted or unloved. If anything, she will get twice as much love and support coming from both families involved.
In the years to come, I know that my family will continue to grow and change. And so will Sarah’s. Her decision to place her baby was something heart-wrenching and beyond comprehension for those of us who have not shared such an experience. But the beauty of open adoption is that moment of separation is not the end, and from that decision, an entirely new relationship of love and trust is born. I’m so excited for my future, for Sarah’s future, and most importantly, for my daughter’s future and for the experiences we’ll have to share as we navigate our lives.
If you have more questions about open adoption, check out this open adoption guide for more stories, answers, and resources.
(With my baby girl. On the left is the day of discharge, and on the right is today).