Earlier today, I walked down the street with my daughter to my parents’ house. My daughter had spent all morning singing a song called “Going to Mimi’s House,” a special song my mom has sung to both my kids to get them excited about coming over to play, so I finally gave in and took her to visit.

I sat and talked a while with my mom while my daughter played in the living room, and I couldn’t help but smile as I noticed my mom was completely distracted; she was watching with awe as my daughter pretended to be a mommy to her baby dolls. The love my mom has for my kids is written all over her face and it’s in every embrace, every gesture, and every offering she has for them. She asks often about their birth families, and fully understands that my children are who they are because of both nature and nurture; ignoring their connection to their birth families would be ignoring a part of who my children are. I’m blessed that my parents dug in as my husband and I learned all about adoption, eagerly learning right alongside us.

We all began in our knowledge right at the starting line just like everyone else does, and I fully believe a person’s ability to move step by step, all the way to the finish line, has everything to do with their willingness to learn. I also believe that a person’s willingness to learn has everything to do with their willingness to expose themselves to varying perspectives.

Openness, to me, has been something that’s been learned over time, through research and reading, but also through exposing myself to friendships with birth mothers, adoptees, and other adoptive parents. It’s come through reading really hard stuff and engaging in difficult conversations, exposing myself to perspectives that differ from my own, experiences that differ from my own, and points of view that differ from my own. There is no way I could attain the empathy that’s needed for a truly successful open adoption relationship without understanding as much as I can about how others feel.

Today, sitting there with my mom, we were discussing that ignorance that exists when you haven’t been exposed to adoption. “I remember thinking so differently before you adopted,” my mom said. “There were children, and they needed homes, and you could provide that, so I figured if they were better off with an adoptive family, then that would be that. You would cut ties, raise the child, and that’s all the child would need. But it’s not like that at all, and I see that now.”

We both had a hard time remembering back to a time when we felt that way, but it took a desire to learn—along with exposure, perspective, and empathy—to get to this place where we could wrap our minds around having open adoptions and fully commit to everything that comes along with them.

When times are tough in our open adoptions and I open up to a friend about it who isn’t a fellow adoptive mom, I consistently hear, “But you don’t have to do these visits, right?” or “But you aren’t legally bound to keep talking to them, right?” I always answer, “No, but I’m morally bound. I’ll answer to my children someday, not the law, and that’s way more important to me.” People often nod their heads as if they understand, but they don’t. They don’t understand how protective I am of my kids’ birth families, or how careful I try to be with their feelings. They don’t understand the panic I’ve felt at times when I worry that my blunder may be the cause of a disruption in our openness, causing our kids’ birth parents to retreat and cut off contact. There is no way for them to fully understand, because they aren’t living my life. The only way for them to understand even a fraction is if they are committed to learning, and if they continue being exposed to perspectives, experiences, and points of view that differ from their own.

I have other family members who, thus far, have chosen to see my children as singular people, somehow conceived by magic, and despite my attempts to talk about their adoptions and their birth families, a courteous nod and smile occurs, but there is a wall there. I keep chipping away, hoping that they will see—just as my parents have—that ignoring my children’s birth families is ignoring a part of them. Loving my children for their full stories equates to fully loving my children, but some people don’t see it that way . . . yet.

Opening minds about open adoption takes time. Openness seems foreign to so many people, and if they’re not living it out like you are, it’s hard for them to even picture what openness looks like. Exposing them and making them comfortable may take time, especially if they’re not excited about learning, or if they aren’t open to exposing themselves to other perspectives, experiences, and points of view, but just keep chipping away at it. I can’t even begin to explain how the love for my parents has grown because of their wide-open appreciation and acceptance for everything my children are. My kids aren’t loved in spite of their stories; they’re loved as the individuals they are, created by their full stories.

Persistence and patience pays off, and now many of my family members have met my kids’ birth families. They’ve spent time with them, and I think tenderness and appreciation grew as they saw exactly where my daughter got her dimples, or my son got his almond-shaped eyes. Allowing your loved ones to put faces and names with birth families, sharing the high times (and not just the lows), and encouraging your children to speak freely about their birth families in the company of your family are all ways to instill that tenderness.

Tap into the empathy you’ve learned ever since you crossed the starting line in your adoption journey and praise your family members, extending your gratitude as they put forth the effort to love your children and the people who gave them life.