What Open Adoption Means
One of Abrazo’s staff found herself in an exchange with someone this week about what open adoption means.
That’s a conversation we find ourselves in nearly every week, of course, in one way or another.
What is open adoption? How does open adoption work? Why is open adoption better? These are questions we answer all the time, for prospective birthparents and adopting parents. It’s not co-parenting, nor joint custody, we tell them, and it’s not legally-enforceable in Texas. But it is a sacred covenant to be truly known to each other, to relate to each other as family and to maintain some level of communication with each other in the years to come, for the good of the adoptee.
And this is what broke our hearts about having to explain to a former Adoption Services Associates birthparent who’d been told she had an open adoption why it wasn’t not an open adoption if she never was allowed to know the adopting family’s identifying information and did not have the option nor access to stay in touch with them. (That was a tough one.)
See, this birthmom had never given the adoptive family (nor agency) any reason to fear her. She never made demands. Never sought to interfere. All she wanted was to be informed of how her child was faring. Exorcising her from the life of the baby girl she faithfully placed nearly 20 years ago was not in that child’s best interests nor her birthmom’s (even if it did alleviate the adoptive parents’ insecurity or fears or apprehensions.)
Allowing this mother to think she was doing an open adoption (in order to induce or persuade her to sign the paperwork) and then denying her the benefits of a genuine open adoption was anything but an act of charity. Rather, it was about power and control– and yes, personal gain (whether that of the agency and/or adoption attorney and/or adopters.) Using a promise of open adoption as a means to anyone’s end is cruel, dangerous and deceitful. There’s no other way to explain it.
So how does genuine open adoption work?
Open adoption means the joining of two families for the benefit of one (or more) child(ren.) It means the families agree and commit to the sharing of their identifying information as well as the sharing of their lives– across the child’s lifespan and without anonymity or an intermediary.
Even if open adoption arrangements seem to come together quickly, for some, the relationship doesn’t just happen overnight. These connections requires deep trust, and it takes time to build trust in any authentic relationship. (But if people can’t trust each other, then why should they share a child?) Open adoption relationships are always “works in progress” that grow and change over time (just as children do.) This requires mutual respect, love, patience and kindness.
There’s even a biblical foundation for this sort of thing. Sister Joan Chittister says that “one of scripture’s most powerful icons” was that of the prophet Abraham’s rush to welcome strangers to his table, because this calls us to be “keepers of an open tent in the desert.”
When you welcome relatives over, you don’t open your front door to admit one relative in and then say to the others through the closed screen door “… but not you, you stay outside, okay?” (That would a rude thing to say to anyone, even the dog.) Openness means transparency and access and clarity and understanding. There’s no such thing as being “semi-open” and the adoption community needs to state clearly that “semi-open adoptions” are really just closed adoptions in prettier wrapping paper.
Forever families make room and time for each other
Open adoption means setting a place for everyone at the table, and making room as needed.
In open adoption, you love your child’s people because you love your child and you want your child to feel proud of who they are and where they’re from.
This doesn’t mean that those in open adoption never disagree or never misunderstand each other. It doesn’t mean that the child will necessarily value the relationship as the adults do. It doesn’t mean that there’s never a need for space nor for healthy boundaries. But what it does mean is that the best of family treat each other like the best of family, that “forever family” includes everyone forever, and that any problems are dealt with as a family.
Open adoptions take work to make them work, and it’s not uncommon for Abrazo’s adoptive families to sometimes feel that they’re doing most of the work. (This is particularly true if their child/ren’s birthparents are struggling with post-adoption grief, are nomadic, or are seemingly ambivalent about or incapable of keeping in touch.) Yet we have almost never heard anyone say their efforts were “not worth it,” whatever it’s taken, because few people harbor regrets about doing the right thing.
Adoption guru Jim Gritter described open adoption as “hospitious adoption” in his book by the same title. In it, Gritter writes:
“It is not that adoption done well erases or nullifies the sadness. What was lost remains lost, but loss need not be the entirety of the story. When separation and disconnection are addressed with hospitality, adoption holds new potential.”
(And that is the very message we hope to convey to ASA’s adoptive family, when we reach out to attempt to reunite them with the ASA birthmother who contacted us for post-adoption assistance.)
What open adoption means, essentially, is doing an adoption without secrets nor shame and one that honors all of the adoptee’s family connections, never forcing them to choose between them.
And then, what open adoption means can truly be good for everyone involved.