Adoption 104: The ups and downs of open adoption

If you’ve decided that an open adoption is right for you and your child, here are some tips for making it work.

Until quite recently, most adopted people didn’t know anything about their original family. Records were sealed and they were actually barred from having information. This was known as “closed” adoption. As a result of closed adoptions, many adopted children grew up with unanswered questions about their identity, sometimes for their entire lives.

Today, people placing a child can meet the pre-adoptive parents and discuss together what kind of relationship they want. There are three types of adoption: open, partially-open or mediated, and closed adoption. If you are considering a family that wants a “closed” or “semi-open” adoption, my recommendation is to keep looking.

The fourth part of our adoption series focuses on open adoption—when the adopted person has a direct, ongoing relationship with their birth (a.k.a. first) family. Research shows that adopted children and adults, as well as birth and adoptive parents, have greater emotional health when adoption is open and both sets of parents work together to give their children access to their birth and adoptive connections. No child can ever be loved by too many people.

Defining openness

Some people see their closest relatives once or twice a year, while others have a drop-on-by frequency. How your family and the potential adoptive family do things might be different, and you’ll probably have different ideas about openness. When talking with pre-adoptive parents, try to describe your ideal relationship clearly and don’t be afraid to express your needs. Also, what you want may change over time—and that’s completely normal! Here are some things you can ask pre-adoptive parents:

  • I want to be in the inner/middle/outer circle of my child’s life. How does this fit your idea of openness?

  • If I change my mind and want more or less contact, how do you think you’ll feel?

  • Regarding big life events—like when I graduate college, get married, or have another baby—can our child attend or be involved?

  • If I have more children, how will you support our kids being siblings?

  • If our child wants to see me more as they grow up, more than what we agree on now, how will you handle that?

Issues tend to arise when families don’t understand each other’s needs. This can lead to broken agreements, but remember that adoptive parents are the only people in adoption with legal parental rights. Too often, when things go wrong, adoptive parents deny visits they’ve promised, or decrease the amount of contact over time. This can be extremely painful for birth parents who might feel lied to or used.

Less common are situations where birth parents disappear and the adoptive parents wish they hadn’t. While this example doesn’t hold the same power dynamic of adoptive parents withholding contact, it can be upsetting for adoptive parents and, worse, for the adopted child if they’re aware of what’s happening.

Agreements about openness

There is no uniform national law governing openness. While some states offer binding contact agreements about openness, these contracts don’t have teeth. They are legal documents, but the only real consequence to breaking the agreement is mediation or possibly a court hearing. While a contact agreement is better than nothing, ultimately open adoption comes down to two sets of people in heightened emotional states guessing at what they’ll want in the future.

It is hard to know how you’ll feel one month, one year, or ten years after placement. People change, feelings change, and circumstances change. Even if you meet the pre-adoptive parent(s) early in your pregnancy, the result is not unlike an arranged marriage: Much of what you learn about them happens after the fact, which can at times lead to painful misunderstandings.

The most important thing to remember is that there is a child at the center of this complex situation. Centering the adopted person means sometimes your needs or the adoptive parents’ needs—or both—take a backseat, so that your child can have the guidance and unconditional love they need from all their parents as they grow up.

Written by Susan Dusza Guerra Leksander, LMFT

Susan Dusza Guerra Leksander, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist who has provided services to all members of the adoption constellation since 2008. At Pact, an Adoption Alliance, she focuses on the needs of expectant parents considering adoption and birth/first families who have placed children for adoption. She is also a first mother and a transracial adoptee. Susan enjoys zombie fiction and tending her menagerie of 10 animals.

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