The Varieties of Relationships in Open Adoption
Many people have doubts about open adoption: it seems so unusual. Ironically, using your own names and dealing with others as peers is actually quite normal. It is the past practice of secrecy and anonymity in a adoption that seems abnormal and even destructive especially in a society as open as our own.
Yes, most of our couples have a lot of questions and fears when they first start. Once having adopted openly though, they will all tell you they would not have done it any other way.
Background: Parenting is a Challenge Under Any Conditions
Many of the concerns of adoptive parents are not unique to adoption. Starting and maintaining a family can be intimidating to almost anybody, not just adopting parents. If they are young, many new parents worry that they are too inexperienced. Men and women who become parents at any age older than customary, may wonder if they will have enough energy to be active mothers and fathers. Perhaps, they are too set in their ways to make the adjustments necessary to becoming good parents. Parenting is, after all, a leap into the unknown. Few people receive any training or preparation for becoming a mother or father yet parenting is a complicated, ever-changing, and lifetime role. The only model available to most couples are their own parents and often people are hesitant about following that example too closely. Even if the new mother and father plan to build on the model of their parents, the task is not an easy one. Most people don't know, for example, how their parents felt as parents, or what was behind their actions or decisions. How did their parents decide how to discipline their children or decide the role of religion in the family or, for that matter, when to toilet train?
Although adoptive parenting may seem more challenging than biological parenting, the problems of an adoptive family pale before those that are the result of divorce. With divorce and remarriage so common today, a large number of adults and children face disputes about child custody and visitation rights, issues of shared parenting arrangements, and integrating the family of one spouse with the family of a new spouse, so-called blended families. These arrangements are rarely easy on anyone, especially the children. In all the years before the divorce, the children have had their original set of parents acting every day as their parents. Suddenly, they find themselves with a new set or sets of adults that they are asked to relate to as their mother or father. Adoption seems somewhat easy compared to that type of challenge. In open adoption, from their birth forward, the child knows only one set of adults acting and relating to them as mother and father.
Open Adoption: A Larger Family
Though open adoption can seem to be a frightening way to start a family, in reality, and quite contrary to their expectations, almost everyone finds that handling these ties is suprisingly easy. In effect, what is happening is that the adoptive parents are adding some new relative to their family—baby and the child's birthparents. And adding relatives to one's family is not a process unique to adoption. Marriage, for instance, not only adds a spouse to the family, but a whole new set of relatives, as well. In fact, many adopting parents find it easier to relate to their birthparents than some of their 'blood' or in-law relatives. In an open adoption, the adopting parents and birthparents actively choose each other, while most other relatives come by birth or marriage, not by choice. In many cases, the birthparents and adopting parents find that they have more in common with each other than with some of their own relatives. After all, the adopting parents and birthparents have selected each other because of their similarities in values and outlook.
Some adoptive parents are in regular contact with their child's birthparents. Others see the birthparents only on rare occasions. The frequency of contact depends partly on logistics such as distance apart or busy lifestyles, and partly on how much the adopting parents and birthparents like each other.
Some families are unusually tight-knit and have a strong sense of a family. Other families may be separated by physical distance, by differences in lifestyles, or just by a sense of being more private about their lives, though even distant relatives get greeting cards on holidays and pictures of the children.
There is a similar variation in the relationship between adoptive families and their birthparents. If there is any such thing as typical, the birthparents may want to see the baby a few times after the birth to be sure everything is okay. Seeing the child so at home and natural with his or her new parents serves to confirm and deepen the birthmother's conviction that the adoptive parents are now the true parents of the child. Later contact is usually more infrequent and often takes place by phone. Again, the analogy with relatives is important. When there is a new baby in the family, most close relatives will initially visit often to see the cute, new addition.
But gradually, such visits usually become less frequent as life goes on.
This process is so different from what we expected. We thought we would want to distance ourselves from the birthmother as soon as possible. But, as it happened, we have all become quite close, and contact is mutually beneficial for all of us. We probably only see her a few times a year—just like our close relatives these days—but we almost always call once a month. She is important to us.
The adoption was wonderful, but our daughter's birthmother, Jere, is like us: we are all private people. We do send photos and letters, especially if something major has happened with Anna, but visits are rare. It is not that we say "no" or she does not want to bother. They just don't happen very much because that's who we all are. In fact, Jere probably has not seen Anna in two or three years.
In some open adoptions, just as in some families, these relationships do not go smoothly. In the worst-case scenario, the relationship can become embittered and angry, but this is rare. Occasionally, either the birthparents or adoptive parents use poor judgment, perhaps calling too often, or being habitually late for visits, or making inappropriate comments to the adopting parents or the child, or missing important counseling appointments. What happens in these cases is the same thing that happens when any relative treats another family member rudely. Everyone tries hard to work out the problem. Hopefully, but not always, they remember that they are all still "family." But if the problems cannot be solved, the adopting parents and birthparents end up breaking contact with each other altogether.
And each of our our birthparents has a unique and different relationship to the adopting parents.
Most often, everyone involved in this process finds such post adoption problems to be not only unusual, but rare. On one side, the fear of many adopting parent that they will not feel like the 'real' parents just disappears as their connection with their new baby intensifies and deepens, as it does for any new parents.
All our fears—and we had a lot—were really coming out of the fact that we did not have the baby we wanted so badly. That is what made us so nervous, feel so 'one down' in the process, feel so scared, feel so distrustful and distant sometimes from the birthmother. But once we had our baby—and she was our baby the moment we looked at her—we relaxed, we were satisfied, the world no longer looked scary. And neither did Terri, our daughter's birthmother.
On the other side, the birthparents find themselves comfortable knowing that their child is in wonderful hands, fully at home with their parents.
At first, I visited fairly often but then it became less and less. At first, when I came over, I would offer to feed him or change him. But soon, when he needed feeding and another diaper, I would look at Maureen, the adoptive mom, and say "you do it!"
When I go to see them (the adoptive parents), it is not just to see my daughter, but also a lot to see Barbara and Don. Even if Michele (my birthdaughter) wasn't the reason we came together, I know we would have hit it off, and we would have had a relationship anyway. They are really special people, and that is what a lot of it is about—friendship and trying to understand how the other person is going to feel.
Hi. I'm just sitting here thinking about Alec and Tim and Diana and how lucky I am. I am graduating on June 8th with my class and all of my friends—something I know I could not have done had I kept Alec. Both Alec and I have chances for incredible futures due largely to all of your caring. I will never be able to thank you enough. I will always be grateful to the agency for helping me find Tim and Diana.
The three of them (Tim, Diana and Alec) are coming up here next week for my graduation. He is the sweetest baby and when I see them all together as a family, I can't help but smile and be happy for them. I know that one day, when I'm grown up, I'll have my turn. Right now, though, I'm just glad that we've all got a chance: Tim and Diana to have a family, Alec to be loved and cherished by two parents who were ready for the responsibility and, me, lucky enough to still be a part of Alec's life and also to be young for a while longer.