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Open Arms

We entered into an open adoption with no idea what to expect. Fourteen years later, looking back on the tests we've faced, and the everyday joys, I wouldn't have chosen any other path.  by Diane Hood



The guests settled into the pews as the music played. The bridesmaids wore navy blue, and the men looked dashing in their tuxedos. My oldest, Jacob, age 10 at the time, was the ring bearer. He stared straight ahead as he cradled the satin pillow and marched down the aisle, trying not to think about all the eyes on him.

The bride was radiant in her white gown. She looked around the crowd and -- I know it sounds corny -- our eyes met and we shared a special smile, two women bonded by the love of a child. See, she is the birthmother and I am the adoptive mother of that very special young man.

My husband and I entered into an open adoption on blind faith, with no idea of what we were getting into. A pregnant woman, who lived just a few miles from us, was looking for a stable home for her unborn baby. Mary was willing to place him with us on the condition that we maintain an ongoing relationship, so she would always know that her child was safe and loved. That sounded fine to us, so we jumped right in.

Letting love evolve
Adoption experts use the term "adoption triad" to refer to the three main players in such a relationship: the birthparents, the adoptive parents, and the adoptee. But “triad” implies that all three are active and equal participants. In reality, the roles of the players change over time, and the connections must be carefully maintained.

When Jake was a baby, the relationship was easy. When Mike and I got together with Mary, we would all coo and fuss over Jake, and then make small talk while we watched him play.

As the adoptee gets older, he can maintain his own relationship with his birthmother, which may not involve his adoptive parents. I used to be the one to initiate the phone calls to Mary. I'd speak with her for a few minutes, then hand the phone to Jake and sit nearby as they talked. Now, 14-year-old Jake calls her himself, and he often takes the phone into his room.

I confess that I sometimes feel threatened by this. What do they talk about? Does he tell her anything he doesn't tell me? Does holding a cup up to the wall to listen in on a conversation really work?

At the same time, I know there's no reason to worry. Mary is a beautiful person, inside and out, and she has made it clear that she has no intention of "stepping on our toes." This is not a co-parenting situation, like that of divorced parents with joint custody. Jake has one set of parents, and we are it.

A reality check
But sometimes, as in any relationship, miscommunications occur and boundaries can get blurred. One episode stands out in my mind.

When Jake was in fourth grade, his class was going on a three-day field trip. The cost for each student was $200. Mike and I decided that this would be a good opportunity to teach Jake a lesson in financial responsibility, so we told him that he could go on the field trip if he could come up with half the money. Now, we knew he was going on the field trip. Given his Christmas money, birthday gifts, allowance, and odd jobs around the house, he would certainly be able to save enough.

Later that week, Jake spoke on the phone with his birthmother. And, a few days after that conversation, a $100 check from Mary arrived in the mail.

I don't know what was said that night on the phone (maybe I should have tried the cup trick?), but I imagine Jake told her about the trip and the deal we'd made. Maybe he expressed worry that he wouldn't be able to save that much, and would be left out. Mary, for her part, probably wanted to do a kind thing. Maybe she thought that we couldn't afford to send him on the trip, and she wanted to help. So she sent a check, in an envelope addressed to Jake.

Our dilemma, of course, was that we didn't intend for Jake to have the money handed to him. But how could we tell a nine-year-old boy that he couldn't use the money his birthmother sent? Jake did not take this news well. And I don’t blame him. But Mike and I felt we were set up to be the bad guys, despite everybody's good intentions and nobody's fault.

Life goes on
Finally, we came up with a compromise—Jake would be allowed to use half of Mary's money, but he would still have to save up $50. We deposited the other half of Mary's gift in Jake's college fund. Of course, he went on the trip and had a great time. He probably does not even remember the turmoil the field-trip economics caused.

I could not have anticipated such a situation when we agreed to an open adoption, but it could have happened in any family. Miscommunication between people who love and respect one another and who only want to do right by each other—such is the nature of human relationships, be they among spouses, friends, colleagues, or parents and children. We work it out, forgive, move on, and grow closer in the process.

In perfect step
After the wedding ceremony, we celebrated late into the night. At one point in the evening, Mary was dancing with her new husband. She saw Jake standing nearby, broke away from her husband, and took Jake in her arms to dance with him. I remember watching them, thinking how much they looked like each other, down to their brilliant smiles.

This is the essence of open adoption. Jake is loved by two mothers, one who gave him life and one who is part of his life every day. I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Diane Hood and her husband have four children by birth and adoption. She’s worked in adoption since 1995, and blogs at alifeinblog.blogspot.com.

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