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Open Adoption Over the Years

Parents involved in open adoptions speak honestly about ensuring a good fit, working through challenges, and keeping the relationship going as both families grow and change.By Barbara F. Meltz

Best friends Diane Bueller and Debbi Stone have a unique relationship. Not because the two women are nine years apart in age, but because Stone is the birthmother of Bueller’s son, Danny.

When that fact elicits surprise or even skepticism, here’s what Danny has to say: "It’s always seemed perfectly normal to me." The 24-year-old film student in Vancouver adds, "I have more people in my life who love me than most people do. I don’t see how that can be a bad thing."

This is exactly the kind of sentiment that drove the shift toward openness decades ago, when sealed adoptions were still the norm. Bueller and Stone’s close friendship, of course, is an exception to the rule. Experts say that less than 10 percent of families in open adoption become friends, or even meet in person frequently. But they don’t need to, to forge a connection that will bring lasting benefits to the child.

And as the number of families with varying levels of open-adoption contact continues to grow—and evidence in support of removing the secrecy and shame of adoption continues to mount—there’s also a greater understanding about how to make the relationships work.

Starting off on the right foot
When future adoptive or birthparents visit family therapist Brenda Romanchik at Insight: Open Adoption Resources and Support, in Royal Oak, Michigan, she gives them a questionnaire she developed, called "Exploring Your Family Culture." Do you value homemade gifts? Do you laugh out loud at movies? Do you talk with your own parents once a day, once a week—or is once a month too much?

It’s not that the individual traits and idiosyncrasies of prospective families must match, item for item. Romanchik just wants to get people thinking about what makes relationships work, in general, and what they are looking for from this relationship, in particular.

Joyce Maguire Pavao, founder of the Center for Family Connections in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and author of The Family of Adoption (Beacon), has developed what she calls, "Brief Long-term Therapy." Once a year, birthparents and adoptive families come in together to talk, no matter what. "Like a 50,000-mile check-up," she says.

After all, "it’s unrealistic to think there won’t be bumps in the road," says Pavao. "Think in-laws. You marry your partner, you get stuck with the in-laws. Some you love, some you put up with, but you do it because you love your partner. When you’re an adoptive parent, you do it because your child’s self-esteem and identity are built on knowing both of his families."

"Having so many people in my life who love me can’t be a bad thing."

Michelle and Brett B., of upstate New York, get that. Their daughter is only seven months old, but they know that "she will grow up and have questions and needs." That’s why they remain committed to the open relationship, which Michelle doesn’t always find easy. "I second-guess myself constantly," she says. "Do I call the birthmother and tell her my daughter cut her first tooth? That she’s sleeping through the night? What if she sees what an easy baby she is and wants her back? We know that can’t happen, but we still worry."

Their relationship is still in its early stages, Michelle admits. "When she visited last Christmas, it was as if my girlfriend were here, sitting on the couch, chatting, playing with my baby. It made me see that it could grow."

Letting contact evolve
When Bueller brought home her baby, in the early 1980s, it was a closed adoption, typical of the times. But when Danny was five, Bueller had an unexpected call from the agency. His birthmother was seeking information.

Stone picks up the story: "I was married and raising my first daughter, and I realized how fragile life can be. I needed to know the child I placed for adoption was alive and loved." To her surprise, Bueller responded with a packet of photos and a letter. Her opening line—‘I never wanted this to be a closed adoption’—left me speechless," says Stone.

In another amazing turn of events, Stone had just moved to Hutchinson, Kansas, where Bueller lived. At Bueller’s suggestion, the two women met alone a few times before Danny was introduced to his birthmother. Those private lunches set the foundation for a friendship that continued to grow, separate from their relationships with Danny. "It’s because of Danny that we met, but we could have been friends under any circumstances," says Bueller.

Kelly and Eric Cockshaw, of eastern Pennsylvania, are only three years into their open adoption, but they’ve already seen how terms can change. When they adopted their son, they wanted to communicate solely through the agency. Not long ago, they changed their minds.

"It became too cumbersome," says Kelly. "We called the agency and said, ‘We want to take you out of this.’ That’s not something I could have imagined doing two years ago." Now the families call and e-mail each other directly, and Kelly’s been rethinking her original request for contact but no involvement: "If my son’s birthmother wanted to see him, I’m almost sure we would be OK with it."

Talking Tips: Tokens of Love
Young children are concrete thinkers. They may feel they need permission to love a birthparent.

One way to help them, suggests Jayne Schooler, an adoption educator in Lebanon, Ohio, and co-author of Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child (Bergin & Garvey), is with a "heart box" for girls, a "treasure box" for boys.

"Present the box and several tokens to the child," she says. "Then ask, ‘Who do you love? Let’s make a list and place a token into the box for each person.’

At the end, tell her, ‘It’s OK to hold all these people in your heart. You put me in there, too, didn’t you? We all belong in your heart.’"

Adoption attorney Gregory Franklin, of Rochester, New York, guides his clients to anticipate such possibilities. He works with both families involved in an open adoption to establish terms for correspondence, calls, and visits. When writing up the actual contract, he typically advises families to include a statement such as: "The parties understand that their needs and expectations may evolve, and that they will work together to arrive at the best arrangements over time."

Defining the extended birth family's role
In some open adoptions, extended family, rather than birthparents, are the primary point of contact. Teri and Howard Henick, of Hamlin, New York, have met their four-year-old daughter’s birthmother only once.

Since that brief meeting, Gabi’s birthmother has failed to show up for several other get-togethers they’ve planned. Each time, Teri feels crushed, and worries that one day she will have to tell her daughter that her birthmother chose not to know her. What Teri hadn’t anticipated, and feels blessed by, is the fully open relationship her family enjoys with Gabi’s birth-grandmother, Kathy.

"Kathy always tells us how lucky she is that we keep in touch, but it’s so the opposite," says Teri. "When we decided to adopt again, she was one of the first people I called. She’s that important to us. She’s family."

Welcoming this extended family, however, has led to some complications within her own. Teri’s own parents and in-laws have been a source of disappointment. "They’re old-school, and want nothing to do with the birth family," she says. And though Gabi has met several of her birth siblings, "she gets confused and calls them her cousins." When she’s older, Teri says, they’ll explain the difference.

Danny Bueller, as well, has benefited from many familial relationships. Danny and his birth sisters, now 21 and 17, attended the same elementary school, sometimes had friends in common, and went to each other’s birthday parties. "I absolutely love Rick," he says of Stone’s husband.

Despite the families’ closeness, Diane has never felt threatened or resentful. "Debbi didn’t try to be Danny’s parent, she didn’t second-guess me. She was more like an aunt."

Setting boundaries
Problems are most likely to arise when people don’t communicate, says Franklin, so his contracts stipulate a mediator each party can call. He typically handles 60 adoptions a year, and says the need for mediation rarely arises. Raising the possibility, however, hammers home a make-or-break point: No issue should fester, not even a small one.

Gift-giving, for example, can lead to sticky situations. This often happens because the topic tends to get left out of contact agreements. So birthparents may exceed boundaries, reaching beyond their means to send expensive gifts. "Extravagance is a way for them to show love," says Romanchik. That’s why, no matter how awkward it might feel, you "have to talk about this stuff," she says. "Be really specific. And then, if there are problems later on, you can gently remind them, ‘We talked about this before.’"

If an undesired gift is received—a toy gun, for example—Schooler’s advice is to say, "In our family, we don’t give violent toys, so we’re not accepting that toy gun. Can you send a different gift?" Once a gift has been deemed inappropriate, let the sender know that you will pre-open packages in the future.

Sharing difficult news
Since opening direct communication with their son’s birthmother, the Cockshaws have developed a wonderful relationship with her. Still, says Kelly, "I found myself feeling nervous the day I called to tell her that we were, shockingly and unexpectedly, pregnant. I worried that she’d be angry, that she’d chosen us to be her son’s parents, thinking we were unable to have a biological child." Many parents have similar fears when breaking news about a divorce, a move, or the loss of a parent’s job to the birthparents. And many, like Kelly, find that their revelation is met with empathy and understanding. As Kelly says, "I shouldn’t have doubted her. She was thrilled for us, and she often checks in to see how both our boys are doing."

Looking back, Bueller and Stone recall only one difficult time, when Bueller announced she was divorcing. Stone says, "One of the reasons I placed Danny was because I knew that my relationship with his birthfather wasn’t going to work out. So when Diane told me she was divorcing, the thought flashed through my mind, ‘I could have raised him!’ But as quickly as it came in, it went out." Bueller remembers being embarrassed to tell Stone about the divorce. "I was sorry she would be hurt. We didn’t argue over it, and we got through it, but it was a bad time."

Now an adoption social worker, Stone uses her personal experience to inform her work. "I caution families going into open adoption: ‘Let this relationship grow. Don’t jump in with both feet.’ You can’t force it by saying, ‘C’mon over for pizza every Friday night.’"

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer who frequently writes about family and child-care topics.

Talking Tips: Sending Clear Signals

When children grow up knowing and loving all of their family members, the openness should alleviate, but will not necessarily eliminate, loyalty conflicts. And, Schooler adds, parents may unwittingly feed a child’s uncertainty. She offers the following scenario:

Parent:  Do you want to send your birthmother a birthday card?
Child:  I don’t know.
Parent:  You don’t have to if you don’t want to.

"The child is trying to read mom’s signals," says Schooler. "When mom asks, ‘Do you want to,’ he’s wondering, ‘Will I hurt her feelings if I say yes?’ Feeling trapped, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ When mom says, ‘You don’t have to,’ his uncertainty continues."

Instead, a parent could say: "Sometimes, children make birthday cards for their birthparents. Here are the crayons and paper you can use." Even better, says Schooler, establish a norm from the start; just as a three-year-old scribbles a card for her grandfather on his birthday, she makes one for her birthmom.

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Our oldest son, who is 21 years old, was adopted as an infant. His adoption has always been closed (except for letters and pictures that we sent through the agency), even though we have communicated to his birthmother that more openess would be welcomed. When he was 14 and had 3 sibs that were not adopted, our newborn daughter joined our family. Her adoption has always been open with phone calls, letters, cards and visits through the years. Rose's birthmother, as well as 2 out of 3 sisters, are involved in her life. While awaiting the interstate compact, our families had a brunch at the hotel. Our son, who always wanted to know what his birthmother looked like, asked for the final time if he could call her. We wrote her through the agency, but she felt that he would be more mature at age 18. This has always been a disappointment to him. He avoids discussion of his birthfamily and the fact that he was adopted. Also, at age 18, he was leaving for college - a major life transition, so we felt that this was not an optimal time to deal with issues surrounding contact with his birthmother. He no longer wants contact, although we feel that this may change over the years, especially because we know there are many similarities between our families. An open adoption, especially if it is felt that the birthfamily is somewhat committed (although the relationship changes over time), definately seems more natural and healthier. The development of a sense of self are facilitated. Questions can be easier to answer and it seems like the "unknown" is more difficult to live with.

Posted by: Michelle at 5:19pm May 1

Our son will soon be 7 years old and is the happiest little boy I have ever seen. He has been told since he was 3 years old that he was adopted and the story of his adoption; always told in simple terms. We have a close relationship with his birth family and had hoped for a closer relationship with his birthmother, but that has not been the case. She is a sweet young woman and I'm sure has moments of regret but has always been kind & considerate of us. I just don't think she realizes the impact her abscence could have on our son in the future. We continue to always say kind things about her and tell how son how special she is and how thankful we are that he grew in her tummy. He has a older birth brother that he enjoys seeing and we try to get them together at least once a month. His birth aunt & grandmother are close friends of ours. There have been times that have been very hard with the closeness, but even during these periods we have known that being open was the best and most loving thing we could do for our son. There are times that our families still have problems with our choosing open adoption but we know it is because they worry about problems that could arise in the future. Legally we know that our son is ours and that will never change. Because of our strong faith we also know that our son belongs to God first and foremost. Thank you for all your articles on Open Adoption. Reading them affirms our decision and makes us realize even more that having our son surrounded by so many people who love him can only be positive.

Posted by: Dianne Kaehler at 8:42am May 2

We enjoy good relationships with all 3 of our children's birthmothers (the first and third have the same birthmother). Because of distance (they each live about an hour from us), jobs, lack of car for one, etc., we don't get together as much as we'd like. We usually see them every couple of months. They've come to our house and we've gone to theirs. Our son's birthmother came to his 3rd birthday party. The birthmother and grandma of our first and third children will be babysitting for us next Friday -- a date! Yay! I hope we can continue to grow closer because it's really just so great for out kids. During the adoption process, a counselor said something that stuck with us. She said, "You can never have too many people love your kids." We weren't totally comfortable with it at the very beginning, but we've grown a lot and now we can't imagine any other way. People don't really get this, especially when we first adopted and told friends that we were visiting our son's birthmother. There's a stereotype of birthmothers that they are crazy, drug-addicted, baby-popping girls who will steal their babies back if given half a chance. How ridiculous -- our children's birthmothers are lovely young girls who did the hardest thing they will ever do solely because it was best for their child. When you live through it, you quickly realize that birthmothers are glad to see their children thriving in the home they picked for them. A great book about open adoption is Dear Birthmother by Kathleen Silber and Phylis Speedlin, and I highly recommend it for those just starting the journey.

Posted by: Krista at 11:25am May 2

in 1991 i was a 19 year old single mother of a 3 month old beautiful daughter who i loved and wanted to keep. however, i was unemployed and very afraid of what our lives might be like if i didn't get myself into college and a full time job. i didn't know how to make this happen after losing a scholarship by learning i was pregnant. a couple who were friends of a family aquaintance offered to help but what they did was keep me isolated from family and launch a mental/emotional sabotage to convince me adoption was the only choice. they just happened to be an infertile couple looking to adopt. after much discussion i'd told them in no uncertain terms that the only way i could go through with it was if i had a completely open adoption. they readily agreed, spouting how i was a part of the family and my daughter would always need me in her life as well. i went along with it believing it was going to be the fairytale they promised. instead, within two years of signing away my rights, i was shut out but promised they'd always share my yearly letter with my daughter and she'd always know she was adopted (i was very concerned about her having this shock someday). in september 2008 my daughter contacted me via internet after stumbling across a few things, including my 16 year old sister online. unfortunately, she hadn't known until that time that she was adopted. she never received any of my letters, photos, gifts, family heirlooms...she knew nothing except that she was the child of this coulple she didn't look like or had anything in common with and were so estranged she hadn't called them mom/dad since age 8 or so. when the a-mom learned my daughter was in contact with me she not only made harrassing screaming call after harrassing screaming call to me but also told my daughter that i have never been anything but a mentally ill, drug addict and prostitute (none of which are true and never have been...i went from this sweet wonderful woman they loved to a drug addict suddenly). in the end...both my daughter and i have been devastated beyond comprehension. the effects of this adoption experience will take both of us many years, if ever, to overcome. 1-people who want to adopt should focus on children who are truly orphaned and/or mentor and help young women who are suitable mothers and want to keep their babies but need some help making it work rather than going after newborns of vulnerable young women. 2-Open adoption should be made a legally enforceable form of adoption so that such tragedies as mine do not have to happen. in my case, my daughter was STOLEN from me under the guise of open adoption. they and their private agency knew that i was only going through with it due to the open adoption (completely open) agreement and all did this knowing once my rights were signed away i'd have no way of regaining custody or enforcing the agreement. that, in my opinion, is just the same as if you broke into my home and kidnapped my child. it is reprehensible! the behavior since that has only wounded us more. the betrayal is beyond anything i could ever imagine. my daughter, nor i, will ever be the same. before you go into an open adoption agreement, please be sure you are doing the most right and moral thing. PLEASE:*(

Posted by: stephanie at 5:54pm Nov 24

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