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Letting Your Open Adoption Evolve

Over the years, an open adoption arrangement may need to evolve to accommodate the changing needs of everyone involved--above all, the child.

by Lois Melina

Selma and Bob adopted through an agency that facilitated open adoptions. When they met the birthmother who had selected them to adopt her child, they agreed to mail photos and letters every month. It seemed like a reasonable request.

Five years later, Selma and Bob moved to another city and adopted another child. With two preschoolers at home, Selma found months going by before she uploaded files to her photo site and ordered prints. She barely had time to check her e-mail, much less write letters to birthparents.

Linda and Kevin wrote letters to the birthmother of their son, although not as frequently as they had planned. When their son was 14, he became preoccupied with meeting his birthmother. They wondered if this preoccupation was affecting his schoolwork. Linda and Kevin hadn't planned to have their son meet his birthmother until he was at least 18. They'd hoped that, when he met her, they would be able to show what a fine young man he'd turned out to be. They didn't want her to know that they had conflicts over things like privileges or that their son needed tutoring in math.

Nonetheless, they wrote to the birthmother and suggested a meeting. Linda decided to be honest. She told her she and Kevin were embarrassed not to be the perfect family they had all envisioned at the time of placement. The birthmother, now married with other children, let Linda and Kevin know that she understood the ups and downs of being a parent. Had she known how things would turn out, she still would have chosen them as adoptive parents, she said.

Before the meeting, the birthmother and the adoptive parents did some reading and shared what they'd learned with each other. They agreed that they would set the tone of the meeting, not the 14-year-old.

Expectations and Reality

People often have unrealistic ideas about what parenting will be like. My husband and I were trying to start a family when we bought our first house. It had two bedrooms upstairs and two bedrooms downstairs. We didn't think that we might one day have more than one child and want to sleep close enough to hear all of them in the night. The house had a small front yard on a busy street and a steep back yard. We didn't think about where kids would be able to play safely. Maybe we were dense about the housing needs of a family, but we had no experience on which to draw.

The same is true in open adoption. Families have visions of what their lives will be like, often based on what they had as children. Seldom do these visions involve birthparents or birth grandparents. They agree to a plan for ongoing contact--perhaps sending letters through an adoption agency, perhaps regular meetings--with no experience on which to draw. For open adoption to be successful, families have to believe it is important. They have to be flexible in the relationship, let go of expectations, and communicate honestly.

Open adoption takes the secrecy away. It gives children the opportunity for information and to feel that they are valued by their birth families. If birth families and adoptive families aren't convinced there is value in maintaining these connections--even when it is difficult or the families have different values--they will allow the circumstances of their lives to be an excuse to let the relationship go.

Here are some signs that someone perhaps wasn't fully committed to open adoption:

  • Adoptive parents were relieved when the attorney or agency told them that open adoption wasn't legally enforceable.
  • Adoptive parents or birthparents considered open adoption to be "conditional," i.e., gave themselves permission to terminate the relationship if it did not meet certain criteria.
  • Adoptive parents or birthparents believed open adoption would somehow make their lives easier, i.e. the birthmother believed she would not feel as much grief, or the adoptive parents believed they wouldn't have to answer their child's difficult questions.

It's understandable that people might be reluctant to commit to a kind of relationship with which they have no experience, that is different from "standard" parenting practice, or to one that feels scary. The good news is that even if adoptive parents or birthparents were not fully committed to openness at the beginning, they can renew their commitment at any time. Open adoption is a relationship not so different from other familial relationships, requiring the same skills we use with grandparents, in-laws, and siblings.

Flexibility and Honesty

Even those families who wrote up a formal contact agreement will find that the relationship doesn't go as planned. The birth family cannot know what will happen; neither can the adoptive parents. Even when everything is going well, it may not be going as envisioned.

Life throws us curves. The birthmother may marry a man who doesn't like her being in contact with the child she placed for adoption. Adoptive parents may go bankrupt. People often withdraw from relationships--even from close friends--when they are struggling.

Parents must feel that they can change the arrangement to meet the needs of their families. If their goal is to maintain the relationship, but fit it to their current situation, requests to change the manner or frequency of contact are likely to be favorably received. But if families use circumstances to withdraw from the relationship, they risk losing trust, and that can be devastating.

Honesty is the key to success. Had Linda and Kevin not been honest with their son's birthmother about their feelings of guilt and embarrassment, they would not have had the opportunity to talk about how they would relate to each other during the meeting. First, of course, Linda and Kevin had to be honest with themselves.

Selma decided that cutting out the monthly steps of ordering and mailing prints would help, and her child's birthmother agreed to view photos in online albums. Their conversation also confirmed for Selma that she was committed to the relationship and this was not the first step toward closing their open adoption.

Think back on the relationships you have maintained and those you've allowed to slide. How many of us have maintained ties with relatives whose values differ from our own, who live far away from us, or who do not seem to put as much into the relationship as we do? How many of us can preserve our boundaries and our emotions in these situations without cutting family members out of our lives? On the other hand, how many of us have let good friends disappear from our lives because the relationships were no longer convenient?

Commitment comes from recognizing that through the child we all love, we have become family.

Lois Melina is an internationally recognized authority on adoptive parenting. She is the author of several classic adoption books, including Raising Adopted Children. This article was reprinted with the author's permission.


On, a mom wrote: "We're close with our daughter's birthmother, but her birthfather hasn't always come to visits or responded to updates. They just broke up. I'm not inclined to schedule two separate visits every month, but should we continue to e-mail him?" Here's how community members responded:

I would continue sending the updates by e-mail and tell him that, if he wants a visit, to let you know. It doesn’t sound like he'll want them frequently, if at all. But the updates should be sent (IMHO) whether he responds or not, unless he tells you to stop."

In my opinion, you need to keep out of the heat and emotion of the split and continue sending stuff to him. He may be more interested than you think. He is dealing with a huge loss and, when you factor in the end of his relationship, it may be that he needed a break."

Our son's birthparents broke up a few months after his birth. I know that they would both prefer that the other not see him, but that isn't what we feel is best, and they've respected that decision. We communicated with the birthmother during her pregnancy, so it took a while to establish a comfortable, independent relationship with the birthfather."

If both birthparents want visits, but don't want to see each other, you could stagger them, seeing each birthparent every other month."

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Secrecy? One may hope in this day and age that no matter if its a Open or closed adoption that their is no reason for any secrecy. However no all Open adoptions turn out for good just because its labeled Open. ? Oh and Mothers that have babies they cant care for are not giving them to you to make you happy,um so why feel you owe any one anything, you only owe it to yourself and you adopted children to be the best you can for them full stop. Personally , may should hard to some, however their is no 100% proof that Open or closes it better or worse, ( as its alway some way a loss that cannot be perfected back to its ordinal state)we would not like other placing their noses in when they never could do the job themselves in the first place. Adoptions a personal for all, thus my 2 cents worth ion as an adoptive parent, is that Close adoption also allows a child to move on ((with out any further interruption)) , " until they are 18 of age to be emotional ready to deal with issues IF they feel they have to for closure etc.) So yes we have been open that satisfies some " simply" facts, and never would like our son to feel he cannot ask us first, as actually we know everything, thus not as if we have no ideas closed adoptions project the image, but also understand some simply don't know to, hardly the fault of the new parents. However Children young vulnerable children, DONT need to hear things that may never be in their best interests to know what their parents may have been like. Also guarantee the fact is not as if they can simply trot back into their bio life, um.... On the positive side, yes we all like to think that all things will be all good later on in life for them or corse, but no one way will this, and one cannot force information on to a child BEFORE they are ready, just because one may feel its the thing to do and is right at the time..... do what you think is right yes, but remember if it was not you will regret it. we have told simply facts in the most kindest and sensitive manner, but any ting else really would not ad anything or worth, and as far as allowing our son very young parents back in to his life, well that will simply never be , as they had over 5 yrs to do something about that to. Thus he lives a very content happy full life, no scars attached. We are our sons parents and thats all he and us know, he is very aware his parents had no way of parenting him, and he simply cannot remember them, its not sad as some may like to think, rather adoptions always become though sad situations that lead children to be given up in the first place.... Live and Let Live we say and allow then to live their little life's with out complications of adults issues., as they will have plenty of tiem the rest of their life to sort that out, and if you give soo much information they may not even worry about, it can have opposite effect to.

Posted by: Jane at 10:57pm May 2

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