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What Is Open Adoption?

A mother holds her baby and wonders what is open adoption?
Open adoption involves, "contact between biological and adoptive parents and sometimes between biological parents and the adopted child."

What is open adoption? When I was 16, I vividly remember a doctor suggesting adoption for my baby. I barely knew her and felt upset that someone would suggest that I “give away” my baby and never see her again. This is a common reaction of those experiencing an unexpected pregnancy when adoption is brought up. Adoption isn’t always the right choice for moms, but it is helpful to consider life-giving options to make an informed decision.

I didn’t realize back then that I had a preconceived, limited notion of what adoption was. Most people do. I had family members who were adopted, and they all struggled with their closed adoptions. I couldn’t imagine not knowing my daughter or what she looked like. It hurt to imagine her wondering who and where I was.

Later, I was introduced to open adoption by a few people who walked within this beautifully complex relationship. Their experiences helped open my mind. Through them, I discovered that I had a middle-ground option. I could continue to grow up myself, and provide her with the stable family I felt she deserved. Additionally, I could know her and love her through the years and be here to answer her questions.

So what exactly is open adoption?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines open adoption as “an adoption that involves contact between biological and adoptive parents and sometimes between biological parents and the adopted child.”

This is a basic definition. An expectant mom is able to talk with prospective adoptive parents (or several!) before making her decision and choose the family with which she feels a connection.

After placement, contact can be through emails, letters, gifts, text messages, FaceTime calls, phone calls and even in-person visits. Usually, both parties know, at minimum, their first names and communicate either through the agency or directly to one another. But, open adoption is more than simply exchanging names and updates. It is much more than a checklist of updates sent and received.

It's a relationship mindset

When choosing open adoption, both as a birth parent and as an adoptive parent, it’s an agreement to a relationship. It’s a mindset that takes effort and intention and reaps so many rewards when done well and with love! Open adoption requires thinking about how the other side may be feeling. It involves wanting to know each other as people, and hopefully, as friends. This is a relationship based on honoring and caring for each other, with love for the child at the center of it all.

Sarah works with families during the home study process at Abiding Love Adoptions. She describes the difference as, “Closed adoption is transactional while open adoption is relational.”

Closed vs Open Adoption

In a closed adoption, there is an exchange of the adopted baby, and that’s it. There is no relationship from the start. It can, unfortunately, feel more like a business deal–one party gains, and one party experiences loss. In an open adoption, however, there is an opportunity to build a strong foundation, including multiple essential people in a child’s life. A biological connection can be so crucial to a child, and open adoption helps make that possible. Jill, an adoptive mom and adoption professional, adds, “It takes months and years to build that relationship beyond pictures and letters.”

It's different for everyone

My open adoption experience can look very different from the birth mother sitting next to me at the yearly retreat, and that’s okay!

Each adoption triad will have different comfort levels or other factors, such as location, that may change the level of openness. Some have monthly contact, and others agree to contact once a year. Even within a fully open adoption, there are seasons of less contact or more. Talking through what each side hopes for and having honest conversations helps everyone be on the same page.

It benefits multiple people

Thankfully, as the awareness of the open adoption option has risen in the last decade, the benefits and support following have gained traction. While more studies certainly need to be conducted, what we have found so far is positive. Open adoption benefits the whole triad’s overall. It helps birth mothers cope with grief and can be very beneficial for adoptees as they grow.

What open adoption is not

Open adoption is not a co-parenting situation. The adoptive family has complete control of parenting and medical decisions. They also have a say in if and when visits will happen. A birth parent knows that they have signed those rights away and aims to respect that boundary.

However, it can be beautiful to include the birth family, much like extended family, inviting them into decisions together when possible.

Open adoption is not confusing to the child. Think of it as a blended family. I grew up with a mom and a step-mom that I’ve known since I was 18 months old. I’ve always known I’ve had two moms. One is biologically related, and one is not. However, I love them each just as dearly. Both offer different perspectives and unique places in my heart.

In the same way, my birth daughter knows and loves me along with her mother. Her parents did a fantastic job discussing her adoption and my role in her life from the very beginning. Having me in her life is normal to her. It has only brought her clarity, not confusion.

Open adoption does not wholly take away the ache of adoption. Adoption is a form of loss, and those feelings may be felt for years to come. However, in many cases, open adoption helps everyone involved because they don’t have to seek answers alone. They can pick up the phone and ask or check-in!

For me, open adoption visits and updates are a balm to my heart wound. They help me to heal and reassure me of my decision.

It's beautiful but complex

Open adoption is so many things rolled into one–beautiful and heartbreaking, joy and grief. It is setting aside our feelings to focus on our child. It is where the great moments outweigh the hard ones. And for me, it’s a path I’m still proud to be navigating 17 years later.

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