The term open adoption can strike fear in the heart of every adoptive family. But it doesn't need to. Much of our ideas of openness tend to come from stories in the news the media has sensationalized, Lifetime movies, or our own assumptions and misconceptions.
An open adoption describes the kind of relationship an adoptive family shares with the birth family of their child. This can mean anything from shared pictures and updates via the adoption agency or a non-identifying email to yearly visits or even sharing holidays and birthdays together. Each family's open adoption is unique to their circumstance and story.
The good news is, if openness in adoption is approached with thoughtful consideration and care, it can be an amazing gift to everyone involved (and your family won't end up in the news).
Here are some things to consider when thinking about open adoption:
Establish your comfort level
Decide what you feel comfortable with early on in the process. What do you want your relationship with your child's birth family to look like? How often do you want contact? What kind of contact do you want? How will you explain this relationship to your child, your friends, your family? Very often a family's initial thoughts about openness grow and evolve as they educate themselves about open adoption. One important note to make at the very beginning: decide early that you will never give money directly to the birth family. Not only can this be illegal and possibly jeopardize your adoption, but can lead to destructive relationship patterns.
Create a plan
Things always go better when everyone is on the same page and there are clear expectations. Don't ever step into a match where you are unsure if you can honor the kind of openness and relationship the birth family is requesting. Talk early on with the birth family about what kind of relationship they would like with you and the child; specifically what this will look like during pregnancy, for the first year of life, and throughout childhood.
Allow for organic relationship
The best relationships grow naturally and over time. Remember it's easier to continue to open the door slowly than to have to slam it shut. So beginning a relationship gradually and building trust will create a foundation to a healthy and solid relationship. Most often, agreeing to periodic emails and updates can evolve into texting and meeting if you get to know each other and build trust slowly.
Facilitate open communication
Communication is key to any healthy relationship. Ongoing discussion about how the relationship is going and working (or not working) is critical to ensuring that it's working not just for the adults involved, but also the child. Being honest and upfront about issues will create an environment where you can work together to create a relationship that benefits everyone.
Set clear boundaries
Following the above steps and sticking to them will create clear boundaries for the kind of relationship you and the birth family are hoping for. If agreed upon terms aren't being met (the texts are becoming too much, money is requested, etc.), it's ok to remind them of the plan and even to pull back from the relationship for a season if needed.
*It's also crucial to note here that having an open adoption isn't necessarily about how healthy the birth family is. Of course safety is of paramount concern, but during a visit the birth family typically will not be caring for your child without you there. For most families, a visit would be at a park or a restaurant for a few hours with the child, the adoptive family, and the birth family. Most of the time, even a birth parent who is in an unhealthy space in their life and making poor choices can still have a very positive and healthy interaction with the child for a limited time.
Relationships and people change. As they do, it's important to hold onto things loosely. You might be surprised after meeting and getting to know a birth mother that she becomes as close as a sister to you. Or you might find that the birth father is going though a tough spot and firmer boundaries are necessary. As things change, be willing to change your plans in the best interests of everyone involved; particularly the child. And just like our other relationships with friends and family, things will occasionally ebb and flow in terms of closeness and frequency. You can count on this to be the case with your birth family as well.
I wish I could say that in the end if you follow these six steps, you will have a perfect open adoption relationship. But relationships are complex. Real relationships, those that are the most valuable, are hard work. But ultimately, these are the relationships worth fighting for.
For further reading on the topic of birth families and open adoption, check out these helpful posts: