By Ann Tatko-Peterson
Wednesday, May 7th, 2008 at 6:30 am in Adoption.
The idea of adopting initially played on a major insecurity of mine: What if the birthmother changed her mind? I wrongly assumed ‘closed’ adoption would provide a safety net against such a thing. Maybe sending the birthmom letters and photos once a year would be OK, I relented. But I didn’t want her having a relationship with my baby.
A year later, it’s hard to admit my naivety , ignorance, and yes, selfishness. As fortune would have it, our decision to adopt domestically eventually led my husband and me to the Independent Adoption Center (IAC) in Pleasant Hill. Its founder was among the first to practice open adoption — more than 20 years ago, when most adoptive families harbored the same fears that I had. My husband and I entered the IAC’s information session with wariness.
Could we really embrace an open adoption — and in essence, a lifelong relationship with a birthmother? Very quickly, the question became, how could we not?
Open adoption is just that — open. The birthmother (and sometimes the birthfather) not only knows the adoptive parents, she also has a relationship with them. It starts with the adoptive families writing letters that detail their lives, personalities, values and wishes. The letter is an introduction, a first impression, if you will, for the birthmother. She may pour over a handful, or even a hundred, looking for a family to raise her baby. Placing her child for adoption is one of the hardest decisions she will have to make; she should have full say in who raises that child.
Once she selects a family based on the letter, the birthmother will make contact. She has options here: each adoptive family has set up a toll free number, e-mail and Web site; the agency or adoption attorney’s contact information also is included. If she feels an initial connection, then a face-to-face meet usually occurs. After that, the birthmother often decides how much of a relationship she wants before the birth.
After the birth, the ongoing relationship is spelled out in a written agreement. Usually, the adoptive family agrees to a certain number of letters and pictures each year, as well as at least one visit (more if the birthmother lives closer). The agreement is essentially the minimum expected. In reality, most adoptive and birth families extend their relationship beyond the parameters outlined in the agreement. In fact, the issue of openess that the IAC hears most often is from adoptive families who want more contact with the birth family. On the flipside, some birthmothers forge lifelong relationships, seeing their children at birthdays, holidays, or even occasionally babysitting.
So why exactly is ‘open’ important — why did I do a complete 180 on open adoption? Because it’s what’s best for the child. Closed adoptions fostered a lot of secrecy. Children experienced identity crises. They never had an answer to the biggest question in their lives — “why did my birthmother place me for adoption?” They didn’t know who they looked like. They couldn’t fill in the family tree during school geneaology projects. They didn’t know if they had siblings. It was like a major void existed in their identities. Plus, from a practical standpoint, closed adoptions left gaps in the child’s family medical history.
Open adoption also takes into account the birthmother’s emotional well-being and reduces the likelihood of a birthmom changing her mind post-birth. Repeated surveys of birthmothers have found that their primary source of regret is not knowing if they made the right decision. Seeing their child with his or her adoptive family reinforces their decision. Caring about the birthmother doesn’t end when the child is born. She will always have a special place in her child’s life, and by extension the lives of the entire adoptive family.
Which brings us to the root fear: who is ‘mom’ in this relationship? The anwer is both of us. I only have to look within my own family to understand that children can have bonus parents without losing the core relationship with the parents who raised them from birth. I’m a stepmom. That doesn’t make me my stepdaughter’s mother, but it does make me one of the parents in her life. She doesn’t love her mother any less. That’s the incredible thing about kids — love them, and they will love you back. Why would I deny my adopted child a chance to love all of his or her parents?
I didn’t come to this realization after just one information session. An IAC workshop weekend helped, as did reading books and blogs. Open adoption works. That’s why 98 percent of adoptions in the U.S. today are open. (Recommended reading “Children of Open Adoption” by Kathleen Sibler and Patricia Martinez Dorner; “Making Room in Our Hearts: Keeping Family Ties Through Open Adoption” by Micky Duxbury; and “Arms Wide Open: An Insight Into Open Adoption” by Jane Waters.) And honestly, I won’t know how open a relationship I’ll have with my child’s birthmother (and birth family) until we actually meet. But at least now, I know I’m open to just about anything.