When most people think of open adoption, they think of infant-adoption situations, in which a birth mother places a child with a family that she has selected, usually with the help of an adoption agency, with the understanding that she will be allowed a certain amount of contact over the years. Our focus is a little different in that we are especially interested in helping to create positive relationships between parents who adopt through foster care and their children’s original families. In foster-adoption, there has usually been an involuntary termination of parental rights on the part of the biological parents though the original parents may retain certain visitation rights.
2) What does your open adoption look like?
Our adoption is a very open one. Ashley sees Erica and her younger brothers, who live with Erica, at least once a month--and often as much as once or twice a week. Ashley has been to Erica’s house, and Erica and the boys are frequent visitors in Ashley’s adoptive home. Ashley has also had contact with her grandmother, great-grandmother, and various aunts, uncles, and cousins. But we got to this point gradually. Our early visits were less frequent and occurred in public places. Originally, they only involved Erica. Other relatives were added to the equation over time. Privacy protections were removed gradually.
Prior to the finalization of Ashley’s adoption, Erica retained the rights to two visits a year. These visits were supervised by Ashley’s social worker. The agreement that Rebecca and her husband Paul signed prior to the adoption gives Erica the right to at least one visit per year, though they have obviously decided to do visitation on a much more frequent basis. Rebecca and Paul have the choice of supervising the visits themselves or of having them supervised by a third party (there are visitation centers where supervised visits can take place). They chose to supervise the visits themselves. The first visit following Ashley’s adoption finalization took place at a roller rink and involved Erica, Ashley, and Rebecca. At another visit, Ashley and Erica got pedicures at a local salon while Rebecca waited in the lobby.
At this point, “supervision” is no longer an issue for Rebecca and Paul. They’ve gotten to know Erica through various interactions and understand that she is in a very different place than she was when Ashley came into state care. (Erica enrolled in a treatment program to overcome addiction in 2009 and has been drug-free ever since.) Our visits are relaxed and informal and very much like other kinds of gatherings that you might have with extended family members; for example, at one visit we met at a local swimming area and anyone observing us would not have guessed there was anything unusual about our situation. They would have just seen a couple of moms and some kids all having a good time together.
3) Why do you believe open adoption is a good idea?
As an adoptee myself, I have a strong understanding of the importance of the biological bond and genetic mirroring. I believe that when you adopt a child, you don’t just bring a single child into your life -- you bring in an entire family. Even if the adoptive family has no contact with the biological family and rarely discusses them, that family, and especially the birth mother, is still there, fully present in the child's psyche. The first family may exist primarily as an absence, as a longing (spoken or unspoken), but they are still there. For adoptive parents, the choice between closed, semi-open, and fully open adoption isn't really a choice between having the biological family in your life or not. The first family is a part of your life regardless because they are a part of your child; the question for adoptive parents is: "How are you going to respond to this reality?"
I believe that in most cases open adoption is a healthier way to approach the reality of the first family than the old, closed adoption model that I grew up with. Open adoption supports the child’s understanding of self by keeping them connected to their roots. (One advantage in our situation, for example, is that Ashley can ask her first mother questions about her childhood, such as, “What was I like as a baby?” She loves these conversations. They support her in so many ways!)
Open adoption is good for the child, but it is also good for the adoptive family. It may surprise some people to learn that supporting a connection with an adopted child's biological family tends to strengthen rather than weaken the bond with the adoptive family, but we have certainly found this to be the case in our situation. I am not surprised. For one thing, who would you feel warmer toward: someone whom you perceive as keeping you from someone else you love or someone who facilitates that connection? Also, when Ashley sees her two mothers together she can tell that there is genuine warmth and friendliness between us. It’s easier to give yourself permission to love two people when you can see that they like each other.
Another positive factor is that the tension Ashley formerly felt around visits has evaporated; the visits now occur with enough frequency that she no longer has to feel anxious, wondering when she will get to see Erica again. The visits, quite frankly, have become nonevents -- they are not disruptive; they are simply a normal part of our life.
As a first mom, I feel open adoption is important because it helps the child maintain her attachment with the biological family. In our case Ashley was born to a mom who was capable of facilitating a strong initial bond with her, and laid the foundation for her future. By keeping the adoption open, Ashley has learned that she can trust people and build new, healthy attachments, because she still has a connection to her primary source of attachment.
I feel open adoption also plays a huge role in the success of the mother’s recovery, from whatever her past issues were. Having the opportunity to continue being a part of your child’s life after termination of parental rights is a great motivating factor. It is in some ways my greatest reward for changing my life.
4) I can see why open adoption works in your case, but surely you don’t think adoptions should be open if the birth mother is still actively dealing with addiction and/or other issues?
This is great question. Erica’s stability is certainly a key factor in our open adoption and we wouldn’t have the same relationship without it. But does that mean we would have no relationship? Not necessarily. Obviously, safety must be primary concern and each situation is different. Every family needs to figure out for themselves what level of privacy protection, etc., is needed. In some cases, protecting the safety of the child will be a bigger concern than in others. Open adoption does not mean you have to bring the biological parent physically into your home or open up all areas of your life to them. Rather, it is more typically a limited relationship that takes place in a structured, controlled environment, with the adoptive parents setting the boundaries. If Erica's situation had been different, we still would have wanted to maintain some level of connection with her, but we obviously wouldn't have achieved the same level of openness.
Addiction is something that never truly goes away. Whether the mother is actively using or has been clean for 20 years, addiction will always be a part of her life, as well as her love for her child. No one wakes up in the morning and says “I want to be an addict.” A majority of woman who use substances have a history of trauma, resulting from child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, death, or in some cases, even the loss of their child. The most important thing to remember when dealing with a mother who is actively using is, there is a reason behind her substance use. Although her use may have affected her child’s health or behavior, she never intended to intentionally “hurt” her child. She simply did not have control over her disease, addiction.
Entering into an open-adoption agreement, with clear, structured guidelines for visits and contact, may be the motivation she needs to seek and stay in treatment. The health and safety of the child needs to be every adoptive parent’s priority, but you should never forget, the “first” mother is not a monster, yet rather a woman in pain who has lost her children.
5) Isn’t open adoption just confusing for the child?
This is a common myth, but it’s just that: a myth. Our views are more in line with the following statement from www.adoptionhealing.com: “Regular contact with the Natural family is less confusing than no contact and will reduce many of the pains and problems that face the adopted person as she lives her life.”
Ashley was very definitely "confused" (or more accurately, "traumatized") by her removal from her biological family, but we have not seen any evidence of confusion as we have continued and increased her visitation with them. Nor have we seen any evidence that increased contact with the biological family is harmful to our adoptive one. To the contrary, we have seen Ashley's bond with us strengthen and we've noticed her seeming more relaxed and happy.
There are a lot of things about adoption that can be confusing to children. The separation from the biological family, and the various explanations that adults give for that separation, can be very confusing. But loving two families, and being loved by two families -- that's not confusing. It's actually pretty simple!
6) So, who is the “real” mother?
We both are!
In her book Journey of the Adopted Self, Betty Jean Lifton addresses the issue of the word "real" in adoptive families:
"The adoptive mother believes she is the real mother because she is the one who got up in the middle of the night and was there for the child in sickness and health. The birth mother believes she is the real mother because she went through nine months of sculpting the child within her body and labored to bring it forth into the the world. They are both right. The adoptive mother who loves and cares for the child is the real mother. And the birth mother who never forgets her child is the real mother.... By denying that adoptees have two real mothers, society denies them their reality."
Lifton also writes, "For me, a real mother recognizes and respects the whole identity of her child and does not ask him to deny any part of himself." By this definition, Ashley clearly has two real mothers. The acknowledgment and valuing of all that Ashley is, including those parts of her that come from the other mother is at the core of what we are attempting to accomplish through our open adoption relationship.
7) What tips can you offer others to increase their success in open adoption?
I think one of the best things you can do is to get to know the other parent as a person. Erica asked for a meeting with my husband Paul and I when she first learned that we wanted to adopt Ashley. We were happy to meet her, and looking back on it now I can see how that informal getting-to-know-each-other meeting started us off on the right foot. Erica and I have continued to get acquainted by occasionally meeting for lunch. We also communicate regularly by way of e-mail and texting, and this has worked out well for us. If both parties have access to e-mail, it can be a great tool for setting up visits and keeping in touch in between them. (It is easy to set up an e-mail account without revealing identifying information, if that is a concern in your situation.) Also, if it is possible for you to do so, I recommend supervising the visits yourself rather than using a visitation center. Most importantly, start with something small and gradually expand from there.Every situation is different and you'll have to trust your own instincts; I urge you to have as much openness as you feel comfortable doing, but if you say "yes" to things you don't feel comfortable that will only lead to resentment and a breakdown of the relationship. In other words, I urge you to stretch your comfort level but don't break it.
The most important thing that I feel helps a first mom be successful in an open adoption is truly letting go of your child. What I mean is, continue to love and nurture them, but allow them to become apart of their adoptive family. Reassure your child, they will always be yours, but it’s OK to love their new parents and siblings. By doing this you can help dissolve any loyalty issues or feelings of betrayal your child might be having.
Make sure you not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. You can tell the adoptive parents you’re in a better place now, but until you show them, through your actions, lifestyle, and relationships, that you are in fact better, your situation will not improve.
An adoptive parent’s worst fear is you are going to try to take the child back or kidnap them. Make sure you are clear with your adoptive family, that you only want what is best for your child, and although you love and care for them, you are not there to take the child or hurt the family in any way, but rather to help them integrate the child into the family by helping in every way possible.