Open Adoption: A Changed Reality

by Terri Marcroft

Child placed in open adoption

If you do an internet search on “adoption,” you’re likely to get more hits for pet adoption than for infant adoption.

We just don’t talk much about adoption these days, do we? The average American is only two degrees of separation from someone who was adopted, yet the average American knows little about adoption and how it works today because it rarely comes up in conversation.

Adoption isn’t covered in the news - unless there’s some rare occurrence to sensationalize the topic. Adoption is not discussed over cocktails. It’s not among the boxes to check on your dating profile or your driver’s license. We just don’t talk about adoption, so we don’t understand it. Yet we do have our preconceptions about adoption.

Let’s put your preconceptions to the test.

Here’s a glimpse into one personal story:

Dina was a senior in high school when she realized that she was pregnant.

She had had a feeling she might be earlier in the year but pushed the idea to the back of her mind, hoping it would just go away and turn out not to be true. By the time she faced the truth head-on, she estimated that she was about 16 weeks along. It was March 1999; three months away from Dina’s high school graduation, she seriously pondered her options for the first time. Abortion? No, she could not terminate the life growing inside of her. Parenting? Well, that didn’t sound good either. She was planning for college and had plans for her own life. Adoption? She didn’t know much about how that worked, so she decided to learn a bit about the process. She found an agency in a nearby town that claimed to facilitate adoptions. She called and gave them a fake name so she could ask a few questions. She was surprised by most of the answers: there were hundreds of couples waiting to adopt, so she would be in the ‘drivers seat’. Would she want to place her baby with a stay-at-home Mom or career mom? A young couple or an older, more established ones? A family that already had kids or a childless couple? She could specify race, religion, and sexual orientation. It was shocking how many of the decisions would be up to her. Dina had a lot to think through!

In April, Dina began reading the profiles of dozens of hopeful adoptive couples before she found the one that met all of her criteria. She was looking for a couple, established in their careers but without kids to date, who could provide a loving home, security on every front, and many cousins. That was Dina’s vision.

When Dina gave birth, she placed her baby into the arms of the couple she chose, creating a family.

The next day, tears flowed freely as Dina, her mother, and the adoptive couple all stood hugging and crying in the hospital lobby. Comforted slightly by a promise of bi-monthly photos, they parted. Dina’s heart broke as she watched her baby placed in the car seat. But somehow, she was also confident that she was doing the right thing for her precious new infant girl.

Dina started classes at the local junior college to stay close to home for a year while she made her plans. The following year, she went off to a university and worked intently on her bachelor’s graduating three years later on the Dean’s list. A year after that, Dina wrote her first letter to the adoptive parents: she was planning to join the military and enroll in Officer Training School. After that, she would request to be stationed in Iraq. But first, before leaving for boot camp, she wanted to visit her daughter’s new family ... just in case, she didn’t come back.

And so she did. After five years of infrequent contact, Dina could see that her baby girl was in good hands, happy and healthy. That weekend’s visit began a closer connection between the child, her birth mom, and her adoptive parents. The birth mom wrote often, usually from her travels. Long multi-page letters written in airports and on deployment expressed gratitude toward her daughter’s adoptive family. Dina was grateful that she was free to pursue her career and stay in touch with the family who was raising her daughter. Knowing her daughter was being taken care of put Dina at peace.

Does that fit your preconceived ideas about adoption? Probably not.

The Adoptions of Yesteryear

Most peoples’ ideas about adoption are preconceptions leftover from the old days. Before 1990, adoptions were mostly closed. The decision to place or parent did not belong to the pregnant woman herself; she was often forced into adoption, usually by her own parents who didn’t want the embarrassment. “What would the neighbors say?” The pregnant girl was sent far away to live with a distant relative until the baby was delivered and ‘given up’. Then things could return to ‘normal’. The adoption and the existence of this new person was a carefully guarded secret, ensured by a pact among all involved never to speak of this event again. And so it went.

Why? Sometimes a “closed adoption” was requested by the biological parents or the birth mom. More often it was requested by the people who forced her into the adoption arrangement, her parents. Sometimes a closed adoption was the preference of the couple adopting because they wanted to pretend that the child was theirs from conception onward, living in denial and inviting all to join them. Whether the closed aspect of the adoption was the will of the birth family or the adoptive family, it was a path most often chosen out of fear. They were afraid that being honest would somehow result in rejection, shame, or disapproval. For a myriad of reasons, the adopted child’s story was buried and replaced with a carefully crafted tale.

Secrecy was the hallmark of a closed adoption.

The problem with secrets is that they’re nearly impossible to keep and lead to an unhealthy life. The woman who placed her baby was never able to grieve. Imagine going through the trauma of parting with your child and never being able to talk it out, receive t help, or heal. To know what happened next. She was not allowed to stay in touch and see how her baby fared in the new family she made possible. The story just ended. Abruptly and without any closure.

The adopted child was often not told that they were adopted. He or she grew up assuming, or being told, that their story was no different than any other child born to any other couple. But the adopted child knows something is off. It’s just hard to pinpoint exactly what. Since families are not good at keeping secrets, the adoptee would eventually learn the truth. With that comes a tidal wave of feelings of betrayal. “For how many years did you lie to me? My parents did this to me??”

And then, sometimes still reeling from that shock, the adopted child may feel a desire to find – and even connect with – the birth parents. All kids want to know where they came from and where they belong. It’s an innate curiosity that causes kids to want to know their story. For many, some milestone or turning point in their lives sparks the search; it might be their wedding, the birth of their first child, or even the marriage of their kids. When an adoptee can only find his or her birth parents with a great deal of research and effort, that search is the by-product of closed adoptions. And this often leads them to sealed adoption records.. Each state has different laws about opening sealed adoption records and what’s required to open the files. Recently several states have chosen to ‘unseal’ the records. Some states don’t yet allow for adoption records to be unsealed and released. Sometimes the records are forever lost, destroyed in fires or moves. In that case, there will never be any answers for the curious adoptee.

That is trauma layered on top of trauma.

We’ve come a long way since then. We now know the harm that occurred from the practice of forced, closed, secret adoptions. Thank God those days are almost entirely gone! Adoption has successfully evolved into something entirely different today.

A massive shift has taken place in the practice of adoption; it has completely flipped from the closed adoptions in the 1950s and 1960s to the nearly entirely open adoptions of today, in 2022. If there is such a thing as a “typical” infant adoption scenario in the US today, that new norm nationwide is called “Open Adoption.”

The ‘open’ part is a continuum of openness: each family navigates the waters until they find the balance of contact and distance that works for them. Visits and privacy are a tradeoff, and geographical distance between the parties will require more work and planning to stay connected. Some want more contact, and celebrate holidays in person, while others are content to exchange letters, photos, or social media posts. At the core of open adoption is a world of possibilities. There are an infinite number of ways to structure any ongoing relationship. The options are open to embrace and expand upon, or not. Open adoption is a delicate process. But when a family structures these new relationships in the way that works for them, with an arrangement inside the limits of their comfort zone, they know it. They can feel it.

For the birthparents – open adoption means peace of mind: they can rest assured, knowing that their child is thriving with parents who overcame so many hurdles before welcoming their new child into the family. At a minimum, the open nature of the adoption allows the birth parents to stay informed about the child’s progress. More often, it includes communication between the birth family and the adoptive family. Sometimes it even allows the birth parents to participate through regular visits. It’s all worked out gradually: if both the birthparent and the adoptive family want an increased level of contact and visits, they can arrange those get-togethers. It all happens rather informally, as we go through life together. Open adoption works best with open communication.

For the adoptee – open adoption means that the child’s questions are answered. The child will first ask, “Why did my Mom choose adoption for me?” The reasons for that choice are as different as each woman who places, but the theme running through those stories is that the birth mom was not able to parent at that time in her life, and she loved her child so much that she wanted the best for him/her. She chose to place the child’s best interests above her own. It’s a brave and selfless act of pure love. Learning that the decision was extremely difficult, and made from a place of love, is very reassuring for a child.

For the adoptive parents – open adoption means information. They can access genetic and medical information to best care for their child. They can advise doctors who can then choose the right course of treatment. It’s also possible to gather and preserve cord blood at birth. (Scientists believe that these cells can play a role in healing several diseases, including cancer. The cord blood is found in the umbilical cord and placenta and is collected at birth and placed in storage). It’s also helpful to know ancestral histories of various medical and genetic conditions and proclivities such as alcoholism, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, heart conditions, and certain types of cancer. Some adoptive parents are also lucky enough to share the last few months of the pregnancy with the birth parents – get to know them and get some insight into their stories. All of that can be very helpful information.

The Benefits of Transparency
The basic idea underlying open adoption today is transparency. In most cases today, the children are aware of their background stories. They know that they were adopted and why they were adopted. Their birthmother chose adoption at a time in her life when she felt she could not parent; she just was not ready, willing, or able, perhaps all three. She made the very difficult decision to go forward with her pregnancy. And then choose parents for her baby and then place him or her with them out of love for her baby. Even when a woman does not face pressure to place and adoption is 100% her decision, it’s still quite challenging. Most birthmothers describe adoption as the most excruciating decision of their lives. But they also go on to describe the rewards of seeing their baby raised in a happy, stable family. The ability to stay in touch and remain a part of the child’s life is one of the benefits of open adoption. Observing the child’s upbringing is also a large part of the healing process for birth parents.

In addition to providing transparency, another pillar of open adoption is ongoing communication. Although it’s possible thanks to the transparency within open adoption, whether or not all parties opt to communicate regularly is up to those involved. And it usually evolves. Some need distance in the first few years after the birth; some become “one big happy family” immediately. After a needed initial grieving period, the visits and other forms of communication can be helpful to the birth mom, knowing that her child is well-loved.

There are many possible scenarios, and there’s no “right” way to do this. Each open adoption is as unique as the humans that comprise it.

The bottom line is that open adoption offers options. It offers a connection. It offers answers. The people involved can forge the path and set the new traditions that work for them because everything is possible. Staying in touch is possible. Open communication is possible. Close, loving relationships are possible.

And in this world, who would turn down one more person to love them, and one more person to love?