When I meet with people beginning the adoption process, they often say to me, “Everyone tells us we should do open adoption—that it’s the way to go these days.” I usually surprise them with my cautioned response, especially since it comes from an adoption social worker. “Yes, open adoptions can go very well,” I say, “But you can’t enter into adoption counting on or planning for openness. It is something that unfolds—or doesn’t—depending on the cast of characters, the circumstances, geography, and personality. It is not something that can be legislated—it is an organic process.”
As I write these words, I am aware that they probably sound like blasphemy. The doctrine in adoption these days champions openness. Who am I to dial this back and advise my clients to “see how it goes” or “see how it unfolds” rather that embracing with certainty the “open is the way to go” doctrine? I could say that my perspective comes from experience—in over 35 years working in adoption, I’ve seen relatively few adoptions be fully open. Or I can offer up the following family story . . .
Eric and Lynne are the parents, through adoption, of a 10-year-old son and two daughters, 6 and 8. When they first came to see me about 11 years ago, Lynne and Eric were clear that whether others loved open adoption or not, it was not right for their family. They were happy to find me, someone comfortable with a spectrum of adoption patterns. I told them that most of my clients met the birthparents prior to or around the time of the child’s birth, spent some good time together, and then moved on in their lives keeping in touch through photos and letters sent through the agency or adoption attorney. I told Lynne and Eric that I thought it best to anticipate this type of adoption while acknowledging that their preference was to have no contact at all with the birthparents.
Fast forward five months. I received a call from Eric. The good news was they had been matched with a high school senior who was scheduled for a C-section within the week. The “bad” news was that her parents wanted Eric and Lynne to come for dinner the evening before the delivery. Eric was “freaking out”. He said that he and Lynne didn’t want to miss out on an adoption opportunity but he could not imagine dinner at the birth grandparents. “What if they lock us in a dungeon?” he said. “What if no one ever hears from us again.”
Fortunately, I was able to calm Eric down, at least enough for him to agree with Lynne to accept the dinner invitation. I was hopeful that it would go well and that the two families would feel comfortable enough to remain committed to the adoption plan. What I never anticipated was Eric’s exuberant call late that evening. Although I tensed up when I saw caller-ID, Eric simply couldn’t wait to tell me how much he liked the birthfamily, how great they all got along, how wrong he was about not wanting to meet them, and how excited he was to get to know them better. I remember hanging up the phone and simply thinking, “Go figure . . . one never knows what is around the next bend with adoption.”
As things unfolded, Eric’s initial delight with Joyce and Hal, the birth grandparents, was reaffirmed. He and Lynne enjoyed time with them, and their daughter, Missy, the birthmother, over the next few days. When the time came for Eric, Lynne, and David to fly back to Massachusetts, the two families were already planning their next visit: Lynne and Eric had invited “our Arizona family” to come stay with them.
Forward again ten years. The two families continue to see each other at least twice each year, taking turns traveling and staying at each other’s homes. They enjoy close, warm relationships and consider each other “family”. David is old enough now to also travel on his own and he does so, flying to see his birthfamily at least once a year.
And so what I am I saying with this story? I began by expressing caution about counting on openness and then tell a story that illustrates how open adoption can be a warm, natural process that brings pleasure to all involved. But that is only part of this story: as I noted at the start, Eric and Lynne adopted three children. Their first adoption has been wonderful and it has been fully open. Their second two adoptions have been wonderful, but they have been fairly closed. Although they met their daughters’ birthparents at the times of placement, the adults involved did not feel the same connection that David’s birth and adoptive families felt. The meetings were warm, cordial, and collaborative, but they did not have the makings of building family and expanding kinship.
It is family stories, like Eric and Lynne’s, that have landed me where I am vis a vis openness in adoption. It sometimes unfolds. It often does not. And many adoptions are somewhere in between—they involve occasional contact, usually by email or text, between birth and adoptive families. Sometimes that contact increases over time and other times, it diminishes. One never knows in adoption—as in all of life—how things will turn out. I encourage all my clients to be open to openness and to be open to possibilities.