Open Adoption: It’s About Commitment

Conferences can be overwhelming.  With so many wonderfully informative sessions, how can I possibly remember it all?  I can’t.  Luckily I’ve been told UMass will be making the PowerPoint slides available along with some sessions which were recorded. Despite not being able to remember everything, there are some bits that have stuck with me.

One of those things is learning that when asked about why an open adoption closed, a majority of adoptive parents will feel it was due to birth parents’ choice and most birth parents will feel it was the adoptive parents’ choice.  In some cases I can see how this might happen.  There have been times when my son’s parents and I have been in less frequent contact, especially in the early years of our open adoption journey.  It is easy for either or both of us to construe that as an indication that the other does not want to be in contact, which can increase the length of time between communication.  Had none of us reached out and broken the silence it would be fairly easy for each side to believe the other had been responsible for closing the adoption, when in fact either side could have made the effort to keep it open.

Of course not all adoptions that close do so because of contact lulls; as with openness itself there is a spectrum.  Perhaps there was a misunderstanding and each party is waiting for the other to make amends.  Perhaps one party explicitly states they will no longer be communicating.  I can’t quantify  how many open adoptions close. However, I’ve witnessed it happening all too often recently and even if it is a small percentage that is too much.

While I know there is no way to see the future I can’t help but think there must be some way to gauge the likelihood that a person will maintain an open relationship.

What do those participating in successful open adoptions have in common? Is there a single magical piece of information that needs to be conveyed for participants to understand its importance? Is there a way to know if someone truly believes in openness and is not just giving the answers they think the agency/home study writer/expectant mother wants to hear?

I don’t have the answers, but I am making a note to look into it for my PhD research or beyond.

In the meantime, what drives you to maintain your open adoption relationship?

About the author:
Kat Cooley, MSW writes here at Open Adoption Bloggers twice a month. She is a social worker providing comprehensive all options counseling to those experiencing unplanned pregnancy and will soon be returning to school to pursue a PhD in Social Work and focus on adoption related research .  She is also a birth mom over a decade into an open adoption.  She is always open to suggestions for topics; you can leave them in the comments, at the OAB Facebook page, or tweet her @KMCooleyMSW.


27 thoughts on “Open Adoption: It’s About Commitment

  1. This is an interesting post – I can definitely see where both birth and adoptive parents could believe the reason for reduced contact is coming from the other side.

    Here is my question (for you or for the readership here): We have had very limited interaction with the birth mom of our son. At placement a year ago, she told our agency that while she wanted the adoption to be open, she did not want to meet or establish an on-going connection.

    Over the past year, she’s reached out via email two or three times, asking for pictures or updates on our family blog, which we have granted almost immediately.

    But other than that, we have tried to respect her wishes for contact. I’d like to think we have communicated (via our blog and email) that we remain open and willing to expand the relationship, but I’d hate to think that she’s avoiding contact because she believes we do not want openness with her.

    How do we work towards establishing and growing a relationship with her, while being respectful of what we believe is her desire to have limited contact? Or do we just continue posting pictures and videos on our blog, and hope that someday she wants more?

  2. Insert standard “Every situation is different and I’m not an expert on your life” disclaimer here.

    That being said the best way to grow any relationship is to be genuine and show an interest in the other person. It sounds like right now your interaction is through email and your family blog. Perhaps responding to one of her emails with, “We just posted a new update for you also we’re wondering how (insert activity you know she’s been involved in) has been going for you” or “Of course we’ll post an update tonight, we’d love to also hear how you’ve been if you’d like to share an update with us that’d be great” or something similar.

    Is it possible she doesn’t want to update you? Sure.It’s also possible she doesn’t feel she has anything “update worthy” to share with you. But you never know unless you try.

    Also at only a year post placement I hope you aren’t being too hard on yourself expecting to have your relationship fine tuned by now. A year is no time at all in the life of an open adoption. Take your time, move forward mindfully and at a pace everyone is comfortable with and don’t try to create some “perfect” relationship because it’s what you think you “should” have.

    Good luck and thanks for commenting!

  3. This is a great post in that it’s thought provoking and cause for introspection into our family.

    Our girls are almost 7 and 5 years old and we have ongoing family relationships with both of their families through to grandparent and great grandparent. In the last two years we reconnected with each of our girls’ birthfathers as well and are looking forward to adding more to our family.

    I will say this, my husband and I had the benefit of education and information during our journey to parenthood. This helped us define what we wanted in creating our family through domestic adoption. What we wanted for our future children was for them to know and love and be loved by their family. It was not our first thought but after meeting others in the community and seeing all age children with all of their families gave us the insight of what it could be like for us too.

    The women who chose us to parent were looking for the same kind of relationship as we ~ to all become family. They also had the opportunity through the professional we worked with to see and meet those in the community who were family through adoption.

    Our relationships with this part of our family are like all our family relationships. Everyone has joined with the same intent to be family and love our girls. I realize we are very lucky and blessed that everyone has come together as family as we had wished it to be. Relationships are work but you have to want a relationship to make it work too.

    Being family also means if there are hard times we work through them and come through together for the good times too.

    I agree every situation is different, but leaving the door open for the possibility is the best possible way to allow a relationship to begin and grow. Your child while young cannot directly ask yet about their story but they will. Keeping any communication going IMHO is the best way to allow your child the chance to have the relationship with and be loved by all of their family.

    • “The women who chose us to parent were looking for the same kind of relationship as we…” That really key, Regardless of the desired level of openness it needs to be the same as the other parties involved. If one party wants a closed or semi closed and the other wants uber open it’s starting at a place for someone to be hurt and disappointed.

  4. The best advice for adoptive parents I’ve ever read was “keep opening the door.” We did it recently and had a wonderful response from my son’s birthdad who we had wrongly misconstrued as not wanting contact.

    I have a little post written, however, that I can’t seem to actually publish on what birthparents (mothers in particular) can do to ensure contact – a few tips I learned from my son’s birthmom because relationships are two-way streets, and birthparents need to also take responsiblity for the relationship as well – that means not being timid or grateful. Just like anyone who wants something, they need to state their needs, and ask, ask, ask. You can’t dicate the response but you can make your needs known.

    I find lack of contact totally pointless on so many levels. It’s incumbent on everyone to stay in picture. Of course, ebbs and flows are natural, of course based on a bazillion factors.

    SO much to say on why and how to do this…! Anyway, great post and discussion point.

    • i do agree with you that every participant in the relationship needs to state their needs, but that is often easier said than done. As unfair as it might seem (be?) I think the adoptive parents have the responsibility to create the ground work for a relationship where the birth parents are comfortable expressing their needs. (Well ideally it’s an ethical agencies job to make sure that sort of foundation is being built). Not everyone is raised to be able to state their needs in any situation let alone one where there is such an obvious power differential. If there is an age different between the parties it may also go against culturally ingrained values of not questioning elders. So yes everyone needs to make their needs known, but first the foundation that it’s safe, appropriate, etc to do so needs to layed…am i making any sense i think I might be talking is circles

      • Totally agree on all fronts (I’m not trying to let APs off the hooks at all). I guess what I’m driving at is that birthparents need to know up front just how much they will need to stand up for themselves and that they should not be overly ‘polite’ or afraid to do so. It’s a great life lesson if nothing else.

        A bulldog of an allie really helps because to ask a lone birthmother to stand up for their rights after losing a child is totally insensitive and unrealistic. In our case, the b-gmom was the main driver until the reins were transferred.

      • Yes, having an ally is a great thing. I’m going to have to think about this from a practice stand point; I wonder what if anything we social workers can do to help a natural support person be our client’s open adoption ally.

    • I agree that adoptive parents are the ones who have power over contact and openness. They are the ones raising a child, and they can share or withhold information at their choosing. I do agree that a relationship is a two-way street and not all birth parents are willing or able to participate as much as the adoptive family. But if adoptive parents want more out of the relationship, they have nothing to lose by saying so.

      • I dont think that adoptive parents have *nothing* to lose. If they want more contact they may worry that if it seems they’re pressuring a birth parent for more contact that may spook the birth parenting into being in contact even less frequently.

    • I don’t think any birthmother can ensure openness. It’s a solid commitment that has to happen between all parties. I did everything right in my own adoption, and they didn’t make good on their promises. More openness was never in the cards.

      Ideally, openness would continue because both parties respected and understood their roles, and one another.

      • You make a great point Danielle, the efforts of one person cannot overcome someone set on having a closed adoption. In cases where openness is the mutual goal there are things both sides can do to sustain that openness, but again the adoptive parents hold the power.

  5. Hi Kate,

    Good questions! I’m only a year into an open adoption relationship as an adoptive mom, but we feel like our relationship is successful (as gauged by the presence of mutual trust, respect, and authentic closeness). It definitely is a commitment. If there’s a magical piece of info, I’d say it is SUSTAINABILITY. Families (both birth/first and adoptive) entering into adoption need to be realistic about what they can sustain in the long term.

    Even though my commitment to openness is very strong, and I had some idea of what it might be like (because my partner is a birth mom in an open relationship of 14+ years), maintaining our relationship has been challenging for me at times. Despite all my preparation, the reality of new motherhood hit me hard. I have sometimes felt overwhelmed, not so much by contact (although we do see each other a lot), but by the need to be honest about my needs and struggles.

    Lately what has helped me is to remember that our open adoption relationship is LIFELONG. That means I don’t have to come up with the perfect mothers’ day gift or perfect birthday cake, because I get so many more chances to try…a lifetime’s worth (I know that contact can change over time…but I really believe that we will all keep contact). Taking that “long view” definitely helps.

    What I have observed in other adopting parents is a tendency to overpromise and then be unable to sustain the commitment they eagerly make in their quest to become parents. Yes, I’ve encountered some folks online who blatantly lied, but I’ve also see people who just didn’t fully evaluate the commitment they were making. And because there’s a power imbalance post-placement (not mitigated at all by some agencies), the adoptive parents are supported, to some degree, in feeling like they can de-prioritize their child’s first/birth family when daily life becomes overwhelming.

    So I think managing expectations is a big part of maintaining an open adoption relationship. Agencies need to attend to the power imbalance and stress the lifelong nature of the openness commitment. The other thing that has been key for me is grace: assuming good intentions, asking clarifying questions when something potentially hurtful or inconsiderate happens, and extending compassion to family members and myself.

    I think that the expectant parent and/or the agency CAN gauge the ability to maintain a open adoption relationship by looking at the family relationships the hopeful adoptive parents already have: do they prioritize time with family? do they honor their commitments? are they able to authentically own and communicate their needs? do they set and maintain boundaries?

    These are just my thoughts, a year into motherhood in an open adoption. I’m sure my perspective will change as time passes. I look forward to hearing from others who have been on the journey longer than I have. 🙂

    • Great point about the lifelongness of the relationship. It’s a marathon; although ours felt a bit sprintish at the start there! I think we’ve all mellowed now that we all trust that no one is disappearing.

      • This is exactly what happened with us. Total marathon at the beginning and now we’re so much more mellow. Lifelong, forever, and FAMILY were words of wisdom for us in the beginning and that is exactly how we live now. None of us are going anywhere and we stress the importance of birth “family” to anyone who is embarking on the journey of adoption.

  6. “What I have observed in other adopting parents is a tendency to overpromise and then be unable to sustain the commitment they eagerly make in their quest to become parents.” YES this is all too common even when cautioned that they may not be able to fulfill all those promises some people really think they will have time for xyz. I don’t think most people go into it to be deceptive, but that doesn’t make it hurt less when it can’t be sustained. That’s not just adoptive parents, it’s birth parents as well. They may think they want weekly visits but when I say. “Lets be real, what does your week look like now and what are you willing to cut out EVERY week to go have a visit?” I also let them know that there are sometimes heavy emotions leading up to visits and following visits. So ok you have time for a 3 hour playdate once a week do you also have time for one day pre visit and one day post visit where you may not be functioning at your best? This isn’t to say frequent visits can’t work but they need to not be agreed to because it sounds good they need to realistic and sustainable.

    • Such a huge topic. I do like the keep opening the door analogy. That way, if things started off with distance, the birthparents can choose to walk in later. Also true for ebbs and flows in contact. I also think that it’s fair, in a sense, for adoptive parents to assess their child’s ability to handle a given level of visits and so on. As adoptive parents, we are responsible for our children (young ones esp) well-being.

  7. The PROMISES.. Oh, the promises. Do not, neither side, say you’ll do something you do not know you can make good on. If you need time to discuss an idea, then say it. Honestly, I think this relationship is like marriage. You have to be honest. You have to expect that there will be times when you have no idea what you are doing. You have to understand that there will be times when you’ll be frustrated, even angry. And all of that? It’s okay.

    And I like the idea of keeping the door open. However, how do you do that when it gets tougher to maintain the relationship later on? I suspect that it doesn’t get easier as the children age, but more complex. Then what?

    • “keeping the door open” is different from “keep opening the door,” I think.

      “keeping the door open” may be a one time invitation, while “keep opening the door” repeats the message on different occasions, in various ways. I’ve seen this in our own adoption. the door is open where we have some complex relationships, but after so little contact, there is limited sustained effort on either side. on the other hand, I keep opening the door for others who play a more active role, with reminders that they are always welcome, invitations to family occasions and events, encouraging them to invite themselves for visits whenever possible, etc. the difference may be subtle yet meaningful.

      as for how it may get tougher to maintain with time as kids grow, I think each situation is different. I think the child should have a more direct role in the relationship, which changes the dynamic as well. but as for complexities among the parents, I think the more open you are, the more honest communication and experience to build on, the easier it should be to deal with those situations.

  8. This is such a great post and I love the conversation that has happened as a result.

    What drives us is family. They *all* accepted us and they all *choose* us. Our birth mother had her entire family involved in picking us out for her child. After meeting them for the first time we knew it was a package family deal and that just fit with our already huge family. So what drives us is that our daughter get’s to grow up with siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and her birth mom. Regardless if certain family members come in and out of the relationship over the years we have so many other family members who will maintain the tie and make sure that our daughter always knows her family.

    I wrote a post about it that probably is a bit more eloquent than this comment 🙂

  9. The title is my favorite part of your post. 🙂 To sum it up: commitment. Commitment to the wellbeing of the child, commitment to the possibilities open adoption can bring about, commitment to communication. We have three open adoptions, and yes, it can get pretty strange and bittersweet and complicated at times, but overall, it’s worth fighting for. I want to be able to tell my children that I did everything I could to establish and maintain a healthy relationship with the bio fams. I pray that when the kids are old enough, the adoptions are still open, so the kids can “take over” those relationships (the ones I have to manage w/the bio fam for now b/c of the kids’ ages) or be involved more. 🙂

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  11. Our open adoption is complex, challenging, and very tough. It has never been what I had imagined…I’m slowly learning to let go of my ‘vision’ and just accept it for what it truly ‘is’ at this moment. My biggest lesson was learning to define boundaries. I opened the door really widely and literally, took it ALL in. What we all first envisioned changed drastically when moves, separations, crazy ex’s, and dangerous behaviour, entered the picture. Separating our Birthmother’s life challenges from our Open Adoption was hard for me, but I am learning to keep our relationship just about the child we share.

    I was reminded today that it’s important for us to share that sometimes things are really tough. I’ve been reluctant to be really honest about things because I didn’t want our Birthmother to be disrespected. Nor do I want people judging me because at times I am winded by all that has been happening. At times, I have wanted, and needed, a break from ‘contact’. The thing is, things get messy. There are no rules. What works for some, doesn’t always work for others. For me, sometimes I’ve yearned for a break from contact, because the reality of her circumstances and people she is surrounded by, aren’t the greatest…or safest. I’ve had visits cancelled, emails ignored, communication challenges, then been lashed out at. And while I recognize that she may still be in the throws of grief, and that her life challenges are difficult and messy, it doesn not mean that they should be at the centre of our relationship.

    The centre is our daughter. Openness is for her…not me. I think before I was wanting, yearning, hoping that things could be the ‘unicorns and rainbows’ of openness: bbqs at the park, birthday parties for all of their kids, watching birthmom see her dreams come to fruition. But our current reality is not that. We had a short honeymoon period only to see things unravel and become inconsistent and tough. I desperately wanted to see her persevere and make better choices. I desperately wanted to help her other daughters. But I lost sight of our daughter’s needs…it suddenly became all about trying to ‘fix’ them. I certainly own my part in that.

    At the time, I just didn’t know what else to do…I felt guilty for wanting boundaries…I felt scared to admit to our community, that I needed them.

    Will it be that way forever? Who knows. Am I open to seeing it through and hoping that we both can refocus our relationship to just about our daughter…yes. I am comitted to being ‘open’ for our daughter. She deserves that, at the very least.

    We are young at this…still pretty ‘green’ at only a year and half in…but I am hopeful that things will get better over time.

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