Opening Up to Open Adoption (With Unintended Help from Hollywood)

Ethan column topper

[Ed. note–I am pleased to welcome new contributor Ethan Brooks-Livingston to the OAB team! He will be exploring openness from the perspective of a prospective adoptive parent in his monthly column, “The Art of Waiting.” -Heather]

ID-100126124When my wife and I first started researching adoption, we had a couple of notions in our heads about what the adoption process and raising an adopted child might be like.  Collectively, we’ve known a few people who were adopted, and have known at least one family who adopted.  Prior to cracking a few books on the subject of adoption, we didn’t have a whole lot more to go on, other than what the usually questionable media told us.  The topic of adoption is certainly discussed by lots of people…but the information we all gather from how it’s discussed is usually pretty fragmented.  Paste the fragments together and you end up with a sort-of outdated, generally inaccurate idea. What you “learned” as “fact” might well be incorrect, or even downright offensive.

Since we made our decision to adopt, it seems everyone has an opinion and a hairy, scary story of someone’s aunt’s-brother’s-cousin’s-nephew’s-friend’s-next-door-neighbor-and-her-husband-who-adopted, and advice on how we should be careful.  Similarly, media representation ranges from snide remarks about celebrities adopting because it’s the “in” thing (?!) to references to various Lifetime worst-case-scenario movies.  These instances are no help at all, but like it or not, they have informed our thinking to some extent.

Ever seen the movie Juno?  It’s been around for a while, and for some reason (this isn’t our usual genre), we’ve always liked it, but until we really thought about it, we never realized how much this movie informed our thoughts about open adoption–that it might be a good thing, and might actually be preferable to everyone involved.  In the movie, 16-year-old Juno finds out she is pregnant and after some deliberation, decides to make an adoption plan.  She contacts a hopeful adoptive couple who advertised in a local newspaper.  At their first meeting, she decides they fit her “criteria”–though disappointingly, Vanessa, the adoptive mom, is decidedly not a “cute Asian chick who likes to rock out on the bass guitar.”

The adoptive couple’s lawyer is present at that first meeting, and asks Juno questions about compensation and how she wants contact to happen after the birth.  Juno is confused, and says, “Wait, can’t we just kick this old-school? You know, like Moses and the reeds?” Everybody looks around in surprise until the lawyer stumbles out a response: “So we’re all agreed, a traditional closed adoption is in everyone’s best interest?”  The adoptive parents look relieved, as if that’s what they preferred all along, Juno asserts that she’s just too young, she’s “ill-equipped,” and the lawyer just looks glad to not have to deal with more paperwork to negotiate openness.

We had seen this movie several times, but it wasn’t until we decided to adopt that we put ourselves in the prospective adoptive parents’ shoes in that particular scene.   There’s so much about that one scene that is uncomfortable.  What we’ve realized is that there’s one person who should be considered more than anyone else in any adoption scenario: the actual child, who, if you’re adopting an infant, has no voice in the matter. In Juno, the adoptive parents are thinking that their future with their child will be much less complicated if they don’t have to take a relationship with their child’s birth mother into consideration, and Juno is scripted as thinking that she’s got her whole life ahead of her and doesn’t want to be tied down with a relationship with a kid when she’s going off to college in a couple of years.  No one’s thinking about the kid, and how he will wonder about his birth mom out of natural curiosity, and if she really just “didn’t want” him.  That got us thinking about openness, for sure.

In the U.S., adoption has evolved dramatically in the past 50 years.  Historically, unless it was “taking in” a family member, from what I have read, adoption was typically closed. It was never discussed with the child, and the adoptive parents likely pretended that that child had been born to them.  Birth parents were usually out of the picture entirely.  Hollywood gives us another shining example in a film we’ve always liked but never picked apart until we were there ourselves: Penny Serenade, a 1941 film starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne.  The star couple is unable to have children, and they decide to adopt.  They meet with a social worker at an agency, who makes notes about their criteria (a boy, blond hair–curly, and blue eyes) and soon (no mountain of paperwork?!) they are ushered into a room of waiting children.  They look around, picking out a child who fits their criteria, but who is already “promised” to another couple.  The social worker intuitively seems to know just what they need and calls them a couple of days later, and they take home their child–a brown-haired, brown-eyed, girl–right away. She seamlessly integrates into their family, and her adoption is never mentioned, which is never a problem. Realizing the fantasy here, and the potential problems if that was a real life scenario, it was as if we were watching a “What Not to Do” video.

Unintentionally, Hollywood’s versions of adoption ended up helping us really “get” open adoption. What really helped us more than anything else, though, was attending our agency’s annual picnic, where we met lots of adoptive parents, birth parents, and kids who are part of open adoptions.   Everyone’s story was different, and each admitted that openness had evolved over time.  The  level of contact varied widely, and for some, was a source of frustration, as sometimes birth parents moved on to other life goals while their children asked difficult questions like, “But doesn’t [birth parent’s name] miss me?” Not everything we heard was entirely positive.  But it was real.  Talking to actual people and hearing the variety of experiences, both good and bad, having the opportunity to ask questions, helped tremendously.  Some of those original worries aren’t completely gone, but they aren’t keeping us from forward motion like they were threatening to a year ago.  We understand  the benefits of ongoing contact for everyone involved;  we’re now much better prepared  to help our child have the best relationship they can with their birth parent(s). That doesn’t threaten our position as parents.  If anything, it strengthens it.

About the author:
Ethan is the co-writer (with his wife, *A*), of their personal open adoption blog, The Littlest Brooks-Livingston, which chronicles the occasionally trying, sometimes humorous, and always introspective dips and curves in the road to bringing home their first child through open adoption.  Ethan,  a recovering English major who has since moved on to another (more employable) area of the Liberal Arts, resides in Western North Carolina.

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick /


7 thoughts on “Opening Up to Open Adoption (With Unintended Help from Hollywood)

  1. Pingback: OAB Column: “Opening Up to Open Adoption (With Unintended Help from Hollywood)” | The Littlest Brooks-Livingston

  2. My thoughts when I saw that scene in Juno was that Moses adoption wasn’t closed.
    Moses knew exactly who his birth family was because his birth mom totally asked to be a nurse maid for the Queen of Egypt. It’s all there if people who make movies would just read it.
    How else did Moses know he was actually Jewish and want to save his people?

    My opinion is that closed adoption is actually been a relatively short-lived new idea(only the last 2-300 years) that only came about because of immigration and the creation of our ‘modern’ social lives that are about being self-focused.

    I agree that openness only encourages a stronger bond between adoptive parents and their adopted children.

    To be honest I don’t think that any media (TV, movies, etc) are really going to get it right because reality is complex and media needs to make things simple for the masses. Even though many people would be able to grasp the more diverse ideas of open adoption.

    • Hi CindyG – thanks for reading, and for sharing your thoughts.

      You may be right about closed adoption being a relatively new(ish) idea – I think in terminology, open adoption is even newer, though probably it is older in practice, as you say here. Maybe historically (depends on whose history) “family” was a little looser concept than now, and there was more of an idea of community child rearing.

      So far as the media goes – from what I’ve seen, you’re exactly right about the media muddling it up (no big surprise – it’s the same for a lot of issues that are close to the hearts of a small minority). The closed-tight versions of adoption I saw in these films made me say, “Wait, that can’t be right…” so maybe that will be the case for others….but maybe not.

      So do we use these not-exactly-right story-lines to better educate others (and run the risk of always being the “Adoption Police”)? Do we use them to start conversations with our adopted children about how their adoption was/is different? What would a positive portrayal of open adoption look like?

  3. I saw Juno back when it first came out. My husband and I were recently married. We knew adoption would be part of our family plan but didn’t know it would be our family plan. I remember walking home from the movies that night and discussing open adoption. My husbands heart was opened just a little more towards realizing how open adoption was beneficial but he still was not convinced. I recall leaving the movie excited about adoption and our family to be but also realizing my husband needed time to process the information.

    Fast forward six years and we are the parents of a 20 month old girl who also happens to be adopted. I stumbled across Juno at the first meeting with the lawyer. I cringed at just about every word spoken and had to turn it off. My husband then said “No wonder no one gets open adoption.” Made me smile.

    The media is always going to focus on extremes. Juno has a place and I often found people frame questions using Juno as a means to form their questions. I also have used Juno to frame answers so that I dont have to use my daughters story. The media doesn’t fully “get it” but I think our family touches so many people who in turn teach those around them. The ripple effect will hopefully get the message out that we are not an anomaly but just a regular family with a daughter that is also fortunate to have a wonderful extended birth family.

    Great post.

    • I think you have a good point here about using Juno (and other films with similar themes) as a starting point for a conversation about adoption. Maybe it makes the issue more approachable – or at any rate, it might make people have conversations about adoption they might not have otherwise had. Perhaps that’s the best starting point we can hope for, imperfect as it is.

      Thanks for reading – I appreciate your insight!

  4. This is an excellent article! Thank you. Ever since I saw Juno I have wanted to write an article about it. I loved that movie. It was well made, unbelievably funny and I fell in love with all the characters. But when it all came to a close, and Juno and the adoptive mother parted ways, never to see each other again, I burst into tears. Not just quiet little sentimental tears, but shoulder shaking, loud sobs. Let’s just say lots of heads were turning towards me with worried expressions on their faces. You see I had gone to see that movie with my daughter’s great grandmother. I mean, my daughter’s birth great grandmother. I sobbed because I couldn’t imagine my daughter’s life or my life for that matter without her birthmother, her birth grandparents and her birth great grandparents in it. I sobbed for the fictitious baby in the movie and all the real babies out who will not spend their childhoods or their teen years or their adult lives knowing the people who gave them life, who may or may not be as funny as Juno, who may or may not be as confused as Juno, who may or may not be as vulnerable as Juno. I was grateful, so grateful, that I had been learned from others to let go of fear of the unknown – for the sake of the child – and embrace the vision of open adoption. It hasn’t been a perfect or easy road, but one that has been so worth it and so helpful for my daughter (now 9) as she explores and discovers who she is in this world. I’m so grateful that movie helped you explore open adoption. I felt like it so romanticized closed adoption. Thank you for thinking more deeply about it than Hollywood offered you on the screen.

    • Hi Debbie,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and your reaction to Juno. You’re right about having to let go of the fear of the unknown – that’s essentially what has to happen (daily, and in small pieces, if that’s what you need) to embrace open adoption. It was wonderful to read about such a successful story of open adoption – that is what we want to strive towards. It’s great that your daughter has two families who are so committed to openness. Thank you again for sharing!

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