In an open adoption, as I define it, the adopters and the birthparents both know each other's full names, both first and last names. (It is not open if only one side has identifying information about the other.) They may agree to exchange photos and letters directly, without using the agency or attorney as a middleman. Sometimes a semi-open adoption later becomes an open adoption, if both parties decide that they want it that way.
Many open adoption relationships have a warmth that comes from having shared a common struggle – allowing yourself to be vulnerable to another human being, responding to that person’s vulnerability, and being committed to a common goal that centers around the best interest of the child. Like all relationships, open adoption will inevitably have peaks and valleys; yet, as people overcome each hurdle, there are opportunities to learn what to expect from each other and ultimately gain confidence in a collective ability to make the relationships work. When it is safe to create meaningful connections for a child, openness in any adoption — however limited — can be a great gift.
The empty mailbox is just one example of the challenges that families in open adoptions may face. In recent years, we have embraced the concept of open adoption with gusto — yet the journey, for some, has proved to be unexpectedly bumpy. Lack of support, a sudden change in the life of either the adoptive or biological family, logistical pressures — all can complicate matters. Add to that the emotionally charged issues at stake-parenthood, power, identity — and open adoption can make for some combustible family dynamics.
Because there are many benefits of having openness in adoption, we must continue to educate others about the gifts often involved in open adoption. Open adoption helps minimize the child’s loss of relationships. Openness helps a child celebrate his connections with all the important people in his life who love him. We also believe that when children are able to resolve their losses with truth rather than fantasy, they grow to be more authentically who they are and who they were always meant to be. Even when that truth is painful or difficult, children have taught us that they would rather live with the truth than with the mysterious unknown — for what children imagine is so often worse than even the darkest of truths.
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Over the past few decades, we’ve found that the majority of prospective birth mothers are looking for an adoptive family they can have a personal relationship with before, during and after the adoption process is complete. Therefore, we require our prospective adoptive families to be open to the kind of communication most of these birth mothers are looking for, including:
Conversely, if they want a confidential adoption, they should not feel unduly pressured into agreeing to an open adoption. Adopters who agree to an open adoption against their wishes may later find it difficult to fulfill their side of the agreement (for example, sending the birthmother letters and photos). This is terribly unfair to both the birthmother and the child. Agreeing to an open adoption when they don't want one is also unfair to the adopters themselves.
A 1996 study reported in Child Development found that all the children studied “reported positive levels of self-esteem, curiosity about their birthparents, and satisfaction with the openness situation” regardless of whether their adoptions were closed, semi-open, or open. What this seems to mean is that the child's sense of security in his adoptive family is more important than contact with the birth family.