"Open Adoption" has become a bit of a catchphrase. People seeking to become parents through adoption today are usually aware that "openness" -- and some form of ongoing connection to their child's birth parents (also known as "first parents") and other family members -- will be a part of building their family.
Research also tells us that openness in adoption is beneficial for everyone involved, but mostly for the adopted person. What research does not tell us is how to encourage families to live openness authentically and navigate challenging new territory on behalf of children who are adopted and can't remain with their original families. Some people experience anxiety at the prospect of this unique relationship in their lives, and some families find this aspect of their adoption journey challenging.
To ensure that a child feels loved and supported by all family members, both birth and adoptive, here are six things to keep in mind:
- Worries and concerns are normal. For so many years adoption was not something people openly discussed, so a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions continue to cause confusion and concern. And the ideas of more openness and true connection to birth families may be a hard concept to understand and put into practice. Since there are no best-practice standards for openness -- and there are different degrees and definitions of openness in adoption -- people often have reservations about their roles in each other's lives. Birth and adoptive parents often lack support and education surrounding openness, which fuels their concerns. But with the right supports and knowledge from professionals in place, more families can experience openness in a more positive and fulfilling way.
- Always have the child's best interests in mind. Openness may be challenging but is worth the hard work. We know from research and experience that for adopted persons having access to all aspects of their history is important for healthy identity development. Considering a child's needs throughout her development and learning tools to sustain relationships between birth and adoptive families go a long way in helping a child strengthen her identity. Nurture a strong relationship between the two families and focus on what's best for the child. It may not always be easy -- but few meaningful relationships in our lives are! If you take a minute to think outside the box a bit, you may just find that openness will make your adoption experience much richer than you ever could have imagined.
- The definition of "family" is changing. New ideas about who we consider family are evolving. The TV show Modern Family portrays a blended, non-traditional family, helping to expand our thinking. Adoption also creates a variety of new relationships in our lives, each of which comes with strengths and challenges. The relationships between members of the extended family of adoption are similar then to other unique relationships we may already have in our lives And so these ideas of extended family related to adoption don't have to be as different as they appear.
- Communication and commitment are key. All families will experience highs and lows. Two key things to remember are communication and commitment. When we have concerns in our relationships, communicating our feelings in a genuine and respectful manner is the best route to reach a resolution. These same principles can be applied to relationships between birth and adoptive families. Start from a place of empathy, and consider the other person's role and where she may be coming from. Share your concerns, but with a willingness to be flexible in arriving at a resolution. The relationship between birth and adoptive families is an important one to nurture and sustain because it will create an organic way of being connected, which will benefit the child throughout his development and well into adulthood.
- Contracts can't be the last word. In open adoptions, adoptive parents and birth parents often create a written contract outlining each party's responsibilities to send photos, updates, or other correspondence at varying points in time. While this written agreement may serve a purpose in outlining some basic transactional parameters, it doesn't necessarily help people to live authentically in relationship with one another, because, as we all know, the realities of life seldom conform to the expectations we'd put down on paper.
- Support and resources do exist to help. I am proud to be Chief Executive of the Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI), an organization that helps adopting families. DAI has created a curriculum called "Openness in Adoption... What a Concept!" (available later this year) that we hope will help bridge the disconnect between the concept of openness and the actual experience. The focus is to move the idea of open adoption from a transactional one to a transformational one, and one focus of the curriculum is to help birth and adoptive families develop skills to help them value each other. This will help create a safe space in which an adopted child is allowed to explore and develop all aspects of her identity.
And remember: The idea of openness can be used beyond adoption and be applied to all kinds of families, such as families formed via assisted reproductive technology, families experiencing divorce and remarriage, and blended families.
Learn more about the Donaldson Adoption Institute's work at AdoptionInstitute.org.