Open Adoption: A Reference Guide for Families

By Joni Mantell; as seen in Adoptive Families Magazine

Open adoption is a scary phrase. “When I first heard it, I wondered, would I feel like a ‘stand in’ or a ‘rent-a-mom’?” says Christine, from New Jersey. This is the most common initial reaction prospective parents have—that open adoption is “co-parenting.” Others may come to domestic adoption worrying that the birth parents will lack boundaries or want the child back, or that their child will grow up confused about who her parents are.

You will likely learn that these fears are unfounded during your pre-adoption training. Typically, birth mothers choose adoption because they know they can’t parent any child at this time, children know that their parents are the ones who tuck them in at night and share in their daily tears and joys, and, no matter how open the adoption, the adoptive parents are the one who make all of the parenting decisions after placement.

Parents become believers in open adoption as they learn that their concerns won’t come to pass, and about the benefits it will bring their children. As Susan, from New York, says, “My child will have answers to her questions about her birth parents and won’t be left to use her limitless imagination to try to satisfy her curiosity.”

But what the adoption process doesn’t teach you is the day-to-day ofliving in an open adoption. Adoptive families and birth families often report feeling their own way through the early stages of the relationship, wondering how to handle phone calls, visits, deviations from the post-adoption contact agreement (PACA), their family’s curiosity about the birth mother, Facebook requests, names for the birth grandparents, and more.

We are pleased to offer this reference guide, which takes you through the match and PACA phases, and will help set your relationship with your child’s birth family on a solid foundation for the years to come. As in any family relationship, you’re bound to face a few dilemmas over the years. Throughout the article, see the “Dilemma” boxes for some of the most common questions families ask, and sample language you can adapt to address them with confidence.

During the Match Period

Get to know each other slowly. At the beginning, everyone wants to be liked, yet relationships need to evolve. You wouldn’t tell someone everything about yourself on a first date, or ask them a barrage of questions.

Be sensitive to the expectant mother’s emotions. This is probably the most difficult situation she’s ever been in. Ask her how she feels and whether she is getting the support she needs. Find a balance between your excitement and her impending loss. Some expectant parents enjoy hearing that adoptive parents have begun to decorate the room or come up with names. If you are unsure, ask how she feels about this.

Maintain your boundaries. You will feel great compassion for the expectant parents, possibly even an instant intimacy. It’s OK to listen and empathize, but adoptive parents cannot and should not become their child’s birth mother’s best friend or counselor.

Don’t start a pattern you won’t sustain. You will be thinking of the expectant mother every day while she is pregnant, and want to call, text, or email frequently, but it’s best not to set a precedent you cannot keep. Once you are a new parent, you will be operating on very little sleep, focused on your baby, and responding to relatives who want to meet the family’s newest addition. You do not want your child’s birth mother to feel she has lost her baby and her best friend at the same time.

Prepare friends and family. Think back to your very first thoughts about open adoption, then consider that your relatives haven’t been with you on your learning curve. In On It: What Adoptive Parents Would Like You to Know About Adoption, by Elisabeth O’Toole, is a great book to give to the grandparents-to-be and other close friends and relatives.

Keep information general, rather than share specifics about the personal circumstances that have led the expectant mother to make an adoption plan. Tell anyone who asks for details that the “adoption story” belongs to the child.

Use accurate terminology. The woman you’re matched with is not a birth mother. Until placement, she is “an expectant woman/mother (or couple) considering adoption for her (or their) child.” This wording respectfully describes her situation and protects your heart until the adoption is final.

Gather some information for your child now. It is never possible to know how everyone will feel post-placement. It is not uncommon for birth parents to withdraw due to grief or the stress in their lives. Given this possibility, gather some information that you think your child would like to know now. Along with any more practical medical history, record your observations—the birth mother’s infectious giggle, that she puts ketchup on everything. Your child will treasure any information you can share about her birth parents.

DILEMMA #1: Asking About an Absent Birth Father

Commonly Asked: “Our son’s birth mother was involved with his birth father only briefly. We’d like to know more about our son’s birth father but don’t know how to ask without sounding nosy or judgmental about the brevity of their relationship.”

Objective: Gathering information for your child has nothing to do with judgment and everything to do with helping him form a strong identity. Social and medical paperwork should take care of the big questions. However, the everyday details that adoptive parents can often learn by talking with birth family are the ones that kids often love to hear.

Suggested Words: “We know that our son will be very curious about both of his biological parents, especially as he gets older and wants to understand more about his origins. We would love to be able to tell our son anything, however small the detail, that you might be willing to share about his birth father—how he looked, his hair and eye colors, favorite sport, food [taste in music, favorite team, favorite author, idiosyncratic habits]. From what we’ve learned, it seems that kids love tidbits that they may be able to relate to their own lives.”

 Drafting Your Post-Adoption Contact Agreement

Expectant parents and adoptive parents should discuss their expectations for ongoing contact in advance and set down in writing what’s known as a post-adoption contact agreement (PACA). It will probably feel awkward at the time, but making clear plans for the type of contact (photos, Skype, visits, and so on), as well as a schedule for the updates, will help avoid future disappointment.

“PACAs are not enforceable under many state laws,” notes Robin Fleischner, a fellow of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. “In New York, for example, the agreement is part of the birth parent’s consent and a proceeding can be brought in court to require compliance. In other states, PACAs are not enforceable in court.” Nevertheless, she and most adoption professionals agree that a PACA is a good idea, whether court-enforceable or not, to start your relationship on an honest and healthy note. If there is a breakdown in the agreement, it’s a good idea to seek counseling.

As Lisa, an adoptive mom from Westport, Connecticut, says, “The schedule helped us to feel that the birth parents’ needs were being met and that we had some structure.”

When drafting your PACA:

Keep the focus on the child’s best interest. “Rather than start right out discussing numbers of times per year for visits and so on, start with a discussion about your commitment to openness because you truly believe it will benefit the child. Then work from there,” says Nina E. Rumbold, a New York and New Jersey adoption attorney.

Under-promise and over-deliver. While determining future contact, keep in mind that these plans are being made during the crisis that is adoption, and it is impossible to know what everyone’s needs will be later on.

It is always best to be honest and to start with the minimum that you are comfortable with. It is heartbreaking to speak with birth parents who were promised contact that never happened. Even when contact goes as planned, as one birth mother from New York City says, “It remained my greatest fear that the adoptive parents wouldn’t live up to their end of the bargain. That they would promise updates and visits but then disappear. The only way I was able to overcome these fears (and they never fully go away) was by having the adoptive parents’ actions consistently match what they promised.” Keep in mind that you can open up the relationship in the future.

For their part, expectant parents are anticipating an enormous loss, and may be unable to consider what degree of contact they will be able to handle through future life changes, such as new jobs or parenting another child.

Keep letters and photos about your child, not the adoption. As Kevin O. puts it, he prefers to write “a bunch of notes” rather than “one weighted letter.” He writes things like, “We went to the park after lunch, and he was really into the flowers”; “Her eyes remind me so much of you”; or “Today he bobbed to music I was playing, and I thought of how you said you love dancing.” The Brooklyn dad believes these “peeks are so much more valuable to birth parents then some stiff vow to never forget their sacrifice.”

Many families share photos online, and mentioned services like Snapfishand, an adoption-specific website that reminds parties of the scheduled updates. Some parents overthink the pictures, but birth parents report enjoying a great variety and getting a real glimpse into the child’s life, so send that snapshot of your child playing in the sprinkler along with the posed first-birthday portrait.

Be open to visits, and be adaptable. While most adoptive parents easily understand the value of letters and pictures, there are a wider range of reactions to visits.

Some families are not comfortable with visits. As Karen, from New Jersey, says, “We did not want to commit too much in the area of visits, as we could not know how our child was going to react to them.” Others are very comfortable scheduling them at set intervals throughout childhood, with the goal of normalizing these relationships over time.

Early visits may be very emotional, but they will start to feel more natural as all of you get comfortable with each other. “Although we were both teary-eyed, the visits relieved her anxiety and helped develop our relationship and trust in one another,” says one adoptive parent from Princeton, New Jersey.

DILEMMA #2: Setting Boundaries Regarding Visits

Commonly Asked: “Each time our daughter’s birth mother comes to visit, she brings a different male friend or boyfriend. We are concerned that this will confuse our daughter as she gets older.”

Objective: Acknowledge her need for support, but set the boundary you are comfortable with. You are entitled to anticipate your child’s feelings as she gets to know her birth family.

Suggested Words: “We completely understand that you’d like to bring a supportive friend along when you visit. Could you possibly bring female friends only? We are concerned that our daughter may think that one of your male friends is her birth father, and we don’t want to confuse her until she is better able to understand adoption. We hope you understand.”

And somewhere in the middle are families that are comfortable with visits during the pre-verbal years (up to age three), but then prefer to wait until the child expresses personal initiative for contact.

A birth mother from New York City describes her reaction to this shift in visits:

“Now that Sarah’s six, her parents feel that she has to be the one to ask to meet me. Initially, I was disappointed that they didn’t bring her when we met for dinner, because I just wanted to have a ‘play date.’ But after thinking about it, I realized they weren’t pushing me out. They were simply putting Sarah first, and that’s always how it should be. They brought drawings she’d done at school and showed me pictures on their phones. It was lovely. I also realized maybe I wasn’t ready to answer the kind of big picture questions a six-year-old might have. We’re thinking Sarah will probably want to meet me soon, but I will seek some prepping before that meeting.”

Post-Adoption: Navigating Common Bumps

You will have less time to check in. It’s thoughtful to call your child’s birth mother after you get home from the hospital to let her know the baby is doing well. After that, the relationship may naturally decrease in intensity. If you were in frequent contact during the match, you might gently but directly explain that you’ll be calling less often now that you have to focus on the baby. Acknowledge that this transition may be difficult.

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Based in Pennington, NJ