Closed adoptions seem to have simplicity on their side. A baby is born, placed, and continues her life with one family. She has one set of parents plus the usual extension of relatives. Maybe the child knows she is adopted, maybe she doesn't find out until much later in life. The legality of the adoption is unquestionable, the explanations simple - if they are given at all.
Simple, or so we thought. Yet it must not have been so, or things would have gone on just the way they were. So, why did they begin to change? Who was the first to say, "This isn't working"? Was it an adopted adult who couldn't complete his medical history? A teen who felt a little too encouraged to give up her child, and later regretted the decision? Was it a long-time social worker who saw some adoptees' heartache and confusion caused by their mysterious origins? Or was it someone else?
However it started, and for whatever reasons, openness in adoptions has been a steadily increasing factor over the past two decades. Yet it, too, has brought with it some difficult problems and questions. Such as: Who has what legal rights? What and when do you tell the child about the adoption, and about the birth family? How do you explain the adoption to others? And perhaps the most general and consistent problem, How open is open?
Who Has What Legal Rights?
It differs, depending on where the adoption took place. Generally, it is as simple as this: open adoption contracts are legally enforceable in a small handful of states - Oregon, the state of my open adoption, is one of them. The birthmother, sometimes the birthfather, and the prospective adoptive parents create and sign a legal contract that outlines annual visits, phone calls, mail and photo exchanges, and so on.
Openness in adoption also depends on the situation. I know of a woman who has a so-called open adoption in Oregon, but the level of openness ended up being left to the adoptive mother's discretion. She has effectively closed this adoption, a legally negotiated open adoption from the beginning. Of course, the birthmother could take the adoptive mother to court for this breach - if she had the time and the money.
From what I've heard through personal stories, or read on various online forums, this happens perhaps more often that I thought. Women may be pampered and figuratively wined and dined all through their pregnancies. When their children are born, the honeymoon is over. Months will pass, and the birthmother will not even receive a phone call from the adoptive family. Legally, they may not owe her one. As far as common respect, courtesy, and kindness go, however, they do. Such as in the case of my Oregon friend, the adoption can without warning become closed, prearranged visits cut off, promised pictures never sent.
What and When Do You Tell the Child?
How old should the child be when you tell him he is adopted? Some parents explain it to the child in age-appropriate terms from the very beginning of his life. Some wait until the child asks questions, maybe after seeing pictures of his birthmother pregnant or in the hospital after he was born. Others might pick what, for whatever reason, they believe is the most appropriate age: five, eight, twelve, sixteen years old, for example.
What do they say when they disclose the adoption to the child? First, let me start with what, I hope, they do not say. As a perfect example, I'd like to use the reply of Rosie O'Donnell, mother of four children of closed adoptions. Her first response to her children when asked where they came from is that God put them in the "wrong belly." She continues to the effect that when the child came out, she was given to her real mother.
A true open adoption is not about right and wrong mothers or families. It is not about discrediting either mother's right to her motherhood. For one, it is about sharing - sharing interest in the child's welfare, first and foremost. It is about sharing the child's life, sharing their stories, sharing pictures, visits, and moments. It is about honesty, and it is about not keeping secrets. For the child, it is about being proud and completely informed of who you are and where you came from.
For that matter, I believe that the moment a child asks about her origin is a perfect time to explain, simply and honestly, that she has a birth family and an adoptive family, and that she was loved enough to be given both. To wait any longer than this is unnecessary secrecy and may promote fear and shame in the family, especially in the child. What child needs to feel fearful and shameful of where she came from? What parents need to feel that of their children?
How Do you Explain the Adoption to Others?
In my experience and from what I've learned from others, sometimes you don't have to explain anything. Not everyone is, as birthmother and open adoption educator Brenda Romanchik likes to say, "on a need to know basis." Often, birthmothers are asked a question in a social situation, such as, "Do you have kids?" Or for adoptive parents, someone may comment on who they think the child takes after in appearance. First, you must ask yourself, Is this someone I know, or plan to know? If not, do I feel this person would benefit from knowing my story? If the answer is no, simply make something up, change the subject, or tell them you're not up for discussing it at the moment.
On the other hand, if you want to explain, be concise and honest. "I do have a child, whom I place in an open adoption when she was born." Or "She actually looks most like her birthmother, who is a part of our extended family." Reveal whatever feels comfortable. Don't be apologetic or embarassed just because the other person seems to be. You are probably introducing them to the concept of open adoption, so it may take some people a little time to get used to the idea.
Read "Part II: How Open Is Open?" in the next installment of "Missing Pieces."