How Open Is Open?
Perhaps the prime source of confusion and miscommunication in open adoption has to do with deciding on, and maintaining, the degree of openness desired.
This is simply put, but not so simple, since the problem may not even be recognized as such. Any number of distracting elements can interfere. Most commonly, the adoptive parents and birth parents may have their own ideas about openness that are so ingrained, they can't see their beliefs as individual interpretations of the truth, not some invariable truth that everyone knows.
This is why the first step in resolving problems is almost always to realize that the idea of "open adoption" can be interpreted in as many ways as there are people involved in it. Technically, an adoption qualifies as open when the information about the birthmother and about the adoptive family is shared openly. This kind, more specifically, would be known as a "semi-open adoption." Add some form of regular contact - photos sent, yearly visits - and you have open adoption.
Still, adoption is a personal, not a technical, process. It is emotional, even spiritual for some. Open adoption can take so many forms, it's really up to you to decide - you, the birth mother, birth father, and adoptive parents. First, you decide when you choose each other to be the child's two sets of parents. Second, you are the creators of your open adoption contract before the child is born. And third, it is up to you to reinterpret everyone's needs along the way, especially right after the baby comes into the world and into your trusted hands.
Understanding is the first step. A second step in overcoming problems in open adoption is to decide to proceed as openly as possible. This may mean only that you are as honest as possible. If you have a desire, a complaint, a suggestion, or just a confused feeling -make it known. Try to clear it up. Conflicts between parents always intimately involve the child, so be as proactive in addressing them as you would in addressing your child's needs.
This may also mean being more flexible and more understanding. For example, a birth mother was once befriended by a wonderful, prospective adoptive couple. They chose each other and made an open adoption contract. Before the baby was born, they spoke regularly on the phone, had dinner, went shopping and to the movies.
After the baby was born, this relationship changed. The adoptive couple took the baby home from the hospital, but not before asking the birth mother to take their videorecorder and film them walking away with the baby. A week passed, and they did not call the birth mother. Then another week, and another. Eventually two months passed and the birth mother had received no contact from those whom she considered her new friends.
Remember that this young woman had just given birth, and placed her child in the care of friends. Her hormones were re-establishing statis. She was recovering from a difficult labor and surgery. Physically as well as mentally, she felt a compulsion to see, hear, feel her baby's presence. She even thought, at times, unexplainably, "Did it really happen? Is there really a baby?"
Not technically but practically - realistically - open adoption requires communication, flexibility, and compassion. Mainly this is meant to be of benefit to the child, but initially these qualities are required exclusively between the newborn's two sets of parents. Without these common, human qualities, I guarantee not only that your problems will continue as your child grows, but also that new ones will arise.
To continue the above scenario, the birth mother began to doubt the adoptive couple's intentions. Because the couple were not communicating with her, the birth mother had little choice - and plenty of time - to invent reasons for their avoidance. They dropped a relationship with her because they prefer a relationship with her child. They'd used her. No, they were good people, the birth mother thought. They just didn't want to be bothered. Or, the baby was sick, and they didn't want her to know.
The list could go on and on. In effect, the adoptive parents were treating the birth mother poorly by not treating her in any way at all. Perhaps they only felt they needed time to bond with their newborn, especially during those first few months. But not saying so, and completely excluding the birth mother, are not solutions. At that point the baby had known only one mother for nine months. Heard her voice, felt her body, sensed her feelings. If for the baby alone, the birth mother should be included often, at least briefly, to ease the transition.
It would be a show of human decency, too, to consider the birth mother's own difficult transition. Some adoptive parents fear that reassuring and including her would encourage her to regret placing her child. Yet I, among other birth mothers, can tell you that it has exactly the opposite effect. If anything would make a birth mother regret her decision, it would be that the adoptive parents ignore her, devalue her, "wine and dine" her throughout her pregnancy and then drop her after the adoption legally takes place.
Communication. Flexibility. Compassion.
Does this really answer the question, "How open is open?" Maybe not.
I can only say that, beside the basic requirements of open information and some form of regularized contact, open adoption is as open as you want it to be. You can make an agreement that involves mostly pictures, or a yearly visit on the child's birthday. Or you can decide to update one another more often, checking in every few months or weeks.
Or, you can do as I have. The adoptive parents of my daughter and I made up a contract, but none of us remembers what it says. We have always proceeded on instinct, and on the utmost consideration for our daughter's changing needs. We've had periods of monthly, weekly, and even daily contact. We have remained friends, and have become closer and closer throughout the years.
Now that I've moved two thousand miles away from them, we see each other less often. But we still make time. Just last week I returned from the "family vacation." Present were my mother, my brother and his wife, my sister and her family, my daughter, and her adoptive mother.In fact, my daughter's new "favorite aunt" is my sister-in-law, another extended family member.
That's how open adoption can be - a family, extended and extending, communicating, making connections, having fun together. And why should it be so open?