Open Adoption Is the New Norm and Here's What It's All About

Maintaining contact with the birth family has become the preferred method of adopting a child. Learn the basics of open adoption and how to make it work for you.
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When you're adopting, probably the last thing you want to do is share that little bundle of joy you're bringing home. But open adoption—in which you maintain some form of contact with your child's birth family—is the new norm.

In fact, 95 percent of adoptions are now open in some way, according to The Donaldson Adoption Institute, an adoption research, education, and advocacy organization in New York City.

Adoption experts recommend staying in touch with the birth family to give your child the opportunity to make sense of his past—and open adoption provides additional benefits for you and the birth family, too. Here's what you need to know to make it a success.

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What is open adoption?

Open adoption means that birth parents and adoptive parents have some knowledge about one another. The birth parents know something about the adoptive parents and may even help choose them. Adoptive parents and their children know medical and genetic information about the birth family and other information that might help in dealing with the emotional issues that often accompany adoption.

There is no universally accepted definition of open adoption. While informal open adoptions have occurred for centuries, whereby grandparents, aunts and uncles, or godparents raised children not born to them but whose parents were known to them, the concept of formal open adoption is quite new -- less than 20 years old. Open adoption can take many forms. In some cases, a birth mother may leaf through a book containing photographs and descriptions of prospective adopters and choose a couple or person she feels would give her baby a good home. She may never meet the adopters, and this may be her only contact with them.

At the other extreme, a birth mother may meet the adoptive parents, visit their home, and have ongoing contact throughout the child's life.

Adoption social workers also disagree about the degree of openness that is desirable in adoption. Some agencies encourage the birth mother to play a prominent role in the child's life. Others limit the amount of personal information (i.e., telephone numbers and addresses) exchanged between the prospective adoptive parents and the birth mother. There are also agencies that allow the birth mother and the adoptive parents to decide how much and what kind of future contact they will have with each other.

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Is open adoption better than closed adoption?

Study after study describes the practical and psychological benefits of open adoption for your child. Not only will she have access to her medical history and valuable information about any other traits she may inherit, but you'll be able to get a better sense of the reasons she was put up for adoption—information that's priceless for both you and your child because "it helps the adoptive family to help the child to make sense of the adoption story," says Joni Mantell, LCSW, director of the Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center in Pennington, New Jersey and New York City. "A parent's job is to help a child understand [her] history. Openness—whether it's in meeting or knowing birth parents or just talking about them—helps your child understand and process her story."

An open adoption also lets the birth family maintain ties to the child. "Birth parents feel relieved when they know the child is doing well, and this helps them to feel that they made the right decision," says Mantell. "Being available to answer questions and to demonstrate that they wanted the child to have a better life is meaningful [for them]."

What's the "right way" to do open adoption?

Spoiler alert: there is no right way. How adoptive parents define "open" can vary from annual updates sent through an adoption agency to close bonds, such as the birth and adoptive families celebrating birthdays and holidays together. "What's fascinating is that we have such varying degrees of best practices around open adoption, and you have different agencies with different definitions and different ways of doing things," Dinwoodie says. "But really it's about keeping the door open. You can make an amazing extended family around your children, where you're in charge as the parent but you include the birth family and birth parents."

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Often, your adoption agency or attorney can help by suggesting guidelines for your new relationship—and many birth families and adoptive families sign contracts or commitments that lay out how they'll communicate. (For instance, you may agree to an annual visit and monthly e-mail updates.)

How will I relate to my child's birth family?

It's a fact: Most relationships change over time—and that's often the case with an open adoption. Some adoptive families find that they become closer with the birth parents as the years go on, and as they reach out to the birth family with questions their child has. In other cases, the families may become more distant, as life circumstances change. The most important thing is keeping the children as the focus.

Surprisingly, in most cases where the relationship grows distant, it's the birth family—not the adoptive family—that withdraws. "Adoptive parents may not realize how hard contact is for the birth parents, and that it is more common for birth parents than adoptive parents to withdraw from open adoption agreements," Mantell says. "Many birth parents feel very guilty and fear that the child will not like them or be angry at them. I believe that this guilt and fear of being disapproved of is the reason some birth parents withdraw from contact; and the difficulty tolerating the loss is the reason many withdraw from contact. Others have chaotic lives."

Won't an open adoption just be harder on everyone?

The bottom line is that open adoption can be complicated. But in the end, it's worth it for everyone involved. "Open adoption means being open-hearted to the child's needs," Mantell says. "It means knowing about the pain and loss, and the often sad, complex, and tragic aspects of the birth parents' lives. It means adoptive parents become the ultimate adults in the adoption constellation and always try to understand and make decisions that are best for their child. It is messy, it is real, and it will help the child that the parent gets all this, and helps him to make sense of his adoption over time. Openness will ultimately bring you closer because you are having intimate conversations with your child about his real feelings."

And rest easier knowing feeling fearful about open adoption is completely normal. 

"Worries, concerns, and fear are absolutely normal on both the first parents' and adoptive parents' side," says April Dinwoodie, chief executive of The Donaldson Adoption Institute. Having children and having a family are  sacred things in our world, she adds, and when the relationship between the birth family and the child is fractured in the first place, and there's a new family forming through adoption, "it's not easy. It's normal to be scared about how it is going to work."

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