A Birthmother, Social Worker And Author On What Makes A Successful Open Adoption

jenniferNormally when you see a headline like this, you would expect to see three different views from three different people. But in this case, the birthmother, social worker and author in question all happen to be the same person: Jennifer Pedley.

Jennifer began her adoption journey more than 20 years ago when she placed her son, Grey, at birth in an open adoption. Since then, she has gone on to have careers as a licensed social worker, an adoption advocate, and as the author of Secrets To Your Successful Domestic Adoption. If that isn’t enough, she’s also a founding board member of On Your Feet Foundation, an organization dedicated to assisting birthparents, where she regularly co-leads weekend retreats for birthmothers across the U.S.

Jennifer’s book is subtitled “Insider Advice to Create Your Forever Family Faster.” As you’ll see, not only does she have tons of great firsthand advice, she’s very generous about sharing it.

1. Ok, let’s cut straight to the chase: What is the secret to a successful private domestic adoption?

If I were to boil all my advice down into one key ingredient, I would say it involves changing the way people approach the process.  Rather than seeing domestic adoption as a family finding a baby, I see it as the reverse.  I believe that, somewhere, there is an expectant mother who has chosen adoption for her baby and is looking for her perfect family.  Since that family might be you, your job is to get yourself out there so she can find you.  I believe there is someone for everyone.

2. Your goal isn’t just to help people adopt, but to help them adopt better. What do you mean by that?

Let’s face it, just about anyone can adopt if they pay the right amount of money to the right people.  That still doesn’t guarantee that they won’t end up feeling beat up, bitter and broke!  I would prefer that people become educated, empowered and empathetic to the whole adoption triad.  When folks come out of the process feeling like they have gained even more than a family, but a whole new prospective on family, everyone wins.

3. Let’s break it down a bit further — as a birthmother and a social worker, what do you think is the most important thing an expectant mother should do if she’s considering adoption?

By far, I feel the most important thing is finding professionals that really are professional.  Many agencies or organizations have “rules” that are simply there because it’s the way it has always been.  If an expectant mother isn’t given the freedom to approach the process in the way that makes her feel empowered, then I say move on.

On a more pragmatic note: I believe every expectant mother should receive counseling from someone who has no interest in any prospective adoptive family, that she should be given the opportunity to speak to other birthmothers and make her own choices regarding birth and relinquishment, within the confines of state laws.

4. At what point should she should be looking at profiles of hopeful adoptive families?

This is a hard question to answer because I don’t really believe that there need be any hard and fast rules about this.  When an expectant mother feels she would like to see profiles then, as a counselor, I would show her profiles.  Some women want to see them right away and some prefer to wait.

It might be easier to answer the question when shouldn’t she be looking at profiles? If there is some complicating circumstance in the situation, like a possible health issue, or a legal issue with the father for example, then there may be families who choose to not have their profiles included until they learn more.  As long as an expectant mother knows this and if still wants to see profiles of the families comfortable with those risks, then why not?

I don’t like it when there is a requirement to wait until a certain month of the pregnancy, usually the last trimester, to show profiles.  That is generally done only to reduce the legal risk for the family, not for the benefit of the expectant mother.  Ironically, this kind of requirement may even hinder an adoption in that it gives expectant mothers less time to get to know the family and process her decision.  I know that was very important for me in my adoption.

5. Choosing parents for your baby is one of the most difficult things a prospective birthmother has to do. Are there any tips or advice you can offer to make the process easier?

I don’t know that anything would truly ever make the process easy but I can think of a few things to consider.  Paper profiles are not a great way to get to know a family.  I see them as a first step.  (A video is much better, by the way!).  Until everyone meets and begins to spend time together, there is no way to really know if this relationship is going to click.  Visiting each other’s homes, meeting extended family if appropriate, and talking, talking and more talking is really important.

I spent about five months getting to know my son’s adoptive parents before he was born and if I hadn’t, I know I would not have had the confidence at placement that I did.  That time was critical.

A note to prospective adoptive parents as well– just because an expectant mother doesn’t choose you as her baby’s parents, doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with you!  You simply weren’t the right family for her.   That also means that your child’s expectant mother hasn’t found you yet.  It’s not failure, it’s merely a false start.

6. What are the most important attributes a prospective birthmother should be looking for when it comes to choosing adoptive parents for her baby?

Well, there certainly isn’t one right answer to this question because different things are important to different women.  In general, I believe a woman should trust her gut instincts when choosing a family.  I have heard birthmothers say that they had a bad feeling about something their child’s parent said or did before placement, but they were too afraid to rock the boat and make a change before it was too late.  Now, 99.99% of all the couples I ever worked with were nothing but wonderfully sincere and honest; but it is that 0.01% who doesn’t keep their word or change dramatically after they have their new baby that makes every expectant mother afraid that this will happen to them.  And when it does happen, it is heartbreaking.

7. What about the hopeful adoptive parents, what can they do to increase their chances of being found by a prospective birthmother?

First and foremost, tell everyone that you are hoping to adopt.  Word of mouth and social media are two of the best ways to find someone who is considering adoption for their baby.  A personal connection is often better because there is someone in the middle who knows you personally and is endorsing you to that expectant mother.  This can make expectant mothers feel more confident about connecting with you too.

Secondly, I am now a big fan of videos.  Paper profiles and web sites are good, but a quality, professionally shot video can really let expectant parents see who you really are right from their own living room.  What you choose to do with a video once you have it (whether you post it for all to see on YouTube or only send it to potential matches) is up to you, but this is a huge opportunity that most people are not taking advantage of.

That said, not just anyone can make a good adoption video.  It should include information that is pertinent, relevant, and uses positive adoption language.  You can have a ten minute video that says nothing or you can have a five minute video that gives a perfect snapshot of who you are.  The difference is editing.  Find someone who knows about adoption to help get it right the first time, because editing takes time and that costs money.

8. What should they be looking for after they’ve connected with a prospective birthmother?

There are a couple of things I think are key. First, make sure that her words and actions match up.  If she says she would like to get together or is going to call the doctor, or the agency etc, but then never does, that is a red flag.  It does not necessarily mean that she is being dishonest but it may mean that she is hesitant about something and is afraid to tell you.  If an expectant mom doesn’t follow through on something she agrees too, put the ball in her court and let her make the next move.  The old adage, “Actions speak louder than words” is really true.

Secondly, and this is a hard one for many prospective adoption parents, but it is good to see an expectant mother connecting with her unborn baby.  It is as simple as this; if you never said hello, how can you say goodbye?

A woman who is “mothering” her unborn baby is more likely to take good care of herself during her pregnancy and to make decisions based on what is best for her baby, not just her.  A woman who is in denial about her feelings, will likely give birth and then be overwhelmed with all the many feelings she has for her child.  That makes any decision much, much harder.  A woman who already feels like a mother is more likely to make her decisions based on both her head and her heart.  (If decisions were make based only on feelings of the heart, no one would ever choose adoption!)

A woman who has bonded with her baby is also more likely to grieve more fully and come to a more settled resolution than one who has not.  This is better for everyone involved in an open adoption.  It may feel counter-intuitive to the prospective family, but it is the best thing to encourage her to have feelings of love and connection to her baby. And it will go a long,long way for that to come from you!

9. Both prospective adoptive and birthparents have a lot of fear going into a placement. Let’s look at the prospective adoptive parents’ first — is there anything they can do to minimize the odds of a prospective birthmother changing her mind?

First, go back and reread question #8!  Then I will add a couple of small things to that answer…

First and foremost, say what you mean and mean what you say.  If you are afraid to say anything hard or possibly controversial to an expectant mother than you are asking for trouble later.  Don’t make promises you cannot keep and don’t answer questions that you haven’t thought through yet.  Being honest is always respected by expectant parents, even when they don’t necessarily like the answer.  You cannot be all things to all people and you might as well face that now.  If you are not being fully honest, about the good and the bad, an expectant parent will smell that a mile away and she is not going to trust you with her baby when the time comes.

Secondly, not everyone is going to choose adoption.  In my book I list more red flags every potential adoptive parent can watch for, but the bottom line is this:  we all get the children we are meant to have.  Like I said earlier, if a situation doesn’t work out, then that wasn’t meant to be your baby.  If we all work within the process keeping this in mind, a false start can be much less traumatic for everyone.

10. What about the prospective birthparents — is there anything they can do to minimize the odds of the hopeful adoptive parents closing down their adoption after the placement?

Ask questions, Why do they want an open adoption?  Is it because they feel it is best for their child?  Because if their  answer is anything other than that, there is a problem.  When the going gets tough, it is easy to disappoint someone you might love but don’t really know that well; but if you have chosen this for your child, that means for better or worse.  Open adoption is much more of a philosophy than an action.  If a couple’s philosophy is anything other than child-centered, I see that as a big red flag.

11. How do adoptive parents and birthparents take control of the adoption process after a placement without stepping on each other’s toes or competing with each other?

Roles in open adoption are very easily defined. There are parents and there are birthparents. Open adoption is not co-parenting and it is a myth that birthparents are likely going to try to interfere. Birthparents are much more likely to disappear!

One simple thing I always did before everyone left the hospital was to decide who was making the first contact and when.  Was the birthmom going to call?  And when?  Was the adoptive parent going to send an email and photos?  Was she going to call after the first doctor appointment?  Regardless of the who and when, I insisted that someone make the first contact so everyone knew exactly what to expect.  When the new adoptive parents make a promise and keep it, trust is build, one promise at a time.

No matter how wonderful a couple is, after the baby comes into their home, they have to start from scratch building trust again.  The stakes are just too high for that birthmother to blindly trust.  So be clear in what you will do and then do it.  Simple as that.

12. You offer lots of practical tips on how to have a successful open adoption without the wait times and red tape of a traditional agency. So what role do you see adoption agencies playing in the process and what can prospective adoptive parents and birthparents do to make sure their adoption is ethically as well as legally sound?

First, get educated.  Read things from legitimate experts and talk to people who have already adopted.  Be careful not to put too much emphasis on things like personal blogs and chat boards, they are often biased and extreme.  Use an agency that has a proven track record and only after you have talked to other people who have used them.  My book includes an entire chapter on finding professionals to help you with your adoption.

Agencies play a very important, often critical, role in adoption.  Unfortunately, they aren’t all created equally.  If your gut is telling you that something isn’t right, listen to it.  As in so many other things, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

What do you think of Jennifer’s advice? What advice do you have for expectant parents or hopeful parents who are considering adoption? Please leave your comments in the space below.

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