Building A Strong Open Adoption Relationship: A Cheat Sheet

BeginningsThe last I checked there was no operating manual about how to build a strong open adoption relationship. So until that day arrives we’ll just have to rely on Lori Holden’s The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, which in my view is the next best thing.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with Lori and her book, which was written with the help of her daughter’s birth mother. Earlier this spring, I wrote a book review about it and conducted a follow-up interview with Lori.

Now before you wonder whether I’ve signed on as her publicist, I should tell you that Lori and her book don’t need my help. Judging by the positive reviews and reaction they’ve received from critics and bloggers, they’re doing very well without me.

But just in case you haven’t had a chance to read The Open-Hearted Way To Open Adoption yet, here’s a cheat sheet of some of the key passages about navigating an open adoption relationship.

Why open adoption relationships are different

“Adoptions in the past were inherently power imbalanced. One set of parents was shamed and minimized, while the other was idealized and legitimized. Open adoptions, however, are created when two sets of parents come together with oddly shaped problems that somehow fit together. Neither is in a superior position, and neither is a supplicant. Instead, there is an inherent equality over time.”

One reason adoption relationships are different today is because, as Lori points out, adoption itself is different. Gone, for the most part, are the days when women were forced to give up their babies, when adoptive parents raised their children as if they were their own, and when the children themselves knew neither who they were or where they came from.

Today, open adoption relationships are based on a child-centered give-and-take between adoptive parents and birth parents — one that, in Lori’s words, enables the child to heal the split between his biology and biography and help him become whole.

Open adoption as journey, not destination

“Open adoption is a process, not a point in time. It is a direction you aim for. And you periodically check to see if you are still on the desired path. Much like a happy marriage has both good times and challenging times, a successful open adoption will also have ups and downs. The measure is in how the peaks and valleys are handled over the long run.”

The way Lori sees it, the most successful adoption relationships are those that involve the adoptive parents and birth parents coming together and working together in the best interests of their child. In doing so, they remove a lot of the secrecy and shame of adoptions of the past, creating a dynamic similar to that of extended family members or in-laws.

That’s not to say that all open relationships are perfect.

As in any marriage, they change and evolve over time, and have their share of problems, difficulties and misunderstandings. But as in any marriage, there are ways to resolve them, most notably by keeping the lines of communication open and treating the other party with respect.

The dangers of duality

“It may be easy to discount a genetic connection once you’ve gotten on the adoption path. If you’re in an either/or mind-set — either they are the parent or we are — you almost have to downplay biology in order to elevate yourself.”

When you’re adopting, it’s tempting to pretend that the birth parents don’t exist — that everything comes down to DNA.

However, as Lori writes, acknowledging your child’s birth parents and embracing them in your life will not only allow you to create a healthy relationship with them, it will strengthen and enrich your relationship with your child.

For Lori, the alternative to looking at your relationship from a Either/Or vantage point is to view it in terms of a And/Both way of thinking.

Your child’s love for his birth mother doesn’t take away his love for you or make you any less “real” or legitimate. In fact, by allowing your child to honor the different people who who lay claim to him, you’ll help him integrate the different parts of who he is.

Recognizing the input of both parents

“A successful open adoption begins with the simple openness to being open. Open to the relationship, open to the people who are important to your child, open to possibilities. Open to giving and receivng. Open to information.”

Open adoption means different things to different people, and can take on different forms, depending on the people involved.

But, in Lori’s words, at the heart of every healthy open adoption relationship is a willingness to be open.

Being open and honoring the other parents’ role can leave you open to the possibility of pain and hurt. But by letting go of your fears and insecurities and seeing things from another perspective, it can also make you more flexible and can help create deeper connections.

After all, if a parent can love more than one child, why shouldn’t a child be encouraged to love more than one parent?

Quoting Jim Gritter, the author of Lifegivers, Lori writes, “Open adoption is less a set of behaviors than it is an emotional and spiritual connection.” A connection, that she makes clear, is built on clarity, trust and honesty.

Open adoption relationships don’t erase the loss and pain that adoptive parents and birth parents bring to the table when they join together for the sake of their child. But by putting their child at the center of their relationship and making him the focal point, Lori shows how both sets of parents can move forward from fear to family and help their child bring together the different parts of his identity.

What do you think creates a strong open adoption relationship? How have you and your child’s adoptive parents or birth parents worked together to develop a lasting bond? Please leave your comments in the section below.

8 thoughts on “Building A Strong Open Adoption Relationship: A Cheat Sheet”

  1. Our child is almost 2 years old and we have a strong open adoption relationship. A significant contributing factor is a lack of fear. It’s easy to fear the unknown realm of open adoption when you enter the adoption journey, but finding a way of letting go of that fear is crucial. For us, it helped that we have the utmost respect for our child’s birthmother. She is an amazing individual and it was easy for us to let go of any fears we had once we met her. I recommend finding a way to let go of your idea of how things should be in order to truly hold respect for your child’s birth parents. It might be easy and it might be difficult or somewhere in between, but once you can see that this person is a person who has the best intentions for your child, it should become easier. Get to know the birthparents as people, not just as people who are giving you their child.

    1. Thanks, Christa. Fear is a huge factor in open adoption relationships. I’m sure I’m not the first to say that it’s often the starting point. For most of us, open adoption is a brave — make that “scary” — new world. And the only way to really get over those fears is to let go of our assumptions about the other people involved and live it with an open heart and an open mind.

  2. ” Gone are the days when women were forced to give up their babies,”

    Unfortunately, this is not true. While it’s not as prevalent as it was the Baby Scoop Era, some mothers are still forced, coerced, or pressured into placing their children for adoption.

    “when adoptive parents raised their children as if they were their own,”

    Adoptive parents still raise their children as if they were their own, they just also acknowledge adoption and its complexities. I feel that by saying APs don’t raise children as if they were their own, you’re implying that APs love their children less than they would/do biological children.

    That said, we have two adopted children (ages 7 and 20 months), and we have open adoptions with both of their birth families. I think that a shared love for the child is the foundation for a relationship. From there, you just have to get to know one another and remember that maintaining that relationship is best for the children. You have to resist the urge to close the adoption when things get tough – and things will likely get tough. Open adoption is hard, as many relationships are. You just have to remember that, unless there are legitimate safety issues, open adoption is best for your kids (where your = adoptive parents’ and birth parents’ kids).

  3. Four years in and I suddenly realize how little I know. Open adoption is a relationship, which means hard work, difficult times, easy times, distant times, close times, letting go times, pulling in times. All I know in our situation is, as mentioned above, there are a lot of people who care about our son, and if I have one aim as a parent, it’s that he knows it.

    1. Hey, Harriet, I’ve got 10+ years on you and as you can see, I still can’t figure it out 😉 Open adoption is hard to get — and even harder to get right, if that’s even possible. But we’re all doing what we can. I’ve learned so much from reading your blog and Lori’s and Robyn’s and others from all parts of the adoption constellation, and I’m glad that I’ve got this blog to re-think and refine some of the insights I’ve picked up along the way. It’s been quite a journey, and I truly feel like we’re all in it together.

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