Open Adoption: What Does That Even Mean?

Open adoption. What is it? And is it as terrifying as you’ve heard?

Well, … maybe. But does it have to be?

I believe it does not. 

Today I’m wrapping up my series on my Interview with a Birthmother. As I have reflected on my conversations with her, many threads have come back one point: the “how to” of navigating an open adoption. Because we have so much in common ground in that area, her and I. And we talked LOTS about it.

But before I get into all of that, I feel like some disclaimers are in order. Primarily, I’ll just say that this is our story. And that no two open adoptions will look the same. Because people are different. Hence, family dynamics are different. You may have a different experience and opinion, and I respect that. 

Soft image of a mother and her toddler son are below the title of blog post, "Open Adoption: What Does That Even Mean?"

So, hopefully you have had a chance to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of my Interview with a Birthmother series. As a reminder, she and I have differences in our respective adoption dynamics. The birthmother I interviewed placed her child in a private adoption. However, our family has adopted from the foster care system. (Very different indeed!) So please keep that in mind as you read.

Did You Know That Most Adoptions Nowadays are Open?

As recently as the 1970s, a major shift began in adoption culture. Namely, our society began to embrace and support (rather than shame) unwed mothers (and the children they carried). With a reduced stigma surrounding them, previously held beliefs about open adoption were reevaluated. One in particular was the belief that the “open-ness” of open adoption would only cause more pain for everyone involved. However, in recent years, it has been demonstrated that

“birth mothers in more open adoptions who were more satisfied with their contact arrangements [with their placed childen] had less unresolved grief 12-20 years after the placements than those involved in closed adoptions.”

And …

“In closed adoptions, where adoptive mothers knew little about a child’s birth mother, fears tended to grow out of negative stereotypes about birth parents that were not informed by reality.”

And so, by the 1980s-1990s, open adoption became the norm.

Open Just Means Its “Not Closed”

I know that for some, and myself included as recently as a few years ago, that label (“Open Adoption”) seemed … scary. I get it. It is a vulnerable way to live. It requires vigilance in setting boundaries. And it has the potential to be messy. But in reality, open adoption simply means that there is a possibility for contact between the birth family and the adoptive family. Within that structure though?? … There is a TON of gray area. And everyone’s situation is different.

So, What Could “Open” Look Like??

Here are some examples of what an open adoption could look like, based on your specific situation and your comfort and safety level within your adoption triad relationships:

  • Sending birth family pictures regularly (once a year? a couple of times a year?).
  • Exchanging cell phone numbers with birth family who you feel comfortable with. We have some (not all) birth family that we text on the regular. In fact, this is how we are able to keep in touch with Tiny Princess (Little Bean‘s biological sister, who was adopted by family).
  • Setting up a separate email account for correspondence and sharing pictures with birth family. (No personally identifying information needs to be used for this.)
  • Securing a post office box, in another city, for birth family who wishes to correspond.
  • In our situation, we have a separate Facebook account, using our child’s birth name, for any family who wishes to be Facebook friends. I only post 2-3 times a year with a picture and 1-2 sentence update, but they are always welcome to friend request and I’m happy to communicate back.
  • In some situations, birth and adoptive families are able to have occasional visits, and maybe even celebrate the child’s birthday and other milestones together.

But Here is What Open Adoption Is Not:

  • Being best friends with your child’s birth parents.
  • Allowing your child’s birth family to weigh in on how you should raise him or her.
  • Allowing more frequent contact with you or your child than is healthy and in the best interests of your child.
  • Having contact with birth family members who are not able to be sober and appropriate.
  • In the case of foster care adoption, allowing birth family to have access to things like your last name or your address (unless you are very sure you and your child are both safe).
  • Maintaining the same level of relationship with all members of the birth family. (For example, we have birth family members we are regularly in contact with, and others who need to be kept at a distance.)

 For the Sake of the Adoptee

Thus far, I’ve talked about benefits of open adoption to both the birth and adoptive parents. But what about the most important party (in my opinion) of the adoption triad: the adoptee

We all get one shot at childhood. That’s it. And for many of our adoptees, that is a sad reality. Because of the early brokenness they never asked for.

I am hyper aware that my son’s life didn’t begin the moment he was placed with us. (See my article on why we don’t celebrate “Gotcha Day.”) I also bristle at the (well meaning, supportive) comment that he is “lucky” to be adopted. If people only knew the brokenness … 

I loved this article, because in my opinion, it is more important that we consider what is best, long-term, for our adopted children, than what is comfortable for us. Taylor, one of the adoptees interviewed, stated:

“Having an open adoption means that there’s not a part of you that’s missing. I have all my pieces. I’m not missing anything.”

I know I can’t fix the past for my son. What has happened is a part of his story, and now, to a much lesser degree, mine. But what I can do is to facilitate as much mending and connection to his whole history (not just the part that started when we met him) as is healthy.

Our birth family relationships are far from perfect. Using some of the above-mentioned ways to stay in contact, I have been able to get treasured baby pictures of my (now) big boy. (Many adoptees never have baby pictures of themselves.) We also have access to more of his health history (which can be a perpetual reminder of the loss to many adoptees) than a lot of adoptive parents. And within healthy boundaries, we are able to communicate with the birth family who wishes to stay in touch.

We are not best friends.

It has been a little messy and uncomfortable at times.

But we all love him.

And so it is worth the struggle of navigating what is best. So that he is able to grow up with a connection to his entire history.



  1. August 21, 2017 / 1:53 PM

    I love reading your blog, I don’t even know how I found it. But you have some great perspectives and ideas!!! Just love it. Our adoption story is quite different, we have a very open adoption you can read about it here:

    • Mrs. Bean
      August 22, 2017 / 5:38 AM

      Thank you, Jessica! And I would love to check out your blog! Heading over there now. 🙂

Close Me
Looking for Something?
Post Categories: