President, National Center on Adoption & Permanency
Psychologist, Montclair State University
Founder of Lifetime Healing Foundation, Birth Mom
Lawyer, Rumbold & Seidelman
The subject of “openness” in the context of adoption can be easily muddled: it can pertain to the degree adoptees are told by their parents that they’re adopted, and it can pertain to the depth of relationship between the adoptive parents, birth parents, and adopted child (known as the triad). We’ll address both here, but before we do so, it can be helpful to settle on definitions.
In a completely closed adoption, there is no contact between the birth parents and the adopted parents or adoptee. Names, addresses, and other identifying information are not disclosed to the parties involved. In some states, records of the adoption may be sealed, and original birth certificates may have been altered or only made available to the adoptee through a court order.
In an open or “fully disclosed” adoption, everyone is given identifying information about each other, all the parties involved meet one another, and often maintain ongoing contact.
Mediated adoptions fall between the two with a third part (such as an agency) managing contact between the parties.
Historically, most adoptions were “closed”, and adoptive parents went to great lengths to hide evidence of the adoption from their children. Researchers have come to the conclusion this approach correlates with worse mental health outcomes for the adoptees.
Below, you’ll see data from one study of 253 adoptees plotting their quality of life scores against the ages at which they learned they were adopted. While it’s hard to prove causation, countless studies reflect a meaningful correlation.
As a result, the vast preponderance of adoptions today are not “closed”, but are either mediated or more fully open.
However, an adoption that is “not closed” doesn’t necessarily mean there is ongoing and vibrant communication between birth parents and the adoptee/adoptive parents. There are varying degrees of communication, and experts tend to think of “openness” existing on a continuum.
In a 2008 study of 170 adoptive families, investigators saw a clear correlation between the level of contact between adoptive families and birth families and each adoptive family member’s level of satisfaction with the arrangement.
Typically, adoptees value having information about their birth family, and this provides a greater sense of self and identity. Studies show adoptees who are satisfied with their level of exposure to their birth family are far less likely to exhibit “externalizing behavior”.
Studies have also shown that while most adoptive parents are initially hesitant to commit to greater degrees of openness, in time, they’re the party most eager to see the relationship expand.
Finally, birth parents tend to be happier with greater levels of exposure. Investigators from Columbia University saw a clear correlation four years post-adoption between more communication and lower levels of worry.
As you can see in the data below, levels of openness and contact dramatically fluctuate over the length of each relationship. In this study, birth mothers were surveyed about the level of engagement they had with adoptive families. Birth mothers filed reports twice (“Wave 1” and “Wave 2”) with an average of eight years between each report.
As you can see, there is a fair amount of change between the bars below. In Wave 2, birth mothers report greater instances of “no contact” but also more instances of “contact with meetings”. As in all relationships, things change.
We think about open adoption relationships as similar to a relationship you may have with your in-laws or extended family. For some people, these relationships mean frequent contact, in-person visits, and spending holidays together. For others, you may interact less frequently. And from year to year, you may see each other more or less depending upon how the relationship has evolved, what people need in their lives, as well as other factors like schedules or geographic distance.
While the data suggest greater levels of openness correlate with higher levels of satisfaction, it’s hard to prove it causes higher levels of satisfaction. What’s more, there are perfectly good reasons why less interaction may feel more appropriate at any given juncture. Below are examples.
A birth parent may have started a new family, and their time or willingness to engage may fluctuate. Othertimes, the birth parent may have fallen on harder times, and it becomes ever harder to keep schedules and priorities.
As we’ll address in future lessons, it can be common for adoptive parents to help birth parents financially, and as in any relationship, when money becomes a factor, it’s easy for people to feel unappreciated, misled, or taken advantage of.
Adoptive parents may experience a major life changing event (e.g. a long distance move) that can make it harder to re-engage. In the case of a separation or divorce, adoptive parents may be nervous or sheepish to re-engage when their own circumstances seem to have destabilized.
In the case that the birth parents are in an unstable environment, ongoing contact may not be appropriate or need to be altered. Communicating this to a child can be especially difficult.
Expectant parents are often in a difficult financial situation, and that typically extends well beyond the birth of the adopted child. When there’s an ongoing relationship and major economic disparity between adoptive parents and birth parents, birth parents often want to help financially.
Whereas before the adoption there are clear rules around financial compensation, post-adoption adoptive parents have much more flexibility in giving money to birth parents.
Many adoptive parents report questions around providing birth parents financial support, and it can become a regular discussion in their household once the children are out of earshot.
As with any relationship that involves money, it can be easy for people to eventually feel overlooked or taken advantage of if boundaries are not set.
Like any relationship in life, the connection you have with your child’s birth parents is unique to you and will require time and emotional investment to be successful. Here are a few things to keep in mind while navigating this relationship.
Determine a plan with the birth parent about when you can expect to be in touch during the first 1–3 years of the child’s life. From that point, re-evaluate what’s working and what may need to change.
Remain focused on what is in the best interest of the child. Generally speaking, greater openness correlates with happier children, but that’s not true in all circumstances.
Openness in a relationship is not the same as co-parenting. Think more along the lines of having an extended family member in the child’s life. This person will love and support the kid, but only the parent can make parenting decisions.
This is a tricky relationship unlike one you’ve ever been in before, so use therapy services available to help make it work.