Written by Ashley Mitchell
When I was 26 years old, I became a mother for the very first time, and within 72 hours I put a signature on a piece of paper and terminated all of my parental rights. When I made the decision to place my son for adoption, I had no way of fulling understanding the lifelong journey of being his birth mother.
When I walked out of that hospital, empty bellied and empty handed I truly believed that I would never see him again. I think deep down I had told myself that if I was truly doing what was best for him and for me, if I had picked the right family for him, and if I was doing what was wanted of me, that he would never need me, and I would just move on. Little did I know that relinquishing my parental rights to my son did not mean that I was relinquishing my emotional rights to him.
I had no idea that 16 years later we would still be pulled to each other, the invisible string that keeps us connected, that reminds us that we are a part of each other and that we can always follow the pull back to each other.
Open adoption was never something that I truly thought about or understood, even at the placement of my son, it was always packaged in a way that meant information shared, pictures and letters over the years and that was it.
What I have learned over the last decade + is that open adoption isn’t about a contract or pictures, it is about staying open to each other. To allowing space for emotion and need. It is about flexibility, respect, and growth. It is about connection and personal relationships. It is about pouring back into the adopted child what was taken. It is about family.
For the first five or so years post placement, I was in a terrible place of grief, and I was so lost. I was suffering and missing my son terribly and was in a limbo that I couldn’t make sense of. There was no post placement support, no conversations with people who could see me and understand me and there was no going back. During those years of disenfranchised grief, I was silent. There was no relationship with my son or his family. They were reaching out and I couldn’t bring myself to be there. I was unavailable, irresponsible, and self-destructive.
After a complete break in my mind, body, and soul that I desperately needed, I was able to start to heal, to understand the trauma and to find the right kind of support to get me to a place of intentional work. I knew I needed to write it out, get the right doctors and have no shame in what it would take to get healthy. I still struggle today but I am more aware and fight very hard for the things I need to do for myself and for my family.
When my husband and I welcomed our baby girl into the world, my first pregnancy after placement, I knew. I knew instantly that I needed to know my son. I knew that I needed to be “available” to him in case he needed me. I knew that I didn’t get to just move on. I was his mother, too. I gave him life and his mother was helping him live it. We both mattered, we both had a role to play and now we just had to work together to figure out what that was going to look like for us, and for him.
When I approached his mother, after so many years of me saying NO and silence, I knew that there was a very good chance that she would shut me down, ignore me, walk away forever. She didn’t. She was there, waiting. They all were. I know that we had a shot of building this relationship because of the way they loved me in my absence.
There are a few things that I have learned that have changed the game for me in navigating open adoption, but the biggest thing has been that this isn’t about us. This truly is about our children and the space we give them to feel how they need to feel, to ask what they need to ask, and to love how they need to love in these very complicated and incredible situations that we chose for them. Open adoption is NOT about relationships between Adoptive Parents and Birth Parents. It’s not about Birth Parents giving praise and acknowledgment for the “job well done” of Adoptive Parents. It’s not about you. It’s not about us.
Open adoption is about making space for connection between the biological parents and the adopted child if/when they want it. Our job is to simply keep a light on.
Adoption is actually for life. Creating a solid foundation that can grow and build and evolve will be key to making this as successful as possible for all involved. This can only come if we have both sets of parenting figures: Biological and Adoptive parents coming to a middle ground with the same goal.
- Open Adoption Tip 1: Respect. It is very easy to say that we love the birth parent because of the basic concept that is adoption. A mother gives her baby a “better life” and chooses a family and we have blessed them with a “gift”. Having respect for the biological parent after placement through lifestyle choices, political views, spiritual practices, social media behaviors, relationships and more gets a lot more complicated based on our own individual bias, our expectations, and our judgements. You may not understand me or have experience with the choices that I make or feel threat and insecurity does not mean that you are better than or that you can’t respect me. If you can’t respect me, you have a greater chance of projecting that onto a child and that will cloud their opportunity to determine for themselves what they want out of an open adoption relationship.
- Open Adoption Tip 2: Evolution. An organically grown relationship is such a blessing. It is a very difficult concept to sit in seasons of wait. We live in a world of instant gratification and if we are three years in and not understanding why these relationships have not developed into what they expected, we will be greatly disappointed, frustrated, and resentful. We underestimate how long “adoption is for life” actually means. We need to take into consideration the pressure that is put on building this complicated relationship, neglecting grief cycles and fear that our actions will destroy generations. It takes time. IT TAKES TIME. We need to be flexible, willing to compromise, re-evaluate our relationships, get to know each other and understand that we are constantly pursing deeper levels of openness as we grow.
- Open Adoption Tip 3: Forthright. I think we have come to a space where we believe that we need to know all the things to have an honest and open relationship. We expect transparency in our most valuable relationships so we can have trust. However, we must be able to sit in the difference in adoption about the need to know and the fear of not knowing. When we are pursuing open adoption relationships the entire point is having answers for our children. We have to remember that you are the parent of the child, NOT the parent of the birth parent. There is a difference between needing to know information to be able to share answers with the adoptee and to sit with them in their story and lived experiences verses you feeling like you are owed details about her everyday life. If you develop that kind of relationship that is great, however that intimacy is not necessary to developing respect, love and a successful open adoption relationship. My son’s mom and I talk maybe 3 times a year and it is one of the most trusted and sacred things in my life. I think we confuse openness in an open adoption with demand of information. I think the best question you need to ask yourself is “why do I need to know this?” If you are reaching out, asking questions, and pursing information without considering your agenda, you may be part of the frustration and the wall that is building between you.
- Open Adoption Tip 4: Recovery. Understanding grief cycles will be one of the most important things that you do. It is NOT easy to be in one sided relationship and we are asking for so much grace when considering what the birth parent is going through with great expectation of how you show up as adoptive parents. It is not balanced. It is not fair. It is complicated. But it is also a part of the reality of adoption. We have to break families to build families and we need to make sure that in that family building we are honoring the loss, the grief and the hard and painful process to be present. We also must be very aware of the lack of support and systems available to the women. Through their own journey that can only be theirs, you have your own healing to do, your own work to do, and your own parenting to do. Don’t be afraid to step into a role that you have been asked to do.
- Open Adoption Tip 5: Persistence. Don’t let one bad season keep you from fighting for this lifelong, sacred relationship. I know this is not easy and no one truly can prepare you for everything you could potentially face. That is true for everyone that is here on earth, adoption or not. Like anything else in our life, if it truly matters to us, we will find a way to keep showing up for it. We will put in the work, be quick to forgive and allow space for growth. Be patient. Stay open. Remember your why.
I know that this is overwhelming, and I know that as parents, all we want is to do right by our children. We want to have all the answers and we want to be able to fix all the broken things and protect them from harm. This is just one of those things that we have to accept that we are part of the problem AND part of the solution. Our son can need us both, want us both, love us both without having to choose between us, without our insecurity and fear keeping openness off the table. Our son knows that he can tackle me through my front door when he is here for a visit and tackle his mom on the front lawn when it is time to go home. He can need us both without diminishing our roles in his life.
Open adoption has been such an incredible blessing in our life. It does not mean that adoption is easy, or that it eliminates the pain that has been caused. Our children grow and no matter what we do or how hard we work; they still have the right to feel however they need to feel about what has happened to them.
Openness provides safe spaces to process, access to what was lost, and answers to questions that they never got to ask when decisions were being made.