National Adoption Month provides an opportunity to turn a spotlight on adoption, acknowledge the many families created through adoption, and reflect on how the practice of adoption has evolved over the years. It also provides practitioners with an opportunity to examine the benefits and challenges that adoption poses for today’s families and consider ways to improve a process that can impact relationships with those involved over the course of their lifetimes.
We live in a time when “open” adoptions are the norm (the majority of adoption agencies facilitate “matches” between birth and adoptive parents in which some information is exchanged between parties before and/or after the adoptive placement). Years ago, this meant mailing photos and letters to loved ones (sometimes with the agency as the intermediary) once you’ve parted ways. In today’s information age, it could mean much more frequent and direct contact. Although open adoption can sometimes present complex challenges, children and adoptive parents see more upside than downside to the arrangement.
In my new book, “Open Adoption and Diverse Families: Complex Families in the Digital Age” (2020, Oxford University Press), I share research I uncovered over the course of a decade of interviewing lesbian, gay, and heterosexual adoptive parents in open adoptions at various points during their children’s childhood. What I’ve found was that even when adoptive parents faced challenges in their relationships with birth families (i.e., birth parents dropping out of contact due to mental health or addiction issues), they were generally very grateful to be in open adoptions.
What happens when adoptees have access to information about their birth family early on in their lives and can contact these individuals as they grow up? How is having access to birth families beneficial—and what unexpected complexities does it bring? What types of unique family dynamics arise in open adoption arrangements, and how do adoptive and birth families manage them? These are some of the questions I explore in my book.
Research over the past few decades is consistent in suggesting that children who have access to their birth families as they grow up are ultimately more satisfied with their adoptions, and have fewer unresolved questions about their background (e.g., reasons for placement, medical history).
In my research, I found that adoptive parents recognized the numerous tangible ways in which access to birth family members positively impacted their children and families. For example, white parents who adopted children of color were grateful for family members who could serve as valuable racial/ethnic role models for their children and important sources of support when navigating issues that they, as white people, did not have first-hand knowledge of (e.g., preparing for and addressing racial bias and discrimination, questions about skin and hair care). Similarly, parents whose children encountered unexpected medical issues were grateful to learn about their family’s medical history. Gay fathers especially valued that birth mothers were an important female presence in their children’s lives—and were often interested in a level of emotional intimacy with birth mothers that was more rare in other types of families.
More often than not, adoptive parents were either satisfied with the level of contact they had with birth families, or wanted more contact than they currently had. In a minority of cases, however, birth families reportedly (i.e., by adoptive parents’ accounts) wanted more contact, or a different type of contact, than what adoptive parents had in mind. Such boundary challenges were difficult to negotiate amidst a desire not to alienate birth family members. Families dealt with such boundary management issues in a variety of ways, including relaxing their own preferences to accommodate the relational request, talking through their hesitations with the birth family (resulting in even better communication in their relationship in some cases, and to hurt feelings in others), or maintaining their boundary (i.e., not accommodating the request or overture), sometimes with little explanation or communication.
Much in the same way that relationships with extended family can be complicated, some parents I interviewed wrestled with feelings of disappointment or frustration when birth parents could not fully “show up” for the children, often for the same reasons—unstable lives or difficult histories—that led them to choose adoption in the first place.
Overall, the parents I’ve interviewed were grateful that they chose open adoption, disappointed when the adoption was not as open as they assumed or expected, and in those cases, were often committed to continuing to reach out to birth family members over the course of their children’s lives in the hopes that they would eventually reconnect or reestablish contact. Open adoption is not a practice that is lived in a day; it is fluid, complex, and often changes over the life course.