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“I am a Birth Grandmother Walking the Open Adoption Trail”

What is it like when your daughter places your granddaughter for adoption? Mary Jo Bennett shares what the journey has been like for her.

open adoption trail

The Ambivalence of a Mother-Slash-Birth-Grandmother

When your first grandchild is born into an open adoption, it’s not easy.  Many of the landmarks of becoming a grandmother are skewed.  Right out of the gate, when your child tells you she is pregnant and planning an adoption, you enter into a sea of ambivalence and uncertainty.  What do you feel?  How do you respond?  If a part of you wants your child to keep the baby in the family, how strongly do you advocate for this?  And do you have the right to even advocate at all?

At that moment of hearing Fiona’s news, I didn’t realize how quickly I was approaching a fork in the road:  I was a mother who wanted to love and support her daughter, and I was a woman who wanted to know and cherish her grandchild.  Before Lila’s birth, the split seemed manageable.  Fiona’s well-being was the priority.  I openly shared my feelings but did not insist that she act on them.  Choosing a life path for Lila was Fiona’s decision to make.  This clarity was my touchstone as events unfolded before the birth.

The open adoption matrix follows a very structured pathway leading up to the birth.  All the pivotal decisions are contemplated and discussed like scaling a mountain,  one crucial detail paving the way for the next, culminating at the summit — selecting the adoptive parents and preparing the hospital birth plan.  But reaching this summit is by no means the end of the climb.  The mountain range is endless, as the “after placement” portion of the terrain rises up to meet us.  Though others have traversed this path before and many others will follow behind, we alone must find our way on the open adoption trail.

The Open Adoption Trailhead

mary jo birth grandmother

The trail head begins the moment you exit the hospital.  If you gave birth to your own child in a hospital, you know the enormous symbolism of walking out of the hospital and into your new lives with your newborn cradled in your arms.  My heart was broken open as I bore witness to my daughter giving birth to my granddaughter.  When I left the hospital this time around, I surrendered an entire future with my granddaughter that was not to be.  It was a profound letting go.

Before Fiona’s pregnancy, I had never even known open adoptions existed.  So when I first started reading the books, trying to determine how I, the grandmother, might figure into this dynamic and flowing system of relationships, I was hopeful.  And I believe that everyone else who has a role in the open adoption is hopeful, as well.  The paradigm suggests that as long as we base our actions on our common bond — what is best for the child in the center — then we will each find our unique places around a circle formed out of love, respect, trust and skillful communication.

I had hoped that Fiona and I would be in close proximity on that circle, a continuation of the intimacy she and I shared during her labor and the birth.  I knew we were both grieving and had assumed this grief would unite us.  In fact, sometimes it felt unclear whether I was carrying her grief or my own, they seemed so intertwined.

But Fiona kept her distance from me.  And whereas my grief surfaced as sadness, hers surfaced as anger and a need to regain some semblance of status and control in Lila’s life.  This resulted in a tumultuous series of events with Lila’s adoptive parents.  The three of them ricocheted from one extreme to another in their efforts to address their individual needs and safeguard their unique positions in Lila’s life. During this process, their mutual trust in each other was severely battered.

Witnessing this head-on collision, I contacted the adoption case manager explaining what was happening and asking for guidance and intervention.  We were well within the six month window, prior to the Court finalizing the adoption, and thought we still had some leverage to bring things back into balance.  I was mistaken.  Aside from suggesting that all parties receive counseling, either through the agency or an outside source, the adoption was proceeding.  The birth parents had signed over their legal rights and there was no turning back.

Make Like Elsa: Let It Go

After celebrating Lila’s first birthday with Fiona and the birth father, Lila’s family moved across the country.  Regular contact with her daughter, which had been a pivotal contingency for placement, was now impossible.  Lila’s open adoption was shutting down and the agency, which had gone to great lengths to support Fiona and represent her specific wishes and preferences in finding the best placement for her baby, was now inaccessible.  Their advice to me was to let it go.

Today Lila is 2 ½, and my experience on the open adoption trail includes an ongoing stream of emotions as events continue to unfold that could never have been anticipated.  Anger and despair felt in one set of circumstances lead to absolute joy in another.  It’s an unpredictable ride, rich in complexity and opportunities for growth.  The terrain has not been easy but it has enabled me to create my own means of being a grandmother.  And this I enjoy.

A month ago, Lila left me a voice mail and I heard her say my name for the first time.  The validity of our connection felt so strong and present through Lila saying my name.  I kept it on my cell phone so I could listen to it again and again.  Until one day I tried to retrieve it and it was gone.  For those first few moments, I could feel myself grasping, grieving.  Then I simply let go.

And maybe these are the salient lessons that Lila and the open adoption trail are teaching me -– to feel it all and to honor it all.  Maybe in order to keep on loving…we need to keep letting go.

Through her years of experience in caring for the elderly and attending the bedside of the dying, Mary Jo Bennett has cultivated a deeper awareness of life in its ever-changing forms. Essayist and author of the book, When Autumn Comes: Creating Compassionate Care for the Dying, Ms. Bennett is passionate about exploring topics related to aging, sickness and death.  She lives on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. You can find her at

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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22 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. It’s so important to hear everyone’s experience; to see a situation from multiple points-of-view.

  2. Hi Mel and Anne,
    I totally agree! When we can look at any given situation, (and especially those that trigger strong emotions, opinions, etc.) with a sense of openness and compassion – always asking ourselves: “what is the lesson here? what is the gift?” – then we can meet and flow with Life as it is.

    1. HI Stephanie,
      Yes it was a shock and threw the adoption into chaos. It also provided the opportunity for each of us in the adoption circle to work hard to stabilize, heal, reaffirm our intentions and move forward – which we are doing, thank goodness!

      1. No Mary Jo, it is not a shock. It’s what’s done. What’s still shocking to me is why people still enter into this (terrible for the cild) arrangement again and again.

  3. This is beautiful. And so sad and heartbreaking at the same time. I was so lucky to be taken care of by my g-mother for the first 3 years when my mum was still a student and not mature enough…

    1. Yes, Eve you are extremely blessed! Our situation has been challenging, but I also feel we are blessed because we are learning and growing so much, each step of the way!

  4. Mary Jo, I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings, I didn’t mean it this way. Being brought up by my grandparents for 3 years before my young parents decided they did want to parent me after all, impacted me big way. I never had a close relationship with my mum or dad, I actually considered my g-parents’ to be my closest family and their home was my home. I’m not sure what it would have been like if my mum had decided to make an adoption plan for me, but what I have always known is that my grandparents loved me more than anything in the world and that I could rely on them no matter what. I’m sure Lila will find out about all your love and efforts to stay connected with her one day and this will be very important for her.

    1. Hi Eve,
      No worries!! I’m very happy that you experienced a warm and loving home and upbringing with your grandparents. That’s what matters. And I know that Lila is receiving a lot of love within her family. Just today her adoptive mom and I were texting and she sent me the sweetest photo of Lila. You could just see the light and joy radiating through her eyes and smile. That’s what matters!

  5. Hi! I am also a birth grandmother in an open adoption. I enjoyed finding your blog and reading about your journey. My daughter and I have just started our own blog. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It is good to hear another person in similar situation to mine.

  6. I am glad that things worked out in the end. And open adoption does not shut down just because the family moved. You can still do phone calls, emails, pictures, and visits if you want to arrange one.

    1. Hi Lisa,
      What end?! As I imagine for all open adoptions, it’s a continual work in process. In a recent phone call with the adoptive mom, she said several times to me that Fiona (my daughter) needs to fight for what is important, regarding the adoption. I didn’t comment; just listened. So things like phone calls, emails, pictures and visits don’t flow as easily for us as they may in other situations. No, the adoption didn’t shut down entirely, but it definitely looks quite a bit different than I think any of us imagined at the onset.

      1. From all that I see, each situation is different, and is a work in progress. Just like a marriage, I see an open adoption relationship as one that is worked on. There are many people involved, thus making it a constant shift.

        1. Things continually shifting – that’s certainly been my experience. Because so many people are involved, we have the opportunity to balance our own perspective with every other individual who sits in the adoption circle. We simply can’t afford to see things solely through our own needs, wounds, expectations, etc. And in this respect, we become more compassionate. I feel this holds true for adoptees as well. Ultimately, they too will need to move through whatever painful stories they’re holding onto. If we can each engage in these relationships with clarity and loving kindness, can you imagine how these open adoption circles could bless our world?

  7. I am the grandmother of the birth father and we both wanted to raise our child/granddaughter. Yet, in our country, unwed fathers have no rights. Our options were: support adoptive parents (child was already placed in adoption by the time we learned she was alive) or joint custody with birth mother. Well, duh, birth mother placed child for adoption so she doesn’t want child but when birth father finds out about child, birth mother now says if you do not agree to adoption I want my child. Attorneys in state of Texas say the best we can do is joint custody. This is WRONG. We had to agree to adoption and they are wonderful but this is WRONG. My son should be allowed to raise his daughter! SCREW the Republic of TX! FYI: I adopted my son at the age of 4 months so we do understand OPEN adoption and have a loving relationship with all. It’s just that a father’s rights are TOTALLY IGNORED!

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