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What are the Benefits & Difficulties of Open Adoption?

Why are adoption agencies suggesting or requiring open adoptions? What are the pluses and minuses of open adoptions? What might be the long-term effects of living in one?

Rachel Garlinghouse, author of the new children’s book Black Girls Can, recently interviewed me on in anticipation of National Adoption Awareness Month. She asked some great questions and here I share Part 1 of our interview with you (part 2 is at MileHighMamas ).

adoption q & a

Rachel: Open adoption has become an increasingly popular choice among adoptive and birth parents, as well as an option that more agencies seem to be suggesting, even requiring. Why is this?

Lori: Because any social construct steeped in shame and secrecy is neither healthy nor sustainable. Hiding something takes a lot of energy, and in some cases, can cause lie upon lie upon lie to cover up. Take birth certificates that are not actually records of birth, for example.

Wait. That’s MY reason, not necessarily the reason agencies are giving. I think many agencies (with innovative exceptions) are following — not leading — the parade. The leaders of the openness movement tended to be groups of people for whom secrecy and shame didn’t work — like birth parents and adoptees from the Baby Scoop Era. Organizations such as Concerned United Birthparents (and others) influenced innovators such as social worker Jim Gritter (and others) to help move toward adoption reform, which means moving from closedness to openness. The Internet has enabled such groups to join voices together to effect change, to create better ways of handling adoptions that value truth, openness, and integration.

  • For adoptees: Openness allows for more opportunity to integrate that which was separated at the time of placement: one’s biology and one’s biography.
  • For birth parents: First parents get the chance to integrate something that did actually happen into the fabric of their lives, rather than attempting to shut the door on a Really Big Event and pretend it never occurred. They can also know and witness how things are going with their child rather than just wonder.
  • For adoptive parents: We get a stretching. We get to deal with our own stuff — our insecurities and fears — to make sure our stuff doesn’t become our child’s stuff. We get to help our children become who they are and encourage them to incorporate all their pieces. We get to connect with others who love our child in the same way we do, who share in joys and challenges alongside us. We get contact with the people who can fill in the gaps on the occasions when we are mystified. We get access to the living history of our child’s tribe. We get to watch our children get filled up in a way we may not be able to provide. We get to model for our children how to navigate relationships and comport ourselves respectfully.

What are some of the potential downfalls of open adoption for triad members?

Well, relationships are hard! What makes adoption relationships difficult is that we tend to come from an either/or mindset: either YOU are the parents or THEY are. If we stay in this Either/Or mindset, we run the risk of “splitting the baby.” We must evolve toward a Both/And heartset (the how of this is in our book).

It can be hard for adoptive and birth parents to communicate, to set boundaries, to be mindful and deliberate in the words and actions they exchange with each other. There can be huge power imbalances. Prior to relinquishment, the birth parents have all the power and the adopting parents feel the fear of powerlessness. After finalization, the adoptive parents have all the power and the birth parents may be left with their sense of powerlessness. Power imbalances make relationships tricky, so it’s in the best interest of adoptive parents to make birth parents feel empowered and partnered in the loving of the child (and no, this is not co-parenting).

The child/teen/adult, can also experience some downsides. At the same time he is learning to navigate school friendships, he is also dealing with the complexity of added parental relationships. Add in birth siblings, birth grandparents and other extended birth family members, and that’s a lot for a kid to deal with. The child/teen/adult can see the grass on the other side of the fence — and maybe even see his siblings playing there — but he does not live there. He may be affected by saying good-bye over and over to birth family members. Openness can be challenging for the child/teen/adult at the center. It is not a cure-all, but openness in adoption is better than its closed, shame-based alternative.

What do you think the long-term effects of open adoption may be for adoptees, adoptive parents, and biological parents?

My expectation and hope is that with openness (meaning not just contact, but the way we open ourselves up to each other), all parties will stretch and grow and know and connect and eventually become whole and aware and loving and loved. I would call that a life well lived.

Click over to Part 2 of this interview on MileHighMamas, where Rachel and I address open adoption agreements, what adopting parents need to consider,  when do adoptees take over their open adoptions, and how social media is changing open adoptions.


transracial adoptionThanks, Rachel, for inviting me to talk about open adoption with you.

Rachel  Garlinghouse blogs at White Sugar, Brown Sugar and is the author Come Rain or Come Shine.  She has just released her new book, written with her daughters, titled Black Girls Can.

This interview originally appeared on


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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14 Responses

  1. So considering all the pain and suffering I went though during our unsuccessful infertility treatments why would I want to deal with a birth family after the TPR paperwork has been signed? They tell me it isn’t co-parenting or associative parenting, but if the birth family is going to take me to court if they don’t feel they have enough access to the child, exactly who is the parent? And exactly why did we pay all those high fees?

    1. You bring up some really good points and it’s good that you’re dealing with any fears you may have in a conscious way.

      The short answer to your question is that you may decide to deal with birth family because this is what can bring a sense of wholeness to your child.

      Clearly, the path through infertility leaves many wounds. There is no shortage of pain and suffering and unpredictability and powerlessness.

      But our job a parents is to heal as much as we can from those wounds so that our leftover issues don’t become our child’s issues.

      Your fear about birth family taking you to court is a real one, but very unlikely to happen with an agency that operates ethically and with placing parents who are counseled well (in an ethical agency, this is why you pay high fees). It’s kind of like saying you’ll never eat out in a restaurant because you saw on the news once that someone got food poisoning. Sure, it happens, but it’s relatively rare.

      I think it’s normal to come at adoption from an Either/Or perspective — either YOU are the mom or SHE is). When you say, “exactly who is the parent?” I’m guessing you’re thinking of adoptions from the era in which we kept things closed and hidden, sometimes to the detriment of the adoptee. That’s what most of us “know” about adoption.

      It’s possible — and not difficult! — to embrace instead a Both/And heartset.

      This post answers both the why and how of your initial question:

    2. The birth family is an extension of your child. It is his/her beginning. I don’t think open adoption is ALWAYS the right answer, but your child is and always will be part of his/her birth family, therefore, having an open heart is very important!

  2. Being not an adoptive parent or adoptive child I can only speak from a place of love and concern for friends of mine who adopt and friends of mine who are adopted. Though I can imagine it must be so challenging for the adoptive parents, I have to believe that in the long run having some sort of connection to a child’s biological roots could only help in the long run. Thank you for such a thoughtful piece.

  3. I am an adopted adult. I never really got open adoption until a family member was a birth mom. She talks to adoptive family and receives pictures. This worked nicely. Better for both and less secrets!

  4. Most “open” adoptions– up to 70%, according to researcher Karen Wilson Buterbaugh– slam shut on first mothers, often with no warning. “Open” adoption agreements are only very rarely legally enforceable. The mothers are disposable, and are disposed of, just like in the old days.

    1. I know of many open adoption families who do not consider mothers as disposable, but rather integral to their child’s — and thus their family’s — well-being.

      I’d love to see that research. I believe people should live up to their agreements. I believe honor and integrity are among the important things that parents can teach their children.

  5. In discussing open adoption you must first recognize that the term is used to describe a variety of different arrangements from letters and photos to actual visits.

    Problems arise when the terms is not defined and the mother thinks it means visits and the paps have no intention of doing that. Birth mothers also are very seldom aware that contact agreements are basically unenforceable. Adoption is NOT shared custody as in divorce where both parents maintain parental rights. In adoption the birth mother and father loose ALL rights! the child is legally the aps and they then have every right to stop any visitation or contact at will.

    As for why agencies suggest it? Simple! to increase their supply of babies for adoption. It’s a sales pitch. It softens the blow of loss if you convince a mother it will be”open” without explaining what that means.

    Far too many end in disappointment and feelings of betrayal.

    Mirah Riben, author, THE STORK MARKET: America’s Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption industry

    1. Yes on the variety of meanings that “open adoption” has to different people. Many seem to equate openness with contact (see for why I consider them different measures).

      We need to begin looking at such adoption arrangements (in which the birth parents choose the adoptive parents and work out their expectations for how things will unfold) as long-term relationships of interdependence, not a zero-sum competition (“for me to win, you must lose”). People in relationships that have high value to all involved work hard to avoid betraying one another.

      1. When an adoption begins and ends with birth prospective adopters meeting before birth is NOT open adoption . calling it so is a misleading (often intentionally) use of the term. This is an identified adoption” which may or may nor be open, or semi-open.

        Lori – “long-term relationships of interdependence” without competition is a nice IDEAL. But what is needed is legal protections against false and broken promises in so-called open adoptions.

        We cannot legislate people’s feelings but we MUST regulate adoption so that it is ethical and honest not deceitful and betraying.

        Without ethical guidelines and regulations the rest is all flowery rhetoric.

        Open adoption needs to stop being used as a marketing tool, as shame once was.

  6. Perhaps there is room for a two-pronged approach, Mirah: changing policy and laws to MAKE people treat each other respectfully, and changing people’s hearts to make them WANT to treat each other respectfully.

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