Openness in Adoption: An Adoptive Mother’s Perspective

If you don’t get anything else from this post, I hope you’ll get this: adoptive (and prospective adoptive) parents, your children need you to lead the way in practicing openness in your adoptive family.

What does “openness” mean? Simply put, openness in adoption means “lack of secrecy.” As an adoptive parent and parenting coach to many foster and adoptive families, I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important openness is for children who are adopted. So much of their development, identity, sense of security, and self-confidence depends on how their parents handle the openness question.

This is not something I came into adoption understanding. In fact, my journey toward openness has grown with my journey as a foster and adoptive parent. But today, eight years and five adopted children in, I can say unequivocally that our children need openness, and openness is a lifestyle, not a once-off conversation.

Openness in adoption is a lifestyle, not a once-off conversation.

If you would like to dig a little deeper and understand more what “openness” looks like in adoption, I highly recommend this tool from Amara, a nonprofit organization based in the Pacific Northwest that is doing some truly groundbreaking work in the area of foster care and adoption. Their vision is to “change the world when it comes to how we support and care for children, adults, and families experiencing foster care and considering adoption, in our communities.” One of the ways they are doing this is through their “Adoption Openness Assessment,” a free tool designed to help families considering foster care and/or adoption gauge their comfort level with openness in adoption.

This tool has been in the works for years, spearheaded by Angela Tucker, founder of The Adopted Life, subject of the documentary film Closure, and leading influencer in centering adoptees’ voices in conversations around adoption. I have learned much from Angela over the years and am grateful for her presence in my journey, from leading the orientation my husband and I attended way back in 2013 when we were first starting our journey, to inviting me to sit in on an early presentation of the Adoption Openness Assessment tool when it was still being developed.

One of the things I love about the Adoption Openness Assessment is that it not only helps you identify where you’re at in terms of openness, but it educates people as to what how broad openness is. Openness in adoption is a spectrum, taking many factors into consideration. It is not something that is decided by adoptive parents or birth parents alone. Where you are on the spectrum depends on where everyone else is on the spectrum as well.

I highly recommend taking some time to read through this information from Amara, and since I’m always eager to share from my experience in order to help others learn and grow…

Here’s How Openness Currently Looks In My Family

My family represents five children who came from three families of origin. In each case, openness looks a bit different, but here’s the overall gist.

  • We talk about adoption. Often. Sometimes, I initiate the conversation, sometimes my children do, but most of the time, it just comes up.

    For example, my dad is in treatment for cancer at the moment, and as we discuss my family’s health history, we address the fact that there are questions about our children’s families of origin’s health histories. Same goes for conversations about height (“You’re going to be taller than me, baby girl, because from what I know, R is taller than me, and I think you’re going to take after her!”) Also, every now and then, when they are particularly tired or particularly frustrated with me as a mom, two of my children will comment that they “miss Mommy.” Those are my opportunities to say, “I don’t blame you one bit. It makes perfect sense that you miss her! Do you want to look at the pictures from your last visit with her?”
  • We affirm and offer language for our children’s grief over being adopted. We recognize and discuss the sadness that adoption carries. While there is a lot of love in our family, and our children are generally happy kids, we are open with our children about the fact that they have legitimate sorrow around being adopted, and it’s OK to both love us and miss their parents of origin, to both love the life they have with us and mourn the life they imagine they might have had with them.

    Recently, my seven-year-old, who has been with us since he was a newborn, said he missed his other mommy, whom he has seen once in seven years. I affirmed him, and after we talked about it for a bit, I asked him how he was feeling. After a long pause, he said, “I don’t know, Mom.” Another long pause. “I don’t have a word for how I’m feeling.” And I said to him, “Sweetie, I think the word is ‘grief.’ I think the right word for what you’re feeling is ‘grief.’ It’s sad that you couldn’t stay with her. It’s sad that she didn’t get to be your mommy forever. And it makes perfect sense that you feel sad when you think about her.”

    Another time, when my son was six, he was alone with my mom in the car. Completely out of the blue from the backseat, he said, “I wonder what my daddy looks like.” Thinking he was talking about my husband, my mom said, “Yes, he changes his looks a lot! Sometimes his hair is long, sometimes it’s short; sometimes he has a beard, sometimes he doesn’t…” And my son responded by saying, “I don’t mean him. I mean my real daddy.” My six-year-old son, who has been with us since he was five days old, who adores his father (my husband) and knows he is profoundly loved, was wondering about his “real daddy.”

    Of course he was. It makes perfect sense.
  • We are friends with a lot of foster and adoptive families and former foster youth and adult adoptees. For example, at our church, there are a number of families formed by adoption, and in fact, my children’s Sunday school teacher shared yesterday that when they discussed Israel’s name change to Jacob, six out of the ten children in the class had stories of their own name changes after being adopted. My daughter’s softball coach turned out to be a transracially adoptive parent, having adopted two sets of siblings, and long after the season was over, our families continued to invest in friendship. My son was on a soccer team last year, and one of the moms recognized me from my work on YouTube. She let me know that at least three of the eight kids on the team had been adopted through foster care. A single mom on my son’s baseball team shared that she was a foster mom, and when I shared that we had that in common, we sought each other out at games, trading stories of being a foster and adoptive parent that no one else gets. You can’t always guarantee that you’ll find other foster or adoptive families, but when you do, invest in those friendships, and make sure your kids spend time in spaces with other kids who share that aspect of their journey.
  • We are in touch with members of our children’s families of origin (and we visit with some of them in person). The closeness varies from family to family, but we have made an effort to be in touch with the members of the families who want to be in touch with us (and who are safe for our children to maintain contact with) and visit when we can. In two cases, I send pictures once a year to relatives and know I can reach out with questions when they come up (“Did their mom need braces?” “What were her hobbies/interests?” “Does anyone in your family have this rare genetic eye disease the ophthalmologist is concerned about?”) In two other cases, we talk and visit with members of the family of origin who want to remain in relationship, and we consider them members of our family as well. The blessing of this is that, as they grow, our kids will always be able to talk with someone who knew their birth parents, even if their birth parents are not available to maintain contact for one reason or another.
  • I Google their parents and report back what I learn. Every now and then, a child will wonder if his or her parent is still alive. When it has been a while (i.e. a year or more) since we have heard from a birth parent, I search for them online, including searching arrest records. The reason for this is to give our children as much knowledge as we can and spare them from letting their imagination take over. Telling them, “She can’t call back, because she is in jail,” is better than telling them, “She can’t call back, because she is dead.” (Just be prepared for your child to announce on the playground, “My mom’s in jail!” and get some strange looks!)
  • We acknowledge that representation matters, we admit our limitations, and we engage our village to help fill in the gaps. This is particularly true when it comes to parenting transracially. As a family that includes a child of color, but is otherwise overwhelmingly white, we have been intentional about where we live, where our children go to school, the church we are part of, the books we read, the movies we watch, and the art that hangs on our walls. When our son articulated that he wanted to let his hair grow out and have an afro, we made an appointment with a hair stylist who specializes in natural hair care for people of color and paid for a hands-on tutorial with her. We also research a lot on YouTube (shout out to Kuron J for his amazing natural hair care videos!) and, of course, listen to any advice our friends of color feel led to give.

    But it’s not just our child of color who needs representation. We have introduced all of our children to adult adoptees, and I love that they have people they can talk with about the things that we will never understand, because we are not children of adoption.

Last week, as my three elementary children and I were walking home from school, we walked past a house where two boys live. They were outside with their dad, and as we walked past, the younger one asked the dad, “Am I adopted?” The dad said, “No, why would you ask me that?” The son responded, “So-and-so (the older brother) says I’m adopted,” to which the dad responded, “You’re not adopted.”

I looked at my eight-year-old daughter, and we both burst out laughing. “Can you imagine if he didn’t know he was adopted?!” she said, incredulously. I responded by telling her that, in fact, in the past, people didn’t talk about adoption much, and many adopted children did grow up not knowing they were adopted. Then we talked about how awful that would be.

There are some questions no amount of openness will ever truly answer, especially the question of why. Why was I adopted? Why couldn’t my mom raise me? These are questions that will likely remain. But the more we can do as adoptive parents to cultivate a lifestyle of openness, and the more we can create in our households a safe space for all adoption-related questions and conversations, the more we can give our children a solid foundation and, according to Amara, “strengthen their sense of identity and decrease their sense of abandonment, which many adoptees feel by their birth/first families.” One other thing I learned from Amara’s research, which gave me great encouragement, was that “embracing a spirit of openness will increase adoptees’ attachment to their adoptive parents.”

In the end, maintaining a “spirit of openness,” though sometimes messy and often vulnerable, is the best approach for everyone involved.

If you are a foster or adoptive parent, and you would like to explore openness or any other topic related to parenting children via foster care or adoption, I’m available for one-on-one coaching! Click here to schedule your coaching session.

(Photo by Richard Balog on Unsplash)

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