What I Wish I'd Known About Open Adoption

by Leah Outten

Mother in open adoption

Placing my baby girl for adoption when I was sixteen years old was immensely difficult because I love her deeply. But I also wanted more for her than what I could provide at that time. I had the support of my family to parent. But it never felt quite right. And neither did closed adoption. It wasn’t until I learned about open adoption that my heart softened to adoption at all. Because I loved her so much, I never wanted to have unanswered questions about how she was doing, what she looked like, or, worse still, if she thought I didn’t want her.

Open adoption became a compromise and offered the best of both worlds - one where my daughter could grow up with a stable family and I could continue to grow up myself, while both still having each other in our lives. It’s now been nineteen years in our open adoption and here is what I wish I had known:

Open adoption soothes the aches of your heart

Choosing adoption is not an easy decision for a birth parent. It’s a sacrifice. It’s loss. It’s grief. Yet, open adoption helped soothe the wounds of missing my daughter. Every phone call with an update, each packet of photos, and every visit helped me to heal just a little bit more. Why? Because it assured me of my decision over and over. I could see she was well taken care of, happy, and thriving. While there is still grief to experience, there is also profound joy in our relationship.

How close I would feel to her adoptive family

It honestly shocked me that there were adoptive families out there that wanted the same open adoption relationship I did. They were not threatened by my presence and role. They welcomed me as family. Because of that “family package” mentality - and our many visits sitting around their dinner table as they shared their stories and wisdom with me - I came to feel so much love for her adoptive family. They became role models to me in my teen years and loved me unconditionally. 

Open adoption allows our own ‘firsts’

One huge sacrifice as a birth parent is missing out on a child’s ‘firsts’ and other significant milestones. The adoptive family gets to be there for all the big and little events in life. This, we know, is what we all agreed to. Yet it’s hard. But with open adoption, we get to experience a lot of our daughter’s ‘firsts’ together. From trying solid foods to high-school graduation, her parents have invited me into their lives to celebrate with them. Also, she and I have had the opportunity to have our own ‘firsts’, like our first vacation together, first snowball fight, or even our first Thanksgiving. Having big and little ‘firsts’ has been a fun bucket list for us!

The benefits for our daughter, 19 years later

In 2004, there weren’t many open adoptions. No one had a role model or plan to follow. We had no idea how this experimental relationship would turn out. But we had hope. We had dreams that it would be the close-knit feel that we have today and that she would thrive because of it too. We had hoped that having me around throughout her life would help her know she was loved by both sides of her family and have a safe landing spot when she was feeling grief or had questions. That has proven to be very helpful in her young adult life and in developing her personal identity as well.

That it would help the children I parent, too

I never thought about what my future open adoption would look like once I was married or how adoption would impact the children that I parent. Now, having five kids that I parent with my husband, we see the benefits of open adoption for them as well. As siblings, they miss their biggest sister and treasure her visits as much as I do. Their relationship is special and honored too!

How complex it would be to navigate the emotions for all of us 

While open adoption has been such a joyful experience with so many great memories together, there are still complex emotions for all sides of our little triad. For me, that’s feeling the weight of her absence in my daily life and holidays. I can miss her and wish things were different, while also fully celebrating what our relationship is with joy and appreciation. For our daughter, there are similar feelings. It’s missing her biological family who are short like her and have artistic talents, while also fully loving her adoptive family and understanding why adoption was the right choice. For her parents, it is supporting our daughter when it’s emotionally hard after visits, yet honoring their promise and following her lead even when it’s difficult. I wish I had known that open adoption is both beautiful and complex and totally worth it.

Plans can change through different seasons

Our bare minimum agreement was visiting two times a year with updates in between. Because we grew close as friends and I pressed into our relationship as I was healing, the first several years went way above and beyond that! Yet, it didn’t always remain at that same pace. Looking back, I wish I had known that it was okay to have ebbs and flows in our relationship. As our lives changed and shifted, I thought I did something wrong. When she became a teen and was quiet for some months, I felt the exact same way. Yet, it’s very normal as life changes or emotions are being processed. Just keep the door open for when everyone is ready again.

Open adoption will look different for every family and it may not be right in every situation. But the core benefits of it remain, especially when everyone is on the same page. Having answers, connections, and a relationship - to any degree - can build a more satisfying adoption experience that benefits everyone. I’m thankful that we have each other to walk through this journey with the girl we both love so much.