Open adoption: The shifting relationship


Harriet Fancott
Focus on Adoption magazine

The reality of open adoption is a delicate balance of space and privacy, family, and individual.

The day we met Theo’s birth mother was a sparkling, blossom-infused May day. Mark and I were carefully attired in a vain attempt to look calm, thoughtful, responsible, yet fun: white shirt, cropped jeans, yellow shoes, a stripy scarf for me, and Mark in his crisp shirt and pressed shorts. In reality, we were sitting in the agency boardroom speechless and scared. When the agency door beeped open, and Theo’s seven months pregnant birth mother entered with her father, my thumping heart threatened to crack my ribcage. Then came the shakes, the silly responses, the babbling, the awe at our son-to-be’s birthmom’s stunning youth and beauty, the thrill of possibility, the potential for heartbreak.

How did we get there? We stumbled into our local adoption after a brief flirtation with international adoption. A stalled Lesotho program induced us to submit our local profile, and four days later we got a call saying the birth parents were interested in us. From that moment on, the adoption seemed to have “meant to be” stamped all over it. We adored the young birthparents, and they liked us. We went to an ultrasound appointment with them and later, to a hilarious 3-D kids’ movie before the birth. We had dinner together and got along with their parents, who were like peers to us.

A model of openness

Are you ready for openness?

The following attitudes and beliefs contribute in positive ways to an ability to embrace adoption in general, and open adoption in particular. This list is offered as a guide rather than a “score.”

  • All relationships are tricky. People are capable of dealing with risks in relationships.
  • Long-term secrets usually involve shame and are unhealthy ways of dealing with information.
  • Parents do not “own” their children.
  • Both environment and genetics contribute to the development of individuals.
  • People need other people and sometimes need to ask for help.
  • People can grow and change.
  • If possible, direct communicaiton is more effective than indirect communication.
  • There is no amount of love a person can give or receive. Loving someone does not dilute that person’s love for other people. Parents can love more than one chld; children can love more than one parent.

from The Open Adoption Experience, Lois Ruskai Melina

I had visions of an easy, friendly relationship, a model for open adoption everywhere. There would be beach parties with my family and theirs, friends and children running around eating grilled chicken and drinking fizzy lemonade. Later there would be graduations, weddings and Christmas parties. And we were thrilled that Theo would know not just the circumstances of his birth as well as his medical and cultural history, but his birth family as real people.

Within two months, we were parents to a healthy baby boy. We received him from his birth family at the hospital in a confusing swirl of mixed emotions. We felt stunned by the bundle lying in the middle of the bed, joy that we were parents and a deep sadness that his young birth parents were not.

Mark and I spent the next three months as shellshocked, sleep-deprived new parents with frequent visits by various members of Theo’s birth family, who live within easy driving distance. Every ounce of control vanished from our lives. I felt devastated by how obviously painful it was for the birthmom, and guilty for wanting some time alone to bond with our new son.

After about three months, we established a routine. We visited them every three months at the birthmom’s family home. I found the visits amazing on the one hand; I liked everyone and learned a lot about Theo’s family of origin. We ate fantastic Jamaican meals, and Theo was treated with such love and excitement.

The dark side was I’d spend a week prior spiraling downwards into worry and anxiety, and during one visit, which I made without Mark, I broke down watching the birth parents with Theo. They looked so happy together running around the backyard playing. The weekly emails were also starting to hurt to send, especially given I rarely got a response. I also worried that we were exposing them all to too much of him and thought about his birthmom daily, wondering how she was.

My worries were beginning to affect my ability to be a good parent. I needed to take care of myself. I simply could not spend this much time focused on the relationship with Theo’s birth family at the expense of my own family. I emailed some adoptive parent bloggers and a birthmother looking for feedback. I received some phenomenal advice and support including reality checks such as: “You are his parents; the relationship is young and everything will settle as time passes.” The other piece of sound advice was to stop obsessively reading blogs that focus on birth mother grief.


At about this point, as if reading my mind, the birth grandparents on both sides of the family requested less contact feeling that it was impeding the birth parents ability to move forward. Their children (Theo’s birthparents) had high school to attend to, and university to look forward to. They needed the space to do the things that teens do: go to movies, hang with their friends, go to the beach, play sports, get good grades, do volunteer work and plan for the future without worrying about Theo, who was safe, healthy and happy.

We agreed to cut back to monthly emails and less frequent visits. These future visits will involve less people: us and the birth mother and grandmother at our place. This way, we’ll be able to get to know each other better. I anticipate that this relationship will shift and evolve again as people’s needs change.

We’ve come a long way in just over two years. Open adoption is no longer a theory but an emotionally-charged reality. None of us could have predicted how we’d feel after Theo was born, but we’ve grown and moved forward with the knowledge that whatever we are feeling in the moment will pass and be replaced with a new feeling and a new reality. We’re all in this together, and Theo will soon come to understand where he came from and how much he means to all of us.

Harriet Fancott is a former editor of Focus on Adoption magazine. She’s also a public relations consultant, blogger and speaks regularly on adoption and social media trends and topics.