Open Adoption

Open Adoption

It’s been a decade and four adoptions, and still open adoption can be perplexing. Perhaps you know what I mean. Adoption agencies boast that open adoption is the way to go.  They encourage openness, touting it as a joyous, loving, simple choice that fosters peace, harmony, and connectivity.  But what is open adoption, really, and is it as wonderful as the adoption community makes it out to be?

Allow me to take you on our journey.

Once upon a time, we didn’t want an open adoption. We swiftly checked the “semi-open adoption” box on the checklist form our social worker handed us. Semi-open adoption felt like a safe compromise where we would send occasional letters and pictures to the agency who would then forward that on the child’s birth parents. Easy.  Then we, the adoptive family, would go about our merry way: living our dream-filled life.  And the birth mother? We assumed she would gratefully embrace the updates, thankful that her birth child was not only safe and sound, but happy and thriving.

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But that all changed the day we went to court to adopt our first child. We got the call for her the day she was born.  What a whirlwind! We packed up our car, making a dozen phone calls during the four hour drive, and rushed to meet our baby girl.  The next day, as we were driving to court to obtain custody, my cell rang. The social worker’s name popped up on the screen, and my heart dropped. I assumed that she was calling to tell us the placement wasn’t happening. Instead, she said warmly that the baby’s birth mother wanted to meet us. Could we meet before court?

Putting a face to a name changed everything. Meeting the woman who was entrusting us with her child, forever, meant acknowledging her sacrifice. It meant tears and nervous laughter and quiet exchanges of hope and promises.  It meant drowning stereotypes and fears and embracing possibility. It meant openness.  And openness means vulnerability, grace, and hope.

We decided to throw our “semi open adoption” requirement out the window: immediately.  We regularly sent updates to our child’s birth mother: stacks of pictures and detailed letters. She had our last name, address, and phone number.  We visited several times, taking dozens of pictures and relishing in seeing our daughter in the arms of the woman who loved her so much.

Two years later, another surprise phone call, another rushed trip. Another baby girl!  Upon meeting her birth parents, we exchanged contact information, and again began the journey to fulfilling promises involving ongoing communication: including visits.  I felt the fragile wall I’d put up, from self-preservation and as a new mama, crumble.

Two years later, like clockwork, our son was born. This time we had openness for two months prior to his birth.  It was incredibly scary, requiring us to be open without the guarantee of the baby boy becoming our son.  I felt our openness muscles stretching, yet again. And I remember telling myself, “Let my faith be bigger than my fear.”  Our openness journey continued as we took our son from the hospital and into our family forever. We religiously sent his birth mother photos and letters, as well as text messages. We arranged visits.

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Four years later, we decided to adopt again.  I wanted to not only guard my own heart, but the hearts of my three children, all of whom were eager for a little brother or sister.  I told my husband that I didn’t want a long match with an expectant mother, nor did I want to travel out of state with three children in tow and await ICPC (interstate adoption).  I wanted this adoption to be quick and easy. (Looking back, I realize how completely ridiculous I was.)

And that’s when things got really interesting.  Our match? Four and half months long. Four hours from home. This was the longest wait of my life. And a long match required courage, patience, and commitment, far more than any of our other adoptions.  I had to open my heart, and keep opening it, for months on end, while requiring my children to do the same.  I was anxiety-ridden, to say the least.

Today we have four children and four open adoptions.  The best way to describe open adoption is bittersweet.  I believe that the openness is what’s best for our children, and it’s taken a lot of sacrifice, humility, and steadfast commitment to keep the open adoptions open. Open adoption means fewer mysteries and more truth. But it’s not all rainbows and unicorns.  We’ve had many bumps along the road: miscommunication, fear, confusion, anger, and frustration.

But we’ve also had immense joy: like seeing one of our children giggle with her birth brother, their laughter indistinguishable from the other.  Watching my daughter embrace her birth father, listening to my son whisper his birth mother’s name during bedtime prayers, or watching my daughter text her birth mother.  These are incredible moments.  Magical.  Sacred.

If I could offer any advice to those considering open adoption, I encourage you to be open to the possibilities. Treasure the gift of openness, if it is offered to you, in whatever degree it comes. Be flexible. Be willing. Make organic promises, and keep them. Do whatever is best for the child you’ve been chosen to raise. And then take a moment to breathe it all in, because I promise you that having open arms and an open heart is what adoption is all about.

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Written By
Rachel Garlinghouse

Rachel lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and four children.  Her favorite things are kitchen dance parties, coffee with a dollop of ice cream, and shopping at Home Goods.  Rachel is passionate about the intersection of adoption and race, sharing her experiences in her books and articles, on her blog White Sugar Brown Sugar, and via media appearances, including CNN, MSNBC, CBS, and NPR.   Rachel and her husband have been in the adoption community for a decade, encouraging others and simmering in hope, empathy, and education.  Contact Rachel and keep up with her family’s adventures on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.