How Open Adoption Builds Bridges to Healing

This guest post is by Gayle H. Swift, an adoptive parent, co-founder of GIFT Family Services, and author.

We adopted our children in the early 80s before open adoption became mainstream. Over the years, our understanding of how to be a good, loving parent evolved significantly. My children are now in their thirties with children of their own.

Part of me still sees them as babies, toddlers… so loveable and sweet (most of the time) even as I watch and appreciate the capable adults they’ve become.  I love to recall those intimate moments of rocking them to sleep after a nighttime feeding.

These memories are etched on my heart, preserved in my memory banks and have touched my soul. These and other emotional gems helped stabilize and encourage me through the rocky times, the teen-age years of rebellion and independence, and the times when life served up hard lessons.

Gayle, second from right, with her daughter, son, his wife, and his birthmother.

We accessed every resource we could, yet something remained missing for our kids. Closed adoption had created a gaping void of the unknown and unknowable. They struggled to cope with challenges that our love alone could not remedy.

Our parental intuition told us that the children needed answers and information which only their birth parents could provide. Legally, that access was forbidden to them until they turned eighteen—and then would be possible only if their birth parents agreed.

Their stories have a positive ending fortunately. We were able to establish contact. Reunion provided significant benefits to my children. We all continue to grow as an extended family joined by a common interest: our mutual love for our children and grandchildren.

While all parents face challenges, adoption creates additional layers of complexity. Even if no physical contact occurs, birth parents and first family members are a “presence,” a factor emotionally, biologically, and physically.

Open adoption brings these connections into the light. Children do not have to hide their thoughts and curiosities. Open adoption is not a cure-all.

But in almost every case, it is better than ignorance, secrecy, and isolation. Adoptees need all of their relationships; we must not require them to choose one or the other. Embrace a Both/And mindset.

Let’s face it though, relationships are inherently challenging, especially ones fraught with so much emotional baggage. Open adoption demands our highest level of integrity and commitment because of our love for our child.

For the sake of our children, if we promised an open adoption, we must honor our word. Even when it is hard, inconvenient, or unpleasant, our kids need us to figure out how to make it work. We already know the why: because it is almost always better for the children.

From personal experience within my own family and professionally as a coach to adoptive families, I have seen the benefits of open adoption. Keep in mind that openness begins as an attitude.

It can include a spectrum of physical contact which varies over time but which always reflects an attitude of respect and acceptance.  For an in depth discussion of this dynamic balance and the distinction between openness and physical contact, read Lori Holden’s book, The Open-hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child to Grow up Whole. Contact may not always be possible, but an attitude of openness is.

As adults, we assisted our children in reconnecting with their first mothers. The benefits have been profound for them, for their mothers and for us as parents.

We have experienced first-hand the healing impact which reunion provided our children. And, as Lori asserts in her landmark book, openness helps our children to grow up whole.

This is certainly a goal which all parents desire for their children. As adoptive parents we recognize the profound loss which our children experienced when they were separated from their first families.

We do not deny the depth or reality of this loss; we acknowledge this fact and work to alleviate their trauma. We do not exacerbate their trauma by trivializing or dismissing their feelings.

We strive to be that safe harbor where they can discuss their thoughts and feelings about adoption—not just the easy ones, but also the darker, more painful ones.

We assure them that we are strong enough and our love is deep enough to provide the stability, permanence and safety they need. Moreover, our love is inclusive enough to embrace their birth parents whom our children need as part of their lives and part of our families.

While certainly not a cure-all, I can confirm that reunion answered questions and filled voids which only my children’s first mothers could provide.

We are not rivals. We share love for our children. Each of us has a significant role to play in our children’s lives. Our children do not have to choose one or the other.

I regret that it took so many years before this openness/reunion could occur. An open adoption from the beginning could have prevented and/or alleviated so much heartache for our children.

Here are some tips on how to sustain good relationship within an Open Adoption:

  • Keep the goal in mind: your child’s optimum emotional and physical well-being.
  • Remember everyone is a work in progress.
  • Be forgiving of yourself and birth parents. Don’t hold grudges.
  • Look for solutions not justifications.
  • Evaluate actions as working/not working instead as right/ wrong.
  • Seek to understand the purpose for a specific request.
  • If you can’t agree to a proposal, search for alternative ways of accomplishing that purpose.
  • Be patient and consider how the circumstances might be affecting actions and expectations.
  • Imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes.
  • Open adoption agreements are a sacred contract even if not legally enforceable.
  • Thoroughly examine your motives for any decisions about contact.
  • Do not use inconvenience to justify closing an open adoption.
  • If agreements must be changed, be receptive to restoring it when circumstances improve.

Gayle H. Swift is a co-founder of GIFT Family Services, the co-author of the multi-award-winning book ABC, Adoption & Me, contributor to It’s Not about You: Understanding Adoptee Search, Reunion and Open Adoption. She co-authored: A Heart for Adoptees: What They Really Seek from Families and Faith with Sally Ankerfelt, M. Div.; it will be published in 2019.

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