Once upon a time–we’re talking about the years up to the early ’80s-–secrecy and lies was the name of the game in adoption.

This is how it worked: Expectant parents who had “out-of-wedlock” babies were forced to give them away and then told to go on with their lives without knowing what became of their children.

Adoptive parents were expected to raise the children “as their own” without ever mentioning where they came from. And the children themselves had no idea about anything until the truth would accidentally slip out. Sometimes it would come directly from the adoption record. Other times it would come out as part of their parents’ deathbed confession.

Finally, they would have answers to the questions that gnawed at them their entire lives:

  • Why don’t I look like my parents?
  • Why am I so different from the rest of my family?
  • Why are my parents so uncomfortable about talking about my birth?

That was then, under the closed adoption system. Today, thanks to open adoption, the pendulum has swung in the other direction–towards greater transparency, openness and honesty. Nowaways, adoptive parents and birth parents not only have the option of sharing identifying information about each other, including their names, addresses and phone numbers

  • They can talk to each other
  • Meet each other face-to-face
  • Have an ongoing relationship after the adoption as well.

All because they realize that openness is in the best interests of their child, the litmus test for any adoption. By letting a child know where he or she came from and who his or her parents are, open adoption helps build a strong sense of identity, security and self-esteem.

As with so much of the process, the exact definition of open adoption is open to interpretation. Different people live and experience it in different ways. Open adoption covers a wide spectrum of practices. So wide that it can be broken down into two categories.

Open adoption: The birth parents and adoptive exchange identifying information about each other and keep in contact — through emails, phone calls or face-to-face meetings — before and after the placement of the child.

Semi-open adoption: The birth parents and adoptive parents share basic information, such as first names and/or the name of their city or state. Prior to the placement, some interaction by phone or in person may take place. After the placement, a third party — an adoption agency or attorney — is usually responsible for handling the interactions between them.

Today, the vast majority of open adoptions in the U.S. are considered semi-open. Birth parents prefer them because they give them more of a say in the selection process and lets them have a future connection with their child. For their part, adoptive parents favor them because they allow their child to have a connection to his birth family. Plus, open adoption gives them a voice in the selection process and, in some cases, shorten the wait to become a parent.

The decision about how much openness to have is a mutual one, made by the adoptive parents and the birth parents before the adoption. Navigating an open adoption relationships can be tricky, especially at the outset. But most are successful. In fact, in some cases, they’re so successful that they include frequent visits and shared vacations.