Opening up to open adoption

What happens when adoptive parents keep in touch with biological parents of the baby? Lori Holden answers


Like many couples, we wanted to build a family. It didn’t take long to figure out that we didn’t have the required biological building blocks, so we set out to become parents in another way.

Of course, we knew all about adoption—didn’t everyone? We were to pretend it wasn’t adoption, the biological parents were to pretend it wasn’t adoption, and our future children were to pretend it wasn’t adoption.

This was the first guiding point that helped us chart our way through the adoption ocean: We soon found out that everything we ‘knew’ was wrong and we started to see adoption from an entirely new point of view. Our adoption agency coached us on this newfangled thing called ‘Open Adoption’ in which the birth mother can interact with the adoptive family. Not even 10 years old at the time, there was very little research available on this alternative to the closed adoptions [in which the birth mother’s identity was kept secret]. The children of past open adoptions are only now becoming adults who can express what it was like to have knowledge of, and perhaps contact with, two sets of parents—one of biology and one of biography.


When infertility takes away choices, a couple can be struck hard by Baby Fever. All that matters is having a baby and becoming a parent. When the chosen method is adoption, there can be a myopia that is focussed on only one part of the adoption triad—us, the adoptive parents.

But people in successful open adoptions are mindful from the very beginning of the other two parts of the triad: [1] the baby who will become a child, a teen, an adult; and [2] the birth parents who will always have an undeniable influence on the child, no matter the degree of contact.

Before taking up any endeavour, be it sailing or parenting or adoption, you do well to learn the lingo. And while there is no consensus in the Adoption World on which terms are acceptable, we know that the words we use both influence and reflect the spirit of our open adoptions.

Adoptive Parent: Typically, I do not call myself an adoptive mother. I am a mom, period.

Birth parent or first parent: There is no definitive answer that ruffles no feathers. But let’s explore some commonly used titles.

  • Birth parents: This term is not technically accurate for a father because he doesn’t give birth. And it’s limiting for many mothers—they contribute much more than labour and delivery. Still, it is perhaps
    the most widely used and understood term currently in use.
  • Biological mother: This term limits my children’s first parents’ role to that of DNA providers. To me, this term is just too clinical, although it is well understood in adoption circles.
  • Real mom: so who changed all those diapers and woke up in the middle of all those nights to soothe—Fake Mom? ‘Real’ means ‘exists,’ so this would include both moms [or both sets of parents].
  • First parent: This term honours the people who gave life and does not diminish the role of the adoptive parents. Rather than implying that the adoptive mom is second it denotes that she is last—forever. However, from a child’s perspective, ‘first’ may imply ‘second’ and ‘third’ and so on, with a possible a sense of impermanence. Still, I often use this term as one of honour.

Our destination

Each adoption triad [first parents, adoptive parents, and the child him/herself] must decide what success looks like, but here are some considerations from people in open adoptions.

  • Success might mean that members of your triad give each other permission to feel and express feelings appropriately, even if those feelings aren’t pretty. When the adults in the triad do this, we show our children how to do this for themselves.
  • Success might mean setting boundaries out of love rather than out of fear or insecurity. The more both sets of parents resolve their own adoption issues, the fewer the child will have to resolve.
  • Success is knowing that the couple didn’t just build a family by welcoming a child, but by extending their family beyond just the child.
  • Success means the child is happy; that updates, visits and relationships are ongoing; that no one in the triad feels victimised; that promises are kept. It means an absence of antagonism.

Deciding on open adoption

Like most decisions in life, choosing openness in adoption involves trade-offs. Let’s take a look at what is gained and what is lost with openness.


  • More people to love you and your child
  • You have access to the child’s medical history as it unfolds in the lives of his birth family members
  • Your grown child has access to medical history as it emerges [as birth parents age and issues tend to develop]
  • The child is less divided in his/her loyalties
  • The child does not wonder about the Whos or Whys. Gaps in his/her story can be addressed when the child is ready to ask and process bits of the story.
  • The child has access to people he/she looks like [genetic mirroring]
  • The child has the opportunity to merge his/her biology and his/her biography.


  • More relationships; more chances for complications
  • Control issues may arise
  • As with in-laws, you may have to interact with people you might not ordinarily choose to.
  • Possible boundary issues
  • Possible feelings of insecurity for parents
  • Fear that the child will be confused


What’s the big deal about biology? Aren’t the adoptive parents the ‘real’ parents, even though the child doesn’t share their DNA?

It may be easy to discount a genetic connection once you’ve gotten on the adoption path. If you’re in an ‘either/or’ mindset—either they are the parents or we are—you almost have to downplay biology in order to elevate yourself.

But remember? Likely, you tried very hard at one time to have a biological child. You wanted to gaze into a face that looked somewhat like yours or your beloved’s or a glorious combination of both. You wanted to share your lives with someone who shared your traits and had bits of your bio-information swimming in her veins. Biology probably was important to you at one stage of your journey.

For all these reasons biology may also, at points along the way, be important to your child. For a teeny-weeny double helix, DNA sure packs a punch.

When you think about it, isn’t it amazing to contemplate a thread that goes back farther than your mind can grasp? That there is an unbroken line from you stretching to the dawn of humankind? That line, and the relationship webs that accompany it, connects each of us to every person who has ever taken a breath on this planet.

Adoptees grow up with the biology of one clan and the biography of another, and are sometimes unsupported in healing that split. Adoptive parents must accept that they have no hereditary influence on their child. Birth parents may grapple with the idea that a child of their own genetic line was lost to them.

I’m just saying that DNA matters. And as a mom via adoption, that doesn’t bother me at all. Because I matter, too.

View from the other side: Crystal, the birth mother of Tessa says…

Trust is probably the most important ingredient for success in our open adoption. Two trust-building things happened the day after Tessa was born, the day we all left the hospital, each of us carrying a different load. This is the first.

“Tessa had been born early in the morning the day before. So I had already spent a day and a half with this beautiful, wonderful being. My baby girl. She was so small and precious.”

“With all the love in me I knew that she was going to have a chance because of the decision I was making.”

“I had known Lori and Roger for about 10 days. We had met once at the agency, once over dinner [my 4 year-old son joined us], and once at a get-together with my family. Even though I knew I would be a great mom to my baby girl, as I already was to my son, I also knew in my heart that Roger and Lori were going to be wonderful parents and could give my daughter the stability and security that her birth father and I weren’t in a position to give her then.”

“The morning of the day Tessa and I were to leave the hospital—separately—I was feeling very emotional, which is to be expected. I felt that I needed to call Lori and reassure her that my sadness was exactly what it was: sadness, not me changing my mind.”

“We had a long telephone conversation before they came back to the hospital. I tried to imagine what they were feeling. And at the same time I was managing my own emotions. I somehow knew it was very important for us to be very upfront with each other. Which meant that I had to be very clear with myself.”

“I told Lori that I was sad. BIG sad. I told her that I was likely to cry. BIG cry. And I told her that in spite of all that, I was still certain that I was doing the best thing for my daughter. I asked her to trust me, even through the tears that would surely come.”

“With this phone call, we started building our bridge of trust. And the trust building went both ways. This conversation paved the way for what happened next, when Lori and Roger took a trusting leap of faith with me.”

“Later as we all prepared to leave the hospital, with their new family going one way and me going the opposite direction, home to my mom and my son, Lori and Roger sprang a surprise on me. I had wanted so badly for my grandmother, who was dying of cancer at her home, to see the new baby. But she wasn’t well enough to travel to the hospital. Lori and Roger overheard me saying so and, against all advice they’d been given, they drove Tessa to my grandmother’s house. My grandma, my mom, my son and I all sat on the couch with this newborn miracle. I was so pleased that Lori and Roger came into our home that day and encouraged that moment to happen. When they finally left, I was grief-stricken at the loss of Tessa, but I also knew that we were on the best possible track to build a relationship. At that moment we became connected for life, with Tessa as the reason and trust as our foundation.”

Adapted from The Open-hearted Way to Open Adoption by Lori Holden and Crystal Hass, Published by The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group. All rights reserved.

This was first published in the March 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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