Open Wide: One Family’s Open Adoption Journey

Probably not.” That was our answer when our caseworker asked if we would consider an open adoption. Adoption innocents, my husband and I didn’t really understand what that meant. Still a little battered from our infertility diagnosis, we were just finding out how little we knew about adoption, period.

This becoming a parent thing is SO much harder than it sounded in that 7th grade “hygiene” unit. We’d already pored over books and websites weighing the pros and cons of international, foster to adopt, agency or private.

We decide on a domestic adoption through an agency. And now, finally, we’re sitting in the agency’s metal folding chairs, only to learn we’re still not done with the decisions.

We’re prepared for the questions about whether we are OK with special medical needs, or whether we would take on a baby who’d been exposed to drugs or alcohol. We find it’s much harder to answer the question about open adoption. Do we want an ongoing relationship with the baby’s birthparents? We’re both lawyers, so we think it sounds like some kind of joint custody. Our caseworker explains that it’s not that at all. “It’s not coparenting,” she says. “You are the parents.”

We pose increasingly bizarre hypotheticals, modeled on Jerry Springer segments and Lifetime TV movies where birthparents show up and disrupt everyone’s lives. Patiently, she explains that most of these scenarios are merely vehicles for Jaclyn Smith, and have little to do with real life. She suggests we do a little more reading.

So we read Lois Melina’s books The Open Adoption Experience and Raising Adopted Children. We check out We think we get the idea. The number of open adoptions (where birth parents, adoptive parents and adoptees meet face to face on a regular basis) and semi open adoptions (where updates about the child are exchanged, either directly or through an intermediary) have increased dramatically in the last 10 to15 years. In fact, most domestic infant adoptions now are open to some degree.

We think semi-open sounds OK. We’d be “caretakers” of the relationship with the birthmom until the child was old enough to decide how he or she wanted to handle it, we’d have a contact if we needed medical information, and we could still maintain our privacy. So we check the semi-open box and we start waiting.

We’re not sure how much to prepare, because we’re not sure how long we’ll be looking at an empty nursery. “It could be twenty minutes or twenty months,” our social worker tells us. She recommends we go ahead and buy a carseat. We do, but we hide it in the garage. We buy a few diapers and a copy of What to Expect, which we hide in the linen closet. We don’t know how long we’ll have to endure well-meaning questions about whether we’ve had news of a baby yet, so we tell almost no one we’re trying to adopt.

Nine months later (no kidding), our caseworker calls my cell on a Monday morning. “You’re up.” It takes me a minute to process. She tells me the birthmom and her family want to meet us right away, and birthmom is scheduled to be induced on Wednesday. I call Tom and we call our families with the news that we’re about to be parents…in 48 hours. We call the agency back and set up the meeting for the next day because I’m in Nashville and can’t get home any earlier. We spend the next 24 hours doing all the preparation we HAVEN’T done for the last nine months, and I shock my colleagues with an e-mail that I will be out on maternity leave beginning….umm…tomorrow.

That night, Tom and I go on what feels like a really high stakes blind date. We meet M, the birthmom, and her parents. On the surface, we don’t have much in common. They like to camp. Tom doesn’t even really like to sit outside at Wild Fork, and I hate the smell of bug spray. But they’re very nice, and we learn that they ultimately decided on us because our faiths have the same outlook on infant baptism. We spend about 3 hours talking with these total strangers about little stuff, like M’s favorite color and what kind of music she likes, and some big stuff, like whether we plan to have more children (we don’t even have this one yet!), but not really about how we want to handle contact. They leave because they’ve got to have M at the hospital early the next morning. We decide on the way home that, if nothing else, we’ll invite them to the baby’s baptism, because that seems to have been a tipping point.

The next day, we bring some flowers and we chat more at the hospital. We offer to go get M a magazine and bring back some lunch. When we return, she’s in labor and her dad tells me she’d like me to come in the delivery room. I don’t know it, but I am about to get two gifts. The first, of course, is that I get to see our beautiful son being born. The second is an epiphany. M is young, she is healthy, and her labor is quick, but she is scared. Her mother is holding her hand, coaching her through it. They both have tearstained cheeks. M’s mother is watching her own child in pain.

Neither of them really knows if they’ll be a part of this baby’s life. And it’s clear to me that they really love this baby. They’re about to trust us – people they just met – to take care of this piece of their family, and they have no idea if they’ll ever see him again. We haven’t really talked about the contact thing much. And even if we had, open adoption agreements are not legally enforceable in this state. How do they know that, even if we’d given our word about contact, we would keep it? This blind trust suddenly overwhelms me and I get it. After all the reading and research about open adoption, it comes down to this: Why wouldn’t we want our child to know how much he is loved and by how many people?

When it came time to bring our son home, we brought M a gift, a necklace with the baby’s birthstone. M’s father brought us a DVD he’d made, scanning family photos of M growing up, interspersed with pictures of us all in the hospital over the last two days, set to Elton John’s “Blessed” (a piece of music that I swear I will never call cheesy again.) We watched it on a player in the hospital room, and everyone cried. In a fire, it’s one of the first objects we’d save. We take the baby home to be greeted by friends and family who bring us most of the inventory from Babies R Us. We figure out, like most first time parents, that despite our age and experience, we have no earthly idea what we are doing.

A couple of days later, we talk on the phone with M and her family, and although we’re tired, we agree that they can come to our home see the baby. This was kind of a hard boundary to let go, but I can tell M is hurting. They come over, and she seems comforted that she knows where he’s going to sleep, and that he’s safe. They go. We talk a few more times over the next couple of weeks. I take her to lunch for her birthday. I talk to her after she appears before the judge for the termination of parental rights. I call when I have a firm date for the baptism to invite them.

All this time, we are tired. We are the kind of tired that only new parents can be. And although I’m supposedly on maternity leave, I’m working at home because I am still responsible for my clients, baby or not. And while being an older parent has its advantages, a high energy level is not one of them. Our caseworker had warned us that when we took this on, we were, to some extent, taking on a teenager as well as a baby. It was exhausting, but I kept thinking about that moment in the hospital and what it would mean for our son if we could grit it out and make this work.

And just when we were really feeling overwhelmed about everything and wishing we could dial this contact back, another extraordinary thing happened. We’d told M and her family about the baptism. Her mother called one evening and asked if we’d found a christening gown yet. No, not yet. She asked if I’d like to borrow the one from them, and explained that this one had been used for every child in the family for the last 50 years. I asked if I could see it.

A week later, they called to say it had arrived from the last family member to have it, could they bring it over? We unfold tissue paper from a gown as long as I am tall, made from the silk of a D-day parachute. Yeah. I think we’ll use that.

We held our son in this beautiful gown in the 100–year-old cathedral where my mother went to grade school, where I was baptized and where we were married, with our families and M and her family beside us. Our priest included M in the ceremony, adding special prayers of entrustment to the traditional Catholic baptismal right. M and her family joined us for lunch at our house afterward.

Not long after the baptism, we located our son’s biological father and got to meet him and his family as well. We were very anxious about the meeting. We’d learned that he was Native American, which raised legal issues about whether the adoption could go forward. By then, of course, we couldn’t imagine giving our son up. The meeting was a little tense until Tom connected with S over music – immediately recognizing the Eminem ringtone on his phone.

The ice broken, we learned that his mother knew one of my law school classmates, and his stepmother had once temped at my firm. Since that first scary meeting, we have celebrated S’s birthday, brought him pizza and supplies for his first night in his first apartment on his own, met his sisters and our son’s great grandmother. We’ve embraced our son’s Cherokee heritage from S with music, books and a Native American film festival that Tom started through the Circle Cinema.

Now we are three years into relationships we weren’t sure we wanted. We’ve gone to graduations, weddings, birthday celebrations, mother’s day masses, and, with heart-wrenching effort, the birth of our son’s half sister, whom M is parenting. People say things to us like “You’re so good, I could never do that.” And I really kind of hate that, because we aren’t doing this to be good. And we aren’t doing it for M or S. We are doing it because we think it will benefit our son. What parent wouldn’t do that?

The fact that we do like M and S and their families is a bonus, and it makes this much easier to do. Still, it isn’t always easy to navigate, because an open adoption relationship is totally unique to the families that are involved—-there is no “normal.” And sometimes, frankly, we’re not in the mood. Sometimes I’ll bet they aren’t either. But it works out. They don’t give us parenting advice. We try to make sure they know about our son’s milestones.

We are all courteous and respectful to each other. We’ve tried hard to get to know M and S as individuals, not just our son’s biological parents. When I try to explain the relationship, I compare it to getting in-laws. This person that you love comes with a set of other people. You have to find a way to incorporate them into your life. You can make that hard, or you can make it easy. No matter what, it’s probably always going to be a little of both.

There are some awkward moments. M told me during one visit that colleagues at work had been encouraging her to “get the baby back.” Both Tom and I worried (needlessly) that she might be persuaded to do something rash. Once, her feelings were hurt when two ladies in a restaurant gushed over how handsome our son was and I just said thank you instead of trying to explain who she was. S has had some personal difficulties and we’ve been unsure about how much or what kind of help to offer. So, in essence, it has its ups and downs… just like any other relationship.

Open adoption isn’t right for everyone. We didn’t think, at first, that it was right for us. We’ve overcome a lot of fears and I imagine M, S and their families have, too. At the end of the day, we’re proof that the Stones were right. You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes… you get what you need.

Categories: Adoption and Foster Care