Open Adoption – A 30+ Year Perspective From the Rear View Mirror
- Foster Care , Foster Parent Education
- November 28, 2022
Celebrating National Adoption Month
My personal and professional life have been focused on adoption and, primarily, open adoption. I am the mother now of four unique free range young adults, three through open adoption. And by open I mean the most open. We, over time, have become family. It was never an event, it was always a beautiful process filled with time, patience, wonder, love and, most importantly, respect for the best outcomes possible for the children we all called “ours.”
I bring your attention to part of the paragraph above that says, “We, over time, have become family.” To me, and to most that I know in the world of open adoption, openness is a process. To be sure, there were the keystone events like meeting my children’s birthmothers for the first time, meeting my children’s birth grandmothers for the first time, and sitting next to them all at my children’s high school graduations. We didn’t jump from the first meeting to the high school graduations. There was a lot of stuff in between where at times we both had to lead, we both had to follow, and we both had to trust that we knew what we were doing and trust that whatever we were doing was in the best interest of these children. Our first open adoption began in 1991. We were pioneers. There was no roadmap. It was the roadmap that we drew that charted the course for our future open adoptions.
Openness in adoption shaped my life to mean that I would come to have some of the best friends in the world that, through these relationships, were chosen for me. We would have absolutely nothing in common, save for the fact that we would roam this earth at the same time, and that we would cast our eyes upon the children we loved, them mostly from afar and me from up close, except for the times that we were together wildly celebrating our open adoptions. Yes, there were the phone calls, the letters, the emails, and the presents. But it is the celebrations that we shared that I most remember while I’m writing this. The holidays. The birthdays. The weddings. The funerals. Everyone was marked by photographs. The biggest milestones, the weddings and the funerals, were marked by at least one relative coming up to me, to my husband, or to us both together to say, “God Damn it, you kept your word. It’s so nice to see you and to see my grandson … nephew … cousin.”
One of my best friends in the world is one of my kid’s grandmothers. In the beginning I thought she was going to be difficult to forge an open relationship with. To me, she seemed strict and she seemed tough. But, over time, her exterior softened. And, over time, she and I began to realize that we had more in common than the daughter/granddaughter we shared. She has flown in from a state far away more than once to visit us over the holidays. We have put up the Christmas tree together. And we have watched movies by the fire together. She has been a resource to me with my kids over the years, as she has crisis intervention experience. My family and I have attended her children’s weddings, and we attended her husband’s funeral. Each time, our large family was directed to sit up front with hers. This summer, like other summers, she joined us as we rented a house for vacation in a remote area filled with forests and hiking and homemade meals. On these trips, she and I often sit afar and reflect on each of my children’s lives, because she has developed a keen perspective over the years. She loves them all. The fact that she does this has come to mean so much to me especially since my own mother, who would probably be the one to take this place at these moments in time, has passed now nearly 20 years ago.
Openness has also shaped my life by what it has meant to my children. The fact that I started the openness, raised them with it, and now hand it off to them as a legacy I see as a gift. It’s their turn now to do with these relationships as they see fit. To see them call their birth grandparents is meaningful on so many levels, especially now that all of the grandparents in our immediate family have passed. I heard one of my sons call his Grandma Judi recently, on Halloween. “I know this is an important day to you, even more important than Christmas, and I wanted to call to tell you how cool I thought that was, and Happy Halloween!” Based on his side of the conversation, which I listened to from the kitchen, I could tell she asked about us, his job, if he had a girlfriend, and if he was happy. I could tell there was an invitation to have breakfast. I could tell that I had done my job right because I saw his smile through his scruffy beard and I saw the contentment in his eyes. When he hung up the phone he came over to me, told me “she’s good,” gave me a big hug, and proudly stepped out the door and went to work.
Adoption has a tragic side to it and that ought never be ignored. Life altering decisions are made for these children that have lifelong impacts and to which they have absolutely no input. It’s quite the leap of faith to make such an important decision on someone else’s behalf. Trust me in this; no one wants to make an adoption plan for their child. They do it out of love and a vision for the future and at the expense of their own intense and unbearable heartache. Two times, I was a delivery coach for my children’s birthmothers, late, late into the night. Both times, those young women made the strong decision to be the ones to make the final placement of their babies into my arms. Both times, I cried along with them, and promised them that I would keep my word to openness. Our only witness was God.
Through my professional work I have seen countless foster and adoptive families forge a path into openness. I’ve coached many foster parents to tag along on the family visits, get to know the families, tell them firsthand how their child is doing in school, tell them firsthand that the anxiety has calmed and the school work is manageable. Tell them that she has a hound dog that watches over her, and that she draws show angels in her sketchbook, which you’ll bring with you next time. On the way home, hold her hand, tell her how proud you are of her, and tell her that she did the right thing. In foster care and foster care adoptions, it’s not always possible to have open relationships. And sometimes the relationships will be stronger where you least expect them, like with an aunt or a grandmother, rather than the parents themselves. Whatever relationship you can forge, forge it with love, and forge it in the best interest of the child.
Through my now 30+ year rear view mirror of openness in adoption I can tell you that I have seen my kids struggle with the fact that their fate was changed through adoption. They always cushion it with, “you guys are awesome parents, but” and then honestly and openly wonder what their lives would have been like otherwise, and they wonder if their birth families love them as much as the other children they were able to raise.
One year at Thanksgiving all six of us sat at the kitchen table and took the 23 & Me spit test. Then on Christmas morning we all opened and shared the results. Our unique family’s DNA showed the exponential power that was harnessed in our living room, with each continent, and just about every land in-between, touched. I saw the astonishment on their faces and heard it in their voices. This technology brought them this history and, when combined with their relationships with their birth families, the circle was complete.
For Christmas this year I’m thinking of painting a map on the wall and placing color coded stars all around based on our combined heritages from the DNA tests. I’ll hope that when we connect all the dots, there will be some further, ethereal meaning. Maybe one of them will turn it into a tattoo. Or perhaps it’ll simply be a map that lives on the wall. Whatever. The one thing I can assure you is that the expanded, beautiful map will mean so much to me, and I know it will mean the absolute world to them.
Susan McConnell, DSW(c), MBA is a parent of four free range young adults, three by adoption. She has 30+ years of experience in open adoption. Susan is the founder and executive director of Let It Be Us, a nonprofit and Illinois licensed child welfare agency focusing on foster care and adoption. (www.letitbeus.org) She is the chair of the Illinois Statewide Foster Care Advisory Council’s Permanency Committee and a member of the national organization Voice for Adoption.. Her doctoral work at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dvorak Peck’s School of Social Work focuses on adoption and permanency within foster care. She may be reached at email@example.com.
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