Ballard mom April Rauch laughs when she recalls a time when her son’s birth mother came to visit. “Yolanda told Guyan, ‘You better be careful. You have two mamas in the house right now.’ And she gave him a look that made it clear he had better mind.”
No, this story is not from an episode of Big Love. It’s a vignette of the way open adoption works in April’s family. April and Andrew Rauch are the Caucasian parents of two adopted African American children and one biological child. The oldest child, Ophelia, has a birth sibling who was adopted by a Canadian family, and Guyan’s birth mother lives with his four birth siblings in Texas. The Rauches regularly visit with both families.
“We like to think about our extended family in Canada and in Texas and even joke with Guyan’s birth siblings in Texas by asking them what their friends think of the fact that they have a white family in Seattle,” says April, who demonstrates on a regular basis that her heart has room enough for everyone in her unconventional family.
How does it work?
According to Open Adoption & Family Services, Inc. (OA&FS), a private, nonprofit agency operating in Oregon and Washington, an open adoption is a legal adoption in which the birth parent or parents choose the adoptive family that will raise their child. Together, the birth and adoptive parents create an individualized, legally enforceable plan that addresses matters such as arrangements for visiting and the exchange of letters and photos. The idea is that the birth parent or parents will remain involved in the child’s life in some mutually agreed upon capacity, but it is not a co-parenting arrangement.
The special role of birth parent in an open adoption was precisely what Megan Hamilton was seeking when she was pregnant but not prepared to raise the child herself. “When I found out about open adoption, I realized that it was exactly what I was looking for,” she says. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to parent like I wanted, but I still wanted to be an involved, important adult in the child’s life.” Open adoption was the best solution to Megan’s quandary.
Through OA&FS, Megan found Bill and Amy Prestia, already parents to a child and hoping to adopt another. And Megan knew they were the best fit for her daughter Maren. “Amy and I were wearing the same socks at the first meeting,” Megan remembers with a laugh. Because OA&FS allows birth parents to make the choice about who become the adoptive parents, Megan carefully read the complete profiles of all the prospective parents who had applied. Amy and Bill’s resonated with her.
Over the last year and a half the connection between Megan and Maren’s parents has deepened. “Now, Amy is like a sister to me,” says Megan.
Amy feels a similar affection and attributes a lot of the success in her family’s relationship with Megan to the counseling they’ve received and the thoughtful and thorough way OA&FS helped them find a match.
Birth parents who are interested in open adoption receive an average of eight weeks’ counseling from OA&FS professional counselors to help them fully explore this option and to authentically consider their values when placing their child. By the time they are ready to make an adoption plan, birth parents are very well informed about the process and all of the issues, both emotional and legal, that are involved. In addition, OA&FS offers relationship building opportunities between birth parents and adoptive parents to help them nurture an extended family connection. Finally, OA&FS provides lifelong counseling and even mediation services to all of the parties involved — including the adopted children.
Despite all of this support, open adoption is still a situation rife with uncertainty. “Open adoption requires an adoptive family that is pretty amazing,” says Megan. “They have to be incredibly secure and open. They have to say, ‘We don’t know how the future will go, but we are willing to make room.’ It takes courage to go into that unknown and trust it will all be OK.”
What are the benefits?
Amy and Bill chose open adoption in part because they felt it offered more certainty than a closed adoption would. Amy knew very well what it was like to wonder about her birth parents as she was adopted as a child herself. She had no idea growing up what her genetic and biological family history held until she became an adult and eventually found her birth mother.
Moreover, Amy’s perspective was that her own mother lived with the specter of some birth family out there that might reappear at any moment. “My mom grew up trying to put my birth mother out of her mind, at the same time being fearful that she would resurface,” says Amy.
“One advantage to open adoption that is often overlooked is that I feel entitled to be Maren’s mother because we were chosen by Megan,” says Amy, whose own adoptive mother was chosen by a social worker.
“We had an entrustment ceremony where Megan handed Maren to us and asked us to be the parents of her baby. “
Rather than undermine the relationship, Megan’s presence in Maren’s life strengthens it, notes Amy. “That entrustment is reinforced every time Maren gets hurt and is crying and Megan picks her up and says, ‘You need your mama,’ and hands her to me.”
While she clearly did not want to sever her connection with her child at birth, Megan chose open adoption more for the benefit of her child than herself. “From the beginning, I wanted my daughter to have the best of what I didn’t have to offer. Open adoption can be set up so that birth parents don’t have to stay in touch. You can just fade out if it’s uncomfortable. But this is not about me. It’s about me being there for her. I want to be there so she can always talk to me.”
Bill and Amy agree that Megan’s choice of open adoption genuinely benefits their child. “I can trace my history. I know my roots,” says Bill. “Maren should be able to do so as well. We think it’s positive and healthy for Maren’s birth parents to have a relationship with her and [for her] to be able to have a forthright discussion with them about things whenever she needs to. With Megan involved, Maren can ask her birth mother anything she wants. She never has to guess.”
Ideally, the connection between birth parents and adoptive parents continues to build as the child grows older. Lori and John Roberts are the parents of two children through open adoption and are in the process of adopting a third. “The amazing thing,” says Lori, “is that my daughter’s birth mother is talking to prospective birth parents and has been our biggest advocate in this process.”
It’s still hard.
Amy met a lot of birth mothers through a search support group when searching for her own birth mother. She recalls hearing stories about the years of heartbreak they endured not knowing whether their children were safe, alive or in families that loved them. To top it off, they all carried the pain of not being able to parent themselves.
“Many of the women were coerced or forced into the decision,” says Amy. “And while it’s not as systematic now, there is still a voicelessness experienced by a lot of women who find themselves with an unexpected pregnancy. Because of the stories I heard from these women who felt so stripped of their dignity and stripped of any sense of control over their fate and their child’s fate, I felt like it was critical to have a truly open adoption.”
Open adoption does sidestep many of the hurts that were suffered by birth mothers in previous generations, yet it can still be difficult. “The rewards of open adoption soften the blows,” explains Megan. “But it’s incredibly bittersweet.”
While Megan is filled with appreciation and delight for the love she feels Maren’s family has for her, she also feels deep grief for the fact that she can’t be Maren’s parent. “I don’t regret my decision, but there has been a lot of pain to go along with it. The fact that I am able to maintain a relationship with Maren and her family has helped me heal. I cannot imagine a closed adoption. I can’t imagine holding all of that pain without a way to address the loss.”
Megan’s own family was not sure open adoption was a good idea. Her mother wondered what Megan would do if she wanted to have her baby back, assuming that being in close contact would enhance those feelings. “I am sure I will at some point,” answered Megan. “Those are just feelings. And I am going to have them either way.” Now, not only is Megan’s family on board, but they are delighted to have a special relationship with Maren and with her big brother.
In the Rausch
family, it was hard at first for their first adopted child Ophelia when
the birth mother of Guyan, their second child, became involved
in their lives. April thinks that Ophelia, who was just five years old
at the time, was missing her own birth mother’s presence. Fortunately,
Guyan’s birth mother understood. “Yolanda was raised by her
Aunt Bea and considered Aunt Bea to be her mother. So she offered to
represent both of the African American mothers in our family. It was
just natural for her to make that offer.”
Lori Roberts’ family also has a very positive relationship with the extended family of her children’s birth parents. “A really neat thing is how all families involved have embraced our adoptions. My daughters’ biological families have love and affection for all of my children — not just their ‘blood’ ties. My daughters currently have seven grandmothers and counting. They have lots of siblings that they will have a history with when they are adults. They have the hugest family with so many people that love them, and they feel it!” says Lori.
Of course, no situation is perfect. “I am not saying that these relationships are easy and without their bumps,” says Lori. But she believes that on the whole, her family reaps lasting benefits from the close relationship between her children’s birth families.
April agrees. “We get along most of the time,” she says of her relationship with her son’s birth mother. “But sometimes it can be awkward. It’s like how I get along with my own sister. It’s not really any more complicated than any relationship with an extended family member.”
“We feel that we are lucky that we have a unique family with all of its complicated layers,” says April, who suggests thinking about open adoption as you do any other nontraditional family. It’s not to say that there aren’t challenges, but kids are resilient and surprisingly adaptive.
Ultimately, open adoption is a new paradigm for family. And it can work very well for those who choose it. “Open adoption allowed me to walk in my integrity and to come through it intact with more beauty in my life today. I lost a lot in the form of potential, but I gained something that I didn’t even know could exist. I definitely wouldn’t change it,” says Megan.
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