5 Misconceptions About Open Adoption

By Jess Nelson, Community Manager, PairTree

April 28, 2024

To an outsider, or if you’re just starting your adoption journey, open adoption is hard to understand. Imagining a lifelong relationship with a total stranger, often from a different walk of life, different social class, sometimes a different race, is intimidating.

However, when you educate yourself and go into open adoption with an open heart and an open mind, it can be the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Most of the misconceptions surrounding open adoption come from fear or lack of understanding…and we get it.

5 Misconceptions About Open Adoption

To help mitigate some of the fears surrounding open adoption, these are the 5 biggest misconceptions about open adoption.

Open Adoption is Co-Parenting

False. The biggest misconception hopeful adoptive parents have about open adoption is that open adoption is co-parenting. While open adoption involves varying levels of contact and communication between the birth and adoptive families, all legal and medical decisions are made entirely by the adoptive parents. Even though open adoption can include visits, open adoption does not mean sharing custody or sharing any parental rights.

As a birth mother in a fully open adoption that includes regular communication and in-person visits, I am not involved in the day-to-day parenting decisions. As birth parents, we don’t expect to be co-parents. When we make an adoption plan and enter into an open adoption, we just want to be involved in some way and know that our kiddos are safe, happy, and healthy.

For years, I have tried to explain the relationship dynamic between birth and adoptive families, and I read a book recently that paints the most painfully accurate picture of the power dynamics in adoption from a birth parent perspective. Kelsey Vander Vliet Ranyard is a birth mother and fierce advocate for adoption reform, and in her debut book writes,

“I am an outsider to the mundane aspects of adoption. I certainly think daily about the child I placed for adoption, but I don’t play a main role in their life, I stay behind the curtain carrying on with my own life and waiting patiently for my cue. However, when I am called to enter the stage, I do so with vigilance, acutely aware of the sensitivity to every move I make or word I say and how my actions may be perceived.”

Open Adoption is for Birth Parents

Open adoption is truly for adoptees. Full stop.

It is meant to be child-centered and a way to maintain biological ties and relationships so that adoptees have access to their birth family and origin story as they grow up.

In Adoption Unfiltered: Revelations From Adoptees, Birth Parents, Adoptive Parents, And Allies, Kelsey Vander Vliet Ranyard shares, “A major falsehood that many adoptive parents and birth parents initially believe about open adoption is that post-placement communication is done as a favor for the comfort of the birth mother and her emotions. Holding the belief that open adoption is a courtesy to the birth mother is a fair indicator of a fundamental misunderstanding of openness and, in turn, the ignorance of the magnitude of the role adoption plays in the life of an adoptee.”

So often, we see open adoption used as a “selling point” in adoption to convince expectant parents to move forward with an adoption plan, but open adoption isn’t for birth parents. Can open adoption help in our healing as birth parents? Yes, of course. Having that direct connection to my daughter has been so beneficial to my healing as a birth mom. But as much as it helps with our healing, it’s also a source of pain…but as birth parents, we want to show up for our children in the best way possible and that means being an active participant in our open adoptions, even when it hurts.

Open Adoption is Easy

Open adoption is not easy - ask anyone in an open adoption. It often involves building a relationship between very different people, from different walks of life, sometimes across the country, but they come together in service to this kiddo. Open adoption is about getting to know each other, building trust, and maintaining that trust for the next 18 years.

Adoption doesn't just end when the adoption is finalized. That's when the real work begins.

Once the adoption is finalized, you have to figure out how this relationship works outside of the pre-placement bubble you were in. (That’s why we recommend creating a Post Adoption Contact Agreement!) There is a massive shift in the dynamics of your relationship; at the beginning, an expectant mom has all of the “power” in the relationship, but post-placement, the adoptive parents do. Gretchen Sisson describes this relationship best in her new novel “Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood”:

“The constant work of showing up, making the trip, fitting in the phone call, shifting priorities, being vulnerable and holding space for a real, ongoing open adoption might feel like a lot to ask, and it is. But it’s also a lot to ask someone to give you her baby, and it’s a lot to ask for an adopted person (especially as a child) to navigate their adoption without their birth family.”

Open adoption is work, every single day, but it is so worth it to put in the work and show up - your adoptee will be grateful that you did.

Open Adoption is Confusing for the Child

When talking about why they might be hesitant to enter into or pursue an open adoption, a lot of prospective adoptive parents are afraid it might be confusing for a child. But if you talk about adoption early and often in your home, it’s not confusing. As a birth mom with two very different adoption stories, I can attest that open adoption actually makes adoption less confusing for my birth daughter in our open adoption.

When you're having those conversations frequently, and adoption isn't a taboo topic in your home, then what seem like big conversations, they get a lot smaller.

When you talk about adoption early and often, and maintain those connections with your child’s birth families, open adoption isn’t confusing for them. There are so many great resources to help navigate those conversations in your home, like Surrounded by Love: An Open Adoption Story by Allison Olson. Surrounded by Love is a beautiful children’s book that helps illustrate what open adoption is, and it’s a great tool and resource to be able to talk about it in your home.

You can check out our support group with Allison Olson and learn more about normalizing adoption in your home, and how to establish and maintain healthy boundaries.

Open Adoption Means My Child Might Love Me Less

So many reservations or concerns about open adoption are rooted in fear, and none more so than the fear that your child might love you less if you have an open adoption…and that’s just not true. Your kiddo is going to love you to the moon and back, but they can also have room in their heart for their birth family.

Adoption is both/and, and that also means that your child can love both their birth family and you at the same time. That doesn’t mean they’re going to love you less…they love us differently.

No matter what type of open adoption you have, it is having love in your heart for every member of the triad, it's being respectful of each other's boundaries, it's healthy communication, and it's effort and work on both the birth and adoptive families to build a relationship that works for everyone.

Jess Nelson Jess Nelson is the Community Manager at PairTree, focused on growing the resources, programs and education offered for both expectant and birth families, and adoptive families. Jess has spent the last 5 years working in the field of private adoption, first as a paralegal for an Adoption Attorney in Louisiana and most recently with PairTree. As a birth mom of two through private adoption, her firsthand experience of both agency and attorney adoption led her to becoming an adoption professional and join the fight for reform and post placement care for birth moms.