PairTree

Understanding & Navigating Open Adoption

By Jess Nelson, Community Manager, PairTree

April 29, 2024

As a birth mom and adoption professional, one of the most common questions I get asked is “What is open adoption?” And the truth is, there isn't just one answer.

Open adoption is different for everyone - no two open adoptions are the same.


As a hopeful adoptive parent, it’s easy to be afraid of open adoption…after all, the media commonly portrays birth parents as teenagers, drug addicts, homeless, poverty-stricken, or dangerous. But according to the National Council for Adoption’s Profiles in Adoption: Birth Parent Experiences, the average birth mother is in her mid-to-late twenties, with at least some college education, and parenting one child already.

While it’s scary to imagine a lifelong relationship with someone you don’t even know yet, educating yourself and opening your heart to open adoption can make way for one of the most beautiful and meaningful relationships you’ll ever know. At the end of the day, it’s important to remember these 4 things:

1. Don’t be afraid of open adoption.

2. Put it in writing.

3. Don’t over-promise & under-deliver.

4. Closed adoption doesn’t mean you get to forget about birth parents.

What is Open Adoption?

Open Adoption, at the most basic level, means there is some degree of communication between both the birth family and adoptive family.

Open Adoption can be anything from a monthly, quarterly or semi-yearly text or email exchange with pictures and updates for important milestones, an open line of communication, annual visits, frequent visits and/or lunch on Sunday afternoons. Open adoption usually allows for direct communication between birth and adoptive families through phone calls, text messages, emails, or visits.

That being said, open adoption is going to look different for everyone. There aren't any rules to it.

That means that everyone gets to decide what works best for them and their family; what works for some might not work for others. My open adoption story might be really intimidating to a lot of prospective adoptive parents just getting started on their journey. But that’s the beauty of open adoption…it’s a relationship just like any other relationship. It’s going to ebb and flow, grow and evolve. And as you’re going through different seasons of life, that relationship is going to change and grow along with you.

As an adoptive parent, your role in an open adoption is to create an environment where the child feels secure, loved, and supported in their exploration of their identity and their connection to both their adoptive and birth families. It requires empathy, understanding, and a commitment to putting the child's best interests at the forefront of all decisions and actions.

Did you know that today, over 90% of all adoptions are considered open?

Semi-Open Adoption usually involves limited communication during an expectant mom’s pregnancy, meeting shortly before, or at the child’s birth, and both parties will have basic information on each other. Oftentimes, continuing contact is facilitated by a third party - usually the adoption agency or attorney you worked with.

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.

To hear more about how my open adoption evolved, you can go Inside an Open Adoption.


Open Adoption Best Practices

Open adoption can be a complex and emotional process, so it is essential to ensure that everyone involved feels respected and supported.

As a birth mom and adoption professional, I have two key pieces of advice when it comes to open adoption:

  1. Put it in writing.
  2. Don’t over-promise and under-deliver.

Put It In Writing

A Post-Adoption Contact Agreement, or Open Adoption Agreement, will set expectations for future communications and lay the groundwork for your relationship with your kiddo’s birth family.

That relationship will always work best when there are clear expectations in place through a Post Adoption Contact Agreement (PACA).

You and the birth family, with the help of your adoption professional, will come to an agreement on the level and type of contact that you are all comfortable with. Know that your relationship will most likely evolve over time and communication preferences can change based on what works best for everyone involved: become more frequent, comfortable, and less formal. (Read how my open adoption relationship evolved here.)

A Post-Adoption Contact Agreement (PACA) or Open Adoption Agreement should answer three main questions:

1. How much contact does everyone want?

Open, semi-open, no direct contact.

2. How often do you want that contact?

Monthly updates, annual updates, holidays and special occasions, etc.

3. How do you want to send/receive that contact?

Visits, email, text, social media, letters, etc.

These agreements set reasonable expectations for continued contact and help hold everyone accountable. In some states, PACA’s are legally enforceable…even if they aren’t legally enforceable in your state, it’s still important to put them in writing so that everyone knows what to expect moving forward. But just like all relationships, open adoptions are going to ebb and flow, grow and evolve over time, which means your level of contact and communication is going to grow and evolve over time. Writing down and agreeing to the expectations might seem silly if you have a great relationship, but life happens and people get busy so having an agreement, even if it isn’t legally enforceable, is best practice.

Don’t Over Promise & Under Deliver

When coming to the table and thinking about what your future communication is going to look like, the single most important thing to remember is: don’t tell an expectant or birth mother what you think she wants to hear.

It is so easy to get caught up in the excitement of being matched with an expectant mom, but it is just as easy to shatter the trust she has in you and the relationship you’ve built by lying and misrepresenting your commitment to continuing contact.

You shouldn’t commit to sending updates every single week or texting every day, or having a visit every month when you live 10 hours away because you think that’s what she wants to hear. Be honest with yourselves and realistic about what you can commit to in an open adoption. Because after that placement happens or the adoption is finalized, if you're not holding up your end of the agreement, she's going to completely lose her trust in you, which shatters the foundation for your open adoption, and it's really hard to build that trust back.


Navigating Open Adoption

Once the adoption is finalized, reality sets in and the real work begins…you actually have to be in an open adoption. You have to figure out how to coexist with another family in service to your child…piece of cake, right?

Our CEO and Founder, Erin Quick crafted A Guide to Navigating Adoption with Multiple Birth Families, and it offers this piece of advice:

“I can’t type this loud enough: What you do matters. Your tone and attitude toward the birth family will set the stage for the child’s relationship with their birth family, so pay close attention to what you say and how you say it. You are their guide until they can start to guide themselves.”

We wish we could say that open adoption is easy, but it’s not…it’s hard work that involves conflict, compromise, commitment, and a lot of human emotions. And the truth is, your relationship is going to change over time, and sometimes it isn’t for the better.

When I placed my daughter for adoption in 2018, I lived 15 miles away from her and her adoptive family. For 4 years we enjoyed regular visits, extending to holidays, family functions, and her siblings' extracurricular activities. In 2021, I made the incredibly difficult decision to move 1200 miles away from her and it changed everything about our relationship. Her adoptive mom and I had to figure out how we made this relationship work with 1200 miles in between us; it was a complicated process and a painful 6 months navigating our new normal. But we both knew how important this relationship was, so we put in the work and figured out what our relationship would look like now.

Practical Advice for Navigating Open Adoption

Clear Communication: Establishing open and honest communication from the beginning is crucial. This includes discussing expectations, boundaries, and the level of openness desired by all parties.

Respect for Birth Parents: Birth parents should be treated with empathy, respect, and understanding throughout the process. Their wishes regarding the level of contact and involvement should be respected.

Consistency: Maintaining consistent and regular contact, whether through letters, emails, phone calls, or visits, helps build trust and a sense of continuity for all involved.

Boundaries: Setting and respecting boundaries is key. This includes understanding each party's comfort level with communication and interaction, and being mindful of the child's best interests.

Flexibility: Open adoptions can evolve over time, so it's important for all parties to be open to adjusting the level of contact and communication as the child grows and circumstances change.

Child-Centered Approach: Always prioritize your kiddo’s well-being and best interests.If the relationship with their birth family ever becomes unsafe, you need to make sure you take the necessary steps to keep your family safe…even if that means pausing contact with their birth family temporarily.

Respect Privacy: Respect the privacy and confidentiality of all parties involved. Avoid sharing sensitive information without consent, especially as it pertains to your child’s birth story or the circumstances surrounding their placement.


Closed Adoption: What it Means & How to Navigate

In 2024, it is nearly impossible to have a closed adoption due to social media, platforms like ancestry.com and 23andme, and the necessary empowerment of expectant and birth families to choose their child’s adoptive family. If you are a prospective adoptive family requesting a closed adoption, I implore you to take a moment and ask yourselves “why” before you continue pursuing adoption. Research and history have proven time and time again that access to their birth family from an early age is better for adoptees.

To learn more about closed adoptions, and the effects it has had on members of the adoption constellation, we recommend reading Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade and Gabrielle Glaser’s American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption.

When Open Becomes Closed

If you’re an adoptive family in an open adoption that has suddenly become closed, or “not open right now,” it’s usually due to something else going on in a birth mother’s life unrelated to the adoption.

Most birth moms don’t dream of becoming a birth mom one day - that’s not usually the goal we have for ourselves, so we’re making an adoption plan for a reason…something else in our life is pushing us towards choosing adoption. This means adoption is one small part of a much larger issue, or set of circumstances.

It’s very rare that birth parents “close” an adoption because they want to, the majority of birth parents want to show up and be involved in their children’s lives. But when they’re struggling with addiction, a housing crisis, financial instability, or any other high-stress situation, it’s difficult to be present in their open adoption relationship right now, and responding to a text or the last update you sent is probably the furthest thing from their mind. But birth parents still exist.

If you're going through a season of silence, please remember that a closed adoption, or a “not open right now” adoption, doesn't mean that birth parents should be forgotten about or cast aside.

If your child’s birth parents have closed the adoption for their own personal reasons, please don’t shut the door permanently…give them some grace and space, but don’t forget about them. Still honor and love them in your home, still speak about them. Save the things you would normally send them - pictures, updates, artwork, gifts, and put them aside for when that door opens again. Closed adoptions don’t mean birth parents don’t still exist.


Have more questions about open adoption, or just want to talk? As a team of adoptive and birth parents living our own open adoption journeys, we’ve been there. We’ve had those tough conversations, and we’re here to support you as you navigate your own open adoption journey. You can email us anytime at hello@pairtreefamily.com and set up time to chat 1:1 with Birth Mom and Community Manager Jess or Adoptive Parent Erin.


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.

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