What It’s Like Navigating An Open Adoption

Open adoption can create a new kind of family structure. Here’s what it has meant for some adoptive and birth parents—including me.
An illustration of a child sitting behind a cake with lighted candles as an adult figure puts their hand on the child's folder and figures of other adults look on (Illustration: Holly Stapleton)

I watch my daughter snuggle with her mom, then run upstairs to watch Paw Patrol on her mom’s phone. Liberal screen time isn’t something we do at home, and I pause a beat as I think about how I feel about it. As an adoptive parent, navigating an open adoption with my child’s first mom is probably the most wonderful, most important, and most complicated relationship I’ve experienced. Later, as I reflected more on what my resistance to that Paw Patrol episode meant—whether I needed to be so attached to our screen-free life, or whether I could share a little more decision-making with my daughter’s birth mom—I became more and more curious about how other families managed the ins and outs of open adoption.

In an effort to get a better understanding of the nuances of openness, I reached out to Adopt4Life, an Ontario peer-based support network of adoptive, kin and customary care families, and through them was able to talk with some adoptive parents and birth parents (some of whose names and identifying details have been changed) about their experiences. What I learned reflects only a small snippet of the complex experience of adoption and openness; it is a beginning step for me in the ongoing journey of better understanding and navigating the complicated feelings that all of us bring to this experience.

About 5,000 adoptions happen every year in Canada, and some form of openness is a part of many of them. Openness can mean anything from knowing the birth parents’ names and sending and receiving a letter once or twice a year, to birth and adoptive families getting together weekly or monthly. Often openness is with a birth parent, but it can also be with birth grandparents, extended family or siblings. Sometimes openness is based on a legal agreement and sometimes it is an informal relationship. I was interested in understanding how open adoptions—especially those that are more open, with more frequent contact—look and feel. It’s not necessarily easy to have a close relationship with someone who is, potentially, very different from you, let alone to share something as precious and weighty as a child.

Historically, in Canada, most adoptions were closed—an adoptee had little or no contact with their birth family, often didn’t know anything about them, including their name, and sometimes didn’t even know they were adopted. This has changed dramatically in the past 30 years or so—both because of a growing understanding of the benefits of open adoption, and because the growth of the internet has made closed adoptions less realistic. Logistically, openness is harder and less common in international adoptions. Some form of openness is worked into most private adoption agreements (private adoptions normally involve newborns, where a pregnant person often has the opportunity to choose the adoptive family). Public adoptions through a children’s aid society can vary widely in terms of openness, depending on the circumstances in which the child was removed from their birth family, the child’s age, and even, I’ve learned, the attitudes of the adoption workers.

I spoke with Dianne Mathes, a family therapist and the executive director at the Adoption Council of Ontario, and an adoptee herself. The Adoption Council of Ontario is a non-profit organization that offers education and support to people within the adoption constellation (adoptees, adoptive families and birth families). Openness is an essential way of allowing adoptees to know their story and their identity.

“Let's think about this through the lens of the child, who has to make sense of the fact that that's their biological family, and where they came from—good, bad, or indifferent. There is a connection and a story that has to be understood and integrated,” Mathes says. Since the groundbreaking book The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child was published 20 years ago, there has been growing awareness of the loss that adopted children experience when separated from the parent whose womb they grew in for nine months—no matter how loving their adoptive family is, or how early the adoption takes place. The opportunity to connect with their birth family from a young age can be seen as an opportunity to prevent that wound from growing so big in the first place.


Mathes says the key to openness as encouraged by the Adoption Council of Ontario is open-heartedness—a sense of warmth and relatedness between adoptive and birth families that, ideally, pervades how adoptive families not only talk with but talk about their child’s birth family. The idea of open-heartedness has been borne out by 30 years of research following 190 adoptive families and 169 birth mothers in which their children were placed in private infant adoption, through the MTARP (Minnesota/Texas Adoption Research Project). This research has shown that openness can have benefits for adoptive parents, birth parents and adoptees. Significantly, the benefits to the adoptees seem to depend not so much on the frequency of contact with their birth family, but on the quality of that contact (although, as some of the families I spoke with showed me, spending more time together can often build closeness, but this isn’t always the case).

Colorado-based adoptive mom Lori Holden and birth mom Chrystal Hass explore the idea of open-heartedness in adoption in depth in their book The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping your Child Grow Up Whole, and Holden goes into even more depth in her blog, vlog and podcast. In a blog post, Holden describes the work of openness as “resolving your own fears and insecurities for the sake of your child.” It’s not necessarily easy, but it’s not necessarily hard either, and it requires vulnerability and trust, and a certain kind of listening, to yourself, your kid and the other parents in the story.

Julie, an adoptive mom of two kids in Ottawa, tells me about both the joy and the heaviness of her connection with her two-year-old daughter’s first mom and dad, with whom they spend time at least once a month. “I’m not entirely sure if I can pinpoint where that pressure comes from, to maintain this perfect relationship or to just to be, you know, everything that they want you to be,” says Julie. “Of course, just at a very basic level, they've entrusted me with their child. And I want to live up to these expectations.”

This sense of pressure, a kind of tiptoeing around each other, was even stronger for birth families. Emily is a birth mom in Simcoe, Ont., whose daughter Angelina is now 16. Over the years, they have seen each other frequently, sometimes more than once a month. Emily has developed a close relationship with Angelina’s adoptive parents, Michelle and Brad, and Angelina has had sleepovers at Emily’s house since she was five. “We literally just evolved into family,” says Emily. Despite their closeness, Emily also accepted a kind of distance between them. “There was one time when she asked if she could call me Mom and I was like, no, I'm just Emily. Mostly because I didn't want to step on Michelle's toes,” she explains. “Not that I gave up my right to be her mom, but I just didn't want it to be confusing for Angelina, and I didn't want Michelle to be sad.” Some birth parents do go by Mommy or Daddy, or Mommy First Name or Daddy First Name. I ask Emily about this, and she thinks for a moment, and offers another insight. “It was probably to protect myself a little bit,” she says. “It makes it a little bit less personal. It just kept that degree of separation that I needed.”


Gloria, who lives in Toronto, is a birth mom who, now that her son is 26, has a very close relationship with him. She also speaks of treading lightly and keeping some distance with her son’s adoptive parents at first. “I felt in the beginning I was walking a fine line of how I interacted—a fine, fine line. Not to step on any toes, to ask for permission,” she says. “But as we got to know each other as people, I was okay to share my views about things too.”

For Gloria, openness, which was less common at the time that she was making the decision to place her son, was important to her, and something Mona and Craig were happy to provide. But she was also looking for parents who fit her personality, people who she could trust to be the right fit for her child. Thinking that her child might share her strong personality, she was looking for an energetic family. “I knew Mona had the strength and that was one of the reasons why I chose [that],” she says. She also recalls watching Mona change her son’s diaper in the hospital in those early days after he was born, watching to see if the connection and warmth that she wanted for her child was there, and prepared to back out of the adoption if it wasn’t.

For the birth parents I talked to, this process of choosing their child’s adoptive parents (through private adoption) gave them confidence and trust, a sense that their child is being well cared for, which has stayed with them even when things aren’t always easy or smooth. Yet, many birth parents whose children are adopted through public adoption don’t have this level of choice and control, or an opportunity to find a family that is not only safe and loving but also a fit with their values and personalities. At the same time, adoptive parents may not be fully prepared that they’re entering into a relationship not only with their new child but also with their first family.

While the research on openness in public adoption is less robust than for private, some themes have emerged—according to the MTARP researchers, openness seems to work best when the child’s adoptive parents are able to facilitate open and honest dialogue with the child about adoption, when the birth family have accepted the finality of the adoptive placement, and when the birth and adoptive parents are able to develop a collaborative relationship.

Sally, an adoptive mom of four kids in Ottawa, has two different experiences of openness. Her older child was adopted through private infant adoption, and while the families don’t live in the same city, they see each other a few times a year, and she has observed how this connection has helped her older child develop their identity. Sally’s younger three children, a sibling group, came to her through a children’s aid society. While openness hasn’t been available for them, Sally also hasn’t pushed for it. She has been concerned that the experience could re-traumatize her kids. Having recently connected with her kids’ older half sibling, an experience which she says was amazing, she has also been given contact information for their first mom. She’s now facing the question of whether to reach out, worrying that connecting with their birth mom will bring new trauma to her kids, while at the same time, worrying about the loss involved in not reaching out. As her children approach their teens, she is engaging them in the conversation and decision.


Eva is an adoptive mom of four-year-old Sam, from Barrie, Ont. Sam’s birth mom, Jenna, is an extended family member. Because of mental health struggles and addiction, the local children’s aid society got involved before Sam was born, and Eva and her husband Joe were asked to raise the baby. Because Jenna has Indigenous heritage, the families were required to go through an alternative dispute resolution process to work out the details of the adoption, which Eva found very helpful. “It's always seeking to understand, and knowing that as human beings, we all seek connection, and that there is no greater connection than a child to their parents,” she says. “I think our own infertility journey really informed my compassion, because I knew what it's like to long for a child, and I can't even imagine what it's like to long for a child that is here and earthside that you can't be with every day.”

While they spend time at least once a month with Sam’s mom, they haven’t seen as much of his birth dad. “Part of that would be something like he would agree to meet somewhere and his addiction would get in the way of that,” Eva says. “I think he would have stressful feelings surrounding that visit and the expectations that were there or not there, and he would then use. That wasn't a deal breaker for me, it was more he would use and then it would be three hours past the visit time and he'd be calling me and I'd be like, ‘I'm sorry, Sam's in bed now’. Or things like that. And that was tough. He maintained contact for about the first 12 months, every couple of months. And then it really petered off for a while.” As this piece was going to publication, Eva shared that he has recently found an apartment and greater stability and that they are in touch weekly.

For adoptive families, there is growing awareness that adoption doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but within a context of social inequities, some of them built by decades of colonialism, systemic racism and classism. This is especially true for adoptions through children’s aid societies. “It's never lost on me that the money that the foster parents were getting, or the resources I'm able to access to help pay for extracurriculars, or this or that—if the birth family had this money, if they were supported by a social worker, could they have made it?” Sally wonders.

Patti is an Ottawa-based parent of a five-year-old girl who spends time at least once a month with her birth mom. She thinks that the time they spend together is important, and that if they only saw each other once or twice a year, as social workers first suggested, they would feel like strangers. Patti is part of Adopt4Life’s network of adoptive parents who connect online. Sometimes, she says, adoptive parents can be quick to put boundaries in place, limiting the amount or types of contact that they have with birth families. She thinks that sometimes it’s helpful for parents to ask themselves why they’re doing this, and whether it’s always about what’s best for the kid. “I think it's okay to say, ‘Think about that.’ What's coming up? What assumptions are you making? Is there another way to think of this?” She thinks that adoptive parents can both support each other in openness and in some cases entrench negative stereotypes about birth families, reinforcing divisions. “There's such a difference in power,” Patti says. “We [adoptive] hold all the cards. So it feels like we can push each other a little bit harder.”


Open adoption can bring an added level of accountability to adoptive parents—and that’s a good thing. Eva often thinks about the advice that another adoptive parent gave her. “He said I have the responsibility to make decisions on behalf of my child and his wellbeing. But, the biggest part of that responsibility is that I have to take accountability for it later when my child asks me about it,” she says. “Whatever decision I make, particularly when it comes to Sam’s relationship with his biological parents—anything that gatekeeps that relationship—I have to answer for when he is older. I need to feel good about the decisions that I make and look at it from the angle of an adoptee.”


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