By Katie R. Stallman, LICSW, CGE. People who are part of a close and loving open adoption seem to have a little something extra in their back pockets that makes their relationship work no matter what. What is that something extra? How do those people do it? We’ve seen participants in a successful open adoption develop an unflinching ability to hone in on what’s important in life. They possess a gratitude and graciousness that seems above and beyond the norm. They’ve created an unconditional regard for each other that can’t be rocked regardless of the trial. This gives them an amazing ability to always hold the child the as witness in their interactions with one another. They’ve developed resiliency.
Open adoption relationships are among the most resilient in our culture due to the inherent focus on honesty, compassion and communication. Everyone is invested in meeting the evolving needs of the child, and therefore invested in seeing the relationship flourish. To learn more, I talked with Barb, Claire, and Danessa, who generously shared their insights for this article. I’d like to thank them (as well as the males in this family who have all been instrumental in their success-Steve, Rod, and James) and the many other resilient participants we have been privileged to see in action over the years at Open Adoption & Family Services (OA&FS).
Resiliency fosters ability to cope.
Resiliency refers to the way in which individuals cope with stress or adversity and are able to “bounce back” and recover from some kind of shock or disturbance. Psychologists studying child development have examined why some individuals seem more adaptable to change than others. Michael Ungar’s recent article in The Psychotherapy Networker explains that researchers found, “Those who exhibited the most resiliency were the kids who behaved in ways that allowed them to experience self-esteem, maintain attachments to others, and enjoy opportunities to exercise personal control in meaningful ways.” Ungar may as well have been writing about the families of open adoption: the children, both sets of parents, and the constellation members who support these very natural, yet still unconventional bonds. Beyond their innate strength, sense of curiosity and courage-they are people who find meaning in their choices.
By the very nature of their choices, open adoption participants are resilient people. “In order to get to adoption as a choice, you have to be resilient to begin with,” explained adoptive mother Claire. “It is such a deliberate decision on both sides.” Claire and her husband felt they faced intense judgment at the time they began exploring adoption. Prior to choosing to work with OA&FS, she and her husband inadvertently attended a meeting for adoptees and birth parents who felt deeply wronged by the adoption systems they worked with. “People were really, really, angry,” she said. “I wondered, why were they so angry?” She could have run the other way, but instead, Claire sat down and listened. She left that meeting deeply impacted and made a choice that open adoption would be the only path.
That path was one also chosen by Danessa, birthmother of Claire’s daughter Carolyn. “I went through so much,” Danessa noted as she described the emotions of placing two children for adoption within two years. Danessa credits her internal strength as a person, the addition of her loving husband to her life, and her absolute commitment to the daughters she placed as giving her the fortitude to stay connected. “It is a big responsibility,” she added. When things are difficult, Danessa has oft relied on a mantra from her mother: “And this too shall pass.” Open adoption participants take sometimes untenable and overwhelming situations and turn them into something meaningful. Nobody plans on becoming a “birth parent.” Danessa never anticipated making that choice not once, but twice.
And most adoptive parents do not embrace adoption as their first choice for becoming a parent. Adoption is fraught with loss, we all know this. But despite the challenges, successful open adoption participants take back the control that was taken from them. They end up with relationships that are “bullet-proof.” These relationships are indeed resilient! The love, the gratitude, and the high regard that many adoptive and birth parents have for one another, despite their many differences, is impressive. Children of open adoption also find meaning in the choices that were made on their behalf. “It is my family,” they tell you. “This is just the way it is.” Claire and Danessa would tell you that Carolyn is an example. At almost 12-years-old, she seamlessly integrates the relationship she has with both her mothers. Claire and Danessa take pleasure in watching the unique relationship Carolyn has with each of them thrive. When other adults in the family seem to struggle with things privately, Carolyn is the one in the middle smiling. Carolyn easily embraces the idea that “family” consists of the people who love you and are in your life. “She is so adaptable and loving,” they both remarked separately, when describing Carolyn.
From the beginning, the adults in Carolyn’s life modeled this adaptability for her. This kind of resiliency is modeled countless times by the birth and adoptive families making this choice. It’s not possible to be intimately connected to people without strong feelings, and these feelings can be intense. However, open adoption participants make sense of and find meaning in these feelings. Daniel Siegel, M.D. a leading neuroscientist and researcher, often talks about people taking the “high road” in their reasoning and subsequent emotional and behavioral responses. This means that people have the capacity to use higher forms of reasoning before they react to triggers. “The low road” of course refers to the reactions typical of the more primitive parts of our brain, or “reptilian brain,” as it’s called. The key to resiliency in open adoption is choosing the “higher road” of reasoning when facing challenge. Are there challenges? Sometimes. Claire and Danessa are wonderful examples of open adoption participants who found a way to grow their relationship and maintain a loving connection for Carolyn’s sake in spite of any challenge. Both indicated they are closer now than they ever were before. Yet a move across the ocean for five years, a divorce between Claire and her husband, Danessa’s marriage, and birth of Danessa’s two additional children after Carolyn’s adoption have made for some interesting issues. Danessa also placed another daughter, Rachael, with Barb and Steven, prior to having Carolyn. There are many layers. So what is their secret? The Seven Core Beliefs Barb, Claire, and Danessa did not have a name for their fortitude, but conversations with all of them revealed people who are deeply rooted in specific philosophical beliefs about openness.
The Seven Core Beliefs are a concrete reflection of the principles these women embrace with ease. All open adoption participants, no matter the spectrum of their contact with one another, can incorporate these beliefs (a values-based lens) into their way of thinking. Families who embrace these ideas can better tolerate the complexities of open adoption relationships. These beliefs act as the “backbone” of a successful open adoption relationships. They are statements or thoughts to be referred to in times of chaos, challenge, or confusion. In essence, using the Core Beliefs and a values-based perspective are ways to gain mastery over whatever challenge one faces, thereby ensuring and even increasing the resiliency of the relationship.
1. Not Co-Parenting. Open adoption is not co-parenting and both sides need to realize this from the start. Adoptive parents need to feel like the parents and act accordingly. Some adoptive parents are unnecessarily stressed by the wishes or suggestions of birth parents and need help remembering that they are indeed the parent. And birth parents are no longer in the role of making parenting decisions. Barb, Claire, and Danessa not only understand this distinction, but they also accept that they, and more importantly the children they are parenting, are enriched by the role each plays in their lives. Danessa noted that it was a huge “reality check” when Claire told her she, her husband, and Carolyn would be moving to England with Carolyn when she was not yet two-years-old. “It was an amazingly overwhelming moment. I felt like they were taking her so far away, from me,” Danessa said. But Danessa also had the wisdom to support them in their decision and view it from their perspective. “I didn’t have any control over it because of the decision I made. And I had to deal with that.” Claire was amazed by Danessa’s support during their five years away (only two years were initially planned) in England. “Her understanding, lack of judgment, and supportiveness is a testament to who she is as a person,” Claire said.
2. Mutual Benefit to All. Agreements about openness need to come from a mutual understanding of the benefits to both the child and the adults involved. Openness gives adoptive parents so much information they would not normally have, and deeply informs adoptive parents as they make parenting choices. Barb, Claire and Danessa each revealed a deep admiration and respect for one another. They enjoy one another. Claire delights in seeing her daughter with Danessa. “They look so much alike,” she proudly reported. Claire also stated that Carolyn really needs to see herself reflected back at her. This is something joyful for Claire, not threatening. Barb added the joy of seeing Rachael with her siblings has been a total surprise. “Seeing the joy they all experience when together is really neat,” she said. This past summer Rachael and Carolyn spent a week together at Girl Scout Camp and are spearheading a relationship all their own. Rachael, an only child in an adoptive home and the only child of Barb’s, happily tells her friends at school about her siblings and all the fun they have together, sometimes to their confusion. “This is a source of pride for her,” Barb explained. She also said, “Rachael seems peaceful and relaxed in her whole body after a visit with her siblings.” What parent doesn’t want that for their child? Adoptive and birth parents who believe they also personally benefit from contact with one another are much better able to manage the very normal personality differences we all have. Barb, Danessa and Claire each stated they consider the other a dear friend.
3. Dynamic Relationships. All relationships have an ebb and flow. This is normal. There will be moments of closeness and intense connection and moments when all the parties feel more distant for whatever reasons. Wise participants realize this and accept it. When Carolyn moved to England with her parents for five years it certainly changed the dynamic of their relationship with Danessa. Danessa credits Claire with making sure that Carolyn knew who she was during that time. Claire, Claire’s father, and Carolyn, visited with Danessa every time they were back in the U.S. Carolyn always seemed happy to see Danessa, and remembered her. “We talked with Carolyn a lot during that time about who Danessa was and we always showed her pictures,” Claire stated. But the visits weren’t as often as Danessa would have liked. The distance felt harder and it required more effort on all their parts-letters, pictures, emails, and phone calls. This was also a time of intense pressure for Claire. The family moved to England as a result of a job opportunity. Claire’s marriage also began to weather, leading to a separation and an eventual divorce. Danessa recognized and was able to empathize with Claire, despite having her own feelings about the distance. Since Claire and her family’s return to the U.S., all parties believe they have grown closer than ever before and the relationship continues to evolve in new ways.. are no longer in the role of making parenting decisions. Barb, Claire, and Danessa not only understand this distinction, but they also accept that they, and more Danessa said. But Danessa also had the wisdom to support them in their decision stated they consider the other a dear friend.
4. Opportunity, Not an Obligation. Using a values-based lens requires participants to view challenges and complexity as an opportunity for growth. Hence, they fare much better in the relationship when there is stress. They don’t see it as a sign of weakness, but rather a time for learning about the other. When one views the relationship as something they “want to be a part of” as opposed to something “they have to be a part of” the benefits are huge! Barb, Claire, and Danessa each take joy in all of the unique relationships afforded them through their open adoption connection. Carolyn and Rachael both spend time with Danessa, Danessa’s husband and the two children they are parenting. Danessa’s daughter Chanel is now 10 and J.J. is seven. Claire might take Danessa’s daughter, Chanel, along with her for a day of skiing. Carolyn spends time overnights with Danessa. Rachael’s family, although further away, is often included in the mix. Barb appreciated that from the beginning, she has felt Claire and Danessa include her and her family in whatever ways seems right. Rachael was just a year-old when Danessa placed Carolyn with Claire. “None of us had a template for how that would work,” Barb recalls when thinking about the joining of two adoptive families in addition to the birth family. She went on to explain that Claire really took the initiative with her, inviting the whole family to stay with them when they came in town to visit Danessa. “We have seen one another far more than I thought we would. It has been wonderful,” she added.
5. Grief is Complex. The grief inherent in adoption for all involved is a tricky, often covert, and unconscious element lurking behind the initial reactions and feelings of all involved. The values based lens requires one to accept that grief is normal, that it sometimes surprises us, and that it isn’t something to fear. Rather, something that requires attention and care. For the parents interviewed, the most surprising issue of late has been the grief of Danessa’s third daughter, Chanel, the daughter she is parenting. Chanel loves spending time with her siblings. Though she accepts the boundaries of the relationship and realizes they are sisters, just not sisters who live with her, it is often difficult. This doesn’t mean that any of them need to do anything differently. It just means Danessa needs to spend time listening to Chanel and validating the struggles she sometimes feels. Collaboration Required When conflicts, disagreements, struggles, or massive life changes arise both parties need to be heard, validated, educated, or supported. Ultimately, everybody needs to remember that the relationship is a collaboration. There are often lots of people involved with differing needs and attitudes. Claire and Danessa learned a great deal about collaboration and working through their fears when Claire and her husband divorced. Claire remembers feeling anxious to tell Danessa. She felt she had failed. To others who may be struggling with big changes, she offers this: “Life is messy. It doesn’t go the way we planned. Be non-judgmental of yourself and others. And don’t be self critical when things aren’t perfect. Is divorce ideal? No, of course not. But is it real? Yes. Can you make the best of it? Yes,” Claire explained. When asked about how she felt about the divorce, Danessa agreed it wasn’t what anybody anticipated, but that it really hasn’t changed things for her and the relationship with Carolyn or Carolyn’s father. “We’re all still friends and still share meals and events with one another,” she added. If anything, she sees their family being less stressed. Danessa further empathized that Carolyn’s parents must have felt so vulnerable when telling her about their divorce. She understood Claire’s initial feelings of failure. “But we aren’t perfect either,” Danessa exclaimed! “We’re a group who understands,” she said. Barb echoed the need for collaboration. Organizing visits that include three families and five children isn’t easy. “It takes much less emotional effort since we all agree it’s important, but the logistics keep getting harder.”
6. Child is Separate Being. All parents, no matter how a child enters or leaves their immediate family, need to be cognizant of this principle all the time. The children of open adoption are their own people with their own wishes, interests, and needs. This belief requires adults to successfully tease out what their needs are versus the needs of their child. ALL the parents involved need to spend time thinking about the reality of their expectations and whether or not their child is truly free to be who he or she wants to be. Children are not owned or possessed, a value Barb noted was emphasized by Jim Gritter in “The Spirit of Open Adoption”. This was pivotal in her decision to choose open adoption. As an older sister to two children who joined their family through closed adoption, Barb had an early sense of what an honor and privilege it is to be part of an adoptive family, but also how critical it is to honor the needs of the children involved. Danessa and Claire also clarified this value as they worked through the challenge of a major move to England that lasted longer than anticipated. “The way I coped with Carolyn’s sudden move was to keep focused on what an amazing opportunity it was for her. Carolyn could now experience so many things I would not have been able to provide,” Danessa stated. Though it was a painful time for Danessa, she knew it wasn’t about her. “We all work very hard to keep Carolyn in the center. Everything has been easier when we think that way,” Claire added.
7. Using the Core Beliefs to Increase Resiliency. Many open adoption participants, as Barb, Claire, and Danessa demonstrated for us in this article, very naturally embrace the Core Beliefs. For those who do not, look to the Core Beliefs to prepare for an open adoption relationship if you are not yet part of one, to organize your own thoughts about the relationship you are already a part of, and to look at these beliefs as a mechanism for grounding when your relationship feels unsatisfying, tense, or challenged. Claire noted, “The more accepting you are the better. There are no guarantees about anything. And everything worth having is a risk.” She went on to state the relationships she shares with all involved in Carolyn’s open adoption are such great opportunities for all of them. “It is a wonderful way to build a family,” she said. Danessa added that communication in her open adoption relationships remains paramount. “Hiding things or making things seem better than the way they are is not the way to go. You have to say where you are, how you feel, and then deal with the consequences,” she added. As Barb, Claire, and Danessa all accept, life is messy! “You are forced to stretch beyond your normal mindset,” Barb said, “and this is good: good for building empathy, good for the value it places on people, and good for your brain!” However, as they and so many other open adoption participants have proven, this group is as naturally resilient as the relationships they forge. Resiliency is not inborn, it is a choice one makes every day to use a values-based lens about how you are going to feel, think, and then proceed.