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Openness in a Closed Adoption

January 5, 2011

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What? Is that a typo? An oxymoron?

How do you have openness in a closed adoption? Why would you want to?

I’m on the board of a really amazing adoption education and support group. Why is it really amazing? Lots of reasons- but mostly because TWENTY years ago the founders were progressive enough to form a group that supported ALL members of the adoption triad. And so Adoption Knowledge Affiliates was born. In 2011, we continue to be one of the only groups in the country that brings together adoptive parents, adoptees, and birthparents all in the same room! But really, my plug for AKA is beside the point. If you follow my blog or get my newsletter, you already know about AKA.

The reason I bring up AKA is because it’s not uncommon at all for families who are interested in international or foster care adoption- or families LIVING international or foster care adoption- to think that issues of openness, or a group like AKA, doesn’t apply to them. Because AKA welcomes all members of the triad and supports openness, somehow we’ve sent the message that AKA is not for families who have adopted from China, or Haiti, or Russia. Or whose children experienced abuse and neglect before coming to their home. Families who adopted from China don’t have open adoptions, right? They know nothing about their child’s birthfamily and really can’t even dream of a reunion (although maybe this will change before our young adopted children from China become adults!!) Families who have adopted children from foster care CERTAINLY don’t have open adoptions due to safety issues. RIGHT?!?!

Openness in a closed adoption

I’ve said it before– but it’s worth repeating. Openness doesn’t mean having your child’s birthfamily over for dinner, exchanging holiday gifts, or even sending letters or emails. Openness is a mindset. A paradigm. An approach to your child’s adoption story. Children adopted from China have birthparents. Birthparents who they will grieve for. Birthparents who are grieving the loss of their child- your child. Simply because you haven’t met their birthmother, or know her name, or anything else about her doesn’t negate her existence. Birthparents still exist in a closed adoption. You can still talk about your child’s birthparents, honor their grief for their first mother, light a candle for her on your child’s birthday. You can learn a lot about what it means to be a birthparent by learning about other birthparents. By hearing the story of birthparents who have placed their child for adoption. By meeting birthparents and absorbing their song. Openness does not mean “stop listening if your child was adopted from another country or foster care.” You may not have to navigate the intricacies of an open adoption in action- but many of the important aspects of openness still apply to closed adoptions. Remember when I blogged about Paul? The birthfather who placed his child for adoption forty years ago and had the entire audience weeping at the AKA conference in November? Well, Paul’s story is relevant for ALL adoptive parents. Children in a closed adoption may have a dad like Paul out there, and in order to truly understand our adopted children, we need to have an understanding for Paul. Our children bring their birthparents with them when they come to our family. We cannot adopt a child without also adopting their birthfamily- even the birthfamily that we never had the opportunity to meet.

Why would you want to?

Why should we complicate our lives by talking about adoption and birthparents? Our lives our complicated enough, right? Many international adoptions are also transracial adoptions, so families are already dealing with that added layer of complication. Many children who have been adopted from CPS are struggling with the physical impact of trauma or deprivation. In some regards, having a closed adoption seems a bit simpler than an open adoption, right? Unfortunately many many parents who thought this when they entered into the adoption process are learning that closed adoptions are NOT simpler. Closed adoptions are hard. Saying “I don’t know” time after time after time to your favorite person on earth is heart wrenching. Saying nothing at all- because your child doesn’t feel comfortable asking about their birthfamily- is even more devastating.

Let’s talk about adoption more. Talk about your child’s birthfamily more. Even birthfamilies who struggled to care for their children suffered when their children- your children- were removed from their care. Even birthparents who “did nothing” during their CPS case to regain their parental rights suffered the loss of their child. Our adopted children will love the birthparent they never met; the birthparent who abandoned them; the birthparent who was abusive; the birthparent who didn’t work their case plan. And their birthparents loved them. We can honor that. Nurture that. Give voice to that. We can learn about other members of the triad and come together in a space where all triad members are welcomed and celebrated, even when our adoption is closed.


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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin and Bastrop Texas specializing in adoption and attachment.

One Comment leave one →
  1. catfishmom permalink
    October 8, 2013 4:28 pm

    I found out that I had a dad like Paul out there, and I had to be the brave one and go against the wishes of the family who raised me to find him. It took me 20 years to be courageous enough to stand against my parents and learn what I wanted to know about my very own life. You can imagine what that has done to my relationship with my parents, and they have no idea what I have been through. They are not equipped to ask.

    You are the adults in your children’s lives…equip yourselves.

    I woud encourage all adoptive parents to remember that even though they have the privilege of parenting these children, the life of these children belongs to them, not to you. All children, biological and adopted don’t belong to us…

    Be attuned to what your child needs…find out how to do that even if it is hard for you. Your child’s story is unique unto them.

    Thanks to you, Robin, as an adoptee and an adoptive mom for your wonderful work.

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