Why adopted kids need to know where they came from

Having a sense of history can be enormously powerful for kids. There’s a wide range of what openness between birth parents and adoptive families can look like.

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What’s one trait that all adoptive parents possess? We don’t know our child’s whole story. But with open adoption on the rise, we’re learning how valuable it can be to share what we can with our kids.

Openness is common in private infant adoptions—US figures show that 95 percent of American adoptions currently allow for some openness between birth parents and adoptive families. But it’s also increasingly happening in the public system, and there’s a growing interest in having some degree of openness in international adoptions, too. Openness doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be celebrating birthdays and holidays with your child’s birth family, particularly if the history is complicated. From simply telling your child that she has a different “tummy Mommy” to having regular visits with birth and foster family members, there’s a wide spectrum of openness.

“Every family will have a different answer about what it means for them,” says Kathryn Connors, a parent liaison for Adopt4Life, Ontario’s Adoptive Parents Association. “For me, it’s letting the children’s birth and history be part of their story. When you respect that history, you’re respecting them.”

Research on open adoption is largely based on data collected from two projects in the US: the Minnesota/Texas Adoption Research Project (MTARP) and the California Long-Range Adoption Study. Generally, these studies have found that openness reduces the fears of adoptive parents and improves the overall well-being of birth mothers.

For adoptees, the verdict is less clear-cut. Past results were positive. Then, in 2016, an article published in Sociological Spectrum broadened the scope beyond white, middle-class, private infant adoptions. Researchers found an increase in attachment disorder diagnoses in open foster care adoptions. They were quick to point out that parents who engage in openness may simply be more likely to identify their child’s needs and seek help. But there was a correlation: In the end, the study’s researchers agreed that openness increases trust in adoptive families but emphasized that arrangements need to be tailored to each child’s circumstances.

family having portrait taken on a bridgeOur long road to adoption

Connors is well acquainted with that reality: She and her husband adopted their three children (ages seven, five and two) from foster care. Their two oldest kids are biological siblings, yet each child has a different level of openness with his or her biological parents. When their youngest was in utero, Connors and her husband agreed to exchange emails and pictures with the birth family only a couple times a year. Then, at 5:30 a.m. one morning, the birth father called to say his wife was in labour. “We threw that agreement out,” she says, “and our relationship blossomed.”

Today, the couples exchange weekly texts and go to dinner, and the older children from both families have met (the birth parents don’t feel ready to visit their biological child yet). “We’ve always said that, as long as the birth family is healthy and safe, we will let the children make decisions about their relationships to an extent,” says Connors. “But if we felt that the birth family members were not in a good place, we would have to step up.”

When they adopted their eldest child, the birth mother still had access. Due to safety and health concerns, Connors and her husband had to go to court to hash out an openness order that sets the parameters for the relationship. The judge decided that they must rent a post office box and send four packages a year. So far, the communication has been one-sided, but Connors says she loves sharing information with the birth mom. “Our daughter has special needs, so I enjoy sharing her gains,” she says.

The adoption order for her brother was closed because he was much younger and his birth mom didn’t have access. Rather than pursuing a formal openness agreement, Connors and her husband decided to wait and involve their son when he was older. Initially, it was confusing, but now that their son is five years old and can take part, the plan is working. “We’ll say ‘Hey, we’re sending a package. Do you want to include a picture or ask some questions?’” says Connors. “Sometimes he does, but sometimes he doesn’t. Either way, we support his choices.”

Now that their kids are older, Connors and her husband find themselves answering many questions on behalf of their birth families. “They’re too young to understand the actual story, so we talk about how good people can make bad choices but this doesn’t affect how they feel about you,” she says. “We say that everyone’s priority is making sure that you’re safe and getting what you need.”

Sometimes Connors has to allow for uncertainty and big feelings. “We allow space when they say they’re feeling sad because they miss their birth families,” she says. “Being open means being open to all of that, but I think it gives them a foundation for when they start entering into the tougher stuff.”

Foster parents have also proven to be an important part of their family. During a visit this past summer, their son’s foster family told them a story about the first time he touched a frog. “I’d never heard that one before,” says Connors. “It’s good to get those missing links. We’ve started life books so we can write all those memories down.”

Connors has even gone a step further. After her son asked who he looked like, they tested his DNA and found out that he and his older sister are part Icelandic. “I’ll never forget when I Googled ‘Icelandic people,’” she says. “My son was standing behind me and said, ‘That’s where I get my eyes.’” Now, the family is exploring Icelandic culture and trying recipes that Connors admits “sometimes go horribly wrong.”

Ultimately, finding the missing links is a family adventure, as is following the relationships as they ebb and flow, just like in any other family. “Openness means entering new territory, which can be scary,” says Connors, “but we know more medical information and cultural history and we have more tools to help them grow into healthy adults.”

Read more:
What you need to know about adoption in Canada
Adoption diary: When will we get our baby?

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