Ask five people what their definition of open adoption is and you are likely to get five answers. Some may think that allowing an expectant parent to choose the prospective adoptive parents from a profile of non-identifying information is an open adoption. Still others may say that those who met prior to placement and who exchange pictures and letters after the child is placed in the adoptive home are participating in an open adoption. This definition is, in fact, a variation of a semi-open adoption or openness in adoption.

So what is an open adoption?

The primary difference between a truly open adoption and a semi-open adoption is that the adopted child has the potential of developing a one-on-one relationship with his or her birth family. It is not about the adoptive parents bestowing birth parents with the privilege of contact, nor is it about birth parents merely being available to provide information over the years. Direct contact, in the form of letters, phone calls and visits between the birth family and the adopted child, along with his adoptive family, is essential if they are to establish their own relationship. After all, how can we honestly call an adoption open if the child is not involved? For many who are just beginning the adoption process, the concept of open adoption appears to be another complication they would rather not deal with.

One prospective adoptive mom, weary from years of infertility, asked me at an adoption conference, “I am pursuing an international adoption because I don’t want to have to deal with my child’s birth family in any way. What can you say to me that would make me change my mind and pursue, instead, an open adoption?”

My answer to her was simply this: “No matter where your child is adopted from, you will, as adoptive parents, need to consider your child’s birth family whether you know the birth family or not. This birth family is a part of who your child is. Open adoption allows you to know your child better by knowing his birth family.”  Expectant parents considering placing a child for adoption are often just as leery of the prospect of open adoption. Many are told, or feel, that ongoing contact will make it difficult to move on with their lives. Some are afraid that seeing their child will be too painful. Many worry that their involvement might confuse the child.

Making open adoption child-centered

Many adoptive professionals encourage prospective birth parents and adoptive parents in the pre-placement process to choose the level of contact “they are most comfortable with having.” The philosophy of comfort does not take into consideration several very important factors, one being that open adoption should not be based on making the adults involved comfortable; rather, it should be about providing for the needs of the child.

Much of the open adoption experience is uncomfortable and awkward, especially in the beginning. While it is true that many children are only as comfortable as the adults around them, it is also true that many of us do things for our children that we are not totally comfortable with because it is good for them.

The other factor that the philosophy of comfort does not take into consideration is that adoption is a life-long process. Many birth parents in the crisis of planning for an adoption, look upon continuing contact as an option too painful to contemplate. Many adoptive parents, on the other hand, just want to be a family, without the added complication of visits with their child’s birth family.

Most open adoption agreements are based on these feelings that occur around the time of placement. These agreements do not allow contact to ebb and flow according to the needs of all involved, most importantly the child. As time goes on, many birth parents, adoptive parents, and the adopted child find they want more contact, but feel they are not able to ask for more because of the original agreement. In cases such as these, open adoption becomes a contract instead of a covenant.

According to Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, covenant is defined in part as being one of the strongest and most solemn forms of contract. It is also described as being sacred. For open adoption to work best, birth parents and adoptive parents need to see their involvement with each other as a sacred commitment, or a covenant they make to each other for the sake of the child.

Patricia Martinez Dorner, author of Children of Open Adoption and Talking to Your Child about Adoption, encourages us to see open adoptionas just another form of blended family. In adoption, adoptive parents are welcoming members of another family into their own. This “blending” of families is not without its share of uncomfortable moments, but the beauty of birth parents and adoptive parents accepting each other as family is twofold.

One, birth parents and adoptive parents really get to know each other. It allows them to see who the others are outside of their adoption experience. Birth parents can be seen as more than people who found themselves in a difficult situation, and adoptive parents can be seen as more than an infertile couple. Being able to know each other as complete human beings allows for greater acceptance. The adopted child is also able to know his birth parents as they are, rather than creating a fantasy birth parent. Instead of spending countless hours conjuring up an image of a person they do not know, they can use that energy for other things.

Two, it gives the child a sense of wholeness. There will no doubt be times when birth parents and adoptive parents take up the responsibility of maintaining the connection with each other. An infant, a toddler or a child cannot carry the burden of maintaining the connection between his two families. An adopted child whose birth family and adoptive family come together in a familial way, will grow up with greater certainty. There is a saying that the greatest gift parents can give their children is to love one another. I think it is inclusive of all parents involved with a child.

So, what does a family blended by open adoption best compare to? In their book, The Open Adoption Experience, Sharon Kaplan-Roszia and Lois Melina state: “In practice, the relationship in open adoption is…comparable to that between in-laws.” In marriage, a spouse accepts his or her in-laws because he or she realizes that they are an important part of who his or her spouse is. In open adoption, the adoptive family and birth family make a commitment to stay in contact because they also realize that the birth family is an important part of who the child is. As with in-laws, relationships vary. Some open adoption relationships develop into friendships while others are more distant. All, however, recognize that they are family to one another, and important in the life of the child.

Openness tips for birth and adoptive family members

  • Locate understanding, supportive people.
  • Allow room for emotions.
  • Educate yourself on adoption issues.
  • Be ready to adjust boundaries and visitation around the needs of the adoptee, not your
  • Don’t shut off contact on a whim.
  • Maintain open and honest communication will all parties of the open adoption.
  • Acknowledge the adoptee’s basic need to know his roots.


This is an excerpt from What is Open Adoption? by Brenda Romanchik. Brenda is the birth mother of Matthew, born in 1984 and placed in a fully open adoption. She is one of the founders of Insight: Open Adoption Resources and Support, and is the author of several books. For more information go to