My #1 Secret Tip for a Successful Open Adoption

Dawn Davenport


How to have a successful open adoption.

How to have a successful open adoption.

Chances are good—extraordinarily good in fact—that if you are adopting a baby in the US, you will have an open adoption.  Last year 95% of domestic infant adoptions were open. Open adoptions have the potential to be messy given their very nature, but that need not be the case if you apply this “simple” tip.

At my core I’m a simple person.  I like guiding principles — the fewer and simpler the better. Unfortunately open adoption is anything but simple. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a life situation that is more fraught with potential complications. I find, however, that the more complicated the situation, the more I need simplicity. Since I know I’m not alone, I offer you my top tip for making an open adoption work.

First, let me say that I recognize the unbelievable hutzpah of taking any credit for this tip. Every adoption therapist and social worker who is reading this blog is saying, “Hey wait, I say something similar to my clients every day.” As with all age-old wisdom, it is not ‘owned’ by anyone.  I have, however, been giving this advice for years and with each telling have tried to distill it to its essence.

What Makes a Successful Open Adoption

It helps to start with a basic agreement on what makes an adoption open and successful. Open means different things to different families, but an open adoption involves communication and often contact between the adoptive family and the birth family.  I’ve talked with many (too many to even count, which makes me feel ancient) adoptive parents and first parents (albeit mostly first moms), and it is clear to me that the right attitude is at the heart of every “successful” open adoption.  Lori Holden captured this attitude perfectly in her new book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption, which I heartily recommend! For a real treat, listen to my interview with her on yesterday’s Creating a Family show. She radiates wisdom.


The Slightly Annoying Grandma Rule

OK, drum roll please, here it is—my #1 Secret Tip for a Successful Open Adoption: When faced with any difficult situation involving your child’s birth family, imagine it is your slightly annoying grandmother doing the deed and handle it accordingly. You are the parent and you get to make the decision of what happens with your child, but you also see value in the relationship with dear old grandma, even though she occasionally bugs the ever-loving daylights out of you.  Your goal is to address any issues in a way that will let grandma retain her dignity and allow you and her to go forward without any lasting damage to the relationship. All your actions are based on what will increase the odds of compliance and decrease the odds of hurting feelings. Substitute “birthmother or birthfather or any birth family member” for “grandma” and you’ve got it.

Situation #1: Your child’s birth father posts information, including pictures, of your child on his Facebook page, and you have a “no picture and limited info” Facebook policy for your children.

Slightly Annoying Grandma Rule in Action: Your slightly annoying grandmother is tech savvy enough to have a Facebook account and in addition to pictures of kittens, she also posts a picture and cute story about your child.  After your initial flash of annoyance, your next step is a mental balancing act. Did she share personal detailed information? Did she use names?  Did she intend to violate your rule or was it an absent-minded moment of sharing? In short, is it really that big of a deal, and is it worth the hassle of addressing.

If it is worth addressing, you would try to handle it in a face-saving cooperative manner. You’d probably choose to have this conversation in person and explain your concerns about how this type of exposure is not in the best interest of your child.  As with all conversations with dear old slightly annoying Grandma, you should give her the benefit of the doubt for good intent. Acknowledge at the beginning of the conversation that she didn’t mean any harm and that not everyone sees a problem with posting pictures. Then ask for her cooperation in the future because you think it is best for this child you both love.

Situation #2 (taken from an actual question we received on the Creating a Family Facebook Support Group): Birth parents named the child before the adoption. Although they agreed that you could rename the baby, when visiting with your family, they continue to call the child by the name they gave him.

Slightly Annoying Grandma Rule in Action: Your slightly annoying grandmother has a pet name for your child. In fact, it could just possibly be a dig at you for not choosing this name since it was a family name that she wished you had used. You go through your mental balancing act. How often do you see dear old grandma? Is she really trying to get under your skin to punish you for not choosing this name, or does she view it more as a nickname? Does it bug your kid, or just you? Is it really all that confusing?

If after your mental balancing you decide that this situation requires action, you then think of how to get her to comply without hurting her feelings. You would not talk to her in the heat of the moment; rather, you would schedule a time in person to have this chat. You would cast your concerns in what you think is best for your child. You would start by giving her the benefit of the doubt—she did not mean to offend, she simply liked the name. You might also want to ask her if she wished you had used the name, and explain why you chose the name you did.

What if the Birth Parents Don’t Comply

A lot of parents ask me what happens if they apply the Slightly Annoying Grandma Rule and the birth mother or birth father still does not abide by your wishes. You are the parent and you get to decide what is in the best interest of your child. If the birthparent’s disrespect of your wishes is great enough, you get to decide what type and amount of openness is best for your family. Altering the degree of openness is not a step to be taken lightly for dear old Grandma or for birth parents. I loved Lori’s advice on yesterday’s Creating a Family show to not cast any changes in the amount of openness as permanent.  Allow for the possibility of growth and a change in feelings on all sides. It’s the least you owe dear old Grandma and your child’s birth family.


Can you share some specific examples of touchy situations in open adoptions where this rule could be applied? Has some variation of this rule worked for you? Has it failed you? Is “grandma” the right relative to best sum up this rule? (I’ve been all over the board on which relative I’ve used—cousin, aunt, in-laws.)

Image credit: Stefan Freyr

18/04/2013 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 28 Comments

28 Responses to My #1 Secret Tip for a Successful Open Adoption

  1. Pingback: What Makes A Healthy Open Adoption? - Nightlight Christian Adoptions

  2. Pingback: What Do I Do When She Lies To My Face? | Adoption & Birth Mothers*

  3. Avatar Dawn says:

    Wow Christina, I am so impressed with your restraint!!!

  4. Lori Lavender Luz Lori Lavender Luz says:

    Lindsey, that’s such a great example! I like how you looked inward, too, to find out more about your values and judgments. Sounds like you handled the ear piercing issue well, with introspection, clarity and healthy boundaries.

  5. Lindsey Wahl Vandrovec Lindsey Wahl Vandrovec says:

    Well, my experience so far is limited, but a recent example would be our daughter’s first mother asking a few times via email after receiving a pic whether or not we would pierce her ears (she is just shy of 6 months old). I don’t have particularly passionate feelings about this, but knew enough to say that I wasn’t comfortable doing it until both of our girls are older. I want them to verbalize wanting it done, and I think it would be a fun memory to make together, and a fun story for them to tell. I didn’t realize until directly questioned about getting my baby’s ears pierced that I do have some hidden, judgemental thoughts ( which I found interesting). So, my snap response to anyone but my daughter’s first mother may have included something snide or snarky, and probably irrational? Instead, just like if I didn’t want to offend my granny (wish I had been thinking of it in those terms at the time), I just responded yes we will allow ear piercing, but not until later, and stated my reasons briefly. First mom just responded, “okay, I was just curious.” I don’t think our relationship was harmed in the least. I tried to assure her that we do like ear piercing, but are waiting a few years.

  6. Lori Lavender Luz Lori Lavender Luz says:

    I very much enjoyed talking with you yesterday, Dawn, and you captured so well this tip to taking the adoption charge out of situations that are likely to arise.

  7. Kelly Jabour Pramberger Kelly Jabour Pramberger says:


  8. PERFECT! We have a VERY open adoption with our child’s birth family and, while it’s sometimes difficult, it’s always enlightening and heartwarming.

    Thanks for the wonderful, thoughtful, and respectful suggestions Lori and Dawn.


  9. Avatar M. G. says:

    I seriously love your blog.

  10. Avatar Jenna says:

    Now natural mothers are being compared to annoying Grandmothers? At least adoptions are moving to being opened…..and more are becoming co-parenting and soon domestic infant adoption will die. Thank you God for bringing hope that this greedy greeting act will someday end.

  11. Avatar Anne says:

    None of these situations sounds earth shattering or worthy of “re-evaluating openness.”

    Please don’t forget that as an adoptive parent YOU chose this kind of adoption because it is in the best interest of your child! It is possible that you entered into this agreement in good faith, knowing what you were getting in to.

    A veiled threat of closing an adoption or temporarily controlling contact based on an annoyance – calling child by the name given her at birth- smacks of insecurity. I save cutting people out from my kids’ lives for offenses like drunkenness, habitual drug use or gross irresponsibility.

    No, adoptive parents are not glorified babysitters. But neither are birth parents gestational carriers for you. All these people are parents and (provided they are not unfit) should be treated with dignity, even though they don’t have day to day responsibility for the child.

    Eventually your child will grow up. The decisions you make now have consequences you haven’t considered yet.

  12. Avatar Jen says:

    So very helpful especially the social media advice. I am struggling with it right now with our birthmother. I freaked out a little in the beginning because I feel our son is being used as tool between our birth parents… “look I see him and you don’t” attitude. I have taken some space from the situation and now I see I need to just expalin that our son deserves some privacy. When he is older and can make these decisions on his own but for now we need to email and text pictures. Social media has for sure made open adoption challanging. Because where is the line with privacy? Social media is not really private anymore. It is a challange for sure but I love the keep it simple attitude.

  13. Avatar Beth says:

    Wow!!! Really? Ever consider the fact that this supposed “nagging” or “annoying grandmother” is actually because of the natural parents’ lack of security? That maybe, just maybe, you not contacting them when you promise to drives them crazy with worry? Fear that for no other reason but fear that you might close the open adoption, which is not so open? Since bparents have NO SAY in if the contract for the open adoption will actually remain open. Especially during the time of adoption finalization.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Beth, yes I think many of the struggles we see in the relationship between both sets of parents (birth and adoptive) is due to lack of security and fear on both sides. I also think some issues are because all the folks involved are simply different people coming from different places. My point is that often we have similar struggles with people in our biological family, and yet we seldom overreact to these problems. We value the relationship enough to take them somewhat in stride. I think it’s helpful to try to think of any “issue” with your child’s first family in terms of how you’d react if it was happening with a member of your bio family.

  14. Avatar Brian Hibbets says:

    I have recently started a web site, the info you offer on this web site has helped me tremendously. Thank you for all of your time & work. “The only winner in the War of 1812 was Tchaikovsky” by Solomon Short.

  15. Avatar Liz says:

    Thanks for this article! I have a question about your statement that 95% of adoptions are open. The article you linked to says that 95% of agencies OFFER open adoptions, which doesn’t seem to me like the same thing. Did I misread?

    As an adoptive mom in a very open adoption (with both frequent contact and very open-hearted, close relationship), I definitely agree with you that seeing birth/first family as FAMILY rather than as strangers to whom a burdensome duty is owed is very helpful in the relationship.

    My worry is that agencies sell “open adoptions” to expectant parents to encourage them to place without actually educating APs about open-hearted-ness. To me, letters and pictures by themselves don’t make an adoption “open.” I love Lori’s graph about contact and open-hearted-ness for that reason.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Liz, I love the spirit of your comment. I too worry that open adoption is “sold” to expectant parents and shoved down adoptive parents throat all in an attempt to make a placement. What is really needed is education and preparation for how to go forward in this relationship to best serve the child that both adoptive and birth parents love. And you are right that the statistic given includes all types and degrees of openness as defined by the agency. Including letters and pictures sent through the agencies.

  16. MJ, I commend you for really researching adoption and open adoption, seeing it not only from the AP side but also from other points of view.

    You bring up a few points.

    1. Yes, APs must demand ethical adoptions — and know what they look like. Everything else is built on that foundation.

    2. One thing to look for in an ethical agency is whether or not its mission is to find a home for a child (ethical) or a child for a home (not ethical).

    3. Like you, at first I thought openness in our adoption was for the benefit of our daughter’s birth mom. As time has passed, I see so clearly that really, openness helps heal the child because it heals the split between biology and biography that happens at the moment she is placed.

    4. You are correct that healthy boundary setting by all involved and the ability to communicate clearly those boundaries — that these are key.

    5. As for glorified babysitting, children need to fully claim and be fully claimed by their parents, the ones who do the day-to-day taking care of them. Being there moment-to-moment helps you take on that role (over time if it doesn’t happen right away). The APs fully moving into this role doesn’t mean that the birth parents cannot also claim and be claimed by the child in their own way. (Jim Gritter calls birth parents “Life Givers” and AP “Life Sustainers”, the roles being complementary).

    That double-claiming is part of what will enable the child to become whole, to integrate the two parts of his identity (nature and nurture). Truly, change a lot of diapers and doing a bunch of nighttime feedings from a place of love and not duty works wonders in resolving the babysitting issue.

    Best wishes with your journey!

  17. Dawn said:

    MJ, glad it was helpful. Children don’t need glorified babysitters. They need real, honest-to-goodness parents. Most of the first parents I speak with want this for their child too because they love their child and they want what is best for him/her. There is room in a child’s life and heart for both sets of parents, but their roles are quite different, even if their love is not.

    [[Creating a Family blog] at 11:45 am on April 19, 2013]

  18. Avatar MJ says:

    Thank you so much for this article-I really needed to hear the line that you took such care to repeat-(In an open adoption) YOU (meaning the adoptive parents) are the parent and you have the right and the responsibility to set boundaries that are in the best interest of your child and your family. As one half of an IF couple, I have been trying to do some research on the options that are left for my spouse and I to possibly have a family one day. I have always considered adoption as a possible alternative route, but about a year ago my church’s national magazine published a very one-sided article from the POV of a natural mother who claimed that she was forced/coerced into giving up her child for adoption and who had very definite views about how IF people should solve their problems (most of which involved rolling over and playing dead by accepting a childfree existence as their default position). In this article, the author made adoptive parents and those who chose adoption as a possible way to build their families sound like terrible people who preyed upon those who were vulnerable. In my efforts to learn more about this side of the story, I stumbled into a lot of family preservation websites that expressed the same views about how AP and IF people should be regarded by NM’s and the world at large. Needless to say these sites and their views shook my feelings about adoption to the core and made me wonder if adoption was even ethical. I now see open adoption as one of the most ethical forms of adoption. If we do choose this as a family building option, I would want our child to have some kind of connection to their first family-I would not stand in the way of that, and I would even encourage it. But I struggled with my belief that as AP, my spouse and I could set any kind of boundaries in such a relationship-that we could expect a certain degree of respect from our future child’s NP’s/NF in terms of our relationship with the child. I had myself convinced that a NM could be allowed to see us as raising her child FOR HER-we would be more or less glorified babysitters that would encourage the NF to treat us like doormats. I was deeply afraid that this is what Open adoption would/could mean for us. This article has caused me to breathe a deep sigh of relief and restored a bit of my faith in adoption as a family building option. Open adoption still has to be a 2 way street in terms of how all the parties respond to each other-and I am glad to hear someone affirm that even if you are an adoptive parent, YOU ARE THE PARENT at the end of the day. Thank you for this. Take Care

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      MJ, glad it was helpful. Children don’t need glorified babysitters. They need real, honest-to-goodness parents. Most of the first parents I speak with want this for their child too because they love their child and they want what is best for him/her. There is room in a child’s life and heart for both sets of parents, but their roles are quite different, even if their love is not.

  19. Lindsey said:

    This is wonderful advice.

    [[Creating a Family blog] at 7:02 am on April 19, 2013]

  20. Lindsey, yes, and as with much good advice, it’s often hard to implement! 🙂 Can you share any situations where it would have helped, or did help? I’d like to hear some real life applications.

  21. Avatar Lindsey says:

    This is wonderful advice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top ↑

Content created by Creating a Family. And remember, there are no guarantees in adoption or infertility treatment. The information provided or referenced on this website should be used only as part of an overall plan to help educate you about the joys and challenges of adopting a child or dealing with infertility. Although the following seems obvious, our attorney insists that we tell you specifically that the information provided on this site may not be appropriate or applicable to you, and despite our best efforts, it may contain errors or important omissions. You should rely only upon the professionals you employ to assist you directly with your individual circumstances. CREATING A FAMILY DOES NOT WARRANT THE INFORMATION OR MATERIALS contained or referenced on this website. CREATING A FAMILY EXPRESSLY DISCLAIMS LIABILITY FOR ERRORS or omissions in this information and materials and PROVIDES NO WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, implied, express or statutory. IN NO EVENT WILL CREATING A FAMILY BE LIABLE FOR ANY DAMAGES, including without limitation direct or indirect, special, incidental, or consequential damages, losses or expenses arising out of or in connection with the use of the information or materials, EVEN IF CREATING A FAMILY OR ITS AGENTS ARE NEGLIGENT AND/OR ARE ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH DAMAGES.