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