Monday, April 6, 2015

Research: Adoptees discuss challenges, advantages, and disadvantages of open adoption

      The article I read this morning was fairly recent (2012) and taken from a small sample who gave in-depth interviews. It was titled "Growing Up in Open Adoption: Young Adults' Perspectives." There were only 11 participants, so the information can't be used to establish any type of trend, but they did give interesting details in recounting their experiences. The adoptees were ages 18-23 at the time of this interview, and had all been in an open-adoption situation. These participants all had very different experiences with their adoptions: some exchanged mail once a year, some had face-to-face visits, some of these visits were frequent and ongoing while some had only happened once during childhood, and some talked on the phone while others used social media. This article referred to the biomom as "birth mother," so that is the language that I will use in summarizing the article.

Why did openness change?
       Almost everyone talked about the level of openness and/or contact changing throughout their lives. Three adoptees said that staying in touch required time and effort, and so as life would become busier, frequency of contact would decrease. Another 3 said that their birth mothers "had dropped out of touch" many years ago and that they wouldn't know how to get in touch with her today. One specifically mentioned that her birth mother had struggled with drug addiction and depression, so while the adoptee was still in touch with other members of her biofamily, no one knew where the birth mother was or how to contact her at the time of that interview.
     There were 6 participants who said that today, they had little contact with either of their birth parents. They emphasized that they would be able to have more contact if they wanted to, but that they really had no desire to do so. They conveyed the idea that their lives were full, and that they had no need for increased contact. Many said something related to the thought that "If I'm ever ready, there will be an opportunity to reconnect."
      The last interesting detail about openness changing was who was in charge of the contact. During childhood, contact tended to be coordinated by the adoptive and birth mothers. All but one adoptee noted that as they entered late adolescence/young adulthood, they took on the role of coordinating contact, themselves.The researchers didn't follow up on this to ask why or when that transition occurred, but at the end of the study the adoptees were asked what type of advice they would give to adoptive parents. One of the popular answers was that the children can be empowered by not having contact with the birth mother denied, but also not requiring it. This seems to indicate that many adoptees saw an advantage to being allowed to manage these relationships, themselves, sooner rather than later.

Thoughts about their open adoptions
    This is where things get interesting! From the 11 adoptees, the interviewers got 11 very different descriptions about the level of openness and the logistics of how the relationship with the birth mother worked. They emphasized that no 2 adoption situations were the same.
    But, when they asked these 3 questions: "What has open adoption been like for you?", "What are your reactions to it?" and "How has openness affected you?", they got "remarkably uniformly matter-of-fact" answers. Basically. everyone gave some variation of "[this is] just part of my life, so i don't think about it that much" or "I don't even really consider it a super large part of who I am, when I think of all the things that make me who I am, it's not that high up there."  One likened the relationship to the birth mother to that with an extended cousin: you want to stay in touch, but you aren't close enough that it is necessarily easy to make the time to do so. The way the researchers summarized their responses was this:
     "The respondents saw contact with and information about their birth families simply as a thread woven into the fabrics of their lives.Open adoption did not stand out to them as extraordinary or remarkable. It was simply a part of their overall experience, a part they viewed positively."
     Another thing they all had in common is that everyone had positive views about the idea of open adoption, regardless of what their contact had been like. Some gave concrete reasons for this (access to information, medical history, genetic roots, facts about their biological families, etc), while others emphasized the importance of knowing about their biological parents. One participant said "Even if I found out that my birth mother wasn't a nice person, I'd still rather know than not know." Another conveyed a similar idea: "At least issues and feelings are out there and can be dealt with, acknowledged, rather than showed away. I don't think it can get worse than not knowing." There were some participants who noted that there had been periods of discomfort or difficulty throughout the years, but nonetheless, they thought that having the contact with the birth families was a good thing.

Challenges, advantages, and disadvantages
      The adoptees were asked "What, if any, challenges did you encounter in living with an open adoption?" There were 5 out of the 11 participants who said that they didn't have any challenges. The other 6 gave responses that reflected 3 different ideas: 2 mentioned boundary issues, 2 involved learning disturbing or sad information, and 2 mentioned contact difficulties.
    The two boundary issues mentioned both had to do with names. In one situation, the child had asked if she could call her birth mother "Mom," and the birth mother insisted that she used her first name only, which caused the child to feel angry. In another situation, the birth mother kept calling the child by the name that she had picked out for her, rather than the name that her adoptive parents ended up naming her. One instances of disturbing or sad information involved the adoptee learning that his biological father was an alcoholic, and had been in an alcohol-related accident that left him paralyzed. The other challenge in this category related to the birth mother getting married and having more children. Finally, the category of challenges related to contact involved both a situation wherein the birth mother wouldn't return the child's letters, and one where the adoptive parents chose to keep some of the birth mother's letters from the child.
       Respondents were then asked what they viewed as being the advantages and disadvantages of open adoptions. The advantages listed were: having more family, no secrets/no frustrations related to not knowing information, being empowered by knowledge, access to useful information about themselves, feeling more compassionate, fortunate, and secure. Disadvantages mentioned were: living too far away for visits to be as frequent as desired, and needing to make time to maintain the relationship so feelings aren't hurt. There were 4 participants who said that they didn't see any disadvantages at all. No participant mentioned anything more profound or pervasive in terms of disadvantages.When they were asked if the open adoption had impacted their family relationships, only one participant mentioned something negative-- and this was the one whose parents would withhold letters from the birth-mother from her. In fact, many participants instead pointed out positive effects that the open adoption had on their family relationships. One quote I really liked was this:
"Visiting my birth mom made it clear to me where I belonged and whose child I was. Open adoption brought y parents and me closer together, seeing that they were willing to sit by me when I was really confused, that my parents love me enough to be open."
       The final question about challenges, advantages, and disadvantages was: "To what extent, if at all, do you think you would have been better off with less information or contact with your biological family?" No one thought that less information would have been a good thing, and indicated that they thought they would have been worse off if something had been kept from them. Some ideas related to this were "The worst part would be just not knowing" and "You become obsessed when you don't know." One participant gave an interesting statement that conveyed that she was happy she had visited her birth family and had no doubt that they were good people, but that she could see that they were not good parents and would not have provided a good environment for her to grow up in. She turned this into a positive thing by stating that it reinforced to her that she was lucky.

   So the summary of all this seems pretty simple: don't withhold information, don't force or deny contact, and don't portray the adoption as a defining feature of who they are or of your family.

 Siegel, D.H. (2012). Growing up in open adoption: Young adults' perspectives. Families in Society, 93, 133-140.

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