Last week my son spent the day with both his mothers.
My husband and I adopted Ryan at birth and we have an open adoption with his birth mother, Jodi. She’s in her third year of college and met us at Brookfield Zoo. We talked about her new boyfriend, classes, her family and of course Ryan while admiring the giraffes, gorillas and polar bears. Before we left, the two of them rode the carousel together while I took pictures, Ryan hamming it up as usual.
We keep Jodi updated on Ryan with e-mails and photos and see her several times a year. She and her family are part of Ryan’s family by blood and have become part of ours as well.
Sometimes people—even those close to us—are surprised by our relationship or question the wisdom of our decision. I had one of my worst arguments with my dad about having an open adoption when Ryan was an infant. "It’s going to confuse him!" he said. "He’s not going to understand."
But my own family is confusing enough. I have a "full" brother (same mom and dad), a half-brother (same mom, different dad) and a stepbrother (different mom and different dad). Andy is my only "true" brother who is genetically also my mother and father’s biological child—yet we have different last names. He went back to using our birth name to honor our now deceased biological father. And when I say my "dad," technically he’s my stepfather, the man who married my mother when I was 12.
So, yes, Ryan is going to be confused—by my family, too. At least for a while.
My husband and I didn’t decide on an open adoption lightly. A closed adoption feels safer for many adoptive parents. There’s no contact between birth and adoptive families. You know your child’s birth parents exist, but they’re vague, unformed. They’re easier to forget—at least for you.
But we knew from becoming licensed foster parents (which is legally required to adopt domestically in Illinois) that all adopted children grieve the loss of their birth families, usually between 5 and 7 years of age. That’s when they truly understand what adoption means and realize the loss. It doesn’t matter how much you love your child, how many times you sing "Old McDonald," how many trips you take to the zoo, how many hugs and kisses you share. There’s been a loss. Yes, that loss created your family, but it’s a loss nonetheless.
With an open adoption, we reasoned, our child would have fewer questions. He wouldn’t wonder what his birth parents looked like, or whether they were good at sports, or loved to read, or liked baby carrots like he does. He wouldn’t always wonder "why they gave me up" (language we would never use—we say, "chose adoption"). We wouldn’t have to speculate to fill in the gaps. We thought it would make it easier on him.
What we didn’t anticipate was what we would receive in return. Our relationship with Jodi is built on the love we all have for Ryan and will continue to grow as Ryan does. She shares in his milestones even if she doesn’t witness them firsthand.
More recently, we met his birth father, Julian, as well. Julian wasn’t involved in the adoption process but he is a thoughtful, intelligent, mature young man with a girlfriend and a baby boy of their own. He was excited to meet Ryan for the first time and to have the chance to know him. Ryan was sweet with Julian Junior, bringing him an Elmo toy to console him when the baby cried. Sitting next to him, he patted Julian’s curls gently.
"Woo (you) have curly hair!" said Ryan, touching his own springy curls. "I have curly hair, too."
"And so do I!" said Julian and the four of us adults looked at each other and laughed. At 3, Ryan may have no sense of connection between him and his half-brother, or between him and his birth parents. But as he grows, he’ll be able to have it. That’s important to us.
When Erik and I decided to become parents, we expected to love our child more than anything. What we didn’t anticipate was how our idea of family would grow as well. Ryan’s birth parents are a special part of Ryan’s family and therefore ours, and will be in the future. That’s been a gift we didn’t expect and one we’re grateful for.
Is open adoption confusing? Is it weird? Is it "out there?" I suppose some people might think so.
Is it worth it? Absolutely.
Kelly James-Enger lives in Downers Grove with her husband and son. She’s the co-author of The Belated Baby: A Guide to Parenting after Infertility (Cumberland House, 2008).