What Adoptive Parents Wish You Understood


My husband, Dan, and I learned so much about adoption as we went through the process to welcome home our daughter, Zelie, whom we adopted at birth. We started out knowing next to nothing about adoption, so we completely understand that our family and friends may not have the same knowledge that we gained over time and through experience. 

We’re always grateful when our loved ones are willing to learn about adoption; it’s one of our favorite topics to discuss! Here are three things on our “wish list” that we’d love for everyone to know about adoption. 

Closed adoptions are largely a thing of the past

Perhaps the most striking difference between domestic (U.S.) adoption now and in the past (even a few decades ago) is that by and large, open adoption is now the norm. 

In the past, birth parents and adoptive parents usually didn’t meet, and often didn’t know much about each other. Sometimes the child wouldn’t even be told he or she was adopted, or birth parents may have had no idea where their child went and no way of contacting him or her. 

But today it’s much more common for the child’s birth parents and adoptive parents to have some level of contact with and knowledge of each other. The “open” part of open adoption can range from periodic updates facilitated through the agency, to direct communication, to meeting once in a while or even frequently.

At first, we were nervous about the idea of open adoption, not sure what it would be like to be in contact with our child’s birth parents and perhaps other family members. But the training we received helped a lot, especially hearing from adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents in open adoption relationships who spoke about its benefits. 

We learned that open adoption is not “co-parenting;” adoptive parents take on full parental rights and responsibilities for the child. And we learned that like any relationship, open adoption can change and grow over time, that it’s best to start small, and that our agency would be with us all along the way.

For us, being able to meet and spend time with our daughter’s birth parents on her birth day and for a few weeks afterward was a tremendous gift. No matter what happens in the future, we will always have those precious memories to share with our daughter. And if we are able to maintain contact going forward, we hope that connection will help her when she gets older and starts to wonder more about her identity and origins. 

Ultimately, that’s what open adoption is all about: laying a foundation to give an adoptee the best possible chance to know who he or she is.

Our daughter’s story belongs first to her

We live in a culture where it’s common — and sometimes even expected — for people to share the minute details of their lives with others, from what they ate at their last meal to the nitty gritty details of a personal tragedy. Adoption stories often make great movies, TV shows, and viral news stories: lots of emotion, tragedy, triumph, etc. But in real life, adoption involves real people, not “characters” in a play. 

We take very seriously the fact that our daughter’s story — why she was placed for adoption, her birth parents’ backgrounds, etc. — is first and foremost her story. There are sensitive parts to it (as is true of virtually every adoption), and we want her to receive her whole story from us, first. 

This principle does mean not being able to satisfy the understandable curiosity that people have about exactly how this beautiful little girl ended up in our lives. We share parts of her story, like where she was born (California), but in response to well-meaning questions like, “How old were her birth parents?” “Were they married?” or “Why did they give her up?” (side note: the far better language is to “place” for adoption), we simply say, “We’re not sharing that part of her story, but are keeping it for Zelie to know first.” 

We don’t treat her story like a secret, in the sense of something shameful that needs to stay hidden. Instead, we consider it a precious gift that we are safeguarding for her. When she’s older, she can decide how much of it (if anything) she wants to share with others. 

Adoption always involves a loss

Adoption is wonderful. It provides loving, stable families for children in need of them, and it often bestows the gift of parenthood on couples who are unable to have children biologically. We are deeply grateful for the gift of adoption. 

But we’re also well aware that adoption is not all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a serious, tragic thing when a child can’t be raised by the mom and dad who brought him into the world. Even when it’s in the best interests of the child not to grow up with their biological parents, it’s still a loss for the child — and the birth parents. 

They are, in many ways, unsung heroes — women and men who heroically choose life for their babies and then choose a family for them, to ensure they are loved and cared for. That’s far from easy; we pray every day for Zelie’s birth parents.

As our daughter grows up, we plan to create space in our lives for her to explore whatever feelings her adoption provokes in her, whether those are happy, sad, or whatever. We’ll let her know that she won’t hurt us by expressing sadness or pain or loss. And we try to use language that both celebrates the gift adoption is without sugarcoating the hard parts of it. 

Adoption is a part of our daughter’s identity forever, and part of our family’s identity too. It’s not the whole of who she is or who we are, but it’s a significant piece, and something we want to honor.

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