Open Adoption and the New Meaning of Family
Words by Nancy Harter // Images by Sarah Pfeiffer
Having a baby is an extraordinary event; a nerve-racking, anxious experience, a deer-in-the-headlights experience. Couple that with an extended stay in the NICU and an adoption plan and you’ve got a lifetime of experiences to pull from and share with others.
We were in the adoption pool at the Nebraska Children’s Home Society for 13 months when the call came from our caseworker: “There’s a couple in Omaha that would like to meet you.” After a few days of waiting and wondering, we met the couple that would place their baby with us and would themselves become family.
Before our son was born, we met Maureen’s (birth mom) family - her parents and sisters and nieces. We were so nervous! It was like meeting your significant other’s family for the first time. We thought so highly of Maureen and she had talked with great fondness for her extended family. It ended up being a lovely afternoon with a visit that lasted five hours.
Shawn's (our son’s birth father) family was all in Pennsylvania, where he was born and raised. We met his father and stepmother first. They came to see this baby, for what they thought might be the only time. Their visit was so productive for all of us. We started a great relationship and got to explain to them that we didn’t intend for Shawn or any of his family to fade out of our lives. This adoption was open in the broadest sense.
Calvin was born 11 weeks early, weighed 2.2 pounds, and was 14.5 inches long. He was small, but screaming, pink, and all there! He was a tiny little boy who needed help to breathe and eat. Steroids and a LOT of love kept him steady and growing. His time in the hospital wasn’t what we were expecting, but it was a blessing - we had more time to spend getting to know our son’s birth parents and their families. He had daily visits from both birth parents, aunts, grandparents, and more. We took part in his routine care and got to know the nurses, who had a hard time understanding our open adoption arrangement and how we were all involved, all the time. There were so many of us, so I made a page with our pictures and roles in Calvin’s life and it was posted by his NICU bed.
Our son spent 97 days in the hospital. Maureen had been shocked with an early delivery and her only request was to spend time with Calvin, alone, away from the hospital. My husband and I had no qualms with her request and took off for our last couple’s lunch. She spent a few hours with him at the placement agency’s cozy ‘family room.’ Once we returned, a lot of Maureen’s family was there for Calvin’s Entrustment Ceremony that his Gramps wrote. We were gaining a son, but we gained an entire family, too. We were lucky. Blessed. Honored.
I fully believe to have a truly open adoption, you need to have a certain level of mental preparedness. For my husband and I, we knew we were the parents and would be raising this baby. Period. We’d be making decisions about daycare, school, activities, and more. So when Maureen wanted to be the first to hold him, we looked at our big picture: the future of being mom and dad. Was this request going to be the end of me as a mother? Would I recover from not being the first person to hold him (which was no easy task in the NICU)? It was such a small request in the grand scheme of things.
At the same time, we needed to embrace the big picture for Maureen and Shawn. We needed to recognize their grief, give them space and compassion. Maureen was ‘off the grid’ a couple weeks after Calvin was born. Shawn had an inner fight that no one would be able to comprehend. But given some time and tenderness and time with the baby they loved, too, their healing began. The relationships we have today started to form.
The openness of this adoption would be best for our child. Any question he has at any time, he can ask. There’s no reason for adoption to be a big ugly secret; families are made in all kinds of combinations. Our baby’s birth parents made a plan to place the baby and it was a plan of love and sacrifice. It’s not about not wanting the baby, because they wanted the baby. They love him. But it was about giving him stability, which just wasn’t possible for them at the time.
We are nearly 11 years out from the time our boy was born. Calvin was in both of his birth parents' weddings in 2012. Calvin has had the pleasure of becoming a big brother to Maureen’s children and soon, Shawn’s son. We’ve traveled to Pennsylvania for visits and to meet more family and they have all traveled to see us. Calvin rode his first horse at Grandpa Scott’s. We spent a week in Orlando at theme parks with Maureen’s family. Calvin spends overnights with Gramps and Grammy regularly. The plethora of grandparents, alone, is worth the work!
There are varying levels of openness in open adoption. The key: find your level of open comfort and prepare to love.
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Nancy is an adoptive mom and open adoption advocate. She was born and raised in Nebraska and is happily married to a marathoner for 20 years. She is addicted to Twitter and a huge fan of caffeine. She is also a lover of cats and dogs, the Marvel universe, Duran Duran, shopping, reading, and food.