Nearing the end of a long drive north my son chattered excitedly from the back seat wondering aloud if Katie* would like the heart shape pendant we'd chosen as her birthday gift. Gazing at him in the rearview mirror it is her bright blue eyes smiling back at me from beneath a thick canopy of dark lashes. Those eyes are just one of the physical characteristics he shares with her. Katie is my son's birthmother and it pains me to admit I once found comfort in the possibility she, like many birthparents, would disappear from our lives.
Refusing to surrender our dream of raising a family after several years of failed fertility treatments, my husband and I began researching adoption. Domestic adoption offered a number of appealing elements including access to detailed family and medical histories, prenatal records and the opportunity to parent a newborn. The vast majority of today's domestic adoptions are open, meaning that they require some degree of contact with the child's birth family.
Logically the benefits of open adoption made sense yet I struggled with the complexities of "sharing" a baby with the birth family. Frankly, I was terrified I would always feel second best. I simply could not fathom how two women, both mothers, could peacefully coexist. Instead I imagined us adversaries locked in a strained and tumultuous relationship.
Despite my fears we quickly completed the required paperwork and home study. Prepared for the average 12-month wait we entered the pool of prospective adoptive families in September of 2003. Following our agencies advice I spent the fall decorating a nursery and talking with others who were already part of an open adoption. We were just beginning to feel more confident when to our shock we learned we had been chosen after just three months of waiting.
My fears returned with a renewed intensity and I approached our first meeting with the birthmother guarded and skeptical. Katie caught me completely by surprise. Through her shy, vulnerable exterior she was warm, funny and compassionate. I liked her instantly.
From a broken home she struggled much of her life alone, barely scraping by paycheck to paycheck. Emotionally and financially unprepared for motherhood, she wanted for her baby what every parent wants: safety, security, health and love. I was mesmerized by her strength and unwavering commitment to create the life for her child that she envisioned.
Over the next few weeks we told stories, laughed at photos and found the answers to hundreds of questions, even eventually sharing the sorrow of our infertility and the strain of her unplanned pregnancy. Learning to trust and respect one another made the pieces of our relationship fall into place. How could we love this baby without also loving his birthmother? Yet despite the bond we had forged, I still worried that the arrival of this baby would result in the tug-of-war I'd initially anticipated.
Like so much of the adoption process the birth of our son was nothing like I had expected. The time my husband and I and Katie spent in the hospital caring for our precious baby boy only proved to solidify the roles we would each play in his life. My husband and I would do our best to provide for him all we had promised and Katie would be able to see him grow.
There is no universally accepted definition for open adoption. For some it is the simple exchange of information. For us it means traveling 350 miles to share birthdays. Because we opened our hearts to Katie there is no shame, no secrecy, no unanswered questions surrounding my son's adoption. She is and always will be part of his life. And, over the years, I've learned the best gift I can give my son is to honor his birthmother.
*name was changed to protect her privacy