Amy Seek is a birth mother who gave her son up for adoption when she was 23 years old. Her pregnancy was unplanned, she was unable to financially support a child and she didn’t think she was ready for the responsibility.
It was a difficult decision to make, but she didn’t believe there was any other way.
Amy, who lived in the US at the time, spoke to the Catholic Social Services and discovered that closed adoption, where she would never lay eyes on her child again, didn’t have to be her only option.
“When the counsellor explained open adoption - that I would be able to select the parents and know my child - adoption suddenly seemed more humane, more possible,” she tells The Huffington Post UK.
Open adoption meant that she could see her son grow up, albeit through snatched moments together.
“When my son was four he’d smile so broadly when I’d arrive, he’d show me his toys and want to play with me,” says Amy, 39, who now sees her son between three and seven times a year - he lives in the US while she lives in London.
“At 16, he carries my bags from the car, opens doors for me, and sits and chats with me for hours.”
Open adoption is when contact remains between a birth family and adoptive family who share a common link - an adopted child.
There are three types of contact in open adoption: direct contact, where there is face-to-face or telephone contact between the birth family and adoptive family; indirect contact, which refers to the exchange of materials such as letters, cards and gifts between the adoptive family and birth family; and links, which involve information being provided by the adoptive or birth families to the adoption agency to be passed on, in future, if the relevant person asks for it.
Unlike the US, open adoption is rare in the UK. There are several reasons why this is, but it mainly comes down to the fact that, in the US, healthcare costs are expensive (they don’t have a National Health Service) and businesses aren’t legally obliged to offer paid maternity leave.
However this doesn’t mean that it’s unheard of in the UK or should be ruled out.
Research suggests that children in open adoptions have better psychosocial outcomes than those in semi-open and closed adoptions.
“Openness in adoption, in the right circumstances, can have a number of important results for adopted children, especially in terms of the way they understand and construct their own identity,” writes Professor Beth Niel, from the University of East Anglia (UEA), in a study.
There are a number of reasons why a birth mother may choose to give her child up for adoption, for example if she is too young and not ready for the responsibility, has a lack of resources or support in her life, or because it conflicts with her culture, morals or religion.
Annie*, 36, from New York, relinquished her baby boy to a gay couple when she was 29 years old.
Initially she was skeptical of open adoption, but when her social worker explained that the process would actually benefit her child, as they would be able to form a complete identity, she came around to the idea.
“Between lack of support from the government (no paid maternity leave or universal health care), the lack of support of the biological father, and the fact I had no local support system because my family lived far away, I didn’t have the kind of support at hand that a single parent needs,” she explains.
Annie has maintained a relationship with her biological son, who is now six years old, and his adoptive family. But it’s been a work in progress.
“I’m part of my son’s life and my role in his life is respected by his adoptive family,” says Annie. “My son’s parents are the ones who set up what the parameters of our relationship actually are, they are the ones who control how much access I have to him and what that means. But they have given me a lot of say in our relationship as well.
“The access has evolved over time, in the beginning it was lots of pictures emailed to me, updates via email about once a month and face-to-face visits every two to three months. As he grew up (and began to understand who I was) we had more face-to-face visits. By his fourth birthday I was seeing him at least once a month.”
When he was four-and-a-half, her son and his adoptive parents moved from the US to Asia. But Annie still gets to see him at least two or three times a year, for two weeks at a time.
The decision of how much a birth parent can get in touch with their child lies ultimately with the adoptive family and the local authorities, according to Cathy Ashley from the UK-based Family Rights Group.
“If they see the value in it and the local authority believes there are benefits, then it sometimes happens,” she says.
While research suggests open adoption has its benefits, that’s not to say it’s easy. In fact for birth mothers, it is overwhelmingly hard.
“Open adoption doesn’t reduce the loss of losing a child,” says Amy Seek.
“Adoption has had impacts on my professional life, relationships, my feelings about family. There’s no part of me not touched by the loss of my son, despite the fact he remains an important part of my life.
“The openness itself is a source of immense pain, too. Open adoption compels you return to an excruciating wound. When I’m with my son I wonder what I’m doing there, where I belong in his life, whether I’m doing things right, what good visiting does, whether he’s mad at me - and sometimes after a visit I become totally exhausted and find it hard to even speak.
“But I would never choose to close the door. I’d never deprive him of the opportunity to ask me any questions, to know about his larger family, to tell me his stories, to know I love him.
“What we gain from openness is worth our efforts.”
She says she regrets her choice to put her son up for adoption every day and stresses that it’s never a decision you can make lightly.
“When I was 22, I didn’t think I could manage financially and I thought there was a whole bright future ahead of me in my profession. Now I know that I could have found a way, and there’s nothing more meaningful than family.
“There’s very little one can do with regret except admit it and carry on. The challenge is to make the most of how things are and not to shy away from the work I took on when I gave him up.”
Annie echoes Amy’s thoughts. “I still have a depth of difficult emotions I struggle with regarding adoption,” she says. “And seeing my son only complicates that.
“I’m not trying to appear ungrateful for my relationship with him, but if it was just about my feelings and not what was good for my son I wouldn’t have an open relationship with him.
“It’s not an easy path and openness shouldn’t be a reason a woman chooses to relinquish.”
It can also be difficult to develop a working relationship with the child’s adoptive parents. For Annie, she and her son’s adoptive parents were “thrown together in a high stakes relationship” that they had to make work.
“It’s not an easy position to be in,” she explains. “But I think we have done an amazing job of connecting with each other and building our own friendship.
“I view relationships between adoptive and biological parents similar to that of in-laws. You are related to them through your relationship with someone else and because of that you have to find common ground and get along or you’re just going to create a bad situation for the person in the middle.”
Amy says that maintaining a relationship with her son’s adoptive parents has become harder as she has grown older - although she still trusts them deeply.
“Life just gets complicated, and where once it seemed I was much younger than they are, and they could care for me almost as surrogate parents along with my son, now we seem much more like peers.
“Now we all know a bit more about whether or not it was all a good idea, now I have gotten through some of the grief and understand more fully the consequences of giving up my child. These consequences have reverberated throughout every aspect of my life, and they can see it.
“I’m not married and haven’t had more children, and these things are not unrelated to the adoption. I imagine they might like to see me married and happy, fully recovered on some level, and the fact I’m not makes my grief an elephant in the room.”
That said, she also “utterly enjoys” her son’s family.
“If they were not my family through adoption, they’d feel like family because they are such kindred spirits and I’d still want to know them,” she explains.
“They’re both articulate and funny, and I love the picture I get of them through their stories. Enjoying them makes much easier work of adoption.”
Both women agree that, despite the fact there is positive research surrounding the benefits of openness, it should still be considered very carefully as a choice.
“I struggle to ‘recommend’ open adoption, but if someone is looking to adopt, I hope he or she would consider the value of openness and honestly assess whether adoption is the right choice if openness is not,” says Amy.
“Now, openness means that I know my son. My extended family knows him. His family has come to visit my sister’s family several times. His adopted siblings sent video messages to my father before he passed away. My grandmother corresponded with my son’s adoptive family and welcomed them for visits. And my son and his birthfather are also close.
“There is no confusion about who my son’s parents are, which means we’re all free to love him. And I think his adoptive family are happy to have the love and care from all directions.”
For more information about open adoption in the UK, visit the Family Rights Group.
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