September 19, 2019

The Challenges of Open Adoption

“In America today, it’s quite normal for a family to adopt a child and maintain some degree of contact with the child’s birth parents. But as accepted as this is now, it’s a significant departure from the adoption practices that dominated for most of the 20th century, when “closed” adoptions were preferred (that is, adoptions in which children’s biological parents cease to be a part of their life after the adoption). Slowly, in the later decades of the century, experts came to favor these more open processes. As the journalist-turned-adoption-advocate Adam Pertman wrote in his 2006 book, Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming Our Families—And America, “Social-work and mental-health experts have reached a consensus that greater openness offers an array of benefits for adoptees—from ongoing information about family medical issues to fulfillment of their innate desire to know about their genealogical histories, even if the expanded relationships prove difficult or complicated for some of the participants.”

Some 13 years later, Vanessa McGrady’s new book, Rock Needs River: A Memoir About a Very Open Adoption, reads like a real-life manifestation of Pertman’s theory on open adoptions—but it sheds some revealing light on the “difficult or complicated” part. Like Pertman, McGrady posits in her book that “open adoption is better … for the mental health of all involved,” but what Rock Needs River does most effectively is lay bare the stressful, painful, psychologically taxing situations that can result from open adoption. (Full disclosure: I am adopted, and my adoption is closed.)

McGrady became a mother in her 40s, when she adopted a newborn baby girl from a local couple who wanted to pursue music careers instead of becoming parents. She’d always planned on having an open adoption, but never the possibility that she would later take her daughter’s biological parents, whom she identifies only as Bill and Bridgett, into her home for a few months when they found themselves homeless—or that their relationship would sour when she eventually stopped welcoming their last-minute requests to crash with her.”

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