Look at those curls!" coos the docent at our local zoo as my daughter, Rebecca, 2, extends her chubby fist for a moth-shaped hand stamp. "Just like her mommy," says the woman, giving me that I'm-a-mommy-too look. I consider just nodding, but only for a split second. "Actually, she's adopted," I say. "Her birth mother has straight brown hair, but her uncle had curls when he was a toddler." Soon I'm in the thick of another impromptu informational session on open adoption, which turns out to need a lot of explaining to most people. I could avoid these chats altogether. Rebecca does look a lot like me, and that's something many adoptive parents don't have in this age of new families forged across continents. But I don't duck out of the discussion; open adoption means that much to me.
The term "open adoption" has as many definitions as the word "love." The basic idea: Children know their birth parents' identities—the information's not buried in a government file. Beyond that, openness can range from occasional letters to regular visits. It's up to the adoptive parents and the birth family to decide on the details (usually the birth mother's family, though in an increasing number of cases—not in ours, unfortunately—the birth father stays in touch, too). I know of open-adoption families who've had a birth mother live with them for a month after their child's birth and those who see birth parents only twice a year at an appointed spot. Often these connections grow over time, though sometimes everyone's changing lives cause them to drift apart.
When my husband, Eric, and I chose open adoption, we knew we wanted to live it completely. Even before we attempted to get pregnant, we'd agreed that raising a child mattered more to us than making a baby. After six months of fruitless efforts on our own, a two-year ride on the infertility roller coaster ended when a doctor said our chances were nearly nil. That was painful, but our willingness to adopt prevented us from being paralyzed.
For Eric, open adoption was primarily a matter of principle. He loved the idea of building a family that defied convention. I agreed, but I admit that I also wanted to know our future child's birth family because of my own worries about adoption. I'd heard too many sad tales of the "empty space" adoptees feel inside without knowledge of their biological roots. I knew that no matter how great a mom I became, that hole wasn't mine alone to fill, and I'd need help from those who could.