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What exactly is open adoption? Is it psychologically healthy for the child and adoptive parents? Are there lingering fears, like the birth parents will come back to “steal” away the child? Today’s guest, Dawn Friedman, an expert on adoption, breaks down the research, shares her experiences, and addresses the fears biological parents often have.
Dawn Friedman, MSEd, is the owner of YouAreNotYouMother.com, a membership site for parents interrupting family patterns of dysfunction in their own parenting. Friedman has been working with families for the past 30 years. She has a masters in clinical mental health counseling and post-grad certification in infant-toddler mental health. She’s also completed the certification training for postpartum mood disorders through Postpartum Support International.
Friedman regularly speaks about parenting, mental health, and adoption, and her writing on these topics has appeared in publications that include Parenting Magazine, Yoga Journal, Greater Good Magazine, Adoptive Families, and Counseling Today.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hey, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast. I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and I want to quickly thank our sponsor, Better Help. Remember, you can get a week free by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. Calling into the show today we have Dawn Friedman, MSEd. Ms. Friedman is a licensed professional clinical counselor with supervision designation in private practice. Ms. Friedman is also a writer and speaker on parenting, infertility and adoption. Dawn and her husband have two children with their youngest arriving to their family through an open trans-racial adoption. Ms. Friedman, welcome to the show.
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: Hi, Gabe, thanks for having me.
Gabe Howard: A few months ago, we did an episode on the mental health needs of children who were adopted and/or waiting to be adopted. Now, since the release of that episode, our e-mail box has exploded with listeners who felt that we didn’t cover the psychological impact of open versus closed adoption very well. In fact, one listener wrote, we glossed over it so fast they felt that we were stigmatizing the topic. Now I want to assure everyone that we were just trying to cover a lot of ground in a very short period of time. But clearly, there is a desire to learn more about open versus closed adoption and how it impacts the family mentally and psychologically. Now, Ms. Friedman, let’s start at the very, very beginning. Would you mind explaining the difference between the two?
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: Sure, so closed adoption is what we think of when we think of adoption. It’s what you see in the classic adoption movies, which is the child is adopted, the adoptive parents become the new parents. Their history is sort of obliterated. People may not realize when the child is adopted, even a new birth certificate that’s given that lists the adoptive parents as the birth parent. And in many states, those records are then sealed. There’s a movement to open them, but they usually can’t be opened until the child is at least 18. Basically, it’s this clean slate idea that a child arrives to the adoptive family and becomes a whole new person. End of discussion, period. In openness, there’s a gamut which is having information, maybe anonymous health information all the way to visits with the birth family. Birth family having all of the identifying information of the adoptive family, the adoptive family, having all the identifying information of the birth family, and they continue to have a full relationship after the adoption.
Gabe Howard: In the interest of being completely open and honest, I, like, my gut, and you can hear me like feel ashamed to say this, but I like the first one better. It sounds so much less scary and like I would have more. Again, I can hear how bad this sounds, but I would have more control over my child, which I could control my own little world and everything would then be perfect. Now I know that’s not the case, which is why I’m embarrassed to even say it. But I want to be honest with you. It sounds like there’s just less pitfalls in the first option versus the second one. But of course, I’m only seeing it from the vantage point of a potential adoptive parent.
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: I can absolutely appreciate that. If you’re not familiar with all the nuances of adoption, that usually is people’s first knee-jerk reaction. But one of the things I want to point out is in the age of the Internet and DNA testing, there is no such thing as closed adoption anymore. There is just adoptions that may be currently closed that are likely to open in the future. And this includes children who are adopted internationally. With DNA testing they can go out and find their family members. So the era of closed adoption is closed, which means that potential adoptive parents, hopeful adoptive parents and adoptive parents currently parenting in closed adoption need to wrap their heads around this. Open adoption is what exists now and again that runs the gamut. But we can also talk about what the research says about adoptive parents and their adjustment to openness, which might surprise people.
Gabe Howard: So let’s split this next question into two parts, the first part is how do the adoptive parents who are reluctant, scared, whatever word that you want to use, how do they get over it and move past it? And then the second part of this question is, what is it like for the children? Again, I can only see things through the eyes of a potential parent. I’m struggling to see things from the perspective of a 10 year old who doesn’t know where they come from, because that also sounds equally scary.
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: So I think we need to remember that adoptive parenting is not about the parents, it’s about the kids. All parenting is about the kids. So whatever challenges we have as parents, it’s understandable. We can get support around it. But ultimately, we need to prioritize the needs of the children. Now, let me reassure adoptive parents who are concerned about openness that the research shows that when there is a measure of openness, adoptive parents have better adjustment. And this is because there is a more explicit permission in parenting. So I think about an adoptive parent that I spoke with many years ago who had adopted in a completely closed adoption. And she said every time she went to the park with her son, she wondered if the other people at the park might be her child’s birth family. And she constantly felt sort of paranoid, worried all the time. Who are these people? Could one of them be my son’s family? Versus a parent who has a more open adoption, they already have some measure of knowing. I can remember actually running into people who were connected to my daughter’s birth family. Many of us grow up in a town that’s fairly small, especially when you think about how adoptions happen. A lot of them happen locally. And I knew who they were. We had a connection. I never had to be worried about that.
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: So the stories of birth parents who are hiding in the shadows and waiting to come back, those disappear when you have openness in adoption. That’s to the first part. You need to get over it because it’s good for your kid. And two, the research shows that openness helps you get over it. Now, that doesn’t mean that you have to just get over it like a closed book. There are times in your parenting life where you may feel the pressure of openness or the presence of birth family members a little more than others. But that’s OK. You can get support around that. You can connect with other people who can get you through that. Now, as for the child, all of the research shows that openness is better for their adjustment. But again, openness is a whole continuum. And so it doesn’t mean that you send your 16-year-old to go live with her birth family. It could just be that you’re able to talk about it openly in your family. There’s something called communicative openness, which is we openly talk about adoption. You never had to ask, was I adopted? You always knew. We share whatever information we had with you. We answered your questions as well as we could. And then there’s structural openness, which is when there is actual relationships between family members and the adoptive child.
Gabe Howard: So to use my family as a quick example, my mom is my biological mother, but my father adopted me when I was two and a half. Now my biological father, I always knew who he was. I saw pictures of my mom and his wedding. I knew what members of the family there were. I could ask a lot of questions. And in fact, when I was an adult, like you said, I looked him up. It wasn’t difficult because, you know, I knew his name. I knew where he was. And I felt this sense of one like empowerment for being allowed to do so. But I also felt like this general sense like that I was betraying my dad. You know, he’s not my biological father. He’s my real father. So therefore, am I doing him a disservice? One of the things that I’m hearing from you is that thoughts like these are not abnormal and that the research shows that we’re much more well-adjusted when we understand that this is different or challenging or even causing a psychological or mental health challenge. Is that the general message of an open adoption? That all of this is there anyways?
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: Yes, that is exactly it and your situation, step-parent adoptions are the most common adoption in the country. So I think what you’re speaking to is something that a whole lot of people who are listening to this, they might not have thought of themselves as an adoptive family, and they may be. And so that might help give them some understanding. When we’re talking about open adoption, we’re talking about children and teens. We’re talking about young people having access to information and having support and facilitating some measure of connection. So that could be a child who’s allowed to say sometimes I wish I could be with my birth parents or I wonder if my birth mother loved me without worrying about issues of loyalty, because that’s incredibly common. If you’re in a family where you are openly talking about these things, where you are allowing your child to have their full experience, you are creating a more healthy environment. So I tell people this a lot. The most parenting thing that I did, the way that I stepped into my parenting the most with my daughter was to give space to her birth mother. The more that I allowed their relationship to grow, the more that I acknowledged my daughter’s love and connection to her birth family, the more I became her mother. So I tell people that her birth mother is her noun mother.
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: It is a fact. They are genetically connected. There is a very special attachment between them and I am her verb mother, meaning that I create my mothering every day through my mothering of her. Her noun mother does not replace me, but my verb mothering does not replace her birth mother. We both exist. There is room for both of us. The more explicit I can be with that with my daughter, the healthier she is able to be. The research shows that all adoptive kids start yearning for some understanding and connection with the birth family in their teen years. Which makes sense because all of us in our teen years are struggling with issues of identity.
Gabe Howard: And we’ll be right back after we hear from our sponsors.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back discussing the psychological impacts of open versus closed adoption with licensed professional clinical counselor Dawn Friedman.Ms. Friedman, I’ve heard of adopted parents just lying to the kids, just telling them that they’re not adopted. How do you feel about this idea of just telling the child that you’re the real parents, that everything happened naturally? Like you said, the birth certificate is going to back that up. Would they ever know? Is that the quote-unquote most healthy or is this just more of the same?
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: Oh, my gosh. So there’s a thing called Late Discovery Adoptees, and it’s exactly what you’re talking about, which is somebody finds out when they’re going through their parents’ papers that they were adopted. And I think you can imagine the level of betrayal that would be to deny someone the access to the truth about themselves is pretty horrific. And again, you don’t have to talk to me about this. You can talk to the late discovery adoptees. If you do a Google search on that, you can find their story. I think we need to remember that our children’s stories belong to them. When we’re going through the adoption process, it feels like it’s all about us. And it kind of is. I mean, we’re having this pretty intense experience. The adoption process is not easy. It takes a lot of bureaucratic work. It takes a lot of emotional work. It takes a lot of advocacy for yourself. But the minute that child arrives to our family, it is not about us anymore. And that’s true however the child arrives to your family. It becomes about the kid and the kid is allowed to know where they came from, what their story is, how they arrived to the family. Some of those stories are very difficult to tell, but again, there’s support for that. They have a right to that information. It belongs to them.
Gabe Howard: And again, you’ve pointed out numerous times that the research shows that these children grow up to be healthier, more trusting, they have stronger relationship with their parents. So just because something is harder doesn’t mean that the outcome isn’t significantly better. Because I do agree with you. I can only imagine if I would have woke up at 15 years old or 20 years old, or, hell, 40 years old and discovered this secret that my parents kept from me. I read some of those stories that you pointed out and they found out after their parents had passed away so they couldn’t even ask their parents why they did it to get closure. It was just this open wound they were stuck with while they were mourning the death of their parents. It does sound like a psychological minefield that would just never end.
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: I tell people if anybody else on the planet knows the truth about your child’s arrival to the family, and that includes children conceived by donor egg, donor sperm, surrogate, whatever, then somebody is going to tell your kid and maybe you want to be the person to facilitate this discussion, right? I mean, I wouldn’t want somebody else to be able to shift my child’s narrative like that. I’d like to be the person who is talking to my child about what happened to them. Again, this is sort of the privilege of parenting that you get to have hard discussions with your kid. And I know it’s hard, but, oh, my gosh, parenting is hard. It’s not easy. It’s a lot of work. It’s very rewarding. And as I said before, being able to support my daughter in her explorations about her adoption and birth family have helped me, helped cement my role as her mothering mother.
Gabe Howard: I really love how you say that, because knowing that my father is not my biological father has actually brought us closer together. And having this open conversation, when I wanted to meet my biological father, my dad, he was like, well, yeah, who wouldn’t be curious about where they came from? Who wouldn’t want to know? And the fact that I saw absolutely nothing in his face, his words, his voice, where he even seemed threatened, solved that loyalty problem immediately. I didn’t have to wonder that. You’re right, it makes my dad all the more special to me. What I’m sitting here thinking about is how many people currently have a five, 10, 15 year old in a closed adoption that are now starting to see the research, hear from folks like you and are thinking, OK, I did not have the correct information. I let fear get ahead of me or whatever reason they made the decision. They’re now realizing that maybe they didn’t make the best decision. What is their transition phase? How do they go from undoing that closed adoption decision with their now older child who has been living under sort of these rules for years?
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: Ooh, well, I would really encourage those adoptive parents to reach out to a therapist who is adoption competent, and that can be hard to find. Do your research to find that person and start talking to them about how you can start talking to your child. So you reach out to an adoption competent therapist to get some help with this. But also there’s a terrific book called “Telling the Truth to Your Adopted Child.” You can look it up, “Telling the Truth to Your Adopted Child.” It covers everything. Any scenario that you might be struggling to talk to your child about, it helps you figure out how to do that.
Gabe Howard: Obviously, difficult conversations are part of being in a relationship, it’s part of being in a family, and it’s certainly part of parenting, but it’s not unusual to need support for this. And I know that we’ve actually stumbled upon another problem that I think parents have, which is they believe that they have to have all the answers. They have to be superhuman. They have to know everything and they can’t ever falter. Can you talk about that a little bit? Because I know that sometimes it is difficult for adoptive parents to get support because their peer groups don’t understand what they’re going through and it sort of isolates them a little bit. And then you put that up against, you know, the psychological need to be perfect and you can really see how that’s just a mixture to make a lot of mistakes rapidly and then sort of get stuck in that pattern. What’s the best advice you have to sort of undo all of that and make sure that adoptive parents get the support and help both mentally, psychologically, and, of course, just general parenting needs that they need?
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: Well, I think that it’s very powerful to just say to your child, I don’t know or I don’t know how to answer that. I’m going to have to sit and think about it and get back to you. Because what you’re saying to your child then is I am taking you seriously. I am taking you seriously enough not to make something up. I am going to figure this out and get back to you. So you always have room to say to your child, I need to think about that. I’m not sure about that. One of the most valuable things for me was finding a group that was adoptive parents, but also adult adoptees and birth parents. And that group allowed the three of us to kind of talk about our perspective, share what we knew, share what we feel like we wish the other people in the adoption constellation had done to support us.
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: And that was incredibly valuable. this is where we are really fortunate as adoptive parents. We do not have to do this without the input of adult adoptees. In the last 20 or 30 years, there has been a tremendous rise of activist adult adoptees who are talking about their experiences, who are interrogating adoption as an institution, who are advocating for openness and honesty. And we can talk to them. We can hear what they wish their adoptive parents did so that we can do that for our children.
Gabe Howard: Now, Ms. Friedman, if you’re open to it, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about your personal family. Would that be OK?
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: Sure, and if there’s something that I know my daughter wouldn’t like me to talk about, then I know your audience will understand when I decline to answer.
Gabe Howard: Absolutely, they will, and thank you so much for saying that, because that’s really important when discussing these things, right? It’s not just about you, it’s about your entire family. My specific question for you, Ms. Friedman, is that you have an adopted child and you have a biological child. So obviously you sort of have a, for lack of a better word, a little research study of your own to parenting each type. Have you noticed any difference or is this just another one of those, look from the outside looking in, you’ve got all these questions. But for us, it’s Tuesday and we’re trying to have breakfast.
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: Yes and no. So the things that I notice, and it’s something I see in the families I work with too, is that our son in many ways mirrors my husband and I. Our temperaments are similar. Our daughter, on the other hand, is in some ways very different than we are. And the example I always give is that my husband, son and I, we’re sort of kind of retiring people. We’re a little bit cautious. We’re a little bit slow to warm. And so we would take our son to the playground and he would get up high somewhere and kind of observe the other kids. And we all kind of hung back. Our daughter is a shining, bright sunbeam of a person who never met a stranger. And so when she came into our family, she definitely lit us up. And when we went to the park, all of a sudden everybody was a friend. I remember when she was a toddler, I lost sight of her for a minute. When I found her, she was joining another family’s picnic. She was sitting there at the picnic bench waiting to be served.
Gabe Howard: I love that.
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: She’s pretty great, but so we had to stretch to make room for her. We had to let her change our family in ways that were surprising. We had to learn how to make conversation with strangers because that’s what parenting our daughter required. And so the thing I see some adoptive families struggling with, and I really want to normalize this as a struggle, is sometimes the child you get is different than the child you imagined you would get. And certainly this happens in biological children, too. But it can be more present in adoptive families because there is a difference there. That child did come from a whole other gene pool and they are bringing new things to your family. And it’s on us, the adoptive parents, to stretch and make room for them.
Gabe Howard: Now, as siblings, how are your two kids, are they just like every other brother and sister on the planet?
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: I’d have to say, actually, they get along a little better and part of that might be because they’re seven years apart and so they were never competing. When our son was 14, she was seven. So they never really were competing for that kind of space. They get along really well. And I’ll add to that because we had an open adoption, and we have an open adoption. seeing our daughter mirrored in her birth mother also gave us a lot of insight into who she is and what she needed as a person.
Gabe Howard: In my preparation for this show, I was shocked at the number of websites that were like, all right, this is just some PC garbage. This is some liberal propaganda. We need to shut this down. You’re the parent. Don’t allow these people in. They’re going to take your kid. I was shocked at how much resistance there was.
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: I think a lot of that has to do with our journey to become adoptive parents, again being so hard, and if you come to adoption from infertility or pregnancy loss, then you’re already wounded. And so having to give up more, by which I mean sharing parenthood or sharing parenting, whether that’s the role or the label, that can be painful. And again, I acknowledge that. And I encourage those parents to get the loving support that they need. They deserve attention for those feelings. However, we do not make decisions as parents from the least part of ourselves. We need to make it in this sort of aspirational good way. And the research shows openness is what matters. Now, I don’t want to gloss over that there were challenges for us. Of course, there were times I felt jealousy. There are times I feel some jealousy, you know I think, my daughter talks about going to live with her birth mom during college. And I go, oh, but I want her to live with me or live near me. I’m allowed to have those feelings. I can go and cry to my husband about it or cry to my therapist or cry to my friends. But I do not get to put that on my daughter because her life belongs to her and she gets to live it as she sees fit. So I can have the feelings, but my behaviors need to be about what matters for her. And just like I wouldn’t stand in the way of my son live the life that he wants to live. I am sure not going to stand in the way of my daughter just because it might hurt my feelings a little bit. And this is something that I’m explicit with her about, that I love her, that I love her birth family because they are of her and that I support her in figuring out what she needs to live her full, wonderful self. And I’m explicit about that again, because, as you said, I know she has issues of loyalty and I want her to know that our relationship is big enough for all of her, which includes her birth roots.
Gabe Howard: Ms. Friedman, I am so appreciative of you offering your experience and, of course, your family. Are there any last words that you want people to know
Dawn Friedman, MSEd: Again, if there are adoptive or potential adoptive parents who are wondering about this, I encourage them to listen to adoptees and not just one adoptee, but to a whole gamut of adoptees. I really want them to hear all of the voices. And the other thing is, even though I’m an advocate for openness, I don’t think there’s one right way to do it. And I think that families need support in figuring out what’s going to work best for their family. And also, although I have said that adoptees tend to want connection with their birth families in their adolescence, I also want to say that adoptees are the boss of their own life and not every adoptee is going to have that experience. And there’s nothing wrong with them if they don’t. I believe that adoptees deserve the possibility of access and then they ultimately can decide how they want to live that out. Now, having said that, I think that as parents, we do make big decisions for our kids. There are sometimes adoptive parents who say, I support openness and my kid can decide to do that when they’re 18. And I think, no, I really think that one of the things that we do for them when they’re children is model healthy ways to be. And because we know openness is healthy and we know communicative openness is healthy, we need to find ways to model that.
Gabe Howard: Ms. Friedman, again, thank you so much for being here. And, of course, a big shout out and thank you to all of our listeners. Wherever you downloaded this podcast, give us a follow. It’s absolutely free. Also, take a moment and review the show, tell other people why they should tune in. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” as well as a nationally recognized public speaker. I think it would be awesome to be at your next event. You can grab a signed copy of my book with free swag or learn more about me by heading over to my website, gabehoward.com. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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