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"We had one seven- or eight-year-old open-adopted child who had a connection with his birth mother, and she asked him to be in her wedding as the ring bearer," says Rappaport. "The adoptive parents loved going to the wedding and seeing their son in a tuxedo walking down the aisle."
Ultimately the situation allows for answers to questions, says Rappaport. The questions that sometimes surround closed adoptions -- Why couldn't my birth mother raise me? Where is my baby? What do I tell my child when he asks what ethnicity he is? -- no longer produce pain. Because in open adoption the answers are right there.
"People believe open adoption is risky, but closed adoption is more risky," he says. "No one involved knows who's going to show up one day."
And where one might assume birth mothers want the most contact, both Rappaport and Pam agree that one of the biggest challenges facing open adoption providers are adoptive parents who are not satisfied with the level of openness -- instead of too much, they want more.
"They know it's definitely best for the baby to know her, and it gives them a sense of entitlement to the baby because she's supporting that union," says Pam.
Birth mothers, who are often young when they give birth, are more apt to move away and become involved in school or career. And although the process is handled as gently as possible, Rappaport acknowledges that there is often some pain associated with seeing the child, no matter how affirming and giving the adoptive parents are. And like Kristi, many birth mothers have to deal with extended families that feel they made a decision they will live to regret.
Pam has seen numbers at the Homes go up since open adoption became the norm. She is cheered that the concept is catching on in more and more agencies every year. She only wishes more people could understand that in this day and age of remarriage, stepparents, half sisters and so on, the new adoptive family is simply a different kind of normal for some people.
"It becomes this mutual admiration society between all of them," says Pam. "It's such a travesty that birth mothers are shamed by society, when they're really such brave, courageous people. I mean, what is the most ultimate gift you could give? And what would it take to do that?"
"Sometimes I get a little nervous, just before I get there," Kristi says, peering through the window as the car pulls into the driveway of Jill and Bill's one-story home, which backs up against a duck pond and is surrounded by trees that are just changing color. "I don't know why, because I always get there and it's wonderful." It is the day after Thanksgiving, and the air is clean and cool. The sun is shining hard enough to make your eyes hurt.
"Kristi's here!" announces Jill, stepping out from the screened-in back porch. Behind her is the rest of the Clark family. They are boisterous and friendly, tripping over themselves to say hello. There is Ryan, towheaded and blue-eyed, and Tyler, who is just seven and a half months older than Ryan and who could easily pass for his twin. Tyler first entered Jill and Bill's lives as a CPS foster child shortly before Ryan was born, and was legally adopted after Ryan. Tyler also was placed through the Homes of St. Mark, but unlike Ryan's, Tyler's birth mother does not have a relationship with the Clark family or Tyler.
Ryan knows Kristi. Without prompting, he calls her by her first name -- never Mom -- and Jill and Bill refer to her as his special friend. Like all little boys, during this visit he will sometimes run right to her for a hug, or he might balk and shy away. It has been seven months since Ryan last saw Kristi in person at his second birthday party. But Jill and Bill talk to him about her, send Kristi his photos and drawings, and call her on the phone every few weeks. For Christmas, Jill and Bill gave Kristi a framed photo of both boys on Santa's lap. If they are going to be in Houston for a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's or any kind of event, Jill always calls Kristi ahead of time and tells her to feel free to stop in and say hello.
"Are you staying or what?" Ryan asks Kristi, as the family sits down to dinner in Jill and Bill's kitchen, decked out in true Texas fashion with bluebonnets painted or printed on just about anything that doesn't move. Yes, Kristi tells him. She's staying for a while. Bill and Jill order pizza, make coffee and fill the room with story after story of Ryan and Tyler's latest escapades: their Toy Story Halloween costumes, the music class they're taking. Paper snowmen that the boys have made are clipped to the refrigerator under dozens of family photos, and a Big Boy Behavior chart is taped to the kitchen door. At Jill's prompting, the boys show Kristi how they can count to ten in French and sing "Happy Birthday" in Portuguese.