Shifting and Growing Relationships in Open Adoption

Written by Leah Outten

Twenty years ago I was pregnant and exploring adoption for my baby girl. It wasn’t until I
discovered that open adoption was an option– maintaining a relationship with her and her
adoptive family over the years– that adoption was seriously considered. As a young sixteen
year old, my heart softened to realize that I wanted to give her more than I could at that point in
While I had hoped that our open adoption would be everything we discussed while I was
pregnant– two visits a year and updates in between– I honestly never dreamed it could be what
it is still today, nineteen years later since she entered the world and joined our families together.
While our core agreement has always held intact through the seasons, our adoption relationship
has shifted over the years. I’ve found that’s one thing to expect in any relationship, to expect the
ebbs and flows.

Baby and toddler years

The first three years shaped our relationship in a lot of ways. It was a time of getting to know
each other deeper as people, establishing boundaries and respect for our unique roles. I always
felt welcomed by her parents and felt emotionally close to them as friends and mentors in my
life. Our visits were often in their home, sitting around the dinner table sharing stories or playing
with our daughter. These years were a time of figuring out this new normal and bonding
together as a triad. Because we had more time back then, we visited on average every other
month, way more than our agreement and that felt natural for us. For me, those visits helped me
to heal by seeing her happy and loved while still being a part of her life.

Elementary years

Throughout her younger schooling years, things began to shift as we were forging our own
separate paths and family lives. I had graduated college, gotten married, and began having
more children. Her family was busier with extracurricular activities or family events, and it was a
season of less availability of time on both sides. Our default of two visits a year remained– every
summer and every December– and that worked well for us to reconnect. During this time, her
parents often called me with funny stories or mailed me pictures. Knowing they thought of me
often meant the world! While I loved watching her grow and play together during a visit, I felt
more closely connected to her parents in these years. They were the bridge to her life. She and
I didn’t know yet how to connect as deeply as her older years, but my presence and our story
were established to be able to grow together when she was ready.

Teenage years

Adoptees tend to start thinking deeper about their adoption story and biological roots around the
ages of eight to ten, and that was true for us. However, around thirteen when she got a phone,
for the first time I had a direct connection to her outside of visits and that’s where our
relationship began to shift again. We both had a desire to know each other deeper, what we
liked, what we thought, our commonalities and talents. The teenage years brought a shift between
her parents being a bridge to now handing over the relationship reigns to us. They listened to
her emerging voice into our relationship, which often meant longer visits or more often weekend
trips. We began to check off lists on our bucket list to experience firsts together. She was also
bonding more deeply to her birth siblings in my home, a relationship that has proved to be just
as important to them as open adoption is for her and I. In her teenage years, the building blocks
that her parents and I built together years ago became a steady foundation for her to stand on
as she began to explore her identity with as many puzzle pieces as she had access to from all
sides of her family.

Early adulthood

Now, she’s nineteen, and technically that’s still a teenager too! But, we’ve felt the shift again in
this new phase of adulthood where she has even more freedom and voice. She’s still figuring
out who exactly she is and the life she wants to create. With that, she’s continued to voice her
desire to know her birth family more and even requested to live with us for a few months. Those
months were glorious to experience together– a birth mother’s dream! Yet, it also humanized
each other in a lot of ways because of the closeness every day for an extended amount of time.
Our masks came down, we faced conflict for the first time, and it was challenging to suddenly be
more in a parenting role to her that I had never been in before. Still, it deepened our bond and
connection even more. Her goal for our “extended visit” was achieved– she wanted to feel a part
of our family.

In many ways, our adoption has become far more beautiful than I imagined it could be. Yet,
each season has added a near layer of complexity as well. As she becomes older there are new
feelings that emerge to make space for, process, and compromise through. While the
connection between her and I grows, the distance between her parents and I feels greater. They
have stepped back to allow her space to explore, and I’ve been invited to step in more. There’s
always been a give and take with a respectful balance of what our daughter needs– and what is
attainable– through each season. For that, I’m grateful for as we journey onward together.



Leah Outten is a birth mom of nineteen years and still maintains a relationship with her daughter
and her adoptive parents. She is married to her college sweetheart and they share five children
together. Leah is a freelance writer, author, and adoption educator with a passion for preparing
hearts and showing what is possible with an open-hearted approach. Her memoir The Sixteenth
Year is available December 12, 2023 and open for preorders now through her publisher or amazon. 

You can also follow along with Leah’s life and journey on Instagram!

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