We're Still Learning What An Open Adoption Looks Like

This is the fifteenth post of "30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days," a series designed to give a voice to people with widely varying experiences, including birthparents, adoptees, adoptive parents, foster parents, waiting adoptive parents and others touched by adoption.

We Had 'Married In' Through Caroline
Written by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser for Portrait of an Adoption

Before our daughter was born, open adoption -- as in a relationship with her mom, Caroline, plus four grandparents and sisters and brother and spouses and children -- sounded kind of intriguing. I remember thinking that nine grandparents meant the potential for a lot of birthday presents! Mostly, though, open adoption seemed completely amorphous and undefined. As Caroline described the members of her family and their dynamics, and I began to realize they were people, not theoretical players in this open adoption, I wondered how they’d feel about Saskia -- and about us.

To be the adoptive parents there are no descriptions of your relationship with the birth family, no rules, no prescribed etiquette. There’s this tiny person who cannot talk and her mom tethering you to them and them to you. In other words -- you wing it.

When our daughter was nearly 2, we were invited to her (birth/first/plain old) mother’s younger (half) sister’s wedding. We felt grateful to be included, especially when Caroline’s stepmother introduced our tot: "This is Caroline’s daughter, Saskia," she said, "and this is Saskia’s mom, Sarah."

As with any wedding, there was the ceremony, reception, and dancing to the super band, but unlike most weddings we’ve attended, we were neither intimates nor casual connections. My husband and I felt a little like in-laws, save for marital ties. Our daughter granted us this quasi in-law status -- but she could barely talk.

We'd "married in" through Caroline. Not only do we feel connected to her, we are connected to her. At the same time we’ve deliberately attempted to forge relationships with other people in the family independently of her, because for Saskia, the various cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents are family, too, and they are warm and welcoming and much less conflicted about their relationships to her than Caroline is (understandably so).

Just this summer at her cousin’s 13th birthday, Saskia commandeered "the birthday girl’s" attentions for part of the afternoon. Even with a nearly palpable layer of makeup, the teenager so resembled the 4-year-old. Both have big, round, dark, deep eyes you fall right into. Both have brown hair that’s silky (when brushed). Like her nearly 9-year-old cousin, our daughter is small and wiry and kinetic in that must-move manner of the extremely agile.

There are plenty of family gatherings we don’t participate in and plenty of ours that take place without Caroline or her family. The belonging is completely deep and at the periphery at once. In the larger sphere of extended family, we are icing on cake, and vice versa. That’s easy enough to feel and think, because until Saskia we didn’t know each other. Then, when you watch Saskia forge a silly expression with the same pursed lips Caroline makes, you’re seeing the cake.

This is true even when so many people tell me she looks like me -- and she does, in ways more than her brothers do, the ones I gave birth to. She’s very much ours. Her expressions mirror her brothers’ expressions, too. Her words mimic her siblings’ utterances and parents’ phrasing. The nature-nurture chicken-egg quality of adoption is a little confusing for me and I can only imagine that there will be times it’ll be confusing for her, too. One adult friend became connected to her birth family in recent years and once told me that she feels sometimes her personality is "a giant science experiment."

Once home from the party for the new teenager -- which we drove to and from, just the three of us: her papa and me and Saskia, a three-hour round trip -- she melted down. She clung. She cried. She wouldn’t eat but wanted a second bottle of milk. It wasn’t like anyone talked to her about adoption or tried to remind her about whose tummy she’d resided in once upon a time. No one had to say a thing. She absorbed something of the complexity, even though it wasn’t named within her earshot.

During the party Saskia’s grandmothers -- Caroline’s mother and stepmother -- discussed why the adoption continued to be difficult for Caroline. While it’s more complicated for Caroline than the little girl who wanted to play the Little Bear game with her cousins, aunts and anyone else willing to go a round, it is about the little girl she isn’t watching grow up on a daily basis, too. The words Caroline uses to talk about her decision include regret, resolve, happiness and sadness. She wishes so many things had been or could be different. I can’t know what it’s about for her, not really, and I’m not sure she can, either.

Already, I don’t know what adoption is about for Saskia or what it will be about. I hope that however complicated it may be, she’ll feel less conflicted due to all these relationships and all this love for her and commitment to her. I do believe she’s fortunate for all the connections she enjoys to Caroline and her family, and that we are, too.

It’s early. Saskia’s just begun to comprehend my tummy wasn’t the one she grew in -- and even that, she forgets and relearns every few months. Mostly, I know that I don’t know… yet. Even when I do, at least somewhat, comprehend what open adoption means to my daughter, I won’t have any definitive answers. I’ll only have one perspective on one family’s experience to offer. And I have to believe that’s going to be enough.

Portrait of an Adoption is hosted by Carrie Goldman, author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. If you have a story you would like to submit as a candidate for next year's series, please email it to her at

Adoption Portraits