Book Review: Open Adoption and Diverse Families

Book Review:

Open Adoption and Diverse Families: Complex Relationships in the Digital Age

by Abbie E. Goldberg

reviewed by Kerry Woodward


Open Adoption and Diverse Families: Complex Relationships in the Digital Age, by Abbie E. Goldberg ((Oxford University Press, 2019), provides an in-depth look at the ways adoptive parents think about and enact openness in domestic adoptions. The book is based on data gathered during a longitudinal study that followed two-parent adoptive families for about a decade, from pre-adoption until eight years post-adoption, with interviews conducted at several points in time. Drawing on data from a larger study, the author chose 66 families for inclusion in the book; 45 of the families were formed through private domestic adoption and 21 through child welfare adoptions. A key purpose of the book is to explore how parents’ gender and sexual orientation shape their perspectives on openness in adoption. Thus, the author included equal numbers of heterosexual, lesbian, and gay male couples. The methodological decision to include only adoptive parents in coupled relationships was not discussed. The adoptive parents in the study were overwhelmingly (over 90%) white; about two thirds adopted a child of color (mostly Latinx and/or biracial). While the author acknowledges the largely white sample, she does not discuss it as failing to represent the population of adoptive parents. Yet, according to a 2007 survey of adoptive parents done by the Department of Health and Human Services, 27 percent of public adoptions and 19 percent of private adoptions included a Black adoptive parent; this does not include adoptions by non-Black parents of color.

Accepting that the book seeks to explore openness among adoptive couples, and that the findings may not be generalizable to adoptive parents of color, the book has several unique strengths. By following parents’ journeys from pre-adoption through the first eight years post-adoption, the book is able to show the way parents’ perspectives on openness in adoption change—or in some cases, fail to change—over time. Using parents’ own words, Goldberg traces families’ journeys into and through adoption. At times adoptive parents shift from being fearful of contact with a child’s birthparents to longing for more contact. The level of detail and description is both notable and, at times, feels a bit redundant (the book is nearly 400 pages, prior to the appendices).

A second strength is the centering of queer parents and the comparison between gay men, lesbians, and straight couples. The section about pre-adoptive experiences and decision-making was especially compelling. Reading this as a (white) lesbian, I found stories and perspectives that mirrored my own thinking and experiences, which is rare. The study found greater openness to parenting across racial lines among gay and lesbian couples (especially lesbians), and greater structural and communicative openness (gay fathers, in particular, were the most likely to embrace close relationships with birthmothers). While these findings are often anecdotally assumed, this study confirmed and began to explain these trends. Goldberg posits that since queer families cannot meet heteronormative and biogenetic norms—and most queer adoptive parents have had years to accept that their road to parenthood and their family structure would be non-normative—they (we) are more open to embracing different family structures and members and to talking about these differences.

The inclusion of both private and public domestic adoptions is another one of the book’s strengths. Most studies explore public and private adopters separately, but Goldberg highlights both similarities and differences in how openness is thought about depending on the type and circumstances of the adoption. Also noteworthy is Goldberg’s reliance on David Brodzinksy’s work on the psychology of adopted children and their identity development. Following Brodzinsky, she advocates—particularly in the concluding chapter—for both structural openness in adoption (contact with birth parents when possible) and developmentally appropriate communicative openness (talking about adoption often and comfortably, inviting and answering questions, etc.). The attention given to communicative openness, even in the face of closed adoptions, means that parts of the book are also applicable for adoptive families in which birth family contact is not currently possible (whether the adoption was initially closed, semi-open, or open). Other strengths or unique aspects of the book include a chapter devoted to contact and openness with birthfathers—an oft-neglected topic—and a chapter spent looking specifically at how Facebook aids and sometimes hinders relationships with birthparents.

While the book has significant strengths, its weaknesses often overshadow them. Most of the book’s faults stem from two issues: 1) a lack of attention to structural inequalities in adoption and between birth parents and adoptive parents, and 2) the difficulty in writing a book that is both a study of adoptive parents and intended as a guide to help adoptive parents and professionals navigate openness in adoption. The book does explicitly advocate for both structural and (even more so) communicative openness in adoption; however, because it looks only at the perspectives of adoptive parents, it ends up privileging the perspective of those who already have the most power in the adoption triad. While research on adoptive parents is important, it is also crucial for such research to be critical of the structural advantages of adoptive parents, and to bring to the fore the consequences for other triad members of adoptive parents’ structural privilege.

While Goldberg highlighted with care those adoptive parents who were cognizant of the structural inequalities between themselves and their child’s birth family, many other adoptive parents were less self-reflective. Goldberg missed innumerable opportunities to more strongly underscore the roles of poverty and/or racism in creating the conditions in which adoption is chosen, and in shaping the unequal dynamics of birthparent-adoptive parent relationships. More attention to these inequalities from the author would have helped to decenter adoptive parents and would have highlighted their (our) privilege, not just as members of the triad, but also as people who typically have significant economic—and often racial, mental health, and other—privileges in relation to their children’s birth families. To be fair, Goldberg does acknowledge these issues and does, occasionally, point out that many parents ignored these structural inequalities. But a few sentences sprinkled throughout 400 pages is insufficient given that these inequalities are the very reason for most adoptions and thus for relationships between triad members. Goldberg ends each chapter with a short summary where she provides a bit of analysis, but rarely does she dig very deeply into the issue of structural inequalities or highlight the research that contradicts misguided beliefs held by adoptive parents.

Relatedly, in portraying the narratives of adoptive parents, Goldberg sometimes positions adoptive parents as universal subjects. A jarring example occurred in the third chapter, where Goldberg says she “explores some of the reasons adoptive parents are typically selected by expectant parents.” Goldberg did not talk with birthparents, and thus can only possibly share how adoptive parents perceive they were chosen—which may be based on what birthparents or agencies told them. Here the author constructed adoptive parents as having universal knowledge and awareness even of the one part of the adoption experience where adoptive parents typically have less control (how and why they were “chosen”). The possibility that adoptive parents may have been told only one part of the story, or that they may have pieced limited information together to create a narrative that is far from the way the birthparent would describe it, is not acknowledged.

Another area where Goldberg largely neglected the significance of structural inequalities was in discussions of race, which were ever-present but rarely centered. While literature on openness and adoption was given significant attention early in the book, and occasionally throughout, literature on transracial adoption, racial identity development in adoption, or best practices in parenting across racial lines was nearly absent. A close reading of the book suggests that the author advocates for openness and frequency in addressing race, and working to help transracially adopted kids develop their racial identities; however, most of the book skirts over these issues, often failing to offer clear criticism of (white) parents’ “colorblind” (or otherwise problematic) approaches to parenting a child of color. Ongoing racism within the adoption arena was also evident in the book, yet ignored by the author. For example, when a parent reported that cost (and wait time) was a factor in their decision to be open to adopting a child of color—raising the issue of disparate fees depending on the race of a child—Goldberg left the lengthy quote as is, without analyzing or rejecting such practices as fundamentally racist. Also notable was the final chapter’s lack of a discussion and recommendations about parenting across racial lines and communicative openness regarding race.

Trying both to write a scholarly book and a book that is useful for triad members and adoption professionals, Goldberg resorted to little more than description and reporting in many places that called for a more pointed analysis. More engagement with scholarly literature on topics such as race/racism and the relationship between heredity, trauma, and brain development (in the chapter on genetics) would have strengthened the book and provided readers with more reasons to embrace the structural and communicative openness for which Goldberg advocates. However, despite the book’s significant weaknesses, there is value in articulating adoptive parents’ diverse perspectives on openness in adoption, and in highlighting stories of positive open adoptions. There is also value in exploring differences in the way gay, lesbian, and straight couples come to open adoption and conceptualize it.

Open Adoption and Diverse Families provides a detailed look into the thinking of white adoptive parents about adoption, nature vs. nurture, and birth family contact, and how these change over time. But it fails at providing an analysis of structural inequalities that shape the adoption system and is only moderately effective at providing adoptive parents with clear descriptions of best practices in navigating openness in adoption—especially transracial adoptions.

Kerry Woodward is a transracial adoptive parent and a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach. Her research interests include race, class, and gender; poverty and economic inequality; the child welfare system; and public policy and the state.

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