This article details how the process of adoption works for birth parents. It takes readers through the six basic steps involved.

How Adoption Works

Are you an expectant parent? Are you considering adoption but just aren’t sure how it works? Here is a basic idea of the how-to of adoption. Keep in mind that while adoption is permanent and binding the relationship you choose to have with your child’s adoptive parents is fluid. Even if you have decided right now you aren’t interested in a relationship, it is possible later on to forge one. Also, keep in mind that once a child is 18, they get to make their own decisions about contact with whomever they choose. With that in mind, let’s lay out the framework. 

Step 1: (usually) you find yourself with an unexpected pregnancy

You find yourself wanting to panic, throw up (not entirely because of the morning sickness either), and be overwhelmed. You do what any sane person faced with a question does: You ask the internet. The internet is an amazing (and sometimes terrible) resource to find answers to life’s hardest questions. I haven’t been in this situation but I have asked the internet some embarrassing, traumatizing, personal questions so I can tell you what happens next. Targeted ads now barrage you about what you just asked the internet. (Because nothing says “helpful” like having “Do you suffer from an embarrassing rash?! Click here for the number one cure!”) 

If I had to guess, that is how you ended up here reading these words and rolling your eyes at being enlightened by my stupid brilliant commentary, in the words of Maui: You’re welcome. No, seriously though. This is a big deal. However, you have already completed step one of ensuring the possible future adoption works. You’re doing research. You’re finding options for your family. That is brave and awesome of you. Virtual high five! (But no real one, because covid. And also healthy personal boundaries with strangers on the internet.)

Find yourself an adoption agency or adoption lawyer that will stand up for your rights as a parent. Who will walk you through what will happen next? Who can make sure that the adoption actually works and goes smoothly? The next several months while you gestate that little one are going to be easy compared to what happens next. 

Step 2: You’ve done your research 

Go you! There is so much information and it can feel so overwhelming. You know all about open adoptions, partially open adoptions, that closed adoptions aren’t so much of a thing anymore. You know that open adoption can be what you and the adoptive parents want it to be. It can include updates by email or mail or even include holiday visits. It can be whatever you guys want to make it as long as it is healthy for the baby. You guys can work together to make sure the adoption works.

Now you are going to choose an agency. You’ll need one who supports you and does not commoditize you. You will need counseling and help to navigate the legal side of things. You’ve done your research, now do your homework. Narrow down your options to ones you are comfortable with and start making phone calls or sending emails. Look at the adoptive family registry at adoption.com and get an idea of the kind of family you imagine your baby being raised by. You will very likely be called by a counselor who can help assist you through the next few steps. 

Step 3: Pick an agency/adoptionlawyer/family 

You will want to spend time on this but many expectant parents will tell you they “just know” when they meet the right family. For whatever reason, there will be a connection and you can move forward with the next step.

Step 4: Your adoption plan. What do you want your birth to be like. Would you like adoptive parents in the room or would you prefer they wait in the waiting room? Who do you want to be with you? Your spouse/partner/mama/best friend? Make those decisions. Write them down. You may not get everything you want but having a plan can make the actual birth feel more controlled. Would you like to hold the baby? You’ll be asked multiple times if you are sure you want to hand the baby over to adoptive parents. Make sure you are sure as you can be. 

Step 4: Give birth (I know, easy-peasy right?) 

Sorry, I haven’t done this part so I can’t add much besides speculation and what I’ve gleaned from TV dramas. Um…push? I guess? That’s a thing you do. So, do that. Good job. More virtual high fives. You’ve got this. You already have your plan but maybe you need to change it. That’s okay. You wanted a natural birth but you need an epidural? You’re the boss. 

Step 5: The legal adoption part

By now you’ve done a bunch of paperwork. You’ve met families, talked to caseworkers, given birth. You will have to sign paperwork making this a permanent, basically legally irrevocable decision. You won’t be in court unless you and the adoptive parents want you to be. You’ve done all the work you need to do at this point legally but from here is where you’ll need to put in some of your emotionally hardest work.

Even if your adoption is very open and you have visits with the family and video chats and whatever else you worked out, this part is hard. You’ll need to let go of whatever your wants are at that point and think about what is best for the baby. That means you will need therapy. A lot of therapy. And friends around you as you grieve your loss. Your body will produce milk it doesn’t need. You’ll be healing from birth without the baby around as a reminder of why you gave birth in the first place. From what I have heard and read from birth mothers, this part is where your hardest work starts. You need to heal so you can be the best you for yourself and your baby. 

Step 6: The rest of your life

You get to decide how this bit goes. Will you focus on healing yourself and maintaining communication with the adoptive family and thereby your child? Will you get help to heal your heart from all of this? You can go skydiving or race cars. That’s your business. But if you have an open adoption you need to do your best to maintain contact. The family may irritate you now that the adoption is complete.

Bear in mind that people can irritate you and still love you very much. They may seem like goody-goodies trying to fix you. I don’t know their hearts but if I had to guess, they aren’t trying to annoy you. They want to help you. If you need to back away do but tell them that you need space instead of just ghosting them. You might feel like that’s for the best. I guarantee you it isn’t. 

As an adoptive mom, I interact with a lot of other adoptive moms. Hearing their heartbreak over the lack of connection between their adoptive child and their birth parents is so sad and so common. You’ll never get your baby back to be all yours but if you do things okay, there is a chance you can gain extra family members that love you and your child. 

So there you have it. Six so-called easy steps of how adoption works. I know it is a lot to take in. It is a big deal. I love adoption. It is how I get to be a mom to every one of my kids. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t wish things could have been different for all of our sakes and I adore my children. I could not love them more if they were birthed from my body. However, their birth parents and them don’t and won’t have a relationship because they are very unsafe people. If that changes I would love for my kids to get to see their birth parents and have them know their history. No one is better without you in their lives unless you are actively trying to do them harm. 

Maybe you aren’t actively looking for adoption as an option for your family and you’re wondering how it works anyway. Essentially, the same way I just laid out. A woman has a baby, the parents decide to place them for adoption and chooses a family to adopt him or her. (Assuming CPS isn’t involved. If they are, that’s a different situation.) Adoption is a legal, permanent arrangement for someone besides the birth parents to raise the child. Sometimes it is a person the expectant parents know personally and sometimes it is someone they chose. Sometimes it is a parent or guardian, school teacher, or best friend. As long as the person is a safe person who can be shown to have safe, adequate shelter, food, clothing, and monetary needs and that their living situation is adequate they can adopt. 

Adoption is a legalized final decision. If someone tells you that their child was adopted and is telling you “they are working on getting them back,” they don’t understand the situation. Foster care is different than adoption. In foster care, the goal is usually rehabilitation and reunification. In adoption, it is final after the judge hammers the gavel down. Unless the adoptive parents sign over adoptive rights to someone else, they are the permanent caretakers of that child. The child becomes like their biological child legally. New social security cards, birth certificates, legal paperwork, etcetera will be issued with the adoptive family’s name. On the birth certificate, the adoptive parents are listed as the parents. It is as if the birth family doesn’t exist in the eyes of the law. 

Furthermore, in some states, it does not matter what is stated in the adoption decree regarding the open adoption terms. If the adoptive parents want to move away out of state, change the terms, and do not give a forwarding address, legally there is nothing you can do. That doesn’t mean it isn’t an awful thing to do. It doesn’t mean that the adoptive family isn’t doing something wrong. Unfortunately, it means that the birth family has no legal recourse.

In some states, the adoption decree is legally binding like a divorce child arrangement. Be aware of what the rules are in the state you live in. Again, adoption, in most cases, cannot be reversed. The rare occasion on which that has happened is when the adoption was performed illegally. That means that someone was coerced, that a parent didn’t give consent, the paperwork wasn’t filed in time, or the law was not followed in some way when the adoption was finalized. 

Adoption can be a tremendous blessing for the families involved. For the expectant parents, it can mean a safe place for their child while they are leaving a difficult situation. Many adoptive parents cannot have biological children and are overjoyed to be able to parent a child. Speaking for myself, adoption works as a way to share a good life with children who came from a difficult place. 

Again, they are adopted from foster care which is a different situation. There is very little birth parent choice involved in where their child is given a home if they were removed due to abuse or neglect. However, if birth parents follow their parent-plan and make changes, they can get their children back home. Adoption of foster children only happens if birth parents were given a year or more to make changes, they fail to make those changes, parental rights are terminated, and the adoptive parents wait six months or more. It is a whole other thing.

I hope you have more clarity now on how adoption works. If you have more questions, you can go to adoption.com and find answers from people who have been in the same place you have been. 

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Christina Gochnauer

Christina Gochnauer is a foster and adoptive mom of 5. She has a bachelor's degree of Psychology from Letourneau University. She currently resides in Texas with husband of 16 years, her children ages 3, 3.5, 4.5, 11, and 12, and her three dogs. She is passionate about using her voice to speak out for children from "hard places" in her church and community.