'Open adoption' keeps birth mom in the family tree

Birth mom and adoptive mom.
Birth mom and adoptive mom.TODAY

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By Linda Carroll

Not so long ago, adoption was something clothed in secrecy, something parents didn’t talk about. Adopted kids had to embark on long and arduous searches if they wanted to learn anything about their birth parents.

But these days, many couples are choosing “open adoptions,” keeping birth parents involved in kids’ lives.

That’s something that wasn’t available when Al Roker adopted a child, he commented Monday on TODAY as the show kicked off a week-long series of reports marking National Adoption Month. “When I adopted my daughter 26 years ago, the thought of being connected to her birth mother never crossed our minds,” he said.

Liane Thatcher and Kerry Keane of South Orange, N.J., took some time before they decided to adopt a child.

“We went through infertility treatments and eventually decided we weren't going to go through the expense and trauma on my body and our emotional lives anymore,” Thatcher told TODAY.com. “We took a two year breather and spent some time working with a therapist trying to decide if we wanted a family and how to go about it. Then we decided on adoption.”

But Thatcher and Keane knew from the start that they wanted to include the birth mom in their adoptive child's life. So when they reached out to Moriah Dailer with a letter, they included specific details about themselves.  

“Most adoptive parents describe themselves in general terms,” Thatcher said. “We said things like, I’m a vegetarian who is married to a duck hunter. We sent it out in mid-May and three weeks later we got a call back.”

They also made it clear that Dailer was important to them.

“Knowing that you are facing the most difficult life decision, we want to offer our support and understanding,” they wrote. “We would welcome the chance to learn more about each other.”

The letter touched Dailer. “It was impressive to read a letter written by strangers and you felt like you would have a great conversation with them,” she told Roker on TODAY Monday. “I sat on the letter for about three or four weeks, and then I finally called.”

A meeting between the couple and Dailer was eventually arranged. “The first time we met, it was terribly emotional,” Keane recalled. “Liane asked the question: ‘Why do you want an open adoption?’ And she looked at me, straight in the face, and said, ‘I want to be able to tell him later that I loved him.’”

While there is no agency that requires states to report voluntary adoptions, there are some statistics, according to Bethany Christian Services. The largest national study in the field to date, the National Survey of Adoptive Parents conducted in 2007-2008, involved telephone surveys with the parents of 2,089 adopted children; over two-thirds – 68 percent -- of the parents in private domestic adoptions reported post-adoption contact between children and their birth family members.

Thatcher had always wanted to be a mom. “When I was a little girl, I thought I’d just grow up and be a mother,” she told Roker. “Ours was a much more complicated path.”

For her part, Dailer wanted to do the best for the unplanned baby growing inside her. “I felt really strongly that the child could have a better life with someone else,” she said. “I just wanted to be responsible because I had been so irresponsible.”

Secrecy about the adoption just didn’t feel right to any of them. “We were both very hesitant with the idea of having secrets in a family,” Thatcher said. “So we figured out how we were going to work as a team.”

Most important to Dailer was maintaining a connection with the baby growing inside her. “Phelan was my family,” she said. “So I had to pursue that.”

Thus, when little Phelan was born he instantly had two mommies and a huge extended family bound together by their love for a child. And in Dailer, Thatcher got an added bonus: someone else she could share her joys and heartaches with. “She’s the first person I think to call — just as quickly as I call my sister,” Thatcher said.

Now 12, Phelan is a whiz at basketball three-pointers, adores soccer and, like most big brothers, occasionally gets annoyed by his little sister. He also knows that more people have his back than the average kid has.

Though some moms might feel threatened at hearing their child call someone else "mommy," Thatcher is thrilled to see her son’s connection with his birth mother. “There’s an amazing thing that happens when we get together — when Phelan first sees Moriah,” she said. “It’s inexplicable how excited [he gets] and how much he literally needs her.”

“Yeah, it’s amazing,” Dailer agreed.

Even though Dailer lives 3,000 miles away from Phelan and his family she keeps in close touch, sharing life’s precious moments.

For Phelan, it’s all completely normal.

“She’s really fun to hang out with,” the boy said. “I really love her.”