When reminiscing about the months following an adoption placement, many adoptive parents will admit that they had a hard time fulfilling their dual roles of birth parent supporter and new parent at the same time.
It can take a little while for the shock to turn into security as adoptive parents stop feeling like a babysitter and see themselves as legitimate parents. Often, when this self-assurance hits, they are much better able to support birth parents. Unfortunately, it’s during that early time, when they’re still in shock, when their support is most needed.
I was in shock when placement occurred—realizing that someone had entrusted me with their baby—and I had to try and quickly push down all the walls that I’d built around me to protect me from the what-ifs.
By going above and beyond their expectations, we had a chance to show them how much they were valued as people, how cherished they were as friends, and how much we admired their strength.
This was the case with both of our placements, and it took me by surprise with our second because I thought I had somehow prepared myself for all of the emotions. Now I know that’s impossible.
The feelings that hit all parties at the time of an adoption placement are powerful and unpredictable, but adoptive parents need to step up to the plate as much as possible because birth parents need every ounce of borrowed strength they can get. Parenthood is about sacrifice, and pushing past your insecurities to support new birth parents is one of the earliest sacrifices you can make in your new role. Empathy has to take center stage, even if all you want to do is focus solely on the child you’ve waited so long for.
I remember telling the social worker during our initial home study that yes, I had faced the infertility demons, I had worked through the grief, I’d dealt with the baggage, and I’d handled the general insecurities by talking it out with my partner and other loved ones. I get a huge laugh out of that now. I wasn’t lying to her; I really thought I’d worked through my issues.
Then, when my son was placed with me, I saw everything bubble to the surface. Then, three years later when we adopted my daughter, I thought surely I would be a more confident version of myself and would handle my insecurities differently after placement—but again, I found myself walking a line between wanting to be compassionate and wanting to be selfish.
After both placements, an angel and a devil sat on my shoulders, with the angel telling me to snap out of it and lead with empathy while the devil told me to turn off my phone, snuggle into a recliner, and rock that baby I’d prayed for incessantly as I blocked out all other distractions. Ultimately, both times, some ragtag version of the angel prevailed, and I did my very best to be a friend, to do more than what was expected of me, to be humble, to be supportive and genuine, and to provide peace that their child was in good hands.
There was a part of me that realized I hadn’t even come close to handling my infertility grief and insecurities, and I might never fully. But, fumbling through it all, I pushed myself to rise to the occasion, trying to show how much I genuinely cared.
With both of our relationships, the support we extended, despite our own imperfections and ordeals, spoke volumes to the birth parents who had entrusted us with their children. By going above and beyond their expectations, we had a chance to show them how much they were valued as people, how cherished they were as friends, and how much we admired their strength. We had a chance to bring them peace, work as a team, validate them, encourage them, and show them how privileged we felt that they chose us as the parents of their child.
If you’re awaiting the placement of a child or you’re trying to figure out how to better support your child’s birth parents, try the five guidelines below:
1 – Underpromise and overdeliver.
Birth parents need to know they can rely on you, and in the area of trust, your actions will speak much louder than your words. You’ll have opportunities, both pre- and post-placement, to make promises. Strive to underpromise. Consider what the bare minimum is that you can deliver, and promise only that. Then push yourself to exceed those expectations. Showing birth parents that they put their faith in the right people will bring them peace like nothing else can.
2 – Set healthy boundaries.
Birth moms may need to admit that hearing you call yourself “Mommy” is too hard right now. You may have to admit that hearing her call herself “Mommy” is stunting your ability to bond with your child. Everyone may have to admit things and ask for concessions, so good communication is essential to setting healthy boundaries.
Use humility to admit what’s hard for you and encourage birth parents to do the same. Work together to set some healthy boundaries everyone can work within. Working within birth parent’s boundaries will aid in their grieving process.
3 – Validate.
Speak your mind when you realize you love something about a birth parent. Tell them they’re doing a great job despite the pain you know they’re feeling. If your child’s birth dad is stepping up to the plate, extend your gratitude and tell him he’s essential to your child. If your child’s birth mom is being super respectful about a boundary you’ve set, tell her how much you appreciate her willingness to see where you’re coming from, even though you know it must be hard for her. Remind them that they hold a very important role and that you’re thankful for the hard work they’re putting into the relationship.
4 – Do the unexpected.
Be spontaneously and creatively supportive sometimes. When a birth parent says they like something, make note of it and put together a care package full of favorites that will calm, soothe, relax, and pamper. Write a quick card and put it in the mail with a few extra photos. Order a pizza and have it delivered on a random week night or, if you live close, ask them to come over and have dinner and watch a movie, allowing them to hold their baby while they watch the movie. Whatever might work for your own unique situation, push yourself to do the unexpected. And don’t forget birth dad if he’s involved, because birth dads are very often overlooked during the grieving process.
5 – Provide continued post-placement therapy.
Many states require that adoptive parents pay for a minimum number of post-placement therapy sessions for birth parents, but ongoing family therapy is an option in most situations as well. The cost of this will fall on your shoulders, but there are few investments that will reap a greater reward in your life. Check with your lawyer or agency about any rules or laws against funding ongoing family therapy. Over the first year, a quarterly check-in with a therapist can do wonders for grieving birth parents as they steady their footing, find a new normal, and work with the adoptive parents to build a really healthy relationship that can stand the test of time.