It’s in our nature to have expectations for everything. Regardless of the situation, our backgrounds, or agendas, we are driven to meet our own or society’s expectations of us in each moment. It’s exhausting and sets us up for comparison, burnout, and disappointment, although sometimes we experience success. The adoption world is not unlike the rest and there are several different expectations that I have run into personally or have observed to be interwoven into the adoption realm. I hope that we can look at these expectations and learn from them, grow, and possibly even reframe how we approach certain topics. 

Parenting Expectations

When women are faced with an unexpected pregnancy, they are also met with a wall of expectations and opinions. Options are available to them but—based on their environment, social norms, beliefs, and other influences—the expectations that others have for them at that moment can sway any option to the front. Personally, when I was met with an unexpected pregnancy, I wanted to parent. I grew up as an adoptee in a closed adoption. I never knew my biological family or even simply about them. I struggled deeply with my identity and I was always desperate for belonging because I felt this void when it came to connection. I didn’t seem to measure up to the kids who weren’t adopted and all of the adoptees I grew up around seemed to struggle in some manner like I did. So based on that observation I was already halfway to the parenting door, but I also grew up in the world of MTV and reality television. I saw teen parenting happening on TV so, while it looked hard, I thought it was realistic for me to support another human being in my unstable life.

There are also many pressures coming from our society that fed into this parenting decision. We live in a world where people expect you to step up and fix your problems. When a woman is faced with a pregnancy, they expect you to drop everything and parent—even if that means the child might grow up in poverty, have no connection to their parents because they are always out working to put food on the table, or whatever else could be a struggle. Now don’t take this as me against struggles and parents working hard to make it work. I think it’s honorable and takes a great deal of strength to fight the odds and be successful in parenting when the resources to help you are seriously lacking. But what I am saying is that there is a serious double standard of expectations going on for women faced with an unexpected pregnancy. 

Adoption is an option

One of the first things that my mother brought up to me when I was 18 and pregnant, was that I was adopted, so I should consider adoption as an option. Now my mama didn’t mean to pressure me—or at least I don’t think she did—but her expectations weighed heavily on me. I think this is a similar experience I have heard other birth mothers express. It’s an expectation for women facing an unexpected pregnancy to place their child for adoption. This is where ethics come into play in modern adoption. Coercion is not cool and definitely should not be happening in agencies or with individuals trying to push an expectant mother into a certain decision; however, it still happens today. I was talking with a birth mother the other day who was pushed to sign relinquishment papers early—which is illegal, mind you—and when she asked questions, they dodged her. Now, this isn’t the way things usually are because in my 14 years as a birth mother and 33 years as an adoptee, I have never connected with someone who faced unethical practices in their adoption journey until this year. However, it’s opened my eyes that there are still pressures and expectations even in the adoption realm.

Another one that I can think of is that birth mother stigmas exist based on expectations that the women considering placing their children for adoption—or those who already have—did not or would not make good parents. Those words hurt to type but, unfortunately, it is a view that some people in this world have. They expect women who do not have good resources to be more stable or to let someone else save their baby through adoption. Let me be very loud and clear—that mama deserves the opportunity to parent if she wants to and she deserves people cheering her on in her efforts. That mama also deserves to make an adoption plan for her baby not because she wouldn’t be a good mama but because this is the more optimal plan for her situation and it’s the choice she is making for her child by herself. That mama also has the right to any other options she may be considering. It is up to her completely. 

Open Adoption Expectations

I feel like there are three sides to the expectation game here. From a birth parent standpoint, I believe that many expectations can be made before the open adoption plan begins. These expectations were either promised or agreed upon by the adoptive parents and the expectant mother before the baby was born, or they were just what the expectant mom said she expected in an open adoption. Nine times out of ten, I see that expectations cause miscommunication, empty promises, falling short, and hurt for birth mamas. I say this in many of my articles, but if you said you will do certain things in your open adoption to the birth mama, follow up with it all. Be intentional and communicate what you as an adoptive parent are also expecting. If you communicate well and you consistently check in on needs and desires, the expectations remain realistic and the birth mama isn’t left hurt due to that process.

Adoptive parents also have many expectations or assumptions going into the adoption process about open adoption. I have heard so many prospective adoptive parents voice that they are hesitant to be super open in their adoption plans. Lifetime movies and Hollywood have spun this ridiculous story of how birth mothers will just come and steal their baby back or that they won’t respect boundaries or will in some way be inappropriate. It freaks adoptive parents out to think that could end up being their situation. However, what they do not realize is that what is portrayed is so out of touch with reality. Again, talking and being vulnerable with what you expect or desire in an open adoption plan helps with setting the tone for your journey.

Lastly, what does your adoptee expect? Growing up as an adoptee who did not know her biological family due to a closed adoption, I had all kinds of dreams and expectations of what a reunion could look like. Spoiler alert—they were all setting me up for some disappointment and harsh realities. I did not get the famous birth parents or even the stable ones. I got hot messes. A big pointer that I have for managing expectations in adoption plans is to check in with your adoptee, talk about what their expectations or needs are in having a connection with their biological family. Modern adoption has a huge benefit that wasn’t available to me in the 80s. Adoptees have an opportunity to know their birth family, which in part helps them know themselves with far more clarity. Another thing is that adoptees might expect their story to impact them, but it likely will. Educate yourself on adoption trauma, reactive attachment disorder (RAD), transracial adoption, and listen to birth mother and adoptee stories to help make the transition for your child as smooth as possible. 

Birth Parent Expectations

The expectations I have as a birth mother are probably the hardest ones to navigate. Oftentimes, birth parents are seen as people from whom you need to shelter the child when it’s actually the opposite. Birth mothers often want to see their plan in action. They want to see the life that their choice provided for their child. Not only that, but they expect to be present for moments of the child’s life. Sometimes it’s hard to express the desires and expectations to adoptive parents because it’s an awkward dance of boundaries and respect. We are sometimes afraid that if we ask for too much that we will be cut off from our child and, if we ask for something more, that we will be told no, and that it will change things moving forward. I will just go ahead and state this: there can always be more added to the open adoption plan. We aren’t always ready for that on either side, but oftentimes birth mothers are open to whatever you are comfortable with implementing in your plan. There are the occasional birth mothers who are not ready to have a close relationship with you, and I think that’s something that adoptive parents can struggle with when they try to meet their expectations. Many adoptive parents want a close relationship with their child’s birth parents, but sometimes that closeness is too raw, too sad, or too soon for birth parents. Finding that balance and checking in on both sides is a great way to manage expectations in the open adoption plan.

Aside from visits and updates, I think my expectations were the most off when it came to grief and healing. Since I grew up as an adoptee, I had this hyper-focused viewpoint of adoption and it was pretty unrealistic. I only saw the sunshine and roses, but never the hard stuff. When I became a birth mother, I was quickly thrown into the lion’s den of grief. I was so sad to lose my daughter. I knew I was making the right choice, but it hurt so much. I was taken aback so deeply that I quickly turned around and shoved that hurt down deep. I didn’t plan on addressing it or even processing it. I just wanted to move forward. I expected things to be okay after that but, six years later, I realized that I was still very sad. I was desperate to be with my child as often as I could and to know as much about her that I was able to know. And I will admit, it’s been scary to voice when I needed more or desired to spend more time with them. I am so thankful that my daughter’s mother is so wonderful. She never questions my requests; she seems to just understand that this is good for all of us. I truly believe that it does benefit us all. It has also been really scary to realize that when I walk away from visits that I won’t see her again for a while. I had to manage my expectations of myself in the healing arena because it is not easy to be prepared. My hurt comes and goes. It could be a baby shower that triggers grief, a picture of my kids, or even my son talking about his sister. In all aspects, I have had to make sure that I can get myself the resources I need to still function after processing the hurt. It has taken me 11 years to get to a place where I can tackle my grief and triggers head-on and then still go about my day as if the prompt hadn’t happened. Healing will be a lifelong commitment to myself but, with managed expectations, I am on a successful path. 

Expectations come in many shapes and sizes and from all over the place in the adoption world. No matter your role in the adoption triad, you have a great opportunity to check your expectations regularly and decide what next steps you can take in ensuring you have the most positive experience possible. It’s never easy, but it is always worth it.