If you are a parent who has adopted, I am sure you have considered what you would do if your child’s birth family contacted you. What would you say? How would you respond? Would you allow them to communicate with your child? What are their intentions? How will your child respond?
There are so many questions and what-ifs to consider in this situation. And, as the parent, you will question your responses and wonder if you are doing the right thing for your child. You will wonder if letting the birth family member into your child’s life is the right thing to do, or if you say no, will your child resent you later for doing so? All of the what-ifs are valid. The anxiety that goes with wondering if you are doing the right thing is part of—wait for it—DOING THE RIGHT THING!
If a birth family member contacts you, there are some things to consider in making the decision about how to handle the contact.
Which family member is it?
Is it a birth parent who is reaching out to connect? Is it an aunt or uncle who wants to communicate with your family? Is it a grandparent from one side of your child’s birth family who is hoping to connect? Which family member is something to consider. Will your child benefit from a relationship with this person? Or would this person benefit from a relationship with your child?
For instance, is it a birth parent who has struggled with sobriety and is now sober and wants to connect with the child that they placed for adoption? Will seeing or communicating with them affect their sobriety in a positive or negative way? And how would your child feel seeing or hearing from this person? Will your child feel happy that they are reaching out and doing well? Or will your child feel sad that they weren’t strong enough to be sober and parent them when they were young? Will your child feel as though they didn’t matter enough? Or will they just be happy to know that their birth parent still cares and wants to know they are doing well?
How long has it been since this family member last contacted you, if ever?
Is this the very first time you are hearing from this family member? Has this family member expressed interest in your child before? Was the adoption recent, or did it take place many years ago? Why are they contacting you now?
The timing question is a valid part of the equation when determining how you feel about contact. Is this a person who has always been interested, and you believe they could be a part of your child’s life consistently and appropriately? Is this a person who will feel they can pop in and out when it is convenient for them and will end up disappointing your child?
What type of contact is the birth family member hoping for?
Are they expecting direct contact with your child? Or would they just like an update in the form of a written letter or email? Are they hoping to see photos and know details? Are they hoping to be able to visit in person with your child? Supervised or unsupervised? Do they wish to be able to chat with your child on social media apps or in email or phone calls? What is the expectation for the relationship if you consent to allow one?
Why might you feel unsure?
It is also to important to evaluate your own personal feelings if you are feeling unsure about contact with your child’s birth family. Are you trying to protect yourself and your feelings? Are your concerns strictly for your child? Are you making the decision based on the best interest of your child or based on your personal insecurities and fears?
Let’s be honest. Allowing contact with birth family can make a parent feel insecure. This is a normal reaction and may occur regularly or intermittently depending on your relationship with them and your child. Admitting that these feelings may impact how you respond is important. By acknowledging and identifying that you may be feeling a bit worried about your own feelings, it will help you to make a more honest decision that is best for your child and not just what you want for you. If you feel that your own insecurities or anxiety regarding birth family entering your child’s life is the issue, reach out to find a counselor, therapist, or support group to help you through it. In the adoption triad (birth family, adoptive family, and adoptee), it is not unusual to feel insecure or worried about how they fit in at times. Sometimes just knowing this is a normal way to feel, and feeling validated in your feelings is what you need to help work through it. Knowing you are not alone in your fears and that it is common can often help you.
Some examples of possible situations.
Let’s think of some situations a parent may face with a birth family member, and why they may feel unsure or uncomfortable with the situation.
If you are a parent who adopted a child from foster care, and the birth parents’ rights were terminated involuntarily because there was sufficient evidence of abuse or neglect, with little effort made by them to regain placement of their children, feeling concerned with contact seems very reasonable. Things to consider would be the time frame, child’s age, and reasons for termination. Also, you would need to consider what type of contact they are hoping to maintain.
If these birth parents were simply interested in an occasional letter or email to know the child is thriving, while you may feel unhappy with the situation that the child was in with them, it may be helpful for their healing to know the child is doing well.
If the adoption took place long ago, and they reach out suddenly, it would be worth considering why now? Has something changed in their lives that caused them to feel motivated to make contact? Have they made strides to improve their lives and want their child to know they are trying, and they have regret for not doing so sooner? How do you think your child would react to a situation like this? Would it be a positive feeling for them, or negative?
What if the birth parents were hoping to reunite with the child? Would having a visit with their birth parents be healthy for the child, or would it damage your relationship? How do you make a decision about these things if you are unsure?
Seek out support groups where you are able to discuss things with other parents who have been through these types of situations. If your family is seeing a counselor or therapist, this would be a good place to get advice as well.
What if the situation was slightly different than the one above? What if you adopted your child from the foster care system, and you are contacted by your child’s birth aunt or uncle? Would you be willing to open communication with them? If you have strong feelings about birth parents due to abuse or neglect of your child, would you be willing to allow an aunt or uncle to be involved in your child’s life as a connection to their biological family?
Again, you would have some necessary questions to consider. Why now? How long has it been since the child has been placed with you and since the adoption was finalized? Did this relative know of the foster placement and adoption prior to finalization? Did they show interest in getting to know the child at that time or reach out at all? Why or why not?
Is it a situation where they were unaware of what had happened and had not been contacted and are reaching out because this is new information for them? Did they have a strained or complicated relationship with their sibling (birth parents) that prevented them from participating in the child’s life prior to the adoption, but now they are hoping to build a relationship with you and your family? Have they previously been involved in your child’s life, but were unable to provide kinship care? Were they aware of your child’s situation prior to them entering foster care, and they ignored it? Or maybe they are the ones who alerted social services that the child needed help? Where was this relative when the child was removed, and who did they support during the process? The child, the birth parents, both, or neither?
Would your child benefit from having a connection with this relative? Would it be beneficial to have an open line of communication for information on biological family? Or would this be a relationship that did more harm than good to your child and family? What is the relative hoping to gain with the relationship?
What if your child was adopted in a private domestic adoption, and you suddenly receive requests for contact from a birth family member? What if you find out that the birth parents did not tell anyone of their adoption plan, and now family members wish to be able to have a relationship with your child, who they just found out had been placed for adoption? How would you react? What would you do?
The birth parents would have had their reasons for keeping their plan to themselves. Maybe you would want to know what those reasons were in deciding whether to start a relationship with their family members. Reaching out to your agency for support in a situation like this may be helpful. Evaluating the reasons the adoption was kept private from other family members, the timing of the contact, and the expectations that the family members have are all considerations you will have to make. You will need to decide how you feel regarding adding these people into your lives, and if it is part of the adoption plan you expected or are willing to participate in. Do you want your child to have extra family that happens to be biologically related? What is best for your child?
I like to think that as long as people are appropriate, and have good intentions, the more people to love a child, the luckier the child. But it is hard to bring a stranger into your life without truly knowing their intentions and whether or not the relationship will be an appropriate one.
Would you be able to find a mediator or counselor to do group sessions with you and the family members to set boundaries? Would the agency you worked with have a resource like this available to you?
Consider setting boundaries.
Oftentimes, setting boundaries is one of the hardest but most important parts of extended relationships within adoption.
The idea of setting boundaries often seems negative. I am not sure why that is. We have boundaries in all relationships, some spoken, some unspoken. Boundaries are healthy, and they help to keep relationships healthy as well.
For instance, a boundary for my child in his relationship with his birth mother is that they are not alone together. She is a great person, but she has an illness that can compromise her judgement and hinder her ability to make good decisions or to react appropriately at times. Therefore, we do our best to be able to maintain the relationship in a way that is safe and healthy for our child.
If you are approached by a family member and are unsure of how you feel about it, take some time to analyze why and to seek out support from others. Are there any boundaries you could set that would help make the relationship work for you? Is there a safety issue? What are your concerns, and how can you address them? Can you find a comfort level that works for all involved with boundaries that have been discussed and agreed upon?
Another boundary for me is that I do not want birth family to discuss the circumstances of the adoption without me present for the conversation. This would include grandparents bringing it up over ice cream, or while picking vegetables together in the garden, as well as birth parents. I want to always be a part of the conversation to be sure it is handled appropriately with my child.
I also have another child who had contact with his birth father for a period of time. It was mostly in the form of written letters and cards. Because the content of the letters was negative and inappropriate for our child, we chose to stop allowing the letters. We began sending them back unopened until they finally stopped coming. We did attempt to set a boundary first and gave a chance to try again with appropriateness. When that did not work, we chose what we felt was best for our son, and for his safety and well-being.
At the end of the day, our job as parents is to do what is best for our children. There will be times we are unsure what that is, exactly. We need to try to make the best decisions, based on the information we have. There will be times we get it right, and times we don’t. If you are struggling, reach out to support groups or to a therapist.