Heading into an open adoption for the first time can be an uneasy and anxious time for all involved. It is important for all parties to remember that this is a lifetime relationship. To get things started on the right foot, it is important that all communication be clear, and both birth and adoptive parents are open about their wishes in terms of future contact. The frequency of contact, method of contact, and any other aspects of the relationship should be outlined as clearly as possible to avoid future disappointment. While life changes, and all relationships ebb and flow based on circumstances, establishing a contact agreement in writing is crucial for the future of the relationship between birth parents, adoptive parents, and the adoptee.
Contact agreements are documents that, while not legally binding, are important in outlining the terms of contact between a birth and adoptive family. Every adoption is different, and every contact agreement will look different. Some contact agreements will include frequent, direct contact, while some will include only annual updates via a third party such as an adoption agency or attorney. Working with prospective adoptive parents, I often hear that people are unsure of what is the “right” amount of contact that will be best for their child. The answer isn’t simple, but the basics are that any contact is better than no contact, and this is one arena where adoptive parents need to both defer to the birth parents’ wishes as well as know their own limitations. For instance, I have seen adoptive parents who have had birth parents request weekly updates of pictures via email or text. While I understand the impetus behind this desire, it’s just not realistic for either party. Off the top of your head, think of the list of people you text or email every single week. Odds are the list is very short. Or, for example, your child’s birth family lives in California, and you live in Maine. Odds are it is unrealistic to think you’d be able to make the trip to see the birth parents multiple times a year. While we want to provide our child’s birth parents with the access they need to help gain closure, we also don’t want to promise more than we can deliver.
It is far better for both parties to make a contact agreement that outlines basic, semi-frequent contact that doesn’t burden either party. Just like adoptive parents shouldn’t agree to more than they can promise, they should also realize that birth parents also have lives and obligations and may not be able to return communication as frequently as they initially think. I once spoke with an adoptive mother who had a contact agreement where she sent picture updates through their attorney in the mail, who then forwarded them onto the birth parents. She was perplexed as to why she hadn’t heard from the birth parents recently after having just sent them an update that included one hundred printed photos. Yes. 100. I don’t even want to think about what it must have cost in postage to mail the photo equivalent of War and Peace, but I am certain that, while her intentions were good, it is very possible her child’s birth parents were overwhelmed by this extreme update package. If communication is via mail, it’s also important that the contact agreement specifies who each party should contact if they need to update their address. If you’ve ever had to move before, you know it’s easy to forget how many people you need to get your updated address to. If a package or letter comes back undeliverable, it’s important that both parties know who they should contact to see if there are any updates.
What is perhaps most important to remember is that contact agreements signify the beginning of a relationship rather than guarantee what that relationship will look like forever. Birth parents can change their mind about the degree of contact they’d like, and adoptive parents can go through seasons of life where challenges such as an illness can prevent them from being as frequent in their communication as they initially promised. What is important as adoptive parents is that we do whatever we can to honor the agreement we initially made. Life happens, and if you find you will be unable to complete your end of the deal as promised for any reason, it is important that you communicate this either to your intermediary or to birth parents directly. Whatever you do, don’t just disappear. Someday, your child will ideally be able to have her own relationship with her birth family independent of you, but this will not be possible if you do not maintain open lines of communication during her childhood.