Research and experience have told us that, generally speaking, some degree of openness and access to one’s family of origin is in the best interest of the adoptee. But what happens when difficult circumstances seem to prevent this from happening?
What constitutes as “challenging” can differ from family to family. To learn more about this topic, I reached out to some dear friends—Rene (who adopted through foster care) and Michelle (who adopted via domestic infant adoption). They each love their child’s birth family in big ways—even though having a relationship has not always been easy or met their previous expectations.
I asked them the following questions. If you too are in the midst of a challenging situation and wondering how to love your child and their birth family well through it, I hope that their experience and answers can be helpful to you.
Can you describe your expectations for a relationship with your child’s birth mother/family going into adoption, and how that compares to things today?
Rene: I adopted my now 5-year-old son from foster care. He was placed with me when he was seven days old and officially adopted when he was twenty-two months old.
When he was two months old, he became very ill and spent a month in the hospital. I exchanged phone numbers with his birth mom to keep her updated. During court-ordered mediation, we agreed that when she was clean and sober we would discuss getting together for visits (as long as it was in his best interest). God answered our prayers and she is clean and sober! We have not declared any clear boundaries, but do not feel that it’s necessary at this point.
Michelle: With our first adoption, we signed and honored an agreement that involved sending pictures, letters, and texts. She did not respond or even read the letters initially. She was going through a lot during those first months, but now we have more contact through texts/pictures. At the beginning I expected more contact. I wish we saw her more, but unfortunately have only seen her once since our son’s birth.
With our second adoption, we had more of a verbal agreement and were hopeful we would see his birth parents more frequently because they were local. Our first year was wonderful, with frequent visits, celebrating his first birthday together and texts for every “first.” Then the visits became less frequent and they moved away. I was saddened by the decrease in visits and had hoped to continue to get to know them better.
What have been the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your open adoption for you and for your child?
Rene: The most challenging thing has been weighing my son’s anxieties with the potential benefits for him as he grows. At our first visit post-adoption, it had been almost three years since seeing his birth mom. He struggles to express his anxiety verbally, but definitely shows me through behavior and emotions that he is feeling nervous.
His biological family loves him and wants to express this love to him when we’re together, but it can be overwhelming for him. This is just something we will need to work through as we go. Overall, our visits have been positive and I believe that having biological connections will be important for him as he grows.
Michelle: One challenge is not projecting what I would feel onto his birth parents, especially when we haven’t heard from them in a while. Another challenge is when visiting his birth parents in public places, people would approach us not understanding the situation (our son is black and we are white) and give them parenting advice. They were already dealing with so many emotions without having to deal with people assuming things.
Another challenge is that my oldest son does not get frequent visits with his birth family, but sees his brother being doted on by his own birth parents. He would act out sometimes for attention, which we worked hard to give him.
Most rewarding has been getting to know their birth parents, and seeing their mannerisms and personalities mirrored in our sons. One of my favorite memories was of our youngest. He has so much energy and rarely stays still, but while painting pumpkins for Halloween he sat on his birth mother’s lap, painting, for twenty minutes. It made me realize he has the passion for art just like his birth mother. I loved witnessing the bond and connection.
What are some ways your family has facilitated a spirit of openness despite sometimes challenging circumstances?
Rene: Because his birth mom has always been respectful through text, that line of communication has always been open. I have always sent her pictures and updates a couple times per month. There was a time that I asked her to keep pictures off social media. When I was not able to be in contact with his birth mom directly, I maintained contact with her mom instead with photos and updates.
Michelle: Even when we do not hear back, we always make sure we are sending our letters, pictures, texts, and cards for holidays. We always want them to know we are open to contact whenever they are ready or interested. We also want our sons to know we tried and want to have a connection with their birth parents. We include them in our prayers, we have adoption books with pictures of their birth parents, and we hang pictures of them in their room. They are a part of our family and I want our sons to know that.
What advice would you give to another adoptive parent who is wondering how to have a relationship with their child’s birth mother or family whose life situations are unhealthy or challenging in some way? Is this possible?
Rene: From a foster-to-adopt perspective, my advice would be to always keep the child’s best interest as your number one priority. I love how God has beautifully written my son’s story from foster care to adoption and beyond to include his biological family. And I recognize that his story is not typical in the foster-to-adopt world. I would suggest finding ways to celebrate biological family as much as possible and to stay connected as much as is healthy for your child.
Michelle: We have been so blessed that we have not experienced any unhealthiness in our relationship yet so I do not feel like I would have much advice except: Maintaining a relationship between our sons and their birth parents is very important to us. We will work through whatever may come our way in order to maintain a healthy relationship for our children. It is not about us. It’s about them and them having a connection to where they come from. I truly believe our sons are blessed because they will know they are surrounded by the love of their birth parents and us.