“Boundary” is a word used often within the open adoption community. It’s used to describe the space we need to stay within to keep our relationship healthy for the children we all love. I also feel the word holds a negative connotation to some people, naturally meaning that there are limitations, and that can lead to anger or hurt feelings. Since adopting our two children, I’ve learned that boundaries are necessary to keeping things healthy in open adoption. It is not only the adults who have boundaries, but also the children (especially the children).

We all have natural boundaries. Whether it’s handshakes vs. hugs, a little extra personal space, or no drop-in visitors, it’s natural to have boundaries in your life that keep you feeling secure. People who live within your personal boundaries are the people you have the most organic relationships with. Considering that the relationships we have within our open adoptions need to last a lifetime, we all tread carefully out of respect for our children. We should genuinely want a relationship where wrinkles in the fabric get smoother over time. In order to do that, we need to learn one another’s personal boundaries and respect those. The only way to figure those out is to communicate.

Communication is, without fail, the number one most important strength in genuinely healthy relationships. It’s hard to ask for the addition of a boundary in an open adoption relationship because no one wants to step on anyone’s toes. If you become afraid of this, ask yourself, “Is it better to step on toes now by asking for a boundary, or let our relationship suffer the consequences when my/my child’s boundary is continually crossed?” When considering a boundary, I always ask myself, “Do I want this for me for selfish reasons, or do I want this because it will improve our relationship?” I always do my best to consider my child. Sometimes, the things I feel I need genuinely are in the best interest of my child, but other times my child’s needs are far different from my own. My child always wins, and it’s not always an easy job to stay attuned to what my child needs.

Both of my children’s birth families live 10+ hours away, so we only see them a couple of times a year. We have an adoption counselor who often talks to me before we have visits with our children’s birth parents. She helps me shine a light on the road ahead, identifying roadblocks that might come up. She helps me figure out ways to navigate the roadblocks that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen coming. Each and every time, clear communication between adoptive parents and birth parents is the key to healthy navigation of the bumps in the road.

I want to share just a few of the boundaries our family has requested along the way, and how these needs have been communicated:

Needs: When my daughter was first placed with us, I was having a really hard time with guilt, and bonding as a result. I eventually opted to talk with my daughter’s birth mom about this, and asked for a little extra space so I could grow into this new role and provide the bonding my daughter deserved. Communication went from every day to every few days. My relationship with my daughter not only grew leaps and bounds because of this, but my relationship with her birth mom did as well.

Space: We’ve realized how important space is on visits. Sometimes everyone needs time to decompress. When I’m feeling overwhelmed or notice my child needs space to process everything, I have to say, “I/we need a little alone time to decompress. Is it okay if we take a break and come back together for dinner in an hour?” During that time, we focus on engaging as our nuclear family, talking through our feelings, or simply relaxing. It’s been during times like these that I realize separate spaces during visits are often best. In my mind, we’re family, so let’s join together under one roof as most families do. Every family has to determine if their relationship is at a place where this is best. If not, it’s okay to realize that yes – you do love each other as family – but space might be what’s best for everyone, including (and especially) the children. Some families might need that boundary at first, but not down the road. Everyone is different.

Respect: We have a no yelling rule in our home, and it applies to our open adoption relationships as well. If tensions get high and emotions are getting heated, everyone needs to take a breather and come back together at a later time. Things said in the heat of the moment can leave a permanent scar on a relationship. Our relationships need to be handled with care out of respect for our children, who depend on us to keep this connection alive on their behalf.

No Promises: We recently learned that we can’t allow any promises to be made to our children in advance. That means, if a visit is being planned for spring, we mention it just before we leave for the visit. It’s too disappointing to children to look forward to something special, only to have it fall through at the last minute with their birth family. For our four year old son, right now everything is a surprise vs. a promise.

Caring for our Children: We ask that our kids’ birth families respect where all of our children are in their adoption journeys. For example, our daughter’s birth family recently came to visit us in our home for a few days. Our son has had some big emotions surrounding adoption recently. We asked them to be cautious and respectful of that and they complied. They are also aware that our son needs to be treated as someone important and special to them as well. When they showed up to our home with a gift for their daughter, they also included our son.

I know additional boundaries will come up over time. Our children’s birth parents have their own boundaries as well, and they’ve included everything from communications schedules (needing more or less photos), how we talk about adoption in front of their children or their families, how we include their children in our family, how we communicate our needs to them, and even how we use social media to keep in touch with their families.

It’s important to sit down together and talk about what boundaries are and how they can help everyone feel safe and secure. It’s not a bad word and it’s not a negative thing in relationships. They’re like the bumpers that go up in the gutters at the bowling alley; they help our ball keep going down a straight and narrow path for our children, avoiding the pitfalls that could cause our relationship to fall into the gutter.