Open adoptions are becoming much more commonplace in the realm of domestic infant adoption, with the great majority involving some degree of relationship between adoptive and birth parents. As with most all relationships, an open adoption can take work and is not always easy. Emotions run high at times, and all parties need time to navigate their new roles.
A healthy relationship involves many things: communication, honesty, forgiveness, and respect, to name a few. In contrast, there are many ways we can (perhaps inadvertently) cause harm to this relationship with our child’s birth family. Let’s discuss a few of them.
1. With your own fears and insecurities.
I’m involved in a small handful of adoption support groups on Facebook, and this is an issue that comes up regularly. A common scenario I see, for example, involves an adoptive parent concerned that their child’s birth mother is sharing photos of their child on social media.
It is easy for insecurity to kick in and cause us to react, especially (I think) if the child is young and roles are still being determined. In this hypothetical scenario, irreparable hurt could be caused if an adoptive parent reacts harshly and immediately demands new boundaries.
There are things when our daughter was very young that bothered me, but in hindsight, I wish they hadn’t. An exercise that has been personally helpful for me is to remove the emotional charge of adoption from a situation by replacing the birth family member with someone else, then reconsidering. Does my mother-in-law also share photos of my kids on social media? Does it bother me? Why or why not? Barring any unique circumstances or issues of safety, I have found this a helpful way to keep my own insecurity in check.
2. With a lack of communication.
A few weeks before our youngest’s due date, the social worker with our agency arranged a casual get together to discuss expectations after the delivery of our now son. She raised questions like, who would reach out first after placement? How soon? What sort of expectations did we have for the first few months? The first year?
You might not feel like this level of detail is necessary—maybe it isn’t! Even though we had formed a close relationship during our match, we all agreed it never hurts to over-communicate when it comes to such an important topic.
It is far too easy for feelings to be hurt when someone doesn’t live up to your expectations. Communicate. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when needed. If your child’s birth mom seems to have taken a step back, don’t assume that she will not want to hear from you. Perhaps she feels unable to take the first step, and hearing from you would mean the world.
3. By thinking it should be easy.
No relationship worth having comes easy, and this is no exception! We have had difficult conversations over the course of our children’s short lives, and it has always been worth it. When it feels hard, don’t throw in the towel. If needed, check in with your social worker or find a good counselor well versed in adoption issues.
I have experienced the uncomfortable dance of setting healthy boundaries. One tool I recommend (that is not just adoption specific!) is the book Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. The inability to set clear, fair boundaries in love will only harm your relationships, and the reality is that some of those relationships require more attention than others.
4. By not extending grace.
When all else fails, extend grace. An open adoption will fail quickly if the parties involved refuse to extend grace to each other, even (and maybe especially) when it feels undeserved. Relationships are as unique as each person involved, and your situation might be one where a close relationship is not in the cards. That’s okay!
At the end of the day I believe it is our open-heartedness towards our children’s birth families that makes the difference—not the level of contact. Can your children see you manage to love their birth parents for who they are inherently, even if you receive nothing in return?
What do you think are some characteristics of a well-functioning open adoption? Are there any lessons you have learned along the way? Please share them with us.