He’s just three years old. I didn’t expect to hear what I heard him say from the backseat of my car after he’d had a long day at school.

“Will you still love me if I’m bad?” I looked at him through the rear view mirror and promised him I’d love him forever and always, even if he made bad choices. He nodded.

“If I’m bad again, you’ll still come back and get me, right? You won’t leave me there?” He burst into tears.

I didn’t realize that physically feeling heartbreak was possible. I didn’t ever think about the weight I’d feel on my chest as a mother when reality hit that my child–still a baby in my mind–had actual, complex fears. To many people reading this, it might sound like my devastation was an overreaction. What you don’t know is that the previous month, we’d spent a little more than a week visiting birth family members. Since coming home, our son has had extreme separation anxiety–something we’ve never seen in him before. So, as my son sobbed in the back seat, it suddenly became clear that adoption loss had contributed to this manifestation of his fears. I was thrown by seeing such a clear display at such a young age.

Despite the terrible choices he’d made at school that day and the discipline that probably should have followed, I found myself holding on to him tighter than ever that evening. I cried. A lot. My voice was softer and more encouraging than it’s ever been. I was terrified, honestly. A million thoughts went through my mind, but mostly, I was trying to determine where the fear was coming from. What, exactly, made him ask that?

On our trip the previous month, we were cautious to remain united. Each morning, we’d gather together as our little family of four and hold hands for a “Giarrosso family prayer,” something our adoption therapist suggested in an effort to remind him that he’s a part of a team, a core unit, and that core unit is forever and always. To start our day, we’d hold hands and pray for a good day and for everyone to have a day full of happiness, love, and fun. We’d close the evening out together, too, thanking God for the day we’d had. We were surrounded by birth family every day, and we talked about adoption openly, just like we always have. In our home, it’s not abnormal to hear our son randomly talk about adoption or his birth mom. He asks complex questions. We’ve always used the guidance we were given and have been age-appropriately transparent. We’ve given him proper terminology to use.

Despite our concerted efforts, our son still grappled with an intense fear of loss. When we returned home, he began begging not to go to school in the mornings. Once he was dropped off, he would cry and scream for us. He was relieved in the afternoon when we got him, just as we always had, but at nighttime when we’d try to leave the room, he would panic again. He would insist on sitting in our laps, being held like a baby, as he would ask, “Do you love me forever and always?” The insecurity was intense, but it wasn’t until that afternoon when I heard his tiny voice ask me so uncertainly from the back seat whether I’d always be his mommy, that I realized: adoption loss is real.

So, if I’m ready to accept that adoption loss and the accompanying issues are real, I needed to wrap my head around an action plan. What could I immediately start doing to help my child?

  • We talk about adoption in our home a lot. In doing this, we realized that our kids haven’t been given the opportunity to simply be themselves with adoption as only a tiny piece of their puzzle. In trying to help them adjust, we have pushed it to the forefront of their lives, in some form of adoption pride. It’s too much pressure. We need to tone it down.
  • If our son is fearful of losing his mother again, we also need to be aware that the term “mother,” or any variation of, might be confusing to his 3-year-old mind right now. We need to simply call her by her name and allow the more technical terms to come at an age where he can better understand the complexities of the situation.
  • We decided to put into practice something our adoption therapist once mentioned: Children need to know that speaking about their birth parents is open and welcomed. To do this, sometimes adoptive parents should simply mention the birth parent in passing, like, “I heard from ____ today, and she’s doing well.” If the child continues the conversation, go with it. If she doesn’t, stop there. You’ve merely put it out there that you’re open to talking about your child’s birth family, but you aren’t feeding more information than he or she wants.
  • Before this wake-up call, I felt I wasn’t properly honoring my children’s birth parents unless I acknowledged their sacrifice on a regular basis. Now, after hearing his fears, I am more concerned about protecting my child. There is a balance, a constant ebb and flow. My child has spoken, and I am listening. I’m not concerned about myself or the other adults in this relationship at this point. I’m concerned about finding a “sweet spot” for my son and doing my best to find it without disrupting his life in any way. I need to admit to myself that our children’s birth families are honored every day as we fulfill our promise to love these children unconditionally, to only speak about their birth families with respect, and to be the best parents we can be. That is honoring them. There is no need to constantly talk adoption or make it the center of anyone’s universe.
  • We need to forgive ourselves. I won’t guilt myself into going back to the way things were in our home.

My goal now is to find the balance that is right for my kids, for the sake of my kids, because there is no perfect recipe for open adoption. I will maintain a healthy relationship with birth families when my children are struggling. I will be deliberate in how we talk about adoption in our home, or how we mention it to well-meaning strangers who ask questions in public. We are failing no one by helping our children succeed as they process adoption grief in open adoption. We are doing what moms do best: balancing.