I can think of one time in my life that I turned down cannoli. People do crazy things for love. That night was the first I had seen my birth son since placement, and I wasn’t about to divert my attention from him–not even for dessert. But during the visit, undercurrents of tension footnoted our moves and many of our words. The biological relief and joy at being near him balanced on a knife’s edge. Faux pas threatened to snare any one of us.
When I recall the anxiety of that first visit, there is no resemblance to the visit I was able to have recently. Laughter was abundant. We shared feelings in love. Hands, small and large, were held while we narrated the happenings of our lives. My best friend and mother of my birth son said to me, “This is how I pictured things.”
All members of the adoption triad–birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees–are breaking new ground on their first visits. If visits are right for your circumstance, you may still feel anxious: What if something goes wrong? Will there be judgements? Is all of this even worth it?
Open adoption is bittersweet, but it gets sweeter over time. Visits in my own adoption have progressed away from a tightrope walk to a walk in the park. For everyone preparing for a visit, I offer six essential steps that will help things run smoothly:
1. Name Your Worries
What specifically are you anxious about for this visit? You may be worried about recent events or something ongoing that bothers you. I have always been worried that my birth son won’t identify me, that in the time since I’ve seen him, he’s forgotten my smell and my voice. Maybe you’re worried about something more pressing: Conflict may have driven a wedge in a relationship, or the journey to see each other might be long. Whatever it is, big or small, reflect internally until you can identify the problem.
2. Know When You’ll Visit Again
Although no one knows what the future holds, negotiating the next visit prior to this one will take a huge weight off of the visit and the goodbye. At placement, the last words I said to my birth son was: “I’ll see you in six weeks.” Having that kind reassurance was of Goliath importance. If goodbyes are hard for you, no matter what role you play in adoption, having a foreseen reunion will help. Plus, it will curb the temptation to talk about it during the visit, which could cast a shadow on the mood if you aren’t in agreement.
3. Do Something Fun
Build memories together! If you’re up for the zoo, aquarium, or a museum, young children will be fascinated by the new sights and sounds around them. You might have something cozier in mind: a quiet dinner at your home, a card game, a puzzle. Keep in mind the length of your visit, and allow for breaks, naps, or meals as needed. Having something the whole family can do allows for each person to focus less on any tension and more on something everyone enjoys. If things gets awkward, you can easily divert to the task at hand and diffuse the moment.
4. Use the Right Words
Language is a huge part of interaction. Certain words play a unique role in adoption, especially possessive pronouns and role-oriented language like “Mom” and “Dad”. Always be sensitive to how your language or conversation topics could affect others. It may seem like a huge effort at first, but if you can learn how to disarm your tongue, there will be a noticeable improvement to the atmosphere. For more on the impact of language in adoption, check out Four Hot-Button Words to Use Carefully in Adoption.
5. Live Presently
Maybe things aren’t just peachy. Maybe there’s bad news you have to tell another member of the triad or there’s brewing conflict you need to address. It’s hard not to count down the hours until the good bye. But in order to make the most of your time, it is important to value your visit while you are in it. This is not to say you should only make small-talk: some of the most valuable times of my own visits were taken in laps around a park discussing what was hardest about the weeks after placement. Dive deep, but do so respectfully, sensitively, and lovingly. Save conflict and negotiations for another time. Everyone should feel safe to visit without worrying about guarding sore spots.
6. Allow Time to Process
For most people, visits are a big deal. They may press on old bruises, elevate subdued joy, or trigger nostalgia. If visits are a new installment or they’re infrequent, the contrast of your happiness and sadness could leave you emotionally exhausted. Whether you feel low or high after a visit, giving yourself a few hours alone, with a spouse, or with your closest friend will help you process. Everyone copes differently: For some, going out and being social could prove beneficial. Others need to build a fort out of their bedsheets and stay hidden with cookies. Know your unique procedure.
Those who don’t understand open adoption may criticize your choice to visit. There is a notion that visits are more trouble than they’re worth; however, this is easily refuted by wisdom that the greatest rewards are worked hard for. Don’t give up on visits permanently if one of them goes wrong. Open adoption is about remaining open: to each other, to your needs, and to the needs of your relationships.