“We love our birth mom!” This is a statement I have heard and seen posted countless times by well-meaning prospective parents. The excitement of the match followed by the adoption journey they go through with an expectant mom often seems too good to be true. For many birth parents, it is just that. While both birth parents and adoptive parents sometimes make promises that they are unable or choose not to keep, the larger issue at hand is making promises that one never intended to honor out of fear or as an attempt at coercion.
When prospective adoptive parents have been waiting for an extended time to become parents, it is easy to overpromise and overextend. However, it then goes from an overzealous promise to something extremely unethical. There are certainly exceptions to every case when promises need to be broken for the well-being of the child. Cases where ethics come into question involve when promises are made as tools of coercion or fear, or when the promises become empty due to being unrealistic from the start.
The most unethical use of empty promises is an adoptive parent’s use to coerce an expectant mother to place her child with them. While this does not occur in most cases, it is not unheard of. This would be instances such as promising an open adoption or promising to keep a child’s name when the plan is to disregard those requests after finalization. I have seen this statement time and time again in adoption groups: “His birth mom wants us to keep the name she chose, but we will just change it at finalization.” Each time I see it, it makes my stomach drop. Not because adoptive parents want to choose their own name, but because they are making empty promises to the child’s birth mother with the intent to change it when it is too late for objection.
Open adoption is typically not legally enforceable. Even in states where it is legally enforceable, it is at the discretion of the adoptive parent to end such agreement. As one adoptive mother notes, “While we remain open with our daughter’s birth mom, I distinctly remember my attorney telling me, ‘The birth mother has asked for these things, but none of it is legally enforceable, so just sign the paper.’ I thought it was very shady.” An adoptive parent should never make promises to expectant parents for the sole purpose to coercing them to place. It is both unethical and despicable.
While open adoption is becoming more understood and seen as healthy in situations that there are not overarching concerns that prevent openness, there is still often a stigma attached to “sharing” a child.
This is very much based on fear and pride. One birth mother was kind enough to share her story with me. She writes,
“Birth mom here in California. My son’s AM [adoptive mom] cut me out of his life after the promise that I could always know how he was doing. His mom sent cards, letters, and pictures for the first couple of years and then pulled back abruptly. Her explanation was, ‘I just don’t feel like he’s my son as long as you’re around.’ Granted, we are in the same state, but seven hours away from each other. I actually think she said it in hopes that it would make me worry for my son’s well-being and maybe even to attempt to make me feel sorry for her. I don’t know for sure, but I do know that she definitely had a problem acknowledging me as our son’s first mother.
We never physically visited and never had phone calls. Everything was through snail mail. No email back then. It hurt, but I was so guilty about giving my son away that I felt that it was apt punishment, and I deserved so much more in the way of punishment. I lived with it, and then my son sought me out when he was 18. He is 26 now, and he still hides our contact and communication from her. Sadly, his dad was a bystander to her pretty much pulling all the strings. My heart actually breaks for her. She was infertile and adopted for her own sake, not for our son.”
Another situation where empty promises are a risk is the fear of a “failed match.” The fear of a failed match haunts many prospective adoptive parents. It is absolutely a birth parent’s right to choose to parent; however, it does not make a failed match hurt any less. This fear can sometimes cause adoptive parents to make promises in haste in order to avoid a failed match. This may also be especially true in cases where an adoptive parent has already experienced a failed match. That type of fear can be overwhelming. It is only nature to feel the urge to do anything to avoid it happening again. In these cases, it is imperative to keep perspective that whatever promises you make in that time, you should be truthful about maintaining, and you should be comfortable with each request. If you are not, say no. Do not promise the world if you are not able or willing to give it. The fear of a failed match is very real, but fear-based empty promises are not fair to the birth parents or the child.
When my husband and I first adopted, we lived two states away from our daughter’s birth family. We fully intended on an open adoption. We were happy to have the adoption as open as possible. However, we had to remain realistic with what we could accomplish both financially and timewise living two states away. It would have been easy for us to promise the world; nevertheless, we knew it would not be possible. We agreed to visits at least once a year, with a hope that we could meet up at least every six months. We are in contact daily via social media and phone calls. This was what we knew we could handle realistically.
It is important to sit down and talk through what would be realistic for both your family and the birth family. Discuss your comfort level, what you feel possible with your schedules, and be completely honest about what would be a very realistic plan for openness if you have chosen to go that route. It will prevent a lot of drama, heartache, and resentment.