Trudy and Lyle LaBonte spend a lot of time with their adopted children’s birth parents. “My son’s birth parents come and stay at our house,” she says. “They come for holidays, birthday parties. And we actually take our camper and go to Salmon and hang out and camp at my my son’s birth grandparents’ house.” And when they travel through Boise– the city where both her children’s birth parents live– “We get together and we meet the birth families over there and just hang out and have a good time– at the hotel or at a restaurant. Or if there’s a special occasion–we’ll visit for that.”
Open adoption is the most common form of adoption practiced in the United States. Depending on the circumstances and the people involved in the adoption, however, there are varying levels of “openness.” Some open adoptions limit contact with birth parents to letters exchanged through an adoption agency or attorney. Some people make contact whenever it seems natural. Others, like the LaBontes, consider their child’s birth parents to be an extension of their own family, and spend quite a bit of leisure time together.
“You can never have too much love. The more, the merrier. If you’re going to love my child– I’m all for that,” says Trudy.
Here are seven principles you can apply to make your open adoption work for everyone involved:
Being able to see that their child is healthy, happy, safe, and loved can bring birth parents a great deal of comfort while they cope with the grief that occurs after placing a baby in an adoptive family. Ashley and Tyler Johnson, who adopted their daughter, Ellie, in April 2012, spent a lot of time with their daughter’s birth mother before Ellie’s birth. Afterwards, however, they only saw her on a few occasions, all of which occurred shortly after Ellie was born. “I think she kind of needed to know that Ellie was in a good home– just to see her here, with us,” says Ashley. “She told us that it makes her happy to see Ellie with us and that it brings her peace.” They tried to set up some times to get together but they just couldn’t ever make it work. “Maybe she was busy, or forgot, or whatever,” explains Ashley. “So we are making sure that we are staying available but not forcing her, just in case she doesn’t feel comfortable, or if she’s not ready, or if she’s just trying to move on with her life.”
Trudy wants to make sure that her children’s birth families know that they don’t have to miss out on the special milestones and events in her children’s lives. She says, “For those grandparents to be there for their first grandson’s birthday, and for Christmas, and holidays– if that’s important to them, if that’s what they want to do–I would never want to deny them that opportunity. Some birth families say they don’t want any contact, and that’s their choice. But if they’re going to have a want–or a hole in their hearts for their entire lives–then what the heck? I don’t want to be the cause of that.”
2. The Child’s Best Interests
Almost all of the time, it’s in the child’s best interests to be able to have contact with his or her birth family (read some of the research). That said, it’s important to take a variety of factors into consideration when you are setting formal or informal parameters for your relationship with your child’s birth parents. The most important element in an adoptive equation is, of course, the child.
For example, children adopted from foster care may not benefit from an excessive amount of contact with their birth families–or in circumstances where the parental rights were involuntarily terminated, sometimes any contact at all. Jackie Searle, who adopted three of her six children from the foster care program, made an agreement with the birth father of two of her children (biological brothers) that they would visit twice a year. But, she says, “It depends on where the child is in life and if it’s going to be okay for them to see the birth parents. At the age of 12 or 13 they can begin to choose if they want see their birth parents,” but ultimately as their adoptive mother, she says, “I get to decide for them what’s in their best interest.”
Further, the stability and reliability of the birth parents needs to be taken into consideration. For example, it may not be a good idea to allow a birth parent to play an active and meaningful role in the child’s life if it seems likely that they will “drift away” after a while, leaving the child feeling confused and possibly abandoned.
Rachel Mailhot, an adoptive mother of two, says that her relationships with her two children’s different sets of birth parents are completely different. “They are totally different situations and totally different relationships. You just have to look at the situation and your connection with the birth family and set your boundaries accordingly.”
Rachel’s advice for adoptive families in cultivating healthy relationships with their child’s birth parents? “Be honest. You can’t be afraid to tell them that’s too much or that’s not enough. It’s just important to be open and honest. Sometimes it’s hard to do that because you don’t want to hurt feelings but when you’re honest it’s so much easier.” She describes a situation that occurred in the hospital when their daughter was born. “She had jaundice so she had to be there for a while and her birth parents didn’t want to sign off on the papers until they knew she was okay. But we were anxious because we wanted our baby.” The two couples had to sit down and discuss their respective concerns. Ultimately they decided that the birth parents would sign the adoption papers immediately but that they would be able to continue keeping an eye on their baby until she was ready to be discharged from the hospital.
It’s important to communicate with kind firmness the boundaries you have set for the well-being of your child. For example, Trudy and Lyle told their daughter’s birth family that “if drugs were involved, we were not going to allow the relationship to be going on.” And Jackie says, of her twice-yearly visitation agreement with her sons’ birth family, “We warned them ahead of time that that our children came first–that if the counselor or the child decided it wasn’t in the child’s best interests, we wouldn’t make them visit with their birth parents.”
4. Frequent Contact
Create a blog or “friend” your child’s birth parents on Facebook. These digital updates allow birth parents to check in on their child without feeling either obligated or obtrusive. And you can always exchange pictures, stories, and thoughts through private messages or email.
Those brave birth parents did a beautiful thing—and it can’t hurt for them to be reminded now and again about how thankful you are for them.
“I couldn’t imagine NOT knowing my birth mom. For me to be able to say thank you as often as I want to, or as often as I can, and send them pictures, and to share in the joys– the everyday joys—is important,” says Trudy.
“It really comes down to respect,” says Jackie, when asked how to cultivate positive relationships with the birth families of the children she has adopted from foster care. “You have to respect the fact that while they are your children now, they were their children first. I firmly believe that all those birth parents love their kids. They love their kids very much. They just weren’t capable of making good decisions with them. And because of that, the kids are now foster children. So remember that they love them and that they will always love them.”
She adds, “All of our kids know that we never say anything bad about birth parents in front of our kids, or in our house. Our kids don’t need to hear that. But we don’t keep the truth from them. A rule in our house is we give simple answers to simple questions. So if they ask ‘Why can’t I see my mommy or daddy?’ we say something like, ‘you can’t see your daddy because he made bad decisions and now you’re going to be a part of our family.’ If they accept the answer, we leave it at that, but if they press for more information, we give them as much as they need to know. But we don’t bad mouth them or talk badly about them. Their birth parents loved their kids very much. They wanted them and they wanted to care for them…they just weren’t capable of making the right decisions in order to be able to do that.”
7. Open Mindedness
“Adoption is such a wonderful experience,” says Trudy. “You just have to keep an open mind while you’re going through everything in the hospital and everything when you get home, and working with other families– and personalities– but every day I wake up and I thank my children’s birth parents for making the sacrifice they made. Now it’s easier on them, and they are more comfortable because they’re not worried about them.”