Openness takes time to develop. Like an in-law relationship, it requires ongoing fine-tuning and can be complicated. Because the adoptive parents are raising the child, responsibility for encouraging openness falls to them first.
Understanding the challenges for birth families can help adoptive parents steward this relationship. Here are 5 reasons why a birth parent may distance themselves.
1) Too Painful. At the core of adoption is loss. For some birth parents, it may be too hard to see someone else raising their child, at least at the beginning. For others, the initial contact is reassuring, but once they know that their child is settled into his new family, they may not feel the intense need for future contact. They love their/your child, but seeing that child reminds them of the parenting role that they have relinquished. They may hope that avoiding contact will allow her to put the pain of adoption away and start life anew. This is more likely if they have not defined their role and importance to the child and your family.
With time, these feelings may resolve. Use The Cradle as an intermediary. Send us updates and pictures; we’ll save them. Should they feel ready in the future to re-approach openness, information and your good wishes will be waiting for them. Also, feel free to ask us to reinitiate contact to learn if they are willing to re-open the relationship.
2) Figuring out who she and her family are to you and your family. Openness between an adopted child and a birth parent may take a variety of forms from a favorite aunt level of closeness to an acquaintance one sees very occasionally. Boundaries and expectations may be difficult to define. A birth parent may feel safer withdrawing herself than risking hurt feelings or overstepping.
Even when everyone has learned about and accepted openness, the uneven power balance complicates. Birth parents may feel extremely vulnerable. Feeling they no longer have any control of the child’s future may strain how birth parent sees or interprets your open relationship as it forms.
3) Privacy. An open adoption necessitates a birth mom defining boundaries in their own family systems. She may act as gatekeeper as she decides who in her family should be known by you and your child. For example, she may feel it unsafe to have the birth father’s family involved, regardless of whether they are available. You may want the opportunity to know them.
If or when she has other children, she decides when and how much to share with them or involve them. She may have troubling articulating how she hopes you will respond to the children she is raising.
She may share pictures of her/your child with friends on social media; you may respond with the desire to maintain more control of whether and how your child’s images and information travel the internet.
In all these boundary challenges, roles and relationships are being defined. An appreciation of these challenges for her may help you talk about desired privacy lines and make gentle course corrections.
4) My life’s a mess. Birth parents struggling with addiction or mental health issues, shame around the adoption or not having met expectations for themselves may not want you or the child to see them that way. Birth parents are aware that adoptive parents are better coping with life’s challenges, which is why they placed the life of their child in your hands. They may not respond to letters and updates or may fail to show up for a visit because they are embarrassed or can’t believe she is worthy of a visit. Please don’t presume absence means that those letters or offers to visit are not important.
5) Lifestyle differences. Navigating a relationship with someone you would otherwise not associate with because of class, race, maturity/age or life-style is intimidating. The wider the gaps, the more initiative required to keep the connection alive. Birth parents (and adoptive parents) may not feel comfortable broaching topics that bother them. For example, "why do you bristle when I call this child 'my' child?" I want him to know I did not abandon him.
If you’re encountering struggles in your open adoption relationship, or just want a third party to help talk through some of these issues – contact us. We can meet in person or over the phone. I’m available for a one time consultation, periodic check-ins or ongoing counseling – whatever you feel would be useful.