Cradle Adoption Therapist Judy Stigger, LCSW, likes to think of birth families as in-laws for adoptive families and vice-versa. In-law relationships can be complicated; in order for openness to go well, those complications need to be addressed.
Judy gives the top 5 complications families often run into:
1. No call, no show
When your child’s birth parents say they are going to visit or write but don’t come, or arrive very late, your child may be painfully disappointed. This causes many parents to struggle with whether or not to tell their child ahead of time and whether or not to continue making plans with their child’s birth parents.
Keep trying. If you have lost touch, consider contacting The Center for Lifelong Adoption Support at The Cradle for assistance in re-establishing contact. As you schedule a visit or request a picture, explain the benefit for your child. If your child is young, choose a fun activity at the park or zoo where you and your child might enjoy an outing, regardless of who else can join you. For older children, explain your intent and concerns, and ask how much they want to know until their birth parent actually responds.
Consider using a therapist to help you, or your older child, sort through feelings of disappointment at being “abandoned” again, or to assist in outreach to the birth parent. Disappointing your child is not likely the birth parent’s intent, but it may feel that way to a child. And it may be hard for an adopted child to talk to one mom about the other without feeling disloyal or wanting to protect the adoptive parent from their grief.
2. Safety issues
Your child’s birth mom may have an addiction, a belligerent boyfriend or mental health challenges. These instances leave many adoptive parents wondering what, if any, contact should be made with their child because they want to protect them both physically and emotionally.
If visits don’t pose an imminent threat to your child, schedule them, but set boundaries and make sure they are understood. If visits are dangerous or uncomfortable, exchange emails and perhaps phone calls – again, consider boundaries.
3. A messy background story
Adoption can have hard-hitting components to it. The thought of your child being confronted with painfully emotional information can pose a lot of questions: At what point do you want your child to know they were conceived in a rape? How are you going to help the birth mom explained why she placed? If the birth mom lost custody of her other children because of something she did or didn’t do, how much of that story does your child need to know and at what age can they handle it?
Age considerations must be taken into account, but as time goes on your child should know their story – even the most difficult of details. It’s a time many families ask for support and guidance. We can help you develop strategies to best relay the information and support your child as they deal with the reality of their history. Adopted persons often say that the hardest part of the story is that their mom could not raise them – not any specific circumstances.
4. Privacy and boundary issues
Sometimes, you don’t find yourself on the same page as your child’s birth parents. Your child’s birth mom might post pictures on Facebook that you don’t want to be viewed publically. She may be too intrusive and show up at your doorstep unannounced. Or she may even be advocating a different set of values to your child. Sharing your expectations and setting boundaries between birth and adoptive families can be tough to handle.
All parties involved need to be reminded that this relationship is in the best interest of your child. Early in your openness, discuss your privacy preferences. Be respectful. Be understanding. Set boundaries that keep your child safe and the lines of the relationship clear. Neither birth nor adoptive parents should be sharing personal details of a child’s life online. That information should be held until the child matures and can have a say.
5. Birth mom isn’t who your child envisioned her to be
Sometimes openness is not what your child expected either. Most kids have a picture of who their birth parents are and many expect to find a birth family that will be the perfect fit. They envision someone who will look and sound like them – someone who they will get and who will get them. Your child may expect to feel an affinity that they don’t feel for their adoptive family, but the birth family may not meet those expectations at all.
Children recognize how they are unlike us in temperament, academic capacity or appearance. They may look to their birth parents for a template and worry they are fated by biology. Listen to your child. Offer understanding and let them know that what they’re feeling is okay – it doesn’t make them a bad person. This is often another time when families will reach out for counseling and support. A counselor can help a child appreciate that he is shaped by his biology, his nurturing AND the choices he makes and habits he practices – from honesty to the oboe.
It’s also important to keep in mind that things may not be going the way birth parents expected. Sometimes there are aspects of openness that adoptive families might not even think of but that are very difficult for birth parents. When coming from such different places it’s easy for everyone to make assumptions, and those assumptions can cause some unanticipated glitches.
Maintaining openness is worth the work, even if it’s hard. It provides your child firsthand knowledge. When it gets more complicated than expected, there are a lot of creative ways to negotiate. If you’re having trouble working things out on your own, don’t hesitate to sit down with a counselor and discuss problem-solving strategies.