Question: My son came to me 9 months ago from a Caribbean island. He’s now 3 ½ years old and adjusting quite well.
When I went to get him, I met his birth family — his birth mom, half-sister, and paternal aunt. They love my son and wish him the best and I really liked them too during our meeting. They asked about keeping in touch, but I deferred to our coordinator and said I’d let them know. The paternal aunt is raising his half sister and would like to Skype. I would like my son to know all of his island family and I know it will mean a lot more as he gets a little older.
However, my agency says to be careful of extortion*, because the birth mother has little means. She says it can start off with, “oh can you send me so-and-so because we don’t have it here” and then it could lead to requests for money.
My agency said that I could send pics and letters to the agency every 6 months and they will include them with their courier packages to the island.
What do you think about writing letters to aunt and birth mom and including pictures? What do you think about Skyping with aunt? Is there a way to protect my info using email? I want to keep in touch but I just want to control it as much as possible to prevent those issues from arising. — Paula
* Extortion is a misnomer your agency used for the situation you describe. What you’re describing is not extortion in the legal sense — “obtaining something, especially money, through force or threats” — but could be annoying to deal with, as messy boundaries often are.
Whom Does Your Adoption Agency Serve?
It’s great that you want to provide your son a connection to his birth family. I’m also encouraged that when you met the birth family, your own intuition cleared the way for you to like them. This gives you a strong starting point as we begin to disentangle many threads running through your questions.
The first one I’ll take on is that agencies don’t always know how to “do” openness. With YOU as their paying customer, they often are invested in making things easier for YOU, helping YOU avoid complications.
However, YOU are not the only one involved in this adoption — there are others in this relationship. Further, relationships are complicated. If you’re going to offer your son access to his birth family and birth culture (which will help him integrate all his parts), then you have to be ready for complications.
Also, right or wrong, your agency is not invested in this particular relationship to the degree you are. Your own experience with birth family members should be your primary guide. How about continuing to get to know them?
In this day and age, privacy is hard to maintain. It seems like having contact without giving away any of your information will take a lot of work on your part, and not feel like much of a relationship.
I’m thinking that emailing and Skyping will be appropriate ways to continue getting to know your son’s birth family. I may be missing something, but it seems unlikely that these people would come after you if they know your name and are even able to get your address (I could, of course, be wrong on that).
I’m curious what you see as the worst-case scenario. What if they eventually did ask you for money? Could you handle that? How might you handle that?
What we’re really talking about is having healthy boundaries. It’s not something that your agency will be around to help you do over the coming years. It’s easier for the agency to advise you to put up a wall rather than a screen door. True, it’s easier to keep everything out than make a lot of decisions.
But a wall may not serve your son well. Nor may any other type of off-putting boundary between your family and his. The key with boundaries in all human relationships is to set the mesh so that it lets the good parts in and keeps the undesirable parts out.
Now, I’m not saying with this image that you’re prickly. In fact, by even asking your questions, I’m pretty sure you are not prickly.
But when we think of boundaries, we may think of many things — the Great Wall of China to keep out invaders. A line on a map to define what’s yours and what’s mine. A barbed-wire fence to keep creatures where they belong. A screen door to let in a breeze but keep out the flies.
I love that you’re wanting to provide a connection for your son to his birth family. That attunement with his needs will serve both of you well as he grows up and processes his adoption.You may also want to use this attunement skill as you implement healthy boundaries with his birth family on the island. Meet reasonable needs, like letters, pictures and Skyping (which aren’t just their needs but also your son’s) — and don’t meet unreasonable needs. Your attunement to the situation will help you make this discernment.
Please see this excerpt from my book that covers establishing and patrolling boundaries in open adoption. It explains how to figure out what your boundaries will be with your son’s birth family, as well as how you might craft your responses if your lines are crossed. The key is to take out the adoption charge by figuring out what you’d do if the request were not coming from your son’s birth parents but from some other family member or friend.
To wit: you probably are already practiced at not allowing people to take advantage of you. Sure, I’ll help you move next weekend, but no, I’m not in a position to rent you a U-Haul with my credit card. Or: I’m sorry to hear your XYZ needs to be replaced. No, it’s not feasible for me to help with that.
Simply apply your already honed boundary-patrolling skills to what may or may not happen with your son’s birth family.
What Does Adoption Mean, Culturally?
I want to address one other point, a question you have not asked.
Though about a different set of islands, this article by Kathryn Joyce reveals how “adoption” can mean different things in different cultures. As part of your getting-to-know-each-other, you may wish to find out what, exactly, is the understanding your son’s birth family has of this arrangement. If you find a wide gap between what they perceive and what you do, you will need to address that gap.
Let your heart and intuition guide you, Paula. Not the pat advice from your adoption agency.
- Setting and Patrolling Adoption Boundaries
- Withholding Information From Adopted Kids (see especially the comments)
- Adoption and Cultural Misunderstanding in the Marshall Islands
Dear Readers, what say you?
About this Open Adoption Advice Column
- I may occasionally call on others to help with answers, to tap into group wisdom.
- I am not trained as a therapist. Please do not rely on words in this space to make your own major or minor decisions.
- Readers are encouraged to weigh in thoughtfully and respectfully. I ask everyone to remember that this is a teaching endeavor rather than a shaming endeavor, and that we aim to bring light rather than heat. It’s my belief that people do the best they can with what they have to work with, and our goal is to give folks more to work with.
Send in your own open adoption question. I’ll either offer an answer or find someone who can address your issue.
Lori Holden, mom of a teen son and a young adult daughter, writes from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life. Catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.
Lori was honored as an Angel in Adoption® in 2018 by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.