Letter Writer: We have multiple kids, all of whom have open adoptions. One of the open adoptions has gone awry. It was never good, but it’s gone from OK to terrible.
While we’ve kept all of the promises we made and agreed on, the birth parents have made astonishing demands, including financial and contact, that weren’t part of our agreement. As a result, they have harassed and stalked us by snail mail, online, by phone, even by using other people to do their bidding.
We’ve tried everything we can think of to help the relationship, including involving the social worker, keeping communication open, and compromising. But it hasn’t been enough. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when the birth parents threatened to come to our home to speak some really inappropriate things to our child, an infant at the time. We were then at our breaking point.
Their continued inappropriate actions were detrimental to our family. We needed a reset and asked for no contact for a period of time, but they broke that boundary as well.
We aren’t hopeful. Trust has been broken so many times, in so many ways. We never thought we’d be in this situation, the one where birth family truly is not safe. We are beyond heartbroken, especially for our son.
My questions for you are: how do you deal with one child having no contact with birth family while the other children have contact with their birth families? And how do you explain to your child, when he/she is old enough to understand, that contact with birth family isn’t safe or healthy? I mean, without throwing them under a bus!
The Easy Part: Differing Levels of Contact
Hi, Roxanne. I can hear how much you want to make this work for your family. I hear that it’s gotten really hard with your boundaries being breached, and that you are inquiring about two things.
Your first questions is this: How do you deal with one child having no contact with birth family while the other children have contact with their birth families?
I addressed the issue of differing levels of contact previously — it’s a very common challenge. Parents want to make things good, equal, fair, easy for all their kids, but don’t always have the ability to make contact happen — and in a healthy way — with all first parents.
My advice was to reframe things in a way that neutralizes the adoption charge. As an example, we substituted the less emotionally-charged scenario of qualifying for an advanced class. One child qualifies for advanced math (or higher reading group, or sports team) and the other doesn’t. How would you then decide what to do?
The advice for the easy part is over here.
Before I get to your tougher-to-answer question, let me take a brief detour.
Some readers may worry that this post generalizes that birth parents are unsafe. If you are thinking “not all birth parents…” yes, that that goes without saying. We are talking here about only Roxanne’s situation with only one set of her children’s birth parents.
Obviously, we cannot generalize about all first parents. Nor can we generalize abut all open adoptions. We have evidence that many open adoption relationships feel comfortable, like extended family. And we have evidence that once in awhile, a birth parent doesn’t feel like a safe and stable person. (We could find lots of evidence about a range of various qualities of and judgments about adoptive parents, too.)
2. Some may accuse the letter writer of overreacting, of misreading the situation, or of looking for an excuse to close the adoption (please note this family has other ongoing open adoptions). I’m guessing that Roxanne is trying to keep details from the public eye out of respect for her children. In the absence of full details, which we are not entitled to, I am responding to her letter as though her perceptions and fears are valid for her.
If you have advice that may be helpful and not hurtful, please do feel free to leave it.
The Hard Part: Explaining Unsafe Birth Parent Behavior to Your Child
Your second question is more challenging. How do you explain to your child, when he/she is old enough to understand, that contact with birth family isn’t safe or healthy?
You intuit that your son will take some of his identity and self-esteem from how he (and you) perceive his first parents. It’s wise to be circumspect with how you choose to talk with him (and his siblings, on a need-to-know basis) about his birth mother and birth father.
And at the same time, regular readers know I advocate for dealing in What Is. Not denying, hiding, or ignoring the less-than-savory aspects of our open adoption relationships. Age appropriately, the adoptee should be made aware of these aspects and eventually included in conversations about how the family might deal with them.
Why? Because ultimately it’s his story. This is hard to imagine while the child is a baby or a toddler, but becomes increasingly important as the child becomes a tween, a teen, a young adult. The intention to gradually turn over the reigns can be in place in the very early years.
How? As matter-of-factly as you can. This means you must do some hard work around your own emotions. A good therapist (you need one for this situation) can help you process the hurt, disappointment, anger, betrayal, fear, and worry that you are feeling. You do not want to smush these icky emotions down, and you do want to allow them to flow so they don’t get stuck. You want to be able to tell these stories in as neutral a way as possible when the time comes to share more and more with your son.
There is a ton of advice out there about when and how to tell a child s/he was adopted. You do it from the beginning — not just so your baby can hear it, but so that over time you get thoroughly comfortable telling it — warts and all.
Same principle here in telling your son a very warty part of his reality. Except that instead of telling him while you get comfortable, you’re going to tell a therapist, who can help you neutralize or at least lessen the severity of some of the emotions you are carrying.
What Might Come Out of My Mouth
When I put myself in your place, this is the approach that I could see myself taking when the child is old enough to enter into this conversation.
You know how Daddy and I are thoughtful and careful about the people we let into our lives? We want to make sure we all stay safe, and we do that by being with people who behave appropriately. I’m sorry to let you know that right now, Kim and Jim don’t feel safe to us. We hope this won’t always be the case, but for now we need to wait for them to work a few things out. [pause for response, and respond thoughtfully.]
Your son may press for details. If you choose to share, you’ll need to be able to put the breaches of trust into simple terms. They don’t tell us the truth sometimes, in big ways that matter. They don’t always follow our rules about respect and safety. I can see that you are worried about this, but I want you to know we’ve got this.
You may choose to stay vague for now. I’m not really able to go into that yet, but I promise you that we are always looking for ways to make this work in a safe way and I will keep you posted. Shall we revisit in a little while?
And then make sure you do bring it up again in a few weeks, even if you don’t have anything new to say.
Open Door Adoption
Remember that the behavior you’re seeing now from your son’s birth parents may not last forever. People go through hard times, and relationships ebb and flow. Try to remain open to the possibility that your son’s birth parents are able to get themselves into a better place. And try not to hold onto resentments that would make it hard for you to cautiously open to them if/when they work things through.
Dear Readers, what helpful advice do you have for Roxanne?
- When One Child Has Birth Mom Contact and the Other Doesn’t: Find sound footing by removing the adoption charge.
- How to Set Boundaries Yet Still Be Open: figuring out your “screen door” to let the good in and keep the rest out.
- When Meeting a Birth Parent’s Needs Means You Meet Your Own: from adversarial to enlightened self-interest.
- Meanness as a Weapon vs Meanness as a Tool: looking beyond the behavior to the possible reason for the behavior.
About this Open Adoption Advice Column
- I am not a therapist. Please do not rely on words in this space to make your own major or minor decisions.
- Readers, please weigh in thoughtfully and respectfully. Remember that this is a teaching endeavor rather than a shaming endeavor. We we aim to bring light rather than heat. 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 for consideration.
Lori Holden, mom of a teen son and a teen daughter, blogs 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. Lori was honored as an Angel in Adoption® in 2018 by the Congressional Coalition of Adoption Institute.