Question: Our son’s birth mom has been telling lies about what happens at visits. She said we didn’t let our our 3 year-old open his Christmas gifts from her. He opened them right in front of her! (He was running around not really focusing on any one present). She also lied and said that we’ve cancelled previous visits and came up with excuses for not seeing her, neither of which are true.
This has become a nightmare. She’s cut us off, which is fine with us because we’re not crazy about having contact with someone who lies to our face. This isn’t what we thought open adoption would be.
Jessica’s initial message led to further email conversations.
Take Out The Adoption Charge
Hi, Jessica. I’m curious. How would you handle a similar situation if this behavior were coming from your sister or mother-in-law? If you think of it this way, you can distill your response to her behavior from the any emotions you may have around your connection with her via adoption (which can be highly-charged).
Jessica: If it were someone in our families I would try to find out why and work it out. I asked our our son’s birth mom why she felt the need to lie to us and she had NO interest in explaining why, she just shut down. How can we possibly stay in a relationship with her?
Lori: For starters, if you KNOW you haven’t cancelled visits or made excuses for not seeing her, be okay with that knowing. It’s pointless to try to convince her otherwise. Just decide not to let these attempts at manipulation get a rise from you (I know there’s no “just” to this, but try to aim in that direction).
Not reacting to the behavior takes away the reinforcement of it.
Jessica: But I’m so frustrated with her. Why would she tell blatant lies and be just fine with that?
Lori: I know that being lied to feels so disrespectful — the ultimate diss. I’m betting your son’s birth mom has learned to lie as a maladaptive way of getting her needs met. Through her past experience, she has learned that lying is a more reliable way to get others to meet her needs than being direct is.
It may feel to you like she’s using the strategy of lying as a weapon to hurt you. But to her, it may simply be a tool, one that has gotten her needs met in the past.
So your question becomes “What can I do to reverse this?” As often as you can, meet her needs when she makes them in an above-board way. She needs to learn that being direct and honest is more effective with you than lying is. When you catch her in a lie, you can gently point it out — not in an in-your-face way, but rather in a saving face way. Something like, We’re so glad Joey got to open his presents in front of you. It means a lot that you got them for him. Do you remember that happening — when he ran around the room like a crazy man?”
It’s a long process to give her a new pattern of interaction, and you won’t see results immediately and you will have setbacks. Above all, remember that you’re teaching her how to treat you rather than punishing her for lying. Meet her reasonable needs whenever you can to help her build trust in you and in an alternate way for her to get her needs met.
Jessica: That sounds like a VERY long process.
Lori: It probably will be. But you entered into adoptive parenting for the long haul, right? And you’d go to the ends of the earth to give your son all that he needs to integrate all his parts, even if doing so can be inconvenient, annoying, and frustrating, right?
Jessica: I didn’t know it would mean raising her, too!
Lori: You’re not raising her, but you are showing your son how to treat people with respect, even when they fall short of your expectations. And that you won’t throw someone overboard for making mistakes.
Jessica: If she comes back into contact with us, I will try to remember that she’s not trying to hurt me, and give this strategy a go — to aim to be less triggered and more understanding of where she’s coming from.
Lori: That’s what is within your power to do — be mindful of your own interpretation and reaction.
Dear Readers, how do you deal with a liar?
[Note: For those of you following the saga of my son’s freak accident, I’m pleased to report he is home from the hospital and we are back in our routine. Thanks for all your well-wishes. We now return to our regularly scheduled adoption advice post.]
About this Open Adoption Advice Column
- I may occasionally call on others to help with answers, to tap into group wisdom.
- I am not 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.