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daughter wants to live with birth parents

A Moment in Open Adoption Parenting

Tessa was distraught after a Halloween party for not getting the nod for a sleepover at her aunt’s house. The excitement of the kid-oriented haunted house, the disappointment about the sleepover, and a sugar high made for a meltdown.

I got her into the car and she continued to wail about how mean her dad and I are. My husband and son were in the other car (long logistical explanation), so Tessa and I had some rare alone car time.

The wailing changed tone as we headed home.

“Why can’t Crystal and Joe be my parents!? I have never even been with both of them at the same time!”


daughter wants to live with birth parents

I silenced the GPS lady so I could focus. Here’s a slowdown of my processes during moments like this.

  1. Calm, center, open. Breathe, and be aware of my breathing.
  2. Listen. Let her do most of the talking.
  3. Assess. What is she really saying or asking?
  4. Trade places. What might this look like, feel like, to her?
  5. Abide. Give her space to feel her feelings.
  6. Speak. Equal parts head and heart.

Following are the salient parts from the ensuing conversation, which lasted about a half an hour and culminated while we cuddled in her bed.

“Tell me more,” I said while driving home.

“If they got together, maybe they would LIKE each other. And then…”

“And then…?” (pause) “And then they could be your parents?”

“Yes.” (pause) “But Joe is married, and Crystal has Luke.” (pause) “They will never be married, will they, Mom?”

Now, the best thing I did here was not personalize this and make it about ME. Her words, and the thoughts behind them, had NOTHING to do with her feelings for Roger and me, her attachment to us, her love for us. The best way for me to help her find resolution about having two sets of parents, and about her own road not taken is NOT to pretend that one set of parents doesn’t exist, is NOT to feel bad that I can’t be everything to her, is NOT to “fix” it for her by pointing out all she does have.

It’s by giving her space and support to find her own way.

“No, Sweetheart. They were together many years ago, but they were not a good match. You know, don’t you, that they both love you?”

“Yeah, I know that. But why aren’t they my mom dad?”

“Would you like me to tell you the story again? After we get home we can cuddle and talk.”


10 minutes later we pulled into the garage. Tessa got on her jammies and brushed her teeth. We climbed into her bed, about an hour past normal bedtime.

“Crystal and Joe were very young. Twenty may not sound like young to you, but it’s a time when some people don’t have a lot of skills in dealing with other people, with being frustrated. You know that class we took together, Taming the Anger Monster? Well, at that time, neither Crystal nor Joe had learned how to tame their anger monsters.

“They broke up because they were hurting each other. With words — you know that words can hurt. And as much as they both loved you, they knew that neither one was able to give you a stable home, a calm home. At that time. You needed a forever family then, though. And that’s what you got. Daddy and I will always be your mom and dad, no matter what.

“The Crystal and Joe you know now are different from who they were then. It’s OK to imagine what life with them would be like. What do you think?”

“Well…I would have an older brother from Crystal. And a younger sister from Joe. I’m not sure if we would live at Crystal’s house or at Joe’s house. And I would probably go to a different school. One I don’t even know. I might not even know Reed. Or Grandma and Grandpa. Or the OTHER Grandma and Grandpa. And all my aunts — I wouldn’t have any aunts! That would be weird.”

“It would be very different, wouldn’t it? You can tell a thousand stories of what your life is not. And only ONE story of what your life IS. This is your life, Tessa. Lots of people around who love you now and forever, including Crystal and Joe, daddy and me. All of Crystal’s family, all of Joe’s family, all of our family.”

“Mama,” she said sleepily, the anxiety and sadness gone for now, “I love you.”

“I love you, too Tessa.”


There probably were wiser words I could have said, and things I shouldn’t have said. I’m putting this out there because in this space I try to share (within the limits I’ve set regarding Tessa’s privacy) as many facets of open adoption parenting as I can. It’s important to know that “open adoption” isn’t just something you do when you exchange photos, send emails, have a visit. It’s something that can come up even when you have other plans.

UPDATE: Please see my response to the reader comments (below) at my follow-up post, Hotel Rwanda and open adoption parenting.

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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86 Responses

  1. I think it takes a really amazing person to do an open adoption. I don’t think I would really be capable of making it not about me in some way.

  2. Wow, you handled that so wonderfully. I wanted to reach through the computer and give you and Tessa a hug.

    It is really amazing and inspiring that you didn’t take what she said personally but instead used it as a jumping off point to discuss things with her.

  3. Wow, what a great post. You do explain the situation very well. I know that these questions will come up more often as my daughter, Deanna, gets older and understands more. I never really thought about this situation until now–thank you for allowing me to process this situation before it actually (could) happens. I am going to send this link to Deanna’s adoptive parents. I really admire you for realizing that adoption is about what is best for your child, not necessarily what is best for you.


    Amy Hutton

  4. I think you sounded very wise. I admire how you seem capable of taking a step back in order to gain perspective in emotionally charged situations. That’s incredibly hard to do.

  5. You – are – AMAZING!

    Thank you so much for continuing to share with all of us. You’re not only providing invaluable information about the open adoption process, but about parenting in general.

    And I, for one, feel very thankful to have you as a resource, and as a friend.

  6. Thanks so much for posting. When we enter into any adoption (open or closed) I think this conversation is the one that haunts adoptive parents. We know it will come up, but not sure when or how or what our response will be. The fact that, even with all your knowledge and experience with open adoption and the relationship you have with Crystal and Joe and your children…the fact that the question still took your breath away is almost comforting. The way you handled it with such calm and grace is inspiring. I only hope that when that moment comes for us, I can remain as calm and understanding as you!

    Thanks for posting…it’s a crazy ride, but Tessa is blessed because of it!

  7. What a great job you did. I love this line: “It’s something that can come up even when you have other plans.” I think that’s true of all the hardest and most important parts of parenting!

    I learn so much from you about my own parenting journey, even though our stories are very different.

  8. You are truly an amazing woman and mother. It would be so very easy to go into panic mode and make the issue about you. Not many people would have the wisdom to address the real issues.

  9. This sounds trite by now, by I am constantly amazed at you. I know that you must have put a LOT of work into getting to this place. There are some great lessons here for all parents.

  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I hope when we get questions as my ds gets older, that we can handle them with the same level of maturity that you do.

  11. I think that was just the right way to handle it. I’m so impressed with how you took care of the situation, and know that I could not have done it…

    I’m glad you share these stories and experiences with us…I wish my sister was in a better place to see what it is you illustrated here, so she can deal with her situation (see my post today if you want for more info)…

  12. Wow! What a great post and I’m so impressed with how you let her talk and let it be about her. It would have been almost impossible for me to separate it out and not take it personally.

  13. I learn so much from you Lori. I echo every single sentiment here — you show so much thoughtfulness and compassion — I love learning from you.

    I know, for me, it is very difficult to keep open and not make it about me — even though it’s a different circumstance — a blended family — it is still a wonderful model to use in communicating with your children. I want to remember this next time I have an interaction with W.

    Thank you — I needed this today.



  14. Thank you so much for this post. Now that our adoption is real I often wonder how I will handle these situations. You did so with such grace and thoughtfulness. I hope that I can do the same when the many occasions arise.

  15. I am crying after reading that post. What an amazing mother you are. If only ALL mothers were capable of such understanding and compassion when talking to their daughters, the world would be a better place. Thank you for sharing the ups and downs of open adoption. What a beautiful story. (I hope you are writing a book!)

  16. You rock!!!!!

    Way to go Mama! I wish i had had someone like you to help me through my own adoption fears when I was growing up.

    Good job.

  17. This is an excellent post, Lori but I think it illustrates something even bigger than open adoption: the power of effective communication. You did something that most people seem to be unable to do: you stopped, took a moment and then considered, “What’s going on here?” You recognized that it wasn’t about you. And that is key. Too many people spend time reacting as if everything said *is* about them. This can be with children, with partners, family members, friends or co-workers.

    If more people took your considered approach to figure out what IS actually going on and not assuming that it is about them, people would actually HEAR each other and be able to either discover what the person needs or to do a better job of eliciting the need from the person. But the tendency to make it about themselves impedes true communication.


  18. Holy, you are just so much calmer about this than I’d be. I’d have a hard time not telling her to suck it and not be so mean to me. Good for you for being above that and going through your thought process to do so.

  19. Thank you for this post. My story is different but your words will help me just the same. My son doesn’t get to see his dad very much because his dad is an addict. He’s in recovery now but I know that at some point there will come a day when he will ask me why things couldn’t be different.

    Remembering not to make it about me and remembering that his wanting his dad in his life will not mean he loves me less will help me then, I’m sure of it.

  20. wow, lori. at the risk of taking the easy way out, what lolly said.

    seriously though, your approach illustrates so much about compassion and patience in parenting in general, let alone insight and empathy in parenting tessa. I love how you describe your steps before engaging. just perfect.

    I continue to learn so much from you and only hope I might have an inkling of grace you demonstrate. bravo.

  21. That is a great story…and knowing you, I can see you going through each of the thoughts, emotions, words, etc.

    I am amazed at how you handled it, but not surprised…because it is such a reflection of who you are.

    Thank you for continuing to share your story. It is an inspiration. YOU are an inspiration!

  22. Brilliant. Thank you so much for sharing this. As usual, your wisdom speaks volumes. Now if I could somehow file this away for later use…

  23. Wow. I would say that you handled that situation perfect. What an amazing parent you are. She is a very lucky little girl!

  24. I was adopted twice and am currently an IVF vet with no pg. I think that your discussion with your daughter was beautiful, intelligent, open and compassionate. You are a very good mother. She will show you her appreciation so much when she gets older. Good for you for realizing that she wasn’t disparaging you as her parent and for keeping the lines of communication open.

  25. That was really so brilliant, how you took a beat and allowed Tessa’s curiosity to meander where it needed to before coming back home. I had Mr. Badger read it too, and we’re both tucking this away for when V gets older and asks us similar questions.

  26. Great post, Lori.

    I wish I could tattoo your process slowdown behind my eyelids.

    Way to stay mindful, I’m in awe.

    Love you.

  27. Wow, I think I would have flipped out, I hate to say it. I hope you are writing a book on how to deal with situations like these. Truly inspirational.

  28. Just a lurker who pops in now and then, here from the round-up. I have to say, though, that regardless of what you could have said, it seems from the conversation that what you said was just right for the time. Perfect and comforting, and allowing her to work through her fears and worries.

  29. Oh my gosh! Lori, this is an amazing post! I am simply in awe of you for being so calm and understanding. Tessa is going to look back on that moment one day and remember how you listened to her and let her express how she was feeling. It is a wonderful thing that she has Crystal and Joe in her life and that you and Roger are such supportive parents.

    I’m sure I will be coming to you for advice over the coming years if things go as planned over the next couple of months!

  30. Wow. What an amazing conversation. I have to admit that I don’t know if I could manage in the moment to not take this personally. You handled this so well. Just amazing.

  31. Lori, that was a perfect discussion. I mostly lurk but I learn so much from you and had to post to say thank you for keeping the list of priorities in the right order. K is too young to ask these questions himself, though I know it’s coming with the way his speech has improved, but P (who is biological) asks them more than I’d expected. It helps to see how other people have helped answer them so that I have a framework in mind when they ask me those tough questions.

  32. You are amazing. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to remember to keep the conversation about her and not make it about you. I know my own heart and I don’t know if I would have been able to keep the focus off myself.

    Thank you so much for sharing this story. Even from a non-open adoption standpoint, it reminds me to step back from a difficult situation and take the time to figure out what the ~real~ problem is.

  33. 47th comment here so you know what I am going to say and what everyone else recognizes too: Wow! I hope I have your grace and wisdom when I get similar questions.

  34. Thank you for sharing this post. My husband and I just finished a 7-week adoption seminar and open adoption has been on my mind a lot.

    Thank you for sharing how this can be. And how beautifully it can be handled.

    Thank you.

  35. That post brought tears to my eyes! (And cheeks, and computer keyboard…) 🙂

    I can’t think of a better way to be there for your daughter — so unselfish and honest.

    Thanks for being a model of parenthood, even for those of us not involved with adoption.

  36. One day I hope to be as perceptive and ‘allowing’ mom as you (meaning, allowing your children to figure things out for themselves, and have their own paths, i/o just telling them “well, you have this and this and this that you should be grateful for!”, and understanding that their journey to become well-rounded adults starts when they are this young)… If I can do the following in ANY circumstance, I would be more than happy:

    “1. Calm, center, open. Breathe, and be aware of my breathing.
    2. Listen. Let her do most of the talking.
    3. Assess. What is she really saying or asking?
    4. Trade places. What might this look like, feel like, to her?
    5. Abide. Give her space to feel her feelings.
    6. Speak. Equal parts head and heart”

  37. I think it is a conversation like this this makes us afraid to explore adoption more. Though, hey, this did not seem as scary as what usually runs through my head.

  38. Thank you for this honest and heart-string-tugging post about adoption. As my husband and I explore all of our child options, it’s always good to hear what happens when that little baby can talk, and ask questions. You handled this so beautifully.

  39. Breathtaking…

    Thank you for sharing this moment in time with us. As I allow my brain and heart to think a little more often on adoption as a possibility for us, these are the kinds of moments that I wonder about the most. I think you handled it with grace and patience and love.

  40. this might actually be my second comment to this post as I read it when you posted it, and found it to be such a breathtaking look into what this moment truly looked like. Thank you for being so open. It is beautiful.

  41. Popped over from the crème de la crème list. Excellent post, a peek into what open adoption can mean.

    And like Mel said, those points can apply in any relationship.

  42. That was simply beautiful. I added you to my blogroll and I’ll post this blog to the Creating a Family community. Thank you for sharing and for your wisdom.

    Dawn Davenport
    Creating a Family-nonprofit providing education and resources on IF and Adoption

  43. That was beautiful! I will revisit your process before speaking! That was great. I like that you helped give her your blessing to think on how things could be, but what was. That will be very helpful with my children! Thanks!

  44. Here from CdC.
    Great reading.
    You are a very strong and unselfish woman and your little girl is very lucky to have you as her mother.
    Best of luck to you all,


  45. Wow. You’re awesome. 🙂 It was a tough one to not let it turn into something about you, but you did a fabulous job at helping Tessa through it. I hope to be able to take those 6 steps one day with my kiddies.

  46. Hi Lori,

    Thanks so much for your comment on my blog! It led me here, and has in turn led me to other amazing blogs that are invaluable as we consider adoption.

    This post in particular is so helpful because I think this is one of the things I fear the most with adoption. I know it’s inevitable, but you handled it with such grace, and I hope that if/when it happens to me, I’ll be able to stay as composed and objective as you!

  47. I’m working on trying to find something intelligent to say. I came here through the Creme09 but this post really hits home to my Mom through Adoption center. The main thing that struck me was your comment about not personalizing her question. I’m finding for myself as well, that the first and most important job is to recognize that what it isn’t about me being her mommy, it’s about her figuring herself out. And what a relief that realization has been for me as I parent a very sensitive and inquisitive young girl. Thanks for this thoughtful, transparent and informative post!

  48. Thank you for sharing this. This insight into adoptive parenting is invaluable. I love those steps. stop, breathe, listen, empathize, abide, speak. Fantastic.

  49. What a wonderful way to look at her frantic words. You gave her the space, the love, the words and finally the proof that you ARE supposed to be her mommy.. no matter what.

  50. thank you for this post. my daughter is just a toddler, but i know this conversation will happen one day (and probably more than once). i know i will remember what you said to your daughter, and i hope my response can be similar. i can’t wait to check out more of your blog!

  51. I really appreciate you’re vulnerability in sharing this very personal conversation between you and your daughter and also for your selfless act in allowing her to process a part of her life that will inevitably write on the wall of the person she is and will become….and you as well. 🙂 It was very touching.

    I walk on the other side of the coin, in that we placed our embryos for adoption in an open scenario, and our Adoptive Family is now pregnant. Most of the time I find myself being completely centered on “ME” and how our arrangement affects “ME.” Largely I think that’s because the experience is all so new and I’m still in the midst of grieving. It’s very self-focused. However, I want to fully educate myself about how this does and will affect everyone in the years to come and how I can walk this journey with grace and compassion for all parties involved.

    There are so many opinions about adoption; it’s hard for me to navigate through all the information and find useful stuff. I’m so glad I came across your blog and hope it’s okay to reference it on mine.

    Many thanks,


  52. Wow, what a beautiful post & such incredibly wise words. Thank you for sharing this as I’m sure I will need to refer back to your very wise advice at some point in the future. Happy ICLW:)

    ICLW #22

  53. That was an incredible post. You dealt with this in such a calm and controlled way. I don’t know if I would ever be able to deal with something like this that way. Food for thought!

  54. Hi, Lori. This is waaaay late (exactly a year late, it seems), but this is my first time on your blog and the name of the post appealed to me. I have two adopted children myself. Theirs is not an open adoption by birthmother’s choice, though I wish it was. I loved this post. My children are still young so their adoption comments and questions are not quite as deep yet but you have helped me think through answers for the future. Thank you. I laughed because the car seems to be the place kids choose to ask the worst possible questions to answer while you are trying to drive and think and cannot look at them and hold their hands while you answer! Anything from adoption to sex to death to God is fair game 🙂

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  56. I’m always amazed at how good you are at handling these tough situations. You’re very good and breathing and figuring out what the REAL issue is, instead of reacting at the moment. GO YOU!

  57. This is my first ICLW and I am really enjoying finding new blogs and hopefully making new connections in this blog world! My husband and I are just starting out on an adoption journey but I really appreciate gleaning wisdom from strong women who have gone before me.. Thank you for sharing your story.

  58. What a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing this moment between you and your daughter. I love this list:
    Calm, center, open. Breathe, and be aware of my breathing.
    Listen. Let her do most of the talking.
    Assess. What is she really saying or asking?
    Trade places. What might this look like, feel like, to her?
    Abide. Give her space to feel her feelings.
    Speak. Equal parts head and heart.

    I just created a small poster of this and posted it to my bulletin board near my laptop and my phone and will be posting another copy on the fridge to remind myself that there is a BEST way of finding my emotional center, truly listening with my head and heart and ensuring I can at least empathize even if I cannot understand.

    I found your blog via ILCW!

  59. Late to this post but so perfect. You named one of my Big Fears. The I want to live with them and why can’t I and why don’t I?

    I need to frame this:
    Now, the best thing I did here was not personalize this and make it about ME. Her words, and the thoughts behind them, had NOTHING to do with her feelings for Roger and me, her attachment to us, her love for us. The best way for me to help her find resolution about having two sets of parents, and about her own road not taken is NOT to pretend that one set of parents doesn’t exist, is NOT to feel bad that I can’t be everything to her, is NOT to “fix” it for her by pointing out all she does have.

  60. Gosh I just love everything you write! I wish every time I had a question in the future I could just drive over to your house and get your advice!
    You are an amazing mother!!!

  61. Thank you for this post. I had a very similar (at least the beginning) discussion with my 9 yr old last night and because I was already frustrated and emotional about other things, it didn’t go nearly as well and I went to bed in tears wondering what she needs from me and how I can possibly give it to her. Thank you for the calm post, the reminder that it’s not about me and that once again, I don’t need to be everything to her and that it is fine and good that she loves another mother. Thank you for helping heal my heart a little today and giving me hope moving forward.

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