Amy has been in an open adoption for a long time as first mom to Addie, born and relinquished in 1985. Amy’s reflection on the past 30 years highlights my hunch that even if you’ve got contact with your child’s other parents, there are so many other facets to consider in helping your child process her adoptedness and integrate her parts.
In fact, if you have contact between families but are not also parenting with mindfulness and attunement, you may be inviting in complexity (contact) without having ways to deal with such complexity (mindfulness and intentionality).
Amy’s points challenge me; they might do so for you, too. My suggestion is not to take Amy’s narrative personally. She is not commenting on or judging anyone’s adoption arrangement other than her own. If any of her points trigger you, stop for a moment to see if you can figure out why.
I have been involved in a semi/fully open adoption since 1985. Being that open adoptions were quite rare back in those days, there was precious little information or guidance to help people navigate these undefined relationships. The Internet didn’t exist, and stories of other people’s experiences simply couldn’t be found. Of course the adoption agency had no prior situations like ours, so there was nothing to measure against. We did the best we could, but it hasn’t turned out so positively…for any of us.
Of course, my biggest regret is that circumstances didn’t allow for me to parent my daughter. Aside from that, here are 7 things I wish we’d done differently in our open adoption.
#1 Be Better Prepared
First let me say, an open adoption isn’t going to cure all of adoptions ills. In my view, birth parents still hurt, adoptees still hurt and can be confused. Not confused as in who their parents are, but confused by emotions and why things are as they are. The grown ups, adoptive and birth parents, make a plan for the baby at a time when the baby’s temperament is unknown. Will this child be able to handle such a complex situation? Will this child be hard-wired to thrive in such an arrangement, or will she perhaps be terribly conflicted and confused and have a very difficult time understanding and processing it?
The latter is, what I believe, happened for our Addie. And none of us were prepared to help her.
And that’s the first thing I’d do differently, though it wasn’t possible back then. I wish we’d been better prepared for what we’d each experience in our open adoption…especially what Addie might experience.
Addie’s adoptive parents took things from semi to fully open when she was 8. Her adoptive brother is 4 years older than she is, and they had just introduced him to his birth mother and older siblings. Addie was feeling left out, so they decided to do the same for her. I’m not sure they took into account her emotional set point. They were just aiming to keep her situation equal to her brother’s. In hindsight, I wish they’d customized their decisions for each of their children.
#2: Know that Timing of First Contact is Key
If I were to do it over again, I would definitely wait until my daughter was old enough to have a bit more control and understanding of things. Either integrate families from the start, before the adoptee can remember a time when the birth parents weren’t involved, or wait until they’re older and have some input about it.
At age 8 through about 11*, children want to be like their peers, and don’t want to stand out as “different.” They begin to piece together that in order to have been adopted, they were first “given up” by their birth families. I know this brought grief to my birth daughter, and she would cry all the way home after visiting with us.
Her mom told us it would take a couple of days for her to get back to normal. Looking back, I think we were asking too much of a child who was completely unprepared to handle what she was feeling. And we were ill-equipped to help her. I believe remaining in a semi-open situation would have been better until she was in her teens. I define semi-open as letters, pictures, occasional phone calls, and gifts. Forcing visits, as wanted as they seemed to be by my daughter, caused big emotions, among them grief.
#3 Talk about Roles
I firmly believe that good counseling for all parties is crucial to a successful outcome in an open adoption for the times when big emotions arise. The relationships are undefined, and it’s very easy to cross boundaries, or for the birth family to be confused and unclear on what their part is in this uncharted relationship. We know what the role of grandparents are…what an aunt or uncle will be in a child’s life. But a “birth”mom or “birth”dad? What does that mean? I struggled with it then and struggle with it now. Who was I? What was MY part? I was told by Addie’s adoptive mom that I wasn’t her “real mother.” To this day I don’t know where I fit in. Most importantly, the adoptee needs to have someone to confide in and get guidance from — without being fearful of hurting one or the other party’s feelings.
#4 Have Access to Adoption-Competent Therapists
My daughter confided in me things that I now know I should have shared with her adoptive parents. Not wanting to break her trust or hurt her parent’s feelings, I kept them to myself. She needed help, and although I tried my best, I had a vested interest and a bias. A good therapist with knowledge of adoption issues could have gone a long way in helping my daughter untangle her confusion and help her process her grief. Why no one thought of it, I have no idea. Her mom continued to believe everything was going perfectly, and we had the fairy tale adoption situation.
And just what was the “fairy tale” situation? My daughter’s birth father and I got married and had the first of 6 children just 21 months after she was born. I was forced to give up my daughter and being only 17, I gave in to the powers that be. Never having dealt with MY grief, I assumed that another baby would fill the void. So, when we reunited with our daughter, she saw an intact, “normal” family with her 4 little brothers (at that point) doing well. Addie was 10 when she and her mom visited us when my next-born daughter was only a month old. I remember my birth daughter acting so strangely! She followed her mom around like a puppy, even waiting outside the bathroom door when her mom was in there. Not like herself at all. She was clearly uncomfortable and withdrawn.
Years later, I would find out why. She said watching me with my daughters while they were babies made her wish I had done for her what I had done for them…especially when I rocked them. My heart shattered for her. Open adoption really needs ongoing pulse-monitoring and often access to outside support.
Through the years, we would never let on to Addie’s adoptive parents how excruciatingly painful visits with her were. I pretended, and apparently very well, that we were all just fine. We were secretly dealing with our “kept” children’s confusion and grief as well as our own. I was in and out of counseling, but never found a successful way to deal with everything. We didn’t confide in the adoptive parents because first of all, we didn’t think it was their problem. We also didn’t want them to think we were unstable and therefore a bad influence on our birth daughter. When I finally felt safe enough to let it out in a letter (Addie was 18 then) it had a detrimental effect on our relationship with the adoptive parents.
Addie’s mom had wanted to “go public” with how wonderful our open adoption had been, and how we had all turned out “just fine.” We weren’t all “just fine” and I had to finally let her know. With the help of my then-therapist, I wrote a long letter to Addie’s parents, thanking them for allowing us to be a part of their lives and how we loved them, but finally being honest about how hard it had been throughout the years. I thought it was a heart-felt, non-attacking letter (my therapist did as well) but it was very poorly received. I thought it would open the door wider to communication with them, but instead it did the opposite. Addie’s mom shut down, and didn’t even acknowledge the letter for months. I knew from Addie that they received it, and had completely gotten the wrong message from what I was trying to say. I can see now how it looked like a bomb dropped out of nowhere, shattering what they thought was a harmonious, successful arrangement. I still don’t regret being truthful, but clearly I should have been more honest from the start.
Perhaps it was a no-win situation no matter how I would have handled it. Maybe the bottom line was that I never wanted to give my daughter up in the first place. Nothing would have satisfied me. Should I have been honest about that? Rewind back to when opening up the adoption was first suggested…I should have been truthful then, and admitted and accepted that I wasn’t in a healthy place to be a good participant. I just wanted to see and touch my child.
Fast forward to today…Addie isn’t speaking to me. She has poor coping and communication skills. I believe that she has been doing what I did through the years…holding everything inside so as not to “rock the boat” or hurt either set of parent’s feelings. I’ve upset her, and her typical response is the silent treatment…sometimes for months. We’re headed to the fourth extended silent treatment right now. I’ve reached out to her, apologized profusely, and now I will back off because it is apparent she doesn’t want to hear from me. When she’s mad at me, she holds it against her birth dad and siblings as well.
#6 Be Careful with and Attentive to Developing Sibling Relationships
Which brings me to another element I would change…I wouldn’t foster the “brother/sister” or “big sister” role between Addie and the “kept” kids. For us, it set up expectations that were rarely met and caused hurt feelings and resentments.
I would let the relationships develop without assigning labels or specific roles. For example, Addie’s mom always played up the fact that Addie got to play “big sister” while with us and “little sister” in their family. From what I’ve siphoned out of comments Addie made over the years, she had no idea how to play the big sister role and felt pressured to do so. Addie’s close to neither her adoptive brother she grew up with nor with her full-biological siblings she saw only once or twice a year for a week or so at a time. I was naive to think that time together, without guidance in establishing relationships, might have brought them close.
I see now I was trying to minimize the losses for all my kids, and I failed. We were all in over our heads. Again, a therapist who has navigated such situations would have been helpful to us.
#7 Be Open to Changing Strategies at Different Stages
To sum all of this up, my suggestion is strong communication through therapy with all involved. Little things come up, which could turn into big things if not handled or managed properly. The situation may require more or less birth parent involvement at different times of the child’s development. It will be better received and less “personal” if a therapist is the one helping to guide the journey. We can sure think we know what we’re doing at the time, only to find out later that we messed up BIG.
With the issues already being present just by being relinquished, with the issues caused by losing a child whether voluntary or not, with issues possibly still remaining from infertility…you’re potentially dealing with wounded individuals all the way around. It’s a delicate situation that can leave little room for error. Give yourself and the child the best possible chance for success and seek help and guidance from a professional. Please don’t be afraid to do so.
* Please note I am not a psychologist or therapist. And I’m using a pseudonym for my daughter.
Guest poster Amy is first mom to Addie, wife of her retired Air Force husband for almost 29 years, mom to 6 parented children, and now Grandma/Mimi to 3. She’s been knee-deep in adoption issues since 1985 and more than once has wished she could have a do-over.
I present Amy’s account because I think it’s helpful to explore the ambiguities of open adoption and not get too comfortable in knowing definitively what a thing is. (I suspect that something so complex is closer to infinite than to definite.) Our kids need us to continually reassess and respond to their unique situations with mindfulness and oft-refreshed clarity.
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.