One of the premises of open adoption is that the birth and adoptive families will have contact after placement. A quick cruise around Adoptionland makes it obvious that this contact takes as many different forms as there are families. However, it is striking to me how much of the pain in open adoption is related to contact.
In most states, open adoption agreements – which typically stipulate the frequency and modes of connection - are not legally enforceable; once the adoption is finalized, the legal parents hold all the cards.
It didn’t take much internet research to find blog after blog by birth moms who feel deceived about the kind of access they would be given to their children. It is horrifying to me that some potential adoptive parents are so desperate for a child that they intentionally mislead expectant mothers, knowing all along that they don’t intend to maintain a relationship.
Perhaps almost as frequently, I’ve read about adoptive families who are eager to hear from their child’s birth mother (or father) and wish they had more contact. If they haven’t heard from her in awhile, they worry about her. That’s our situation with V. right now.
When we were getting to know her before Dylan was born, we spoke to V. on the phone a couple of times a week and emailed just as often. During our formal match meeting led by our agency’s social worker, we talked a lot about contact after birth. V. was asked how often she thought she’d want to see us and whether she’d like to receive phone calls, emails, photos, etc. She indicated she’d like to see him about every other month (which truthfully sounded good on an emotional level but potentially challenging logistically, since we live about 2.5 hours apart. But we committed to it, and intended to meet this commitment).
We very carefully and candidly told her that if we became the parents of her son, she would always be welcome in our lives...unless we felt it undermined our family in some way or if we felt if was dangerous for some reason. V. smiled and said she understood and supported this. She said she didn’t see it being an issue, but if it did for some crazy reason, she’d want us to protect Dylan and our family.
While we were sitting there in the coffee shop, discussing and documenting question after question, scenario after scenario, I remember the social worker cautioning us that things change, and though the agreement should serve as a helpful framework, we should strive to be flexible in the future. She reminded us that people move on – literally and figuratively – and needs and wants in life change. She pointed out that we couldn’t anticipate now how Dylan’s placement might affect us all emotionally, especially V. This scared me.
I want to be careful about what I write here about our contact with V. since Dylan’s placement. It’s too personal for this public space. But let me just say that it has always been positive (at least from our side), in the sense that she’s been open with us about all she’s been going through related to adoption loss, but also talked about good things happening in her life. She’s fun, funny, and easy to talk with.
But the communication from her has been infrequent and unpredictable. Though we send email updates with photos every month, we struggle to know what else to do. We don’t want to push her to do things she isn’t comfortable with and we want to support her if she needs some distance to “move on.” On the other hand, we never want her to doubt that we love her and want her in our lives. We never want her to wonder if she should contact us, or fear that she’s inserting herself where she doesn’t belong.
And I worry now about Dylan. At this point, he isn’t aware when she doesn’t respond to our suggestions we visit, or that she hasn’t called in several months. But someday he will know if a birthday is missed or an invitation ignored.
I know it is impossible to shield our children from pain, and that part of parenting is teaching them how to cope with disappointment and loss, adoption related or otherwise. But I fear we need to start practicing now how to talk with him about his birth mom, her love for him, and then why we don’t hear from her much.
So I get a lot from reading about others’ experiences with contact between families. In some ways, it’s reassuring to learn about how challenging it is in most open adoptions; we aren’t alone. In other ways, it’s discouraging. There are so many misunderstandings, miscommunications, unexpressed desires, and many, many fears.
When I read about “successful” open adoption – ones in which there is frequent, consistent, and (at least fairly) comfortable connection - I am often struck by how much hard work goes into them. My sense is that, like in most other relationships, there are ups and downs, times that a easy and time that are challenging, but that those who continue to strive to have open minds and open hearts, rewards are there for all involved.
Tell me, since most of us choose open adoption because we believe it is in the child’s best interest, how do we get beyond our adult insecurities and pain? How can we support others in our triad so that the effort is worthwhile to us all?