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Ask the Open Adoption Expert: Beginning a Relationship

by Kathleen Silber

Q: We just brought our newborn home and are wondering how to communicate with his birthmother. How do we start?

A: This is a joyous time for you and your family, as you bond with and delight in this wonderful baby. The paperwork, the waiting, the wondering -- it's all behind you. Now the marathon known as parenting -- hello, sleepless nights! -- begins.

In open adoptions, this is also the time when you and your son's birthparents begin building the relationship that you all chose for the good of your child. Ideally, before your son arrived, you discussed how the relationship would work (Who initiates contact once your baby is home? How often will you exchange photos and e-mails? Will there be visits? How often?) and committed the details to paper. This document, commonly called an open adoption agreement, will help avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings. (Families whose adoptions were arranged at the last minute often schedule a meeting or conference call two or three weeks after their baby is home, with an agency representative or lawyer present, if possible.)

Once your baby is home, it's important to understand that, even as you are enjoying him, the birthmother is grieving. She will go through the stages of grief that everyone experiences when they lose someone -- anger, depression, and, eventually, acceptance. The grieving process is normal, and you shouldn't feel you have to hide your happiness or worry that she wants the baby back. If you've agreed to initiate contact, send her photos, so she can see how beautiful your son is. (Some parents create websites that birthmothers can check on a regular basis.) When you call or e-mail her, tell her that you think he's the most wonderful baby in the world. Your enthusiasm helps her see that she's getting what she wanted for him when she made her adoption plan: a loving home.

What to expect: first-year overview
While each open adoption is unique, there are predictable stages in birthmother involvement. Most want frequent contact for the first six months, to help them through their grief. Some birthmothers seek more contact at this early stage than they anticipated during their pregnancy, so be sure to balance your needs with hers. Give yourself enough time to bond with your son and develop a sense of entitlement to him (the feeling that he really is your baby).

In the second six months, it's common for contact to taper off as birthmothers come to terms with their loss. And after the first year, some want less contact as they move on with their lives. 

The pattern is similar with birthmother visits. Birthmothers typically want to see the baby three or four times during the course of the first year, but may visit once or twice a year thereafter. If you developed a close relationship with your son's birthmother during her pregnancy, you may want to see each other more often. Still, it's telling that nine out of 10 calls my agency gets from parents after the first year are about their concern over the loss of birthmother contact.

Although the immediate post-adoption period may be more challenging in open adoptions than in semi-open or closed adoptions, it can bring you closer to the birthmother as you all work through this emotional time. Ultimately, you can draw upon this closeness to help your son understand the circumstances that brought him to your family. 

Kathleen Silber is the associate executive director of the Independent Adoption Center in Pleasant Hill, California, and the co-author of Dear Birthmother and Children of Open Adoption (Corona).

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