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"I Have Something to Tell You"

How do you break bad news about job loss, illness, or divorce to the birthparents in an open adoption relationship?

by Kathleen Silber

It's something few new parents anticipate when beginning an open adoption relationship, but there may come a time when you will have to share difficult news with the birth family. The bad news may be about job loss, illness, or divorce.

Parents in this situation often worry that sharing sad news with their child's birthparent(s) will upset or disappoint them. Most birthparents and their families know that life can be tough, however, and they don't expect you to be perfect. The most important things are to be honest and to reassure the birthparent(s) that you're caring for your child and putting his interests first.

Strategies for sharing

Telling your child's birthparent(s) that you are getting a divorce can be difficult, especially if they had expected their child to be raised in a two-parent family. While that may have been their wish, no one can guarantee that a marriage will last indefinitely. If they are disappointed, acknowledge their feelings. Let them know that you never anticipated divorcing, but that you'll do everything possible to keep two parents in your child's life.

Before sharing the news, I recommend that you and your spouse discuss custody and visitation arrangements, so you can share a concrete plan with the birthparent(s). You should also discuss whether one or both of you will stay in touch with the birthparent(s) after the divorce. This will show them that you've thought out the ramifications of your divorce, including its impact on your daughter.

You might tell her/them, "John and I are committed to staying cordial for Zoë's sake. John will continue to play a major role in her life. Beyond his regular custody arrangements, he'll drop her off at preschool every morning. After the divorce is final, we'll take turns writing the biannual updates, so you'll hear from each of us at least once a year."

Everyone understands the reality of job loss in today's economy. If this occurs in your family, talk with the birthparents about your specific plans and resources -- for example, perhaps a family member will help you out until you find another job.

Sometimes serious illness or other tragedies occur. One adoptive dad was diagnosed with brain cancer at 34 years old. This was shocking and scary for everyone in the family, including the birth family. Six years later, the dad is healthy, and the birthparents have been impressed with the strength and positive attitude they witnessed in both parents during the crisis and afterward. This reaffirmed for them their decision to place their child with this family.

Call her? Write her?

The type of relationship you have with the birthparents will determine how and when to reach out to them. If you're in regular contact and you want to tell them directly, share your news with them around the same time you tell other relatives. Or, if you prefer, you could enlist an adoption professional to set up a meeting or conference call with the birthparent(s). Families who correspond with the birth family once a year can share their news (good and bad) through their annual letter. If there is no contact at all, let your adoption agency or adoption professional know about the change in your family's status.

Many families communicate with the birthparent(s) through social media, posting photos of their child on Facebook or on a blog. This is a good way to let the birthparents witness your child's growth and keep up with your family's activities. But this is not the way to share sad news with them.

Don't post on Facebook about losing your job, for example, until you tell the birth family. They are, in fact, part of your extended family. Extend to them the same courtesy you would extend to your family members and close friends -- let the birthparent(s) hear bad news directly from you.

Accepting support

It's important to let your child's birthparents know that, even though your family is going through a divorce, you are not divorcing them.

Not long ago I had a conversation with Marie, a woman who's had a continuing relationship with her 18-year-old birth-granddaughter, Lisa. Although Lisa's adoptive parents divorced when she was eight years old, Marie didn't feel that the divorce changed the relationship she had with Lisa or with her parents. It was simply another reality to be faced, like the one she faced when her daughter decided to place Lisa for adoption.

It's important to let your child's birthparents know that, even though your family is going through a divorce, you are not divorcing them. Tell them that the relationship they have with your child will not change. Some birthmothers may seek counseling to work through this, and some adoptive families find it helpful to talk to a professional themselves.

In my experience, most birthparents take sad news in stride. Ultimately, many families who maintain fully open adoptions find that the birth family offers them much support and understanding when they are experiencing a crisis or loss. Their love and caring will also help your child during difficult times.

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.

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