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Ask the Open Adoption Expert: Explaining Different Levels of Birthmother Contact to Kids

“We know very little about our nine-year-old’s birthmom, but her younger brother talks to his. How can we help her?” AF's open adoption expert gives you the answer.

When the children in an adoptive family have different birthmothers, their parents always long for the same level of contact with each. Wouldn’t that be great! Yet it’s far more common for one sibling to have more contact than the others. It’s also to be expected that the child who has little or no contact with her birthmother usually wants what her siblings have.

Your daughter should be very familiar with her general adoption story by now, and, at nine, she is old enough to hear any and all details that you know. Children always fare better with concrete facts, rather than abstractions. If you haven’t already, share her birthmother’s name and any photos you have. Perhaps you have a letter her birthmother wrote at the time of placement.

Explain what you know about the birthmother’s circumstances that may have led her to decide against contact. For example, her family may not know she placed a child for adoption, making it difficult for her to have a relationship with your daughter. Again, sticking to concrete information will also help your daughter understand that, even though her birthmother is not in her life at this time, this doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love her.

A loving example
Although your daughter’s birthmother is absent, your son’s can play an important role in her life. I’ve seen one birthmother become the “family birthmom” on countless occasions, in families with various levels of openness. A family birthmother might take both kids on a special outing when she comes to visit, or write letters to both. In short, she becomes an extended family member who takes an interest in the lives of all the children in your family.

Your son’s birthmom could help your daughter understand the circumstances that would lead a woman to make an adoption plan.
While your son’s birthmother can’t replace your daughter’s, she can help your daughter understand what a birthmother is, which may make it easier for her to understand the circumstances that would lead a birthmother to make an adoption plan. You can start the conversation by pointing out similarities between your children’s birthmothers: “Your birthmother, Susie, is a lot like your brother’s birthmother, Jane. Your birthmother made the adoption decision because of her love for you, just as Jane did with your brother.”

Lingering questions
Be prepared for the chance that you might not be able to satisfy your daughter’s curiosity or smooth over disappointment that she doesn’t have a relationship with her birthmother, especially between the ages of eight and 13. Some kids find it painful to witness the relationships their siblings have with their birthparents.

One boy I know, 12-year-old Sean, got jealous when his older sister started having overnight visits at her birthmother’s house last year. He wished he could visit his birthmother, but he hadn’t seen her since he was very young. In this case, Sean’s parents decided to try to reestablish contact with Sean’s birthmother. Your daughter, like Sean, may want to reestablish contact when she’s a little older.

For now, there are several ways you can help her work through some of her feelings. Have her write down some things she’d want her birthmother to know—her favorite color, the name of her pet—and encourage her to update the list or journal as she grows. You could also create a photo album with pictures of your daughter at different ages. You might say, “This way, you can share what you were like as you grew up when you do meet your birthmother, someday.”

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

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