Open Adoption: Birthparent Relationship Changes in the Teen Years
"We have a semi-open relationship with our 14-year-old son's birthmother. Recently, he asked if we could invite her for a weekend. I trust his birthmom, but I'm worried."
In my experience, it's normal for teenagers in semi-open adoptions (letters, cards) to want to open up their adoptions. When there are ongoing visits over the years (such as once or twice a year), children see their birthparents more clearly. If there are no ongoing visits, children may have unrealistic expectations of their birthparents, and see them as "perfect" people. Your son has communicated with his birthmother over the years, but he has never met her. I encourage you to welcome your child's birthmother for a brief visit. An in-person meeting will help her become a concrete part of your sonís life.
It's great that your son is asking for your help, rather than attempting to do something behind your back. He clearly sees you as supportive, and wants your support as he takes this step.
Even so, itís normal for you to worry a little bit. Take a deep breath and realize that there is nothing to be anxious about! Your son will always be your son. He is not looking for another mom, especially during his teenage years! He just wants a connection with his birthmother. He has the capacity to love both of you (again, you will always be Mom), just as parents can love more than one child.
I encourage you to invite your sonís birthmother to your house for a day or weekend. This first visit should be with all family members. It might include some brief time alone for your son and his birthmother. Perhaps they can talk in his room while he shows her his sports trophies or other items of interest. However, the focus of this first visit should be on the family. Explain to everyone that, since this is the first time you are meeting in person, the meeting is about everyone getting to know each other.
When there has been ongoing visitation, trust has been established among the adults involved. In that situation, parents are usually comfortable with their teenager talking alone with or visiting alone with his birthmother. However, in your case, such trust has not yet been fully established, so itís important that you have some involvement in and/or awareness of your sonís communication, at least for now. The initial visit will let you observe interactions, and know what to say if your son asks for overnight visits in the future.
Letting teens take the reins
Many school-age children and teenagers have occasional overnight visits with their birthmothers. Some children stay with their birthmother for longer periods of time. For example, 15-year-old Melissa travels out-of-state every summer to spend a week with her birthmother, Cindy. Cindy got married several years ago, so the annual visits include Cindy's husband and Melissa's young half-siblings. Melissa looks forward to these visits, and she doesnít consider her birthmother her "mom." Cindy, who was 16 when Melissa was born, told me that their relationship is more like the relationship between sisters.
Extended visits aren't for everyone. You should defer any decision about overnight stays until you see how the initial visit in your home goes.
I know a 16-year-old girl who planned to spend the entire summer at her birthmotherís house. (Her family talked about it at length, and agreed to this plan.) In reality, the "summer" visit lasted only a few days. The teenager came back home after she discovered that she had to follow the same rules at her birthmotherís house that she had at her own house!
This points to the need for both families to be "on the same page" about acceptable behavior and expectations. As long as you communicate, trust each other, and respect each otherís roles, you can work out any problems that may arise.
Kathleen Silber is the associate executive director of the Independent Adoption Center in Pleasant Hill, California, and coauthor of Dear Birthmother and Children of Open Adoption (Corona).
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