Should I Friend Our Child's Birthmother?
Facebook has dramatically changed the way information is exchanged in adoption. Experts and parents offer advice on navigating social media.
By Carrie Krueger
Adoptive parents and expectant parents exchange increasingly personal information before the adoption plan is finalized. Instead of the traditional letter update, birthparents may now have access to real-time updates on their birth child’s milestones and daily activities. Extended adoptive families have the option of forming online ties with extended birth families. And adopted teens may decide unilaterally to connect with their birthparents without consulting their parents. All of this is happening through the social networking giant, Facebook.
While many celebrate this expansion of openness in adoption, experts recommend caution. Here are some practical tips for setting boundaries, advice on navigating the emotional side of virtual contact, and talking points to guide difficult conversations.
Before the Adoption
For decades now, adoptive parents and expectant parents have been getting to know one another before the child’s birth. For some families, this has meant an intense relationship built on frequent phone calls and joint prenatal visits. For others, the relationship involved just one face-to-face meeting, with all contact moderated by an agency or social worker.
Now, after making a match, many adoptive parents and expectant mothers are faced with the question, do we “friend” each other? Facebook is an easy way to stay in touch, but some worry about revealing too much too soon. And how do you “unfriend” yourselves if the adoption falls through?
Facebook is a factor in almost every adoption agreement that facilitator Sarah Jensen works on these days. She advises setting up separate Facebook pages, to avoid having the details of a pending adoption playing out in a public forum, accessible to friends, colleagues, and extended family.
Jeni, a birthmother in Washington, found that connecting with adoptive parents on Facebook during her pregnancy “caused some hiccups in our developing relationship.” Members of her extended family who weren’t on board with the adoption made negative comments on hers and the adoptive mother’s pages. After speaking with their social worker, she and the adoptive mom moved the relationship off Facebook. They now communicate via e-mail. “I think it works better this way,” says Jeni.
Other families find that pre-adoption Facebook contact can work, but say that the relationship won’t be stress-free. “My third child’s birthmother initiated Facebook contact prior to his birth,” says Melissa Dobson. “At first, her updates pondered what to do about her upcoming baby, and, halfway through our revocation period, wondering whether she made the right decision. It was stressful to see those posts. On the flipside, when she posted how she knew she’d made the best decision for her son, it was uplifting.”
Even if Facebook seems to be working for you before the adoption, attorney Mark McDermott says that it is no substitute for face-to-face meetings. He warns that it’s common for miscommunications to occur, and cites a case in which an expectant mother decided not to continue with the adoption, based on something she saw on the prospective adoptive mother’s Facebook page.
- Create a separate account (Facebook or other) for adoption-related contact, at least while building trust.
- Make face-to-face contact your goal. Do not rely solely on Facebook as a way to get to know one another.
- Spell out the details of online contact in your adoption agreement.
- Beware of misinterpreting or overanalyzing online communication. Young people are more likely to “tell all” in their profiles or status updates.
- Allow the relationship to build over time. “Sometimes people get too close too soon. They kind of fall in love with each other,” says Rita Taddonio, Director of the Adoption Resource Center, in New York City. “If someone has to pull back, it’s painful.”
- Don’t take Facebook as the last word. Bonding via a social network does not mean a greater chance of adoption. If plans change, online relationships make an emotional situation more challenging.
- Agree on boundaries as to commenting on one another’s walls and sharing photos, including how you will address one another.
- Discuss the merits of being “friends” in a public arena versus connecting privately.
- Decide where extended family members fit in. If you friend a potential birthmother, should you also friend the birth grandmother? This is probably not appropriate before an adoption is completed.
While Facebook is changing the way adoptive parents and expectant mothers connect before the child’s birth, it has already revolutionized post-adoption relationships. Dwindling contact used to be a common experience for parents in open adoptions. But Facebook provides great potential for keeping relationships strong. As Jensen notes, young birthparents may change addresses or phone numbers, but Facebook remains a constant.
Switching from snail mail packets to weekly, or even daily, Facebook updates is a big change, but many who have made the shift praise the site as an ideal way to stay connected. “For the first four years, we sent photos and detailed updates, but contact began to feel one-sided. Then our son’s birthmother friended me on Facebook,” says mom Adina. “To be honest, I hesitated before accepting the request. Our updates were always carefully composed. Did I want to share my life, uncensored? I decided that a clear window into our daily life was the least I could do for my son’s birthmother. As it turns out, I love knowing more about her life, and I’ve connected with several other birth family members.”
Although sharing the everyday ups and downs gives many parents pause, like Adina, Christine Zwerling finds she enjoys interacting with birthparents on a daily basis: “It’s been a great way for the birth families to see what the boys are up to—whether it’s a sniffle, a big accomplishment, or just a happy day. After I posted, ‘L hates peas, chucked the bowl across the room,’ his birthmom replied, ‘Well, we all hate peas!’ I get a kick out of little exchanges like that.”
Others find “too much information” to be too much. One mom describes Facebook posts from a birthmom reflecting “dubious lifestyle choices,” including drug and sexual references. Another reports feeling uncomfortable when a birthmom replied instantly to every post, raising questions from friends who noticed the hyper-attentiveness. If you connect through your main account, you’ll need to think before you post. Though, as Sharyn Bergman points out, this is not a bad thing: “If my daughter is driving me crazy, I probably wouldn’t say it on Facebook. I don’t want to upset her birthmother. But, honestly, it’s not appropriate to post such things about your kids, anyway. Better to vent to your spouse after a tough day!”
Jayne gave careful thought to the question of friending an extended birth family member. “I don’t post anything bad or controversial, but I felt uncomfortable with the birth family knowing the ins and outs of our lives every day.” She set up a separate MySpace account, which she reserves for birth family communication. Maintaining separate accounts is a solution that has worked for many adoptive and birth families. As Jensen warns, doing so from the start is the wisest approach. Slapping privacy settings on Facebook, or moving existing communication to a new online venue, can be hurtful. If you must change the level of privacy for an existing account, she says, “Try to make the birthparents part of that decision. Don’t just impose boundaries.”
Given the difficulty of backing out of social media contact, you should enter it thoughtfully. Jensen recommends asking yourself, “Is this harmful?” when accepting friend requests or posting. If it is not, she encourages adoptive parents to go ahead.
- Develop online relationships slowly, building trust and creating boundaries before allowing unlimited access.
- Choose your privacy settings carefully. Facebook recently launched a “groups option,” which allows you to create, say, a “birth family group,” and share your content selectively.
- Consider communicating more privately—for example, through a password-protected blog—from the start.
- Agree on standards for sharing photos. Some parents allow reposting of photos, as long as the child is not tagged. Keep in mind that, any time you post a picture online, you can’t control who will see it.
- Be aware that humor and sarcasm play differently online. For example, a light-hearted expression of parental frustration with a toddler may be misinterpreted.
- Apply the same caution and empathy to online communication that you would to carefully composed letters.
- Keep the Facebook dialogue open as new issues arise. For example, if the birthmother’s aunt requests to be your friend, get the birthmother’s thoughts before accepting.
- Talk about social media, and how it relates to birthparents, from a young age, says Taddonio. “If you start this conversation when your kids are teens, it will seem intrusive. If you’ve always talked about who their friends are and about their birth family, it will be natural to talk about how you stay in touch with birth family online.”
- Develop family Internet safety guidelines and follow them. Tell your child about the dangers of chat rooms, strangers, and unknown links, and always keep your address and phone number private.
When Teens Search
It’s not unusual for adopted adolescents to mention that they would like to meet their birth family, especially if they’ve known their birthparents’ names since their earliest years. Some truly want contact. Others are simply expressing a desire for more information. Given the existence of Google, Facebook, and so on, however, it is simple for a teen, acting on impulse, to type in a birthparent’s name and hit “Search.”
A teen will be less likely to search on his own if you’ve always spoken openly about adoption and birthparents in your family. Provide frequent openings to talk. “You can say, ‘If you’re interested in looking up your birthmom on Facebook, I will help you do it, but we’ll go slowly,” says Taddonio. “By your telling your child you’re going to search with him, he won’t have to search in secret.” It may also help to connect your teen with an adult adoptee or a trusted family friend. Some teens are more willing to open up to a third party than to Mom or Dad.
Some teens keep initial contact secret, but open up to their parents after being confronted with unexpected information. Taddonio recalls a 13-year-old boy who was contacted by an older birth sibling. They arranged to meet but, at the last minute, the boy told his mother. She contacted the sibling and explained that she supported her son’s interest in meeting his birth family, but that she wanted to be involved, since he was still a teen. The mother accompanied her son, and it was a successful visit.
Parents should participate in the relationship, then monitor from the sidelines (by being “friends” with both child and birthparent) until the child is at least 16, depending on his emotional maturity.
If your teen decides to search, prepare him for a range of possible outcomes. Taddonio suggests saying, “You know, I’ve read/heard about people who searched for their birth family, and I know there can be many different reactions. Sometimes birthparents are not ready to have contact. How will you feel if that happens?” There’s also the possibility that a child won’t find anyone or any new information through a search.
Jensen stresses that, if the adopted child has known the birthparent all along, communication via the Internet is less of a concern. Even so, after a teen takes charge of the relationship, you should continue to speak with him about what’s being shared, and how he feels about it.
- Set specific guidelines regarding venue, privacy settings, photos, and so on for all online communication between your child and her birthparents. Stipulate that you be included in contact until your child is at least 16.
- Don’t let your child set up a personal e-mail account and Facebook page when he’s too young. While there is no certain age at which all children are ready, it’s easier to postpone this step than to pull back after it’s been taken.
- Keep your expectations realistic. Facebook and other social media are critical social links for many teens. Banning them altogether may not be possible.
- Require your child to “friend” you on Facebook, and monitor his activity. (See “Cyber Safety,” below, for specific advice.)
- Online contact from birthparents will be very likely. Rather than trying to prevent it, think about how you will react and how to prepare your child.
- Understand that teenage adoptees have always had curiosity about their birthparents—the Internet simply makes it easier for them to explore. Make yourself a partner in this process.
- If your teen makes contact, be sure the new relationship progresses slowly. “Adoptive parents and birthparents should try to get to know each other through e-mails and calls, until everyone is ready to meet,” says Taddonio.
- If children do not know birthparents, discuss their desire to search, and offer your support for their efforts when the time is right.
- If children know their birthparents, talk about the kinds of information cyber connections can bring. Tell them how easy it is to misinterpret things that are posted on Facebook.
- Before cyber-searching for birth family, discuss some of the possible results: a birthparent who declines contact, a birthparent in troubling circumstances, or a search that reveals nothing.
- Talk with children often and directly about Internet danger. Taddonio reminds us, “Realistically, birthparents should be the least of our worries. Tell kids they have to be careful with everything they put out there.”
- Seek expert input if social media seems to be leading to a reunion.
Facebook provides a powerful way for birth and adoptive parents, and their children, to stay in touch. When used with caution and consideration, most find it a positive development that brings new meaning to openness in adoption.
CARRIE KRUEGER is a Web and social media content strategist. She is the adoptive mother of three, and lives with her family in Washington.
Just as parents set rules for household behavior and social outings, we now need to set rules for Internet safety. Here are some recommendations.
Experts Advise That You:
- Ask your young teens to friend you as a requirement of having their own accounts.
- Teach kids never to give out identifying information, including your address or phone number.
- Require teens to keep a list of passwords in a place you can access, if necessary.
- Continually remind your child that she should never friend anyone on Facebook whom she doesn’t know personally.
- Set up a family computer in a central room, and monitor its activity. Parents may find this advice impractical after age 10 or 12, as many school assignments are now online. If you were vigilant about instilling online safety when your kids were younger, your high-schooler will probably do fine with his own computer.
- Put rules in writing in a customized family contract. Download a fill-in-the-blank template from getgamesmart.com/tools/pact/start/.
- The privacy settings on Facebook are vast. Sit down with your child when her account is set up, and go through every one of them. (You should apply these settings to your own account, as well!)
- Check privacy settings by asking a friend to look up your child on Facebook. (Someone who is not friends with your child should see no personal or identifying information.)
- Consider installing or subscribing to software that monitors your child’s Facebook activity. If you do so, inform your child that you will occasionally monitor his activity, so that you don’t breach his trust. Your goal is not to spend hours monitoring his activity, but to keep him aware of safe practices when online.
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