Adoptive parents and expectant parents exchange increasingly personal information before the adoption plan is finalized. Instead of the traditional letter update, birth parents 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 birth parents 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 birth mother 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 birth mother 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 over-analyzing 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 birth mother, 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 birth parents 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 , 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 birth mother 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 birth mother. 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 birth parents 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 birth mom 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 birth mom reflecting “dubious lifestyle choices,” including drug and sexual references. Another reports feeling uncomfortable when a birth mom 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 birth mother. 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 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 birth parents 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’s “groups option” 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 birth mother’s aunt requests to be your friend, get the birth mother’s thoughts before accepting.
- Talk about social media, and how it relates to birth parents, 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 birth parents’ 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 birth parent’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 birth parents in your family. Provide frequent openings to talk. “You can say, ‘If you’re interested in looking up your birth mom 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 birth parent) 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 birth parents 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 birth parent 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 birth parents. 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 birth parents 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 birth parents—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 birth parents 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 birth parents, discuss their desire to search, and offer your support for their efforts when the time is right.
- If children know their birth parents, 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 birth parent who declines contact, a birth parent in troubling circumstances, or a search that reveals nothing.
- Talk with children often and directly about Internet danger. Taddonio reminds us, “Realistically, birth parents 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.