A Durable Relationship

Our adoption expert details the ups and downs of open adoption, and how to keep the relationship going — even when it's hard.

Adoption expert Lois Melina on talking with adopted children about unknown birth family information

Selma and Bob adopted through an agency that facilitated open adoptions. When they met the birth mother who had selected them to adopt her child, they agreed to send photos and letters every month and to get together with her once a year. It seemed like a reasonable request.

Five years later, Selma and Bob moved to another city and adopted another child. With two preschoolers at home, Selma found months going by before a roll of film was used in the camera. She barely had time to check her e-mail, much less write letters to birth parents. She began to resent using her husband’s vacation time to visit birth families.

Linda and Kevin wrote letters regularly to the birth mother of their son, although not as frequently as they had planned. When their son was 14, he became preoccupied with meeting his birth mother. They wondered if this preoccupation was affecting his schoolwork.

Linda and Kevin hadn’t planned to have their son meet his birth mother until he was at least 18. They’d hoped that when he met her, they would be able to show what a fine young man he’d turned out to be. They didn’t want her to know that they had conflicts over things like privileges or that their son needed tutoring in math.

Nonetheless, they wrote to the birth mother and suggested a meeting. Linda decided to be honest. She told her she and Kevin were embarrassed not to be the perfect family they had all envisioned at the time of placement.

The birth mother, now married with other children, let Linda and Kevin know that she understood the ups and downs of being a parent. Had she known how things would turn out, she still would have chosen them as adoptive parents, she said.

Before the meeting, the birth mother and the adoptive parents did some reading and shared what they’d learned with each other. They agreed that they would not allow a 14-year-old to play one set of parents against the other.

Expectations and Reality

People often have unrealistic ideas about what parenting will be like. My husband and I were trying to start a family when we bought our first house. It had two bedrooms upstairs and two bedrooms downstairs. We didn’t think that we might one day have more than one child and want to sleep close enough to hear them in the night.

The house had a small front yard on a busy street and a steep back yard. We didn’t think about where kids would be able to play safely. Maybe we were dense about the housing needs of a family, but we just had no experience on which to draw.

The same is true in open adoption. Families have visions of what their lives will be like, often based on what they had as children — or what they didn’t have. Seldom do these visions involve birth parents or birth grandparents.

They agree to a plan for ongoing contact — perhaps sending letters through an adoption agency, perhaps regular meetings — with no experience on which to draw. For open adoption to be successful, families have to believe it is important. They have to be flexible in the relationship, let go of expectations, and communicate honestly.

Open adoption takes the secrecy away. It gives children the opportunity for connections, for information, and to feel that they are valued by their birth families. If birth families and adoptive families aren’t convinced there is value in maintaining these connections — even when it is difficult or the families have different values — they will allow the circumstances of their lives to be an excuse to let the relationship go.

Here are some signs that someone perhaps wasn’t fully committed to open adoption:

  • Adoptive parents were relieved when the attorney or agency told them that open adoption wasn’t legally enforceable.
  • Adoptive parents or birth parents considered open adoption to be “conditional,” i.e., gave themselves permission to terminate the relationship if it did not meet certain criteria.
  • Adoptive parents or birth parents believed open adoption would somehow make their lives easier, i.e. the birth mother believed she would not feel as much grief, or the adoptive parents believed they wouldn’t have to answer their child’s difficult questions.

It’s understandable that people might be reluctant to commit to a kind of relationship with which they have no experience, that is different from “standard” parenting practice, or to one that feels scary. The good news is that even if adoptive parents or birth parents were not fully committed to openness at the beginning, they can renew their commitment at any time. Open adoption is a relationship not so different from other familial relationships, requiring the same skills we use with grandparents, in-laws, and siblings.

Flexibility and Honesty

Even those families who wrote up a formal contact agreement will find that the relationship doesn’t go as planned. The birth family cannot know what will happen; neither can the adoptive parents. Even when everything is going well, it may not be going as envisioned.

Life throws us curves. The birth mother may marry a man who doesn’t like her being in contact with the child she placed for adoption. Adoptive parents may go bankrupt. People often withdraw from relationships — even from close friends — when they are struggling.

Parents must feel that they can change the arrangement to meet the needs of their families. If their goal is to maintain the relationship, but fit it to their current situation, requests to change the manner or frequency of contact are likely to be favorably received. But if families use circumstances to withdraw from the relationship, they risk losing trust, and that can be devastating.

Honesty is the key to success. Had Linda and Kevin not been honest with their son’s birth mother about their feelings of guilt and embarrassment, they would not have had the opportunity to talk about how they would relate to each other during the meeting. First, of course, Linda and Kevin had to be honest with themselves.

Selma decided that cutting out the monthly steps of ordering and mailing prints would help, and her child’s birth mother agreed to view photos in online albums. Their conversation also confirmed for Selma that she was committed to the relationship and this was not the first step toward closing their open adoption.

Think back on the relationships you have maintained and those you’ve allowed to slide. How many of us have maintained ties with relatives whose values differ from our own, who live far away from us, or who do not seem to put as much into the relationship as we do? How many of us can preserve our boundaries and our emotions in these situations without cutting family members out of our lives? On the other hand, how many of us have let good friends disappear from our lives because the relationships were no longer convenient?

Commitment comes from recognizing that through the child we all love, we have become family.


Copyright © 1999-2024 Adoptive Families Magazine®. All rights reserved. For personal use only. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

More articles like this