I paced the room, trying to contain my panic. My three-month-old daughter, Christina, refused to be calmed. Her birth mother and birth grandmother looked on in quiet reserve. What must they be thinking, I wondered? Was her birth mother regretting her decision? Had they ever seen anyone so inept at mothering? “Oh, please, please, just stop crying,” I whispered gently into my daughter’s ear. I had not planned our first visit to be like this. My house was spotless — almost as clean as during our home study. Christina had taken a nap earlier in the day and should have been fully rested. I had dressed her in a brightly-colored romper, its blue starfish matching the brilliance of her eyes. But Christina’s birth family had arrived late, and her birth mother was not impressed with the outfit. “Kind of boyish looking, don’t you think?” she remarked. “Why don’t you put a bow in her hair?” The comments stung. Fed by the tension in the room, my tiny daughter continued to cry. After much discomfort on everyone’s part, the visitors decided it was time to leave. Gratefully, I showed them to the door. It wasn’t until later that I realized Christina’s birth mother had never even held our beautiful little girl. That painful visit took place five years ago, and in spite of this rocky start, our open adoption arrangement has proven to be a positive experience for both families. Later conversations revealed that the birth family was more sympathetic than I could have imagined. The birth grandmother recalled her own first months with a difficult, high-needs baby (Christina’s birth mother). And the young birth mother, having observed the fussy baby, had decided that she was indeed not old enough to handle such responsibility. Both had total faith in me as a mother — something I didn’t yet have in myself.
Choosing the Open Road
Based on that first visit with my daughter’s birth family, I might have decided against seeing them again. Looking back, I realize I had put a lot of needless pressure on both families by desperately trying to establish my role as Christina’s mother. Now I understand that my position was never being questioned and that one meeting couldn’t define our relationship. My children’s birth families are as respectful of my right to parent as I am of their desire to be a part of my children’s lives. I know that the thought of having an open adoption raises fears: Will the birth family be too interfering? Will your child be confused about who her parents are? But having now adopted two children with open access to their birth families, I realize that the benefits for my children are enormous. Besides the obvious advantage of easy access to important medical information, my children know “where they came from.” As they grow older, they will have first-hand knowledge of the circumstances surrounding their adoptions. While maintaining an open adoption isn’t always easy, it’s certainly worth trying. Here are some lessons I’ve learned that might help other families opt for this alternative.
It’s taken time, patience, and mutual respect to get to know one another. I’ve learned not to be afraid to express my point of view and to give the same consideration to my children’s birth families. I’ve also learned to be flexible if plans have to change. About a month after my son Trevor’s birth, we arrived at his birth mother’s apartment for a prearranged meeting and discovered she wasn’t home. I was angry and resentful. My husband and I had gone out of our way to make this visit as convenient as possible for her, and now she wasn’t even home to meet us. We decided to have coffee and come back a little later, all the while trying to decide what her absence really meant. It turned out it didn’t mean anything — she had simply missed her bus home. We ended up having a lovely lunch and enjoying our time together. As young as Trevor was, the minute he heard his birth mother’s voice that day, I noticed a sense of recognition on his face. He liked to be held by her, and that was comforting for me to see.
No Right Answers
Whether you are the adoptive family or the birth family, it’s important to know your limits. Never do anything that makes you uncomfortable. If you are not ready to invite the birth family to your home, don’t. On the other hand, if you can’t wait to show off your newly decorated nursery, invite them over. Other than respecting each other, there are no firm rules. We welcome as many visits from our children’s birth families as our collective schedules allow. We’ve learned to communicate our feelings about events but to be prepared to adjust as necessary. For example, my husband and I agreed that we’d like our children’s birth mothers to be a part of their baptism ceremonies. However, my son’s baptism was scheduled for the day before Mother’s Day; I was prepared for Trevor’s birth mother to say that she’d prefer not to attend. Happily, she was pleased to share this special time with me. After the ceremony, we all gathered at our house for a buffet dinner. It had been only six months since we adopted our son but it felt as if his birth family had always been a part of our lives. You have to be prepared, however, for relationships to change. Currently, Trevor’s birth mother has chosen to be less involved in his life than she was at first. Even though she hasn’t seen him in a year, we keep sending her photos, so she can see how gorgeous he is. Our connection with Christina’s birth mother, however, is stronger than ever, and she visits frequently. When Christina hears that her birth mother is coming to see her, she’s thrilled.
Starting New Family Traditions
Every visit by our children’s birth family becomes part of their memory of growing up. We try to discover shared interests and build on them to establish activities that become family traditions. For instance, my daughter loves to collect rocks, so at the end of each visit with her birth mother, Christina passes her a rock. At their next get-together, her birth mother gives the rock back to Christina. Passing the rock back and forth this way symbolizes the way we keep each other in our thoughts. In our busy lives, it’s easy to let contact slip between the birth family and the adoptive family. At the end of each visit, we set a date for the next one. One of the greatest joys comes from sharing my children’s special moments with their birth families. Open adoption may not always be easy, but it can work for anyone who is not afraid to embrace it.