"Introducing Tessa to Her Birth Father"

After seven years, we decided to bring our daughter's birth father back into her life. But was she ready for him?

Young girls playing with their birth father.

We’ve always had an open adoption with our daughters birth mom, Crystal. But until recently, we couldn’t say the same about Tessa’s birth father, Joe.

Crystal had told us that Joe was too volatile, too unpredictable, to be in our lives. But seven years can mellow a man. Crystal and Joe continued to have intermittent contact with each other, although eventually each went on to another relationship.

A few winters ago, Crystal told us that, if we wanted to contact Joe, she would put us in touch. So my husband, Roger, and I exchanged e-mails with Joe, and, after a long online courtship, we decided to meet, to determine whether it would be safe to introduce Tessa to her birth father.

We needn’t have worried. Joe was sincere and straightforward. He started the meeting by telling us that he didn’t expect anything from us and that he was glad we’d come. He explained that the birth of his daughter, Isabelle, the year before, had stirred painful emotions. We exchanged photos. We talked. We agreed that the next step would be for Joe to meet Tessa, later that summer.

Telling Tessa

The next day, Tessa noticed my flopped-open purse, with the pictures of Joe and his daughter in it. I hadn’t planned on telling Tessa yet. I braced myself. I’ve been a mom long enough to know not to tell a child that something is going to happen — until it is practically happening.

“Mommy, can I see those pictures?” I handed them over. “Who is he? And is this cute baby me?”

“No, sweetheart. This man is Joe — your birth father. Daddy and I met him yesterday to make sure that it was all right to have him in our lives.”

“Oh. So what did you talk about?”

“He was curious about you. He has always loved you and wondered about you.”

“I want to meet him, too, Mom.”

“That’s great, because he also wants to meet you. But with all our trips coming up, and Joe’s schedule, were going to have to wait until later in the summer.”

As it turned out, I handled the conversation well. But now Tessa would have to endure a two-month wait. We tried to keep a positive outlook. We hoped that Tessa and Joe could get to know each other over the phone first, and ease into a relationship. This was not, however, to be the case.

Tessa and Joe began exchanging phone calls two or three times a week. Joe always chatted with Roger or me first, and asked if it was OK to talk with Tessa. I was thankful that he thought about Tessa’s needs, and also that he often asked to speak with my son, Reed, respecting and accepting that we were a package deal.

Face to face

The day of the reunion arrived. As Roger and I and our two kids approached the restaurant, we could see through the window that Joe and his family were already there. Roger and Reed walked in, and I followed, carrying Tessa. She was glued to my hip, her head buried in my neck.

Roger and Joe greeted each other and introduced the kids. Reed and Joe’s son, Nicholas, immediately started wielding imaginary swords. His wife, Angela, tended to one-year-old Isabelle. We sat down and chatted, while Tessa rearranged herself to stay hidden in my lap.

Then the Tessa Show began. In a flash, she was hugging Joe. She spent the rest of dinner on his lap, talking and laughing. Joe was happy to oblige. When it was time to head home, we said our goodbyes. At that point, Tessa had to be pried off Joe.

Over the next few months, we saw each other regularly. Roger and I felt good about the reunion. Until just after the new year.

Tessa’s turmoil

By the time Tessa entered grade school, one-on-one visits with Crystal had become commonplace. These visits worked well for all three of us. So it seemed OK to say yes to Joe when he asked to spend an afternoon with Tessa. When I bounced the idea off Tessa, she squealed with delight.

The visit seemed to go well. When I called to check in, Tessa assured me she was having a great time. Later, we all had dinner together. Tessa was glowing and I could see that she and Isabelle had bonded.

Two weeks later, at bedtime, Tessa freaked out. “I don’t want to have four parents! Mom, take away all these pictures of Crystal and Joe.” She climbed up to her shelf and threw photos at me. “Mom, call them both tomorrow and tell them I never want to see them again!”

The next day, while Tessa was at school, I called Joe with the news, breaking his heart. He put on a brave face and said he was happy to have had the time he did.

When I picked up Tessa from school, she asked if I had called her birth parents. I told her I had reached Joe, but not Crystal. Tessa replied, “I changed my mind. I think I can still see Crystal.” She didn’t want to discuss it any further, and I couldn’t imagine what had happened to change her mind so dramatically.

The next episode

For a long time afterward, I feared that I had messed everything up by embracing open adoption so wholeheartedly. Had I been too enthusiastic about keeping Crystal in our lives? Too insistent on bringing Joe in? Was this a parenting issue, or was it adoption-related?

My sister helped me remove myself from the equation. For Tessa, it wasn’t that the last seven years had been a mistake; the episode with Joe had been, simply, too much, too soon.

Tessa is a child who needs boundaries. She must, at all times, know how far she can go with a given person in a given situation. She is constantly rubbing against my boundaries with her, as well as others. It’s her way of figuring out her world, and feeling secure in it.

And although she was eager to spend that afternoon with Joe, she couldn’t have known the feelings that would ensue. Not because Joe was unsupportive, but because it was different and unfamiliar. And she also may have started considering her Road Not Taken. Profound implications come with that thought.

I am relieved for Tessa. She has processed this episode, and has resumed telephone contact with Joe. She is asking to see him again, but not alone. For the foreseeable future, our family will once again be a package deal. And we will continue living in our open adoption, a little bit wiser.


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