When you enter into an open adoption, one or both birth parents become part of your extended family. Just as you might face rough patches with relatives, you may face challenges with birth family members. Here are three common scenarios and the kind of open communication that can resolve them.
Social Media and Privacy
"Our son's birth mother posted photos of him to Facebook — making one her public profile image. We'd like her to take it down. What should we do?"
In today's world of social media, miscommunication about how information will be shared on sites such as Facebook is common. It is best to discuss this issue before the adoption occurs, so that everyone is clear about expectations and boundaries. If you have a written open adoption agreement, I recommend addressing this topic in that document.
If you haven't discussed social media and are surprised to see your child's photo on his birth mother's Facebook page, don't wait to address it. Have a detailed discussion about what is OK with you and what is not. Perhaps you'd be OK with the birth mother's posting photos of your child, but not using one for her profile or cover image. Ask the birth parents to respect your wishes. However, keep in mind that it's normal for birth parents in open adoption to want to share updates with their friends and family. This is because they are proud and positive about the relationship they have with you and your child. Try to reach a compromise that meets your needs and theirs.
Blurring Labels or Roles
"Our daughter's birth mother just sent our girl a birthday card — and signed it 'Mommy.' I didn't like it, and I'm worried that it will confuse my daughter."
Again, it's best to come to an agreement about what the child will call the birth mother before the adoption takes place. Explain that you will be called Mommy, and ask the birth mother what she would like to be called. The most common scenario is for the birth mother to be called by her first name.
If you didn't discuss this in advance, you need to bring it up now. Ask her what other name she would like to be called, and see if she can come up with something that is agreeable to both of you. If you had already discussed this, and the birth mother is calling herself Mommy against your wishes, remind her of your previous conversation. Perhaps she decided that her first name or the term you agreed on didn't feel right, and would like to choose a new appellation.
Remember that a reality in open adoption is that your child has two mothers, one who is raising her and one who is not. Whatever her birth mother is called, however, your child won't be confused. She knows who Mommy is. Mommy is the person who is there every day — you!
"Our son's birth mother is suffering a relapse of her drug addiction. We're concerned about our son seeing her like this, and don't know how to explain."
It's always sad when someone you care about slips back into a drug or alcohol problem. The important message to convey to the birth mother is that you care about her, as you always have. Respond in the same way you would if any other extended family member experienced such a setback. Convey your ongoing love and concern, and encourage her to go into rehab. One adoptive mom I know, Alice, spoke with her 10-year-old daughter's birth mother just before she was to enter rehab for the third time. She said, "We love you, nothing will change our love for you, and we want you to get better."
It's important to set boundaries if the birth mother is experiencing drug or alcohol problems. Let her know that when she is clean and sober, visits can resume. In the meantime, encourage other forms of communication, such as phone calls and e-mail. In this way, she will understand that you aren't punishing her for using, but that direct interaction with your child depends on her being substance-free. When you do resume visits, you might want to initially meet in a public place, like a park or a restaurant, rather than your home. Another option is to meet at your adoption agency's office, so you will have an adoption professional available, if needed.
You need to tell your child the painful news of his birth mother's relapse. You probably have already discussed with him the reasons she placed him for adoption. If not, this is a good time to initiate that discussion. Don't be afraid to talk about negatives, such as drug problems or mental health problems. Children can handle negatives. In fact, it makes the adoption decision easier to understand. If his birth mother had had it all together, why would she have placed him for adoption?
Tell your child that his birth mother is experiencing the drug problems she had at the time of his adoption. Share with him that you are sad that she is still struggling with these problems, that you hope she will get better in time, and that this doesn't change your family's love for her. You can remind him that his birth mother wanted him to have stability in his life that she couldn't provide. Her ongoing struggle makes her reason for making an adoption plan more concrete.
When this or other challenges come up over the years, show the same respect you would extend to other relatives, while focusing on your child's safety and best interest. That is what the birth parents expect of you — to be parents and make parental decisions!
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