The Four Agreements in Open Adoption

Lois Melina offers personal reflections on making relationships between birth parents and adoptive families healthier—for the sake of our children, using the principles of The Four Agreements.

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

[Read the first article in this two-part series on open adoption here.]

Controversies about adoption reflect conflicts about how our culture defines family. “Is 45 too old to be starting off as a parent?” “Should races mix?” “Should someone with serious health problems commit to the process of raising an infant to adulthood?” “Should gay men and lesbians be parents?” “Is a family with fourteen children too big?”

Years ago, open adoption was controversial. “Won’t the child be confused about who his parents are?” people asked. “Won’t the child play one set of parents against the other?” “Won’t it be doubly traumatic if the relinquishing parents don’t stay active in the child’s life?” These questions reflected society’s belief that the adoptee should be fully integrated into the adoptive family, with all ties to the birth family severed. And they reflected a narrow definition of family as two-parent, nuclear.

Of course, it works the other way, too. While adoptive families are often at the forefront of transformations in the larger culture, ideas from outside the adoption community can give us a fresh perspective on our own families. I thought about this when I came upon the bestselling book The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz (Amber-Allen Publishing). In it, the author puts forward a personal code of conduct based on the four agreements of the title. As I read, I thought, “How might these four agreements apply to open adoptions?”

The First Agreement: Be Impeccable with Your Word

At the start of an open adoption, a birth family and an adoptive family enter into an arrangement that delineates how they will interact. Often, neither party has had any experience with open adoption. They can’t predict the future. When circumstances change, making it difficult or even undesirable to live up to the terms of their original arrangement, one or both families may excuse themselves from living up to their word.

Usually, they cite other people’s needs as reasons for changing the arrangement—the birth mother’s new husband would be jealous, the adoptee cries when the birth mother leaves, the other children in the family don’t understand. However important those considerations are, are they more important than keeping your word?

[Expert Audio: Open Adoption—From Fearful to Fearless]

Situations do change, of course, and when that happens, it’s important to renegotiate. If adoptive parents find that living up to a promise to send pictures twice a month is impractical, they should contact the birth parents and tell them, “Hey, this isn’t working. It’s not that I don’t want to send photos; we just aren’t taking as many now that Samantha is eight. Would it be all right if, instead of twice a month, I send you some photos every time we have a roll of film developed?”

Perhaps the most important word in the first agreement is impeccable. Little things matter. If a birth mother says she will visit the child at a certain time on a certain day, and doesn’t show up, its clear she’s broken her word. The adoptee might feel unimportant, even unloved. What if the birth mother is two hours late? What if she is thirty minutes late? Isn’t the message: Something was more important than being on time? Something was more important than my keeping my word to you.

Of course, sometimes we break our word. When that happens, don’t make excuses or offer explanations; be accountable. “I got a phone call just as I was leaving the house,” is an excuse. “I chose to talk to that person because…” is how we get at what was more important than keeping our word to a child we care about. It’s worth looking at what you let get in the way of keeping your word—and how you might have created an agreement that allowed for the unforeseen.

The Second Agreement: Don’t Take Anything Personally

Adoptive parents worry that if a birth parent doesn’t stay involved in an open adoption, the child will feel rejected a second time. That’s true if the child takes the birth parents behavior personally. Can we raise our children to understand that when another person breaks an agreement, or is rude or hurtful, it’s not about the child but about what’s going on in the other person’s life?

If we express a concern about how our child will interpret another person’s action before it happens, aren’t we setting up the child to have just that reaction?

This, too, works both ways. If adoptive parents don’t send the birth mother a holiday greeting, she could take that personally. She could interpret that to mean they don’t consider her part of their family, be hurt, and pull back from the relationship. The next thing you know, she’s looking for other signs that they don’t value her as a member of their family.

Ruiz says we take things personally because doing so meshes with what we believe about ourselves. The birth mother questions whether she’s really accepted as part of the adoptive family—or deserves to be—so she goes to that interpretation when the adoptive parents fail to acknowledge her at holiday time.

[“Take It from Us!”: Open Adoption]

This is not to say we should overlook the fact that someone broke his or her word. But when we take things personally, we allow ourselves to be victims. We get to be right about whatever insecurity we have about ourselves. When we are open to the likelihood that this is not about us at all, we feel more powerful. Someone with such an open attitude might say, “Wow. I wonder what’s going on. That’s not like her.”

The Third Agreement: Don’t Make Assumptions

Assumptions lead to expectations, and as the saying goes: “Expectations, in the absence of real agreements, are premeditated resentments.”

Relationships break down over little things, and we often make assumptions about little things, rather than discuss them, because they seem, well, little. Or we make arrangements without discussing the details, assuming that the way we would do it is the way everyone would do it.

In open adoption, assumptions can be made over anything from whether the adoptive parents will be in the delivery room to whether the birth mother will be invited to the adoptee’s graduation. And if an assumption that is unfulfilled is taken personally, there’s a real possibility of relationship breakdown.

It’s important to realize that we don’t all do things the same way, and that doesn’t make anybody wrong. Ask a few questions to make sure you’re all thinking alike.

The Fourth Agreement: Always Do Your Best

I’d like to amend this agreement to say, “Always Be Your Best.” The doing—the actions we take—reflect who we are, the attitudes we have, the values we believe in. When we are committed to being and doing our best, we recognize that little things matterand we honor the other three agreements.


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