Keeping an Adoption Open Despite Challenges

Five moms candidly reveal how they’re honoring their commitment to openness when their child’s birth parent struggles with substance abuse, mental illness, or is experiencing crisis.

troubled birth parent

As a mom who’s active in the adoptive community, writing and speaking about the positive rapport I have with my daughter’s birth family, I connect with many fellow adoptive parents. While most share their own heartening open adoption stories, some describe relationships that aren’t so easy.

Whenever I see a question about a birth parent who has a history of substance abuse or mental illness or is otherwise unstable in an online adoption forum, far too many of the responses focus on “setting boundaries,” “not condoning poor choices,” and “standing your ground.” And yet, when I connect in a more personal way with parents voicing these same concerns, they’re looking for more nuanced answers. Many express anxiety, or even fear, about their open adoption, but very few would ever question whether their child benefits from the relationship.

That’s what inspired me to reach out to five moms who are in the thick of navigating a relationship with a troubled birth parent. As I delved into their stories, it struck me that they shared a few distinct qualities that help them maintain openness in light of challenges—acceptance, commitment, empathy, and forgiveness. The moms clarify why they feel the birth parent relationship is invaluable, regardless of the circumstances, and offer their advice and encouragement. I hope you find their stories as touching, insightful, and helpful as I did.

 Explaining Addiction to a Teen

“We need to keep in mind that we are dealing with the walking wounded.”
—TORI, mother of a 15-year-old son

“She gave me her baby. How could I turn her away?” says Tori, who maintains an open relationship with her son’s birth mother, who is addicted to drugs.

Tori accepts without question the fact that her child has two sets of parents—and that she doesn’t “get to choose how his birth parents live their lives.” She believes that, as the adoptive mother, it is up to her to make the relationships work.

Whether the challenge is an addiction or a scheduling conflict, Tori thinks a flexible attitude serves her best. “I take the approach of, ‘I’m sure I can find one day out of the whole year to accommodate her for a visit.’” That said, Tori also understands that common sense must prevail, since, after all, “you wouldn’t let Grandpa take your child when he’s drunk.”

Speaking to her son about his birth mother’s addiction has been a gradual process. “We didn’t get into the drug talk until he was 10 or 11,” she explains. “It was at that time he discovered that his birth mom, Jen, was living in what I can only describe as a hoarder house. That’s when he realized Jen’s life was in upheaval.”

Tori took that opportunity to discuss Jen’s alcohol and drug use. “I spoke very matter-of-factly about how Jen can sometimes keep the relationship going and sometimes she can’t,” says Tori. “I talked about how her actions are not personal—they have nothing to do with him.”

If Tori knows that Jen is not sober when they have a visit coming up, she’ll plan to meet in public for a briefer period. When that happens, she might explain to her son, “Jen’s not doing well right now, so let’s just spend a little time with her today and wait for the next opportunity.” After a recent one-hour meeting at a taco stand, Tori said her son noticed that his birth mom was “a little off,” but didn’t seem upset. “He said something like, ‘Oh, she looked a little tired.’ ”

Empathy—digging down deep to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes—is needed in any demanding relationship. At 15, Tori’s son is aware that his birth parents have lives that are separate from his. He sees their struggles and knows that their lives are not perfect. “I’m proud to say that he’s grown up to have quite a bit of empathy for her, and he can’t help but love her,” says Tori, who shares that love for her son’s birth mother.

“We need to keep in mind that we are dealing with the walking wounded,” says Tori. “We must have a place in our hearts for them. That’s the gift I give to him, and it helps me be more understanding. Not loving my kid’s mother is not even an option.”

Tori’s advice: Before distancing or cutting off birth parents, Tori believes adoptive parents need to ask themselves: “What part of me wants to do this? If this ‘want’ is coming from me, it’s not about my kid.” Tori takes her own advice, which helps her remain committed to the relationship.

Connecting with Two Birth Moms with Hard Lives

“I can’t fix things for my children’s birth mothers, but I can be the stable one.”
—RACHEL, mother of a nine-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter

Rachel, a mom of two, maintains open relationships with both of her children’s birth mothers.

Her son’s birth mother, Sara, has a history of moving from one abusive relationship to the next. Once Rachel realized that she couldn’t “fix things” for Sara she felt more at peace. “I just had to learn to be happy with the time we do have. If she drops in and out, that’s just how it is. I can be the stable one.” Rachel also connected with Sara’s mother when Sara dropped out of touch; that deepening relationship with her son’s birth grandmother has been a bright spot over the years.

Rachel’s daughter’s birth mother, Laine, has “had a hard life, and it’s turned her into a rather hard person.” Rachel acknowledges that Laine isn’t someone she would choose to associate with if she were not her daughter’s birth mother. Yet after witnessing the strong and loving bonds her son has with his birth family, Rachel is committed to working on the relationship with Laine for her daughter’s sake, insisting that the benefits outweigh the angst. “Even though my three-year-old daughter doesn’t particularly care about the relationship right now, I’m sure some day she will,” says Rachel.

Ultimately, Rachel strives to send the message to her kids that they each have two “real” moms, and that they can always talk about or to their birth families. Her son, in fact, has already begun forging an independent relationship with his birth family, calling or texting his birth mom or grandmother on his own. While it’s easier to empathize and move forward with Sara, Rachel does her best “to be friendly and to keep an open mind” with Laine. And, if Laine should ever decide to close the adoption, Rachel says, she would feel as if she had failed.

Rachel’s advice: Rachel knows firsthand that open adoption can be hard, yet she is quick to say, “it is so worth it for the kids.” When asked if it has ever crossed her mind that her son and daughter might be better off without the presence of their birth mothers, Rachel is resolute: “No. Even when Sara was in and out, I saw how my son’s relationship with his birth family was a positive factor in his life. He has some difficulty knowing he has siblings who don’t live with us, and he always wants to know how they’re doing. He perks up whenever he gets a call or a card from his birth family.”

Accepting the Consequences of Addiction

“It’s obvious to me that she loves our son, but is so caught up in her addiction that she can’t function as a mother. I hope she doesn’t close the adoption due to that pain.”
— CHRISTIE, mother of a five-year-old son

When Christie’s five-year-old relationship with her son’s birth family began, she acknowledges that she had a hard time. “My husband and I don’t have a lot in common with either parent besides this child, and we had no experience with addiction or mental illness. It took several years before I was able to let things go and accept them as they were.”

The relationship has gotten easier with time, says Christie, who focuses on treating her son’s birth parents with the respect that family members deserve. “Family is a big priority for me,” she says, “so I make sure we visit at least four times a year and get the occasional letter out. (I’m much better about the visits than the letters.)” Christie also shares that her son has a birth sibling who lives with his birth father, and she wants the boys to know each other.

Although the families visit regularly, the visits with her son’s birth mom are often short. “I can see her pain regarding the adoption,” says Christie, “and I think that’s why. It’s obvious to me that she loves our son, but is so caught up in her addiction that she can’t function as a mother. I hope she doesn’t close the adoption due to that pain.”

Christie realizes that her feelings for her son’s birth mom may always be complex. “I see the results of her addiction—the crimes of petty thefts, assaults, and trespassing—and I realize she’s in a cycle that I do not understand. And yet, she is the one who completed me. How do you compute that? This person gave us her child. I constantly remind myself that it is because of her that I am a mom. And I will continue to honor her decision by trying to stay empathetic, open to her, and to maintain that relationship for our son.”

Christie’s advice: Christie counsels fellow adoptive parents to keep the relationship going. “I suspect that, if we stopped calling or making contact, they’d let us drift away.” And when difficulties arise, Christie says she imagines her child’s future questions: “I always ask how I would explain myself: ‘I’m sorry, Son, it was just too hard to keep things going’?” That’s why not trying is never an option for her.

 Explaining Mental Illness and Addiction After Foster Adoption

“I do it for my kids, because they deserve to know where they came from. I do it for her, because nobody grows up hoping to be an addict who continues having babies taken away from her. I do it for myself, my husband, and my biological kids, so we can all honor family and have even more people to love and care about.”
—GERRI, mother of a four-year-old daughter and six- and eight-year-old sons

Gerri adopted three children from foster care. Their birth mom suffers from drug addiction and an untreated mental illness, and has difficulty staying in touch. Because of this, Geri would describe their current relationship as, essentially, a closed adoption.

When Gerri realized that contact with their children’s birth mother was not likely to be constant, she reached out to other birth family members—and received a warm welcome. “People comment that I’ve built these ‘great’ relationships with the birth family. We do know these people because I sought them out, but the relationships are great because these people have loved and accepted us. Relationships are two-way streets and I cannot do it alone.”

Gerri continues to reach out to her children’s birth mother, and admits she gets angry occasionally, thinking, “Don’t you realize how good you have it here? I’m letting you have access to these children. Stop taking it for granted!” Once the anger subsides, however, forgiveness finds its way back into her heart. “I forgive her when she doesn’t show up for visits because I realize there is so much I do not understand about what it’s like to be her,” says Gerri. “She made my babies, I love her.” And she is reassured by knowing that, if contact ever completely drops off, “we’d still have the strong connections we have with the other family members, which fill an important need for my children.”

Why is Gerri committed to making the relationship work? “I do it for my kids, because they deserve to know where they came from. I do it for her, because nobody grows up hoping to be an addict who continues having babies taken away from her. I do it for the extended family, victims themselves of lifetimes of poverty, institutionalized racism, and addictions, but so full of love, joy, and traditions, like any family. I do it for myself, my husband, and my biological kids so we can all honor family and have even more people to love and care about.”

Gerri’s advice: Your open relationship might not look the way you anticipated. If your child’s birth parents aren’t involved, consider building relationships with family members. How did Gerri make those connections? “Since the state can’t hand out other people’s addresses, I wrote a letter to an extended family member and asked the state to send it on our behalf,” she shares. “We are now connected with my kid’s birth great grandma, aunt, grandpa, biological siblings adopted by other people, and with their adoptive parents.”

 Giving Herself Space from a Birth Parent, When Needed

“No matter how hard it gets for me sometimes, I would never consider closing the adoption.”
—LAURA, mother of a three-year-old son

Three years into her open adoption, the biggest challenge Laura faces is her son’s birth mother’s mental health: “She has a borderline personality disorder and has been unstable since the birth of our son.” Adding another layer of complexity to their relationship is the fact that Laura and her son’s birth mother have known each other their whole lives.

“His birth mother is like a sister to me,” shares Laura. “We all went into this adoption knowing it would be open and that I wanted her to be a part of his life. As a general rule, I text frequently to tell her we miss her, we love her, we would love to see her. And, because she’s my friend, to ask her how she’s doing.” These days, however, her son’s birth mom fades in and out of their lives.

“We don’t see her as often as I wish we could,” says Laura, “but I know that’s because she is struggling—dealing with a mental illness, and with giving up her son for adoption. I can’t even begin to imagine what she thinks or what she goes through.” When her son’s birth mom threatened suicide, Laura tried to let her know she was there for her. “She told me, ‘I gave you the baby you wanted. Now go away and leave me alone.’ We had many words, yet those were the ones that stung. I never want her to feel like she was just a vessel that carried a baby for someone else. I need her to realize her importance in our equation. She is his birth mom; that is an important title to hold. She is a very special person to us.”

When Laura became a mom, she accepted that she would always put her son’s needs first. “That being said, it doesn’t mean that I should let myself be mistreated by his birth mom,” says Laura, who has needed a few breathers from the relationship, to mentally and emotionally regroup after a verbal attack. She has done so by cutting back on the amount of texts she sends, and has also stepped back from visits until “we’ve both had a chance to calm down.” However, says Laura, “No matter how hard it might be for me at times, I would never think of closing the adoption.”

Laura understands all too well the challenges of mental illness: “I can relate because I have bipolar disorder.” With a solid medication regimen, Laura lives a very normal, stable life. “Before my son was born, his birth mother told me how important she felt it was that I have personally dealt with mental illness. She felt that, if her son inherited her illness, I would be able to understand him and help.” Laura says that in their rocky relationship, mistakes and mishaps are always forgiven. “I think it helps the relationship develop more deeply when I can look past mistakes and continue looking toward the future.”

Laura’s steadfast devotion to her son’s birth mother is directly related to her own experience. When she was 10 she learned that the mother who was raising her was actually her stepmother. “The news devastated me,” says Laura. She was dissuaded from finding her birth mom and didn’t form a relationship with her until her thirties—something she does not want for her son. Throughout her life, Laura has also struggled with her feelings toward the stepmother who raised her, since “she wasn’t the best of moms.” Laura was subjected to sexual and mental abuse while in her care, and so distanced herself as an adult. But when Laura’s daughter was born, she decided to let her mom back into her life. “She seems to have changed a lot,” says Laura. “She also loves my children to death and is so very kind to them. I have forgiven her for all that I held against her for so many years.”

Laura hopes that she’s serving as a good role model to her son. “I want my son to see that I have two moms, just like he does, and that I have a healthy relationship with both of them,” she says. “After all, how would it look to him if I held a grudge and didn’t even speak to my mom who raised me? That’s not setting a good example.”

Laura’s advice: “Be open-minded about everything in your open adoption,” says Laura. “Remember, you probably chose open adoption for the health of your child and his or her birth mom/parents. And, most important, honor your commitment. Follow through with your part, and then some. Birth moms need you to step up and encourage visitation because, for the most part, they don’t want to impinge on your lives. Keep contacting her even if you don’t get a response. Just because you don’t hear back doesn’t mean she isn’t wondering about the child y’all share.”


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