In an open adoption, boundaries help everyone in the triad. Specified boundaries help birth parents and adoptive parents know what to expect in their relationship, allowing for healing and an evolving understanding for the adopted child. Often, in open adoptions, a social worker can help both adoptive parents and biological parents navigate the boundaries desired for an open relationship prior to or near the beginning of the adoption. This was the case for my husband and me with both the adoptions of our son and our daughter. Ultimately, adoptive families are in control of the enactment of those established boundaries and need to do so diligently so that the relationship remains open for the sake of the adopted child as he or she grows and matures. As with any relationship, there are ebbs and flows as time goes on and the relationship can evolve. Below are a few things to consider when determining specific boundaries for establishing a relationship that will be fulfilling for all in the adoption triad as well as different boundaries that can be used to ensure the open relationship unique to open adoptions.
What Should I Consider?
Safety – Many adoptive families are concerned about safety when considering an open relationship with biological families. The reality of open adoptions, in most cases but certainly not all, is that open adoption is often the safest kind of relationship for adoptive children. For biological families, knowing they will receive regular updates or predictable visits will affirm their decision. However, if communication is cut off or the adoptive family is not following through with established boundaries, it can create a sense of panic for the biological family. If an open adoption becomes tense and scary, it may be because the biological family feels stressed to try to ensure the safety and future well-being of the child, desperate to not be cut out of their biological child’s life and future. Adoptive families need to understand and empathize with the biological family. In many cases, biological parents are trusting strangers with the well-being of a child they love. However, they are willing to love from a distance, so it’s imperative that adoptive families follow through with their established boundaries.
If an adoptive family is concerned about the safety of their adopted child, a variety of methods can ensure an open relationship as well as the safety of their child. If there are significant concerns about the emotional stability of the biological parents, the adoption agency can act as a third party, sending the updates, letters, or photos on behalf of the adoptive family so that there is no contact information shared between adoptive and biological families. If an adoptive family and biological family agree to have open lines of communication, the relationship can start slow and from a distance. There are also a variety of methods of communication explained in detail below that adoptive families can facilitate themselves. Adoptive parents also need to consider safety as the child grows. It is normal for adoptees to kind of fantasize about what life would be like with their biological families. If adoptees are able to reach out and contact their biological families on their own, that can present a variety of issues for both the adoptee and the biological family. It will be important to have conversations so that the growing adoptee also respects those boundaries with his biological family should the biological family wish those boundaries to be in place.
Your Child’s Future – It’s imperative to consider the future of your child. He or she will be growing and changing and have a variety of questions and concerns about his adoption as he matures. Adoptive families and biological families alike will want to establish boundaries that can continue to make sense as the child ages.
For my husband and me, this was one of the most important considerations for us. We knew our children would have questions later in life that we may or may not be able to answer sufficiently, so we wanted to have boundaries in place that put our children in a comfortable position to ask ANY question either to us or to their biological families directly. We wanted our children to know their faces and their names and their voices, so that if they have hard questions later, then they can feel comfortable to ask their biological parents directly as they grow.
Our family began our open adoption with our social worker mediating the conversation between our son’s biological mother and my husband and me. It was a great chance to meet her and find out more about one another’s lives. We were able to establish that we felt comfortable sending pictures and text message updates directly to both of our son’s biological parents. It felt like a really significant decision to share our contact information with people we didn’t know well, but we chose to consider our son’s future over our own fears. We knew we could always change our phone numbers if we had serious concerns later down the road of our open relationship, but we were going to choose to trust until we saw reasons not to. Our social worker also helped us set up a date and location to go out to breakfast with one another. This was helpful because we all wanted to have face-to-face interactions with one another, but it felt much more comfortable for everyone to meet in a public place.
For our daughter, who was placed with us at 2 and adopted at 3, it was imperative that she maintain a relationship with her biological mother because it was already a strong bond. We had pictures of her in her bedroom and talked about her every night. She needed to know that it was okay to talk about her, and we were there to help her process through emotions. We committed to seeing her birth mother every other week for a time, and then once a month and have scaled back to a more consistent visiting schedule that resembles our son’s biological family visits. We want our two kids to see consistency in how we interact with biological families so they do not interpret differences in those interactions as favoritism or that one biological family takes precedence over another. We are incredibly fortunate that boundaries that we have discussed in two very different adoption stories can look so similar to one another.
Potential Relationships – For biological families, an open adoption can really aid the healing process. It’s been such a blessing to my family to know and visit our children’s biological families. We have talked about the fears they had when initially creating the adoption plan, hoping they would actually have a long-term relationship with their child. We had to get through so much awkwardness from all of us involved as we learned to settle into our new relationships, but we have seen so much healing happen. Adoption is hard and traumatic for birth families and their children, but open relationships really open the door to healing and affirmation. Open relationships also communicate to adoptees that they were placed in love, not discarded. Biological families can sometimes fear what their placed child will think of them when he or she grows, and with open adoption, there may be no ‘unknown’ to fear at all.
For adoptive parents, it’s really important to have a strong awareness of your own emotional regulation. The question I am most often asked about in regard to the open adoptions we have with our children’s biological families is whether or not I feel jealous seeing them hug and love on our children. For me, the answer is a resounding and emphatic “NO!” I am their mommy, but I wasn’t their first mom. My husband is their daddy, but he wasn’t their first dad. We make a conscious effort to not even entertain jealous thoughts. We get so much of our kids’ lives as their adoptive parents, and I refuse to be sad that they feel love toward their biological families. It’s healthy for them to love them and embrace them and imagine what their biological families are like in their own homes. My role, in addition to loving my children, is to offer them understanding and comfort and empathy as they grow and mature during their adoption story. Adoptive families have an opportunity to be a healing influence in their children’s lives, and jealousy cannot be easily hidden from our intuitive children, so there really is no room for that emotion in their journey. I absolutely understand why an adoptive parent may feel hurt by their child loving and identifying with a biological parent, but, to put it plainly, I believe that is a selfish reaction—one I personally have had to work at avoiding. Adoptive families should see the love and relational connection of biological families as a blessing for their child. Having someone that looks like them or sounds like them or behaves like them can be a phenomenal advantage for adoptees, who may not get to experience that specific kind of belonging under their own roof. If you know that jealousy may be a potential issue, then you may need to consider boundaries that will prevent placing you in situations where you would be likely to feel that jealousy emerge.
For adoptees, witnessing healthy boundaries respected by both their adoptive family and their biological family can enhance the trust they have in their adoptive parents. Adoptees see their parents honoring the wishes of their biological parents and working to continually keep the relationship open. As the adoptee grows and her understanding of adoption is clarified, she can decide the depth of the relationship she would like to have with her biological parents when she becomes an adult, and seeing both sets of parents model appropriate boundaries can help her establish her own boundaries as she learns more and more about her identity and the relationships she may want to pursue.
What are different boundaries that our triad unit could use?
Decide how and when you’d like to share updates. An adoptive family and biological family can work together with a social worker to outline the how and when of communication. That meeting, though, can be much smoother if you have some flexible expectations of boundaries in mind beforehand that you feel you can honor and respect. Below are some methods for adoptive families to communicate milestones and updates with biological families.
Letters and/or pictures – Whether sent directly to the biological family or sent through a social worker, letters and pictures can communicate a few different things to birth families. They can show and tell how their biological child is growing. Birth families may love to hear about simple and sweet stories as they grow. Letters can also give the biological family the autonomy to choose when they read the letters. If they feel they need time to prepare to read the update, the letter can sit until they feel they are ready. Letters sent by the biological family to the adoptee can also be saved for when the adoptee is older and can read the words directly from his or her birth family. Pictures can be used by the adoptive family to place a face with a name, whether they choose to include them in family photobooks or have them someplace special for when adoptive parents talk about adoption and the biological family with their child.
Text messages – This one can be tricky. Similar to letters and pictures, text messages can be a convenient way for families to be connected. For my family, we felt comfortable that both of our children’s biological families had our contact information, but I worried that our updates may catch them off guard. I wondered if they would be out to dinner with friends and family around the holidays and then suddenly a text message from me would come through. I really worried that it would feel very raw with no warning. It was so wonderful to have direct communication with them, but I wondered the cost on their end with my unannounced updates.
Social media – After talking with both of our kids’ biological parents, we decided social media was a great way to keep in touch and see updates. For adoptive families, they have autonomy to choose the audience on posts, so if there is some question on how much an adoptive family wants to share, they can choose to restrict the audience. Social media also gives autonomy to biological families. They can choose to restrict what they see from adoptive family’s posts so it won’t pop up unannounced, while at the same time, they can go directly to the adoptive family’s account to peruse pictures when they feel they are ready. This has worked really well for our family triads. It allows their biological families to truly get to know my husband and I and our children, and both adoptive and biological families get to experience a healthy measure of autonomy within a boundary we established.
Video chat – With our daughter who lived with her biological mother for two years, video chat has been a blessing to us. These types of visits can be scheduled in advance and provide a relationship connectedness that may be missing in picture and text updates. This gives adoptees the chance to interact directly, hearing and seeing their biological family. It is wise to set boundaries of when these occur though so that both adoptive and biological families can create predictability for the adoptee. Some boundaries may be that you only video chat once or twice a year so that the child can see those boundaries modeled. Adoptive and biological families can discuss what they feel would be a predictable and healthy frequency of calls.
Face to Face – Biological and adoptive families can also meet face to face. There are many advantages to this. Similar to video chat, face to face interactions allow adoptees to forge their own special bond with their biological families. However, there are boundaries to consider if you want to have face to face interactions. Again, adoptive and biological families can work with a social worker to figure out what each family would be comfortable with. You could meet in a public place like a park or a restaurant. If the relationship grows and the adoption triad feels comfortable enough, there could be face to face interactions in one another’s homes. Having the boundary that it will always be a family affair, rather than an unsupervised visit, ensures the safety of the adoptee, while also giving the adoptive and biological family the chance to get to know one another deeply. It really depends on the comfort and stability of both the adoptive family and the biological family. These open relationships can truly be blessings for all in the adoption triad, but especially for the adoptee as he gets to have relationships with both families.
How to maintain open relationships?
The most important thing to realize is that this open adoption relationship will require communication. This means that the families will need to be empathetic toward one another and flexible. Consistency will create safe and respectful boundaries. This relationship is going to be one of the most significant blessings to the adoptee, and families need to ensure that the boundaries are respected so that the relationship continues to grow as the adoptee grows and matures.
A last note: The first time we went to breakfast with my son’s biological family, he was still a newborn. We had joked with them that we felt like we were entering into an arranged marriage of sorts because we were making a life-long commitment to strangers we had never met. It was such a pleasant experience getting to know one another though. Our son’s biological mother was holding him while my husband and I ate, and his biological father was looking on over her shoulder at our son’s face in awe. There was a woman who approached our table and commented about how precious this new baby was. She leaned in and asked our son’s birth mother: “Are you momma?” Our son’s birth mother looked up at me and our eyes locked, and I knew that she didn’t know how to respond. I responded to our table visitor with a smile, “Actually, we are all family. This is our son’s biological family, and we are his adoptive family.” This sweet stranger’s eyes began to fill with tears as she told us that she had just recently reconnected with her daughter that she placed for adoption thirty years prior. She told all four of us “This relationship is going to be the most significant relationship of this boy’s life.” She congratulated all four of us, leaving us awestruck by the affirmation we just received.
Callie Smothers is a writer, English teacher, and softball coach from the midwest. She and her husband have a family built through adoption, including two ornery, beautiful four-year-olds that are actually 5 months apart. Her family specializes in making messes, creating imaginative stories, and playing hard outdoors as much as possible. Check out her other writings on her Worship in a Warship Facebook page.