What is the best way to establish boundaries in an open adoption? I think first we need to start with some basics.
For instance, what is an open adoption? An open adoption is an adoption where the biological parents chose the adoptive parents and continue to have a relationship with them after placement. There are various degrees of openness which could include telephone contact, email contact, and/or face-to-face contact. I can tell you in our lives we share a very open relationship with our son’s birth mom and birth family. When we were first exploring what open adoption would look like for us we thought we would have e-mail, telephone, or written correspondence with our child’s birth family. We didn’t really know what to expect until we were in that position. My point, just remember you may think you know what your relationship will look like but until you are matched and actually start building that relationship, it is good to keep an open mind about it.
Like I mentioned above, we have a very open relationship with our son’s birth mom and birth family. But how did we get to this place? I can tell you it definitely didn’t happen overnight. It took time. It takes time. It took effort. It continues to take effort.
When we first met our son’s birth mom at an Olive Garden for the sake of comfort for all of us. Our social worker was present and led most of the conversation. Oh man, were we all nervous. Some people get quiet when they are nervous, or some find it hard to eat when they are nervous. Not me. Apparently, I talk and eat a lot when I am nervous. Our son’s birth mom tells a pretty good story about the day we met and the ridiculous things I said! It is funny to look back at now, but I was too nervous to know I was saying anything crazy at the time. Our social worker left, and we continued talking. We were probably there for a few hours. We were getting to know each other and talking about everything under the sun. She knew quite a bit about us already from our online portfolio, but it is so much easier to get to know someone in person!
Our son’s birth mom was 19 weeks pregnant when we met for that first time. Exactly one week later we were in her 20-week ultrasound appointment to find out if she was having a boy or a girl. I remember that moment distinctly. The ultrasound tech asked her if she wanted to find out the sex of the baby and she said, “Ask them, they are going to be the parents.” I uttered the word, “Yes.” I fought back the tears. I was shocked at her boldness in this decision. She never varied or wavered during her pregnancy. I know not all birth moms are this way, and there can be a sense of fear about if she will change her mind. Don’t worry, we have had that happen to us too.
We continued to get to know our son’s birth mom over the next 19 weeks. We would attend every appointment with her. We would communicate via text or email. It seemed as natural as a friendship. It probably progressed faster than many adoptive and birth family relationships go, but I think it was because we just naturally became friends. I know that sounds crazy. Who becomes friends with their child’s birth mom. But I did, we did. I remember at the beginning of our relationship, I told my husband if I had met her in a class or at a job, we would be friends. She was honest with us, and we were honest with her. We talked about the highs of our lives, and we talked about the lows of our lives. And somehow we talked about everything in between.
However, there was part of me that was concerned about what would happen at the hospital when our son was born. Yes, he was her son. But at the same time, he was going to be our son. We discussed who we wanted at the hospital with us. She wanted us in the room with her when she gave birth. She also wanted her mom there. She also had an amazing support system that was going to be at the hospital. We wanted our parents there, but I grew weary of this. How would they get along? Would her parents hold it against my parents that they actually got to be the grandparents to this child who their child was carrying? I wasn’t only thinking about the three of us. My thought process expanded to the grandparents. It occurred to me that they should meet before that day in the hospital. Get all the “bugs” worked out sort of speak before the big day! We decided to have a picnic at a local park one spring day before our son was born. It turned out to be one of the most spectacular days of my life. It was so natural. It was as if we were there for a family reunion, and we hadn’t seen each other in a few years. The conversations flew and our extended family relationships began to grow that very day.
When the big day arrived, it, again, was so natural. Everyone hugged everyone and everyone waited together as one big extended family. Were there a lot of emotions involved? Yes. Anytime you mix a family together, there are emotions and baggage that come with it. It happens no matter how you become a family. But ours just flowed so naturally.
In fact, it has continued to grow. When our son was dedicated at church, we had four generations of his birth family at our house to celebrate. We have celebrated holidays and birthdays together. We have gone camping together, that have included three generations of birth family and adoptive family. We have vacationed together. We have grown together. We have grown apart and grown back together again.
I know not every relationship will end up like ours. Sometimes there are logistics, like distance, that get in the way of such a close relationship.
But here are a few things I think you should remember when you are asking yourself, what is the best way to establish boundaries in an open adoption:
- Know it isn’t about you.
- Know, respect, and embrace your role in the relationship. With every relationship, an open adoption takes time to build and grow. Knowing how your child fits into the relationship is a crucial part of the relationship. I know in our open adoption, it took our son’s birth mom coming to a realization of what her role was in our son’s life. She wasn’t his mom, that was me. But she was, however, his birth mom. A role I could not fill, only she could fill. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to be active in his life, it just meant she had to figure out how active she was going to be, and how active we wanted her to be. We have also had an open dialogue, which I think is a really crucial element to our relationship. If at any point you feel you need to tell your child’s birth family to back off a little, you have to love and respect them enough to have that tough conversation with them. If, as a birth parent, you don’t feel the adoptive parents communicate enough, you too, have to have the respect to talk to them about it.
- Likewise, one of the most crucial pieces of the relationship is trust. Your child’s birth mom chose you for a reason, so trust that she knew what she was doing! But at the same time, she needs to trust that you will do what is best for your child. I only know one side of this relationship, the side of the adoptive parent. I can’t imagine the feelings a birth parent may be going through in an open adoption. But trust that she too will make the best decisions for your child. In some relationships that, unfortunately, does mean distancing yourself from the adoptee. I have said it 100 times, not every relationship is going to be like ours. What we have is unique, special, and treasured.
- Have an open mind and an open heart. There is no manual on how to operate an open adoption. In fact, there are very few helpful resources whatsoever. I think it takes someone who has an open heart and an open mind for the relationship to be successful. I remember when we first were exploring open adoption, and I wanted no part in it. I thought the birth parents would want to control how we raised our child or want too much of a relationship with the child. I had blinders on. Looking back, I should have had more of an open mind from the beginning. Go into the process with an open mind and an open heart to expand your family through the gift of adoption. Like I mentioned above, I think of our son’s birth mom as a friend, a friend you don’t see very often but when you do you reconnect immediately.
- Accept and know that the relationship will change over time. Our relationship didn’t start out the way it is today. I am pretty sure your marriage or any other friendship didn’t start out the way they are now either. Relationships take time. They take work. They grow and change as we grow and change. I don’t see open adoption relationships being any different. They take time to grow and change too. We went through a season without talking to or seeing our son’s birth mom for a few months. It wasn’t anything we had experienced before. She had always been so open and willing to communicate. But she was going through things in her own life that she needed to deal with that we didn’t need to be a part of. That is okay. We recently moved and the move has made getting together more challenging. That doesn’t mean we don’t value our relationship or the need to see them. It just means it looks different. And as our son gets older, the relationship will most likely change again and again. We all need to be aware and open to the changes.
- My biggest piece of advice for establishing boundaries in an open adoption is to know it is not about you. This goes for both families. It is about the child. In fact, I wrote a whole article about that very thing, here. So many people have said to us that they would never be able to do what we do with our son’s birth mom and have such an open relationship with her. I am also perplexed at why they say that because I am pretty sure if they knew the value it had on their child’s life to have a relationship with their birth family, then they too would do the same thing. Just as any good parent, you want to do what is best for your child. And, in our eyes, the best thing for our child is to know his birth family and know his birth story. It is a major part of who he is. We don’t want to hide that or keep that from him. So, when times are difficult, or I don’t feel like I want to have another family added to ours, I remind myself that it is not about me, it is wholeheartedly about our son.
I was recently researching about open adoption. I stumbled upon an article written by adoptee Juliana Whitney, who grew up in an open adoption at a time in the world when open adoption wasn’t really talked about or even a thing. Something she said stuck with me as something we all could learn from. She narrowed down five guiding questions that helped her with her open adoption and how that relationship fits into her life. But she also indicated that she uses these questions in friendship and business relationships as well. See if you can relate:
- “Where do I fit in your life?
- “Where do you fit in my life?
- “What do I mean to you?
- “What do you mean to me?
- “Why are we each invested in maintaining this relationship?”
I think these are five really great questions to ask yourself (and your child’s birth parents if they are open to discuss) when deciding what is the best way to establish boundaries in an open adoption. I also agree with her that these are five questions you can use to determine other relationships in your life as well.
Do you have an open adoption story? How would you answer, what is the best way to establish boundaries in an open adoption? I would love to hear your thoughts!
Jessica Heesch is an avid runner and fitness guru by choice, occasional writer by coincidence, loved by an amazing husband, and mother to an incredible boy, Jackson, by the gift of adoption.