Open adoption is one of the most customizable forms of connection with an adoptee for a birth mom. After placement day, a birth mom leaves without her child, and her child goes home to her or his family.
Sometimes, the idea of open adoption can be quite intimidating. I believe a lot of that comes from the stigmas that birth mothers still face. One of the most infamous is the story of the broken teenage mother who finds her baby after adoption and takes her child back. I’ve said this before, but this is a Hollywood script and is not reality. Adoption is final, and birth mothers know that once they sign papers, there is no taking it back. While the adventure after placement day can be full of unknowns and that can make both adoptive parents and birth parents anxious, there are many ways to help navigate having a relationship with your child post-placement.
Navigating Boundaries and Expectations
The first step after placement day on both the birth parent side and the adoptive parent side is to decide what everyone’s expectations are in the current season of life you both are in. This truly should have already happened, but it is good to touch base on this after placement since a lot of emotions and changes have likely happened between before birth and now.
As a birth mother, I know that I had much more clarity and strength in my decision before I had my sweet girl. Once I held her in my arms, my world was shaken, and my heart was breaking. I did not waver on my decision for her life moving forward, but it was far more difficult to fathom losing her. Due to that, and hearing other birth mothers share similar thoughts, it makes sense that sometimes our expectations or needs will change post-placement for our open adoption plans.
Also, on the adoptive parent side, it’s easy to say XYZ will happen in the future, but until you are in the depth of it, you truly do not know what your feelings will be on everything until you cross that bridge. Saying that, please know that if you are overwhelmed or even feel like you are not offering enough in your open adoption plan, those feelings are ALWAYS valid. My biggest piece of advice on the adoptive parent side is to always communicate where you are at emotionally and what expectations you have with your caseworker or birth parents if that’s comfortable for you so that everyone is on the same page of where the boundaries and expectations lie currently.
It is also good to check in with the birth parents and see how they are feeling about the plan you’ve made for updates or visits. It is not uncommon for birth mothers to realize after placement that they are not ready for visits or maybe even updates as it is all too painful right now. Also, I challenge you to be uncomfortable to an extent and have an open mind because we all change and grow over the years, so it will not always look and feel this way. Sometimes, we just hope for the best and focus on what’s right for the child.
Birth mothers, communicate, communicate, communicate! If you are hurting too much at the beginning and know that seeing your child will be too difficult for you for a while, know that is completely normal. Give yourself some grace because you just did a really difficult thing, and grief is inevitable. But if you are like me, updates and visits are vital to my healing process because I need to see my plan in action. I need to see my child thrive in the life I chose for her, and I need her to know that I will always be around to remind her of how much I love her.
After placement, I really tried to be mindful of what was appropriate, how often was comfortable for meetings with her parents, and respecting their privacy. I realized that my child has a life outside of me, and that is important for her to flourish. While it still hurts to think about sometimes, she is my priority. Making sure that things are not hard on your child or confusing is something you need to pay attention to. I also stayed very transparent with her parents from the beginning to now. Therefore, they were never surprised by any request or pause on my end.
Navigating Visits, Updates, and Transparency
We started out simple, which I believe was the best foundation to let our open adoption plan organically grow to what it is today. We did one visit a year at first, and updates were through a nonidentifying email address. After a few years of seeing that work well and trust being built, we connected on social media and through texting. Fast forward to the more recent years, and we have a visit whenever someone prompts one. My family and son—who my parents are raising—come with me, and we see what everyone is up to through connection on social media or texting the highlights of the months like horseback riding lessons or dance recitals.
A couple years into our adoption plan, my daughter asked her mom if she was in her mom’s tummy when she saw a picture of her friend’s mom pregnant with said friend. That was when her mom shared that she was in Miss Katie’s tummy. Being young, she just said “Okay” and moved on as if there was no other answer to be found. Her parents’ transparency about her identity as a child who was adopted has really helped her understand not only my love for her, but also that it all was greatly thought out to her benefit. Having the connection to me, my son, and my family has also seemed to help her be grounded in her identity as well.
A few years ago, when driving to a visit with me, my daughter asked her mom if my son would have been her brother. We had been discussing that they’d figure something out soon because they are getting older, and quite honestly, are almost twins, so we were prepared on what to do when the time came. After that discussion in the car ride, her mom said they’d talk about it after the visit, and she let us know that it was time. After that visit, we went back to our homes and told our children about their sibling. Watching them realize they are related and that they have the connection with one another as a child who was adopted has been one of the greatest gifts to fill my mama heart. Our communication with one another to help navigate the questions, challenges, and growth has been one of the most important steps in having a relationship with my daughter. It also makes things far less awkward moving forward when I am having a hard day and just need to spend time with them or simply need to hear about some of her trips, activities, and milestones. Having a good relationship with her parents makes everything much more seamless. They have become family.
However, it is important here to not fall into the comparison trap. Every open adoption is so different from the next. Also, things take time to become fluid and natural. When starting out, it’s best to start visits in one of three places: the adoption agency, a restaurant, or somewhere with kid-friendly activities (such as the zoo or park). I know of several birth mothers who met for visits at the adoption agency for the first few years, and that worked well for everyone.
The only insight I would give to this is that regardless of how positive and lovely everything went with that adoption agency, that organization is where the hard stuff happened for birth mama, so it may be extra emotional being in the adoption agency building for visits. So really search your feelings and decide if that would be a beneficial meeting spot for you. If all is well, it is a great neutral launching pad to facilitate visits. You might even get the help of your post-adoption caseworkers to help with the logistics of it all so you can just focus on being present with your child. Seventy-five percent of my visits have happened at a restaurant halfway between my daughter’s city and mine. Restaurants are a great option because what brings people together better than a meal?! As the kids got older, and when they were very young, this was not as entertaining of an option, so keeping them content was more work. However, we always met around my daughter’s birthday in the spring and around Christmas time, so we exchanged gifts, and that usually included a toy that the children could entertain themselves with as the adults caught up. Now that they are older, we do a lot of activities such as the zoo, aquariums, Dave and Busters, bowling, and any other creative ideas we get throughout the year. Getting to watch them as siblings just being kids is a fun way to bond with them. Plus, who doesn’t like a little competition to get the most tickets for the best prize at the ticket store?
Navigating Questions and Staying Intentional
I shared a bit above about how we have already navigated some big questions and milestones together. I am not only a birth mother, but I am also an adoptee, so I know firsthand the endless questions children can have about their identity and story. I know that there are going to be hard questions in the future, and honestly, telling my son about his sister was one of the most challenging “parenting” moments for me. So even in the past, I have already had to face uncomfortable moments of transparency with my kids. I know that is going to always be a part of my journey, and quite honestly, it is an important piece of the puzzle because it is good for them to know (within reason) where they came from, what makes them who they are, and who I am.
Know that questions will follow post-placement; it is just a natural part of self-discovery. The first thing to be transparent about—and most crucial in my opinion—is for adoptive parents to always share that their child was adopted. Even if your child does not understand it yet, it helps to talk about it consistently throughout the early years so that it is a normal revelation for her when she is old enough to comprehend what adoption is and what that means.
Birth parents, I found it helpful to make a scrapbook for my daughter that her parents showed her as she grew up. She knew my face, my son’s face, and my family ever since she was a baby. So being around us eventually became like seeing extended family. This is where being intentional comes in.
Adoptive parents, you must be just as intentional (if not more so) in following through with visits, updates, and sharing your child’s story with him or her. Not only is it important to birth parents and usually is critical to their healing, but it is also important for your child to have a connection to her or his biological roots. It leaves less room for your children to wonder, and it gives your children more validation that they are loved and wanted.
For birth parents, it is important to put your child first in all of this. If visits are too hard for you, I challenge you to annually write a letter with pictures added in the envelope to share your thoughts, love, and story with your child. At the end of the day, how you have a relationship with your child post-placement is not dependent on it looking a certain way but that you intentionally connect with your child in your own way and pace. Follow your heart, communicate with the adoptive parents, and do what is right for you and your child. Over the years, it will grow into whatever it needs to be.
Katie is an adoptee and birth mom who is passionate about adoption advocacy and breaking stigmas around birth parents. In her free time, she enjoys traveling and hanging out with her dog, Chloe.