Navigating the adoption world can be tough. That difficulty can be multiplied when you are parenting more than one kid that has an adoption story, and one kid has an open adoption, while the other has a closed adoption.
How does this even happen, you might wonder? In my case, I have adopted two children from foster care. One of my children has an open adoption. The other child has a closed adoption. I adopted them one year apart, and they are not biologically related. Each of them had their own separate case and very different circumstances.
Let’s explore my older son, Max’s (name changed for protection) adoption. Max was placed with us as an older kid, age 2. His first years were years of full of neglect. He was born with a dependence on drugs, yet he was still allowed to leave the hospital with his biological mother. He wasn’t properly cared for and left unattended much of the time. He was placed with a family member when his birth parents were both incarcerated. This family member was not prepared to adopt him or care for him long-term. His birth mother knew she would be unable to meet the goals required of her to regain placement of Max and decided early on in the case to voluntarily terminate her parental rights. Max’s biological father would remain incarcerated but would prolong the process by fighting to maintain his rights. Eventually, after several years, the case progressed, with both biological parents having rights terminated, and we proceeded with adoption. During the years before and immediately following his adoption, his biological father would send us hate mail and threats that he would come and get Max. Because of his violent history, and because of his threats, we cut contact with him shortly after the adoption finalized. We had hoped to maintain a relationship for Max’s sake, but we were unable to do so because safety is more important.
My younger son, Miles (name changed for privacy) has a very open adoption. We see his grandparents and birth mom several times a year. In the beginning, we saw them monthly, but now that the kids are growing up and life is getting more hectic, our visits have become slightly less frequent. Miles is aware of his biological ties to his grandparents and birth mom. I feel the relationship is very healthy for him as he has no lingering questions regarding his birth mom, why he was adopted, or feeling like his beginning is an unknown. He is aware that his birth mom was unable to parent due to illness, but that she loves him, and chose for him to be with us. She did voluntarily terminate her rights and agreed to allow us to adopt. We had placement of him from birth, and she felt we were his parents.
We are lucky in that Miles’ birth family also embraces Max. He is treated as well as Miles is by them. They do not leave him out of any holiday or event and go out of their way to be sure he feels loved by them as well.
It is still tricky sometimes to parent these two boys since they come from very different backgrounds.
Sometimes, I will find Max projecting that Miles’s birth mom is his birth mom too. I will remind him that he knows this isn’t the case and that he has his own birth mom. It is hard since Max is not able to have the relationship with her that he has with his brother’s birth mom. He longs for that connection too. He sometimes will ask if he will ever get to meet her, and I am always honest when I answer that I don’t know. For his sake, I truly hope someday she will find herself stable enough to be able to handle a relationship.
Max can remember bits and pieces of visits with his biological father. While he was in foster care, he was required to go into the prison monthly to visit with him. He remembers these visits as times where he ate treats at a table. He doesn’t have a lot of clear memory of interacting with his biological dad since he was young and options for interaction are limited at a prison visit. They did have an outdoor playground area for children to play that was monitored by guards, of course. Max actually had better relationships with some of the prison guards who grew to know him in the years he spent in foster care doing these visits than he did with his biological father. Visits were often not centered around spending quality time with Max.
Max stopped enjoying the visits when his biological father began telling him that we were not his parents and that he would be coming to get him. Max became very firm in his desire to call my husband “Dad” to feel secure.
Max still has a lot of questions about his past, and his adoption. Because he is unable to maintain a relationship with his biological family, he feels less secure and acts out more. He suffers from reactive attachment disorder due to his early neglect.
So, as a family, how do we handle the different adoption situations?
We have tried to make adoption a normal subject in our home. We talk about it as easily as we would talk about the weather. It is not a secretive or taboo topic.
Miles knows his birth story, as told to him from me and his birth mom and grandparents. Max, however, does not know his birth story. Unfortunately, we only know what paperwork tells us. So while we can’t sit and reminisce about his story, I can give him the details I do know. We try our best to give him as much information as we have. I can still tell him the time of his birth, and how big he was. I am able to tell him where he was born, the city and the name of the hospital.
Miles has had his biological family present for many birthdays and holidays. Max does not have that. But he does have our family and Miles’s family to celebrate him.
We have the added complication of our children being of different cultural backgrounds than we are too. While Max is of Hispanic descent, Miles is biracial, and we are Caucasian. Miles sees his birth family and where his curly hair and complexion come from. Max knows he is Hispanic, but, unfortunately, is not particularly close with any other people who are of Hispanic heritage. I don’t think it bothers him too much now at this preteen age. Having a brother who has a similar complexion helps, I think. Eventually, he may wish to explore the Hispanic part of himself. I am hoping to have him learn Spanish when it is offered in school.
It hasn’t been too difficult for us thus far to have the two different types of adoption in our family. Max knows we have no contact with his biological family for safety reasons. He understands that the relationship with his biological family was not a healthy relationship. He has been told that as he gets older, we have some letters and things he can read to understand more about the situation. Because we openly discuss the adoptions, I do not believe that he holds any fantasy of his biological parents living a charmed life somewhere waiting for him to join them.
I can see how each of them may be affected differently as they age due to the type of adoption situation that they have.
I anticipate that Max will have a harder time as he ages. Not only did he have a traumatic early childhood, but he doesn’t have that open relationship where he can ask questions and have an open dialogue with his birth family. Instead, he must rely on what we know, and what we can provide. I don’t think he will grow feeling as secure as his brother will. I think he will likely always feel a little lost and not fully in touch with who he is. He can’t just pick up the phone and call and ask if certain things run in the family, or if any relatives have the same things he does. Is he the only one who has issues with crooked teeth? What kind of diagnoses run in the family? Does anyone have vision issues in the family? What is the family recipe for enchiladas?
Meanwhile, if we have any questions about Miles’s health, we can call and ask. Has anyone in the family had an allergy to shellfish? What about allergies to peanuts? Did his birth mom experience a lot of morning sickness when she was pregnant? What is grandma’s gumbo recipe? At what age did his birth mom lose her first tooth?
Having the ability to ask for any information, no matter how trivial it might be, makes Miles’s adoption easier to process. He doesn’t have lingering questions he can’t find the answer to. And because he can have all his questions answered, he feels more secure in who he is. He doesn’t struggle with things like the term “real parents.” He recognizes us as his parents and understands what his birth mom did for him.
Max sometimes struggles. Having a more closed adoption has him curious and unable to pick up the phone to get answers to his questions. Being an adoptee is harder for him. He has said the dreaded phrase, “You are not my parents.” He has tried to convince his brother that we are not his parents as well. Thankfully, Miles will not be persuaded to feel insecure about his adoption.
I think it is extremely helpful to have family that accepts both kids. Biologically related or not, they have a lot of family members that love them. I often tell them that biology is not what makes people family. Biology makes you relatives. Being related is not the same as being family.
If I had to give any advice as to how to make two types of adoption work in one family, it would be honesty. Being as honest, yet age-appropriate as possible is so important for kids to be able to trust and have a sense of who they are. It is important to be as open with information about adoption as possible, and never make the subject one that is taboo. Even when you don’t know many details, sharing the information you do know is important to your kid. Acknowledging their feelings when they talk about their adoption is important. Some adoptees have an easier time, while others struggle. We must remember that, as parents, our job is to support our children and help them through their journey. Even if we worry about the details and how they will feel about them, we must provide them (when age-appropriate) and allow our kids to process their feelings.
When you are dealing with two different adoptions in one household, it can be difficult. The best way to manage the situation though is always with honesty.
When Max is feeling jealous that Miles gets to visit his biological family, I must simply remind him that his biological family loves him too, even if they aren’t able to have visits. I remind him that relatives are not always the same thing as family. We have many relatives that we don’t visit with or communicate with and that is okay. We talk about relationships, and what makes a relationship healthy or unhealthy. I do my best to explain that his biological parents are unable to maintain a healthy relationship right now. I assure Max that it isn’t a reflection on him, but on the adults and their choices and actions. We can hope that someday his biological family will be able to manage a healthy relationship but that until the choices they make are safe, we are unable to see them.
It is heartbreaking at times to see the differences in these adoption situations. It is hard to have one situation that is healthy, and one that is unable to maintain a healthy relationship.
I do believe an open relationship, when possible, is the best for the child.
When balancing both open and closed adoption in the same household, open communication with your children is the essential factor to making things work.
Jennifer is a mother to 3 children (one biological, two adopted). She is also a mom to numerous pets. She enjoys volunteering in her children’s classroom, reading, and crafting in her spare time. She has been married for almost 15 years.