One of the greatest ways someone can win my heart, as a parent, is to love my children. There is just something priceless about seeing someone else appreciate one of my kids the way I do. Whether it’s an encouraging comment from a teacher or coach, or a friend who calls to brag on my son, my heart soars to hear someone else loving and enjoying my child. This seems to be a common response among parents, and it is a beautiful foundation upon which expectant parents can build a relationship with adoptive parents. From my own experience, open adoption is an amazing privilege. Here is my open adoption advice to birth parents:
Be grateful and appreciative that someone else loves your precious child as deeply and fully as you do. Let this be the common bond upon which you build your relationship. My sister-mom (as I call the biological mother of my kids), has given me the priceless gift of shared joy in our children. While other friends and family love our kids tremendously, there is just nothing quite like the powerhouse of love that exists when the birth mom and adoptive mom unite in determination to make their children’s lives the best they can possibly be. This is by far the most important piece of open adoption advice I can share. Besides the bond of gratitude we have, it is definitely fun to know that someone else agrees with me when I point out how beautiful, smart, and funny our kids are. Friends or strangers will politely listen to stories or offer compliments, but their birth-mom and I see eye-to-eye, without a doubt, about how amazing our children are. Our kids are brilliant because she was a brilliant child, and because I teach them well. Our kids are beautiful because she is beautiful, and I groom and style them well. Our kids are all of the amazing things they are because of both of us, and their daddies, of course, and we all love them fully and completely. She is grateful, I am grateful, and the kids are the ones who reap the greatest benefits because of that.
Embrace a Supportive Role
The absolute hardest thing the biological mother of my children has ever done is to relinquish the privilege of raising our kids to my husband and I, yet she has done it with courage and strength. Through her tears, she has offered us words of encouragement about our relationship with our kids, complete adoration and love, and unfailing belief in our ability to lead our family in the way we believe is best. Though we embarked on our journey into open adoption without a clue on how to do it right, we quickly learned that her sacrificial choice to embrace a supportive role was a key to our successful relationship.
Let the Adoptive Family Lead the Process
A touchy part of my open adoption advice to expectant parents is to let the adoptive family lead the way when it comes to determining what the open relationship will look like. As with any relationship, communication is the key to success, so you should definitely share your dreams and wishes for how your relationship might look with the child’s adoptive family. At the same time, though, be sure to recognize the unique needs of the child’s new family as they adjust to their lives together and find norms and routines that work for them. See them fully as the child’s parents even while you maintain gratitude for your irreplaceable role as birth-parent.
When we decided to pursue an open adoption with the biological family of our kids, we wrote out a long and detailed letter explaining what our expectations and standards were with regard to how our kids would interact with their biological families. The letter was an adoption-plan of sorts and was simply a jumping-off point for learning to navigate our complicated situation. Life and time have caused shifts in our plan, but the biological family members who honored our wishes and boundaries have built trust and bonds with us that we could never have dreamed possible.
It may be good to ask the child’s adoptive parents what their hopes and wishes are for your relationship as well, and be sure they feel free to set boundaries they are comfortable with.
Put the Needs of the Child First
Remember that your child has thoughts, needs, and emotions of their own that will grow and change as they do. Every child is different in how they process the complexities of adoption. There are grief and loss in even the healthiest of situations, and the impacts of trauma even on children who do not remember their adoption can be profound. A strong partnership between biological and adoptive families can be invaluable in helping children develop healthy mindsets regarding their adoption and giving them space and support they need to process their own trauma and loss. The non-negotiable takeaway is that all of the adults involved must prioritize the needs, thoughts, and feelings of the child and be willing to lay aside personal preferences to honor the child.
During one of our first in-person visits with our kids’ biological mom, our daughter was feeling especially uneasy and slow-to-warm-up. She clung pretty tightly to me while her younger brother fearlessly embraced their birth-mom and happily gave her hugs, and held her hand. I know my sister-mom wanted badly to embrace our daughter as well, but she wisely waited patiently for our daughter’s fears to dissipate. Neither my expectations nor hers were being met in the waiting, but it was what was best for our child and that had to be the priority over all else.
At this point in our lives, the children love the time we spend together with their birth families, but if there comes a time that those interactions are stressful to them or that they want or need a hiatus, we will honor them. Little people often have big feelings and they don’t need any added pressure from their parents or others about how they should feel. They are the only ones in the adoption triad who did not choose adoption. Expectant parents make the choice to place their child for adoption and adoptive parents choose to adopt. It is essential that both parental roles be committed to putting the child’s needs first as they process the beautifully complicated relationship that results.
Offer Your Presence Over Presents
Sometimes when birth parents are physically absent from a child’s life or they see the child rarely, they are tempted to give the child gifts to help compensate. Instead, be present when permitted by the adoptive family and let your gifts come in the form of relationship building or words. This leads to the next piece of open adoption advice.
Share Family Stories, Medical History, and Any Other Helpful Information
Proactively providing the adoptive family with a complete medical history of both biological parents (if possible) will be tremendously helpful. Being available to answer any additional questions that may arise down the road during medical appointments is also invaluable. Recently, my daughter began to experience some premature signs of puberty. After a text to her birth mom, I learned that their family history made this much less surprising, and because of her experience, I was able to learn how I can better support my daughter. Neither of us had thought to discuss the issue beforehand, but having her virtually walk alongside me through it was very reassuring.
While medical information is an obvious need, I would also encourage expectant parents to consider writing letters or building a storybook of sorts with family stories and information the child may benefit from. The biological grandmother of my children once told me how their mother had a childhood habit of rubbing her eyelashes when she was falling asleep. I was watching our infant son do the very same thing and found myself grateful to know where that sweet little mannerism had come from. My daughter’s love for animals and the outdoors is not only magnified by our own enjoyment of the outdoors, but both of her biological parents were also known to dig in the dirt and embrace all things messy. From sharing birth stories to telling us what colors, foods, and activities they enjoyed as kids, the biological families of our children have enriched our children’s lives and ours. Because of this openness, our kids have the unique gift of not having to wonder about the unknown. When there’s something we don’t know about their history or birth-family, we’re just one call or text away from the answer, and that brings us all peace-of-mind and priceless normalcy in an otherwise complex situation.
Avoid Making Promises
While we had ideas about how our open adoption might look like, the only promise we made to the birth-family of our children was that we would always speak of them with honor and make sure the kids knew how much they love them. We have tried to shelter our children from any promises their biological parents are tempted to make because sometimes things happen and those promises just can’t be kept. As much as we love our time together with our biological family, we rarely tell our children about it in advance. We wait until it is a sure thing and then we fill them in and share in their joy and excitement. Since adoptive relationships are naturally complicated, this just helps to avoid any additional heartache or disappointment. Expectant parents who desire an open adoption should plan to be consistent and reliable with their contact with the adoptive family, but should also remember that the only commitment they need to make is to always do their best for each other and the child. There are intense and complex emotions that accompany adoption and this is true for people on all sides of the relationship. Because of this, there may be times that plans need to be changed, communication delayed, or a complete revision of the expectations needs to take place. If birth families and adoptive families agree together to only promise those things they can follow through with, everyone will have a more positive experience with fewer unmet expectations.
Open adoption is not for every circumstance, but where it can be healthily achieved, it is definitely beneficial for the children involved. In our experience, there is a greater joy for our children, fewer questions, more stability, and a more complete understanding of who they are because of our open adoption. I am a huge proponent of open adoption and I believe this open adoption advice can help to make the open relationship a successful one in any circumstance
Julie Davis is a high school English teacher and writer with a Master’s degree in Education. She and her husband, Jeremy, share a passion for trauma-informed teaching, foster-care and adoption, and are advocates of open-adoption. They began their foster-care journey in 2014 and cannot unsee the need. They feel tremendously blessed to have six beautiful children, three of whom were adopted through foster-care and state-custody adoption. Julie loves reading, writing, music, sunshine, sports, and spending time outside or playing games with her friends and family. She shares about her faith, her family, and her adoption experience through her personal blog https://fostering-grace.com/