Sunday, October 2, 2011

Being "Emotionally Open" to First Families

Back in July I wrote a post that included the following paragraph:

"I do believe that it's important for anyone who is considering adoption to understand that they are not bringing a single child into their life -- they are bringing an entire family. That's just a fact. The old adoption model, and even many current adoption arrangements, try to ignore this reality, but ignoring doesn't work. Even if the adoptive family has no contact with the biological family and rarely discusses them other than in vague, almost mythological ways (such as the 'your birth mother was someone who loved you very much' story), that family, and especially the birth mother, is still there, fully present in the child's psyche. They may exist primarily as an absence, as a longing (spoken or unspoken), but they are still there."

I'd like to to expand on that a bit today. For adoptive parents, the choice between closed, semi-open, and fully open adoption isn't really a choice between having the biological family in your life or not. The first family is a part of your life regardless because they are a part of your child; the question for adoptive parents is: "How are you going to respond to this reality?"

I really appreciated the many thoughtful comments I got last week in response to my Attuned Adoptive Parent post, and I especially liked the following words from Martha Crawford, LCSW:

"Even when families are forrmed through international adoption - emotional openness to the first families: ie listening to children's wishes to search, supporting that process when it feels age appropriate, inviting your child to communicate about their first parents and then accepting whatever feelings or language emerge, offering acceptance and support with out fear or defensiveness - this to me, is the primary sacred task of being an 'adoptive' parent."

I love her phrase "emotional openness to the first families," and I believe it represents a key factor. If an adoption is nominally open on paper but the parents are not emotionally open to the biological family, the openness of the adoption is likely to be perceived as a burden rather than a gift and is much less likely to succeed in the long term. This lack of emotional openness is detrimental to the relationship between the adoptive parents and the biological family, and, sadly, it is ultimately detrimental to the relationship between the adoptive parents and the adopted child. By contrast, there may be situations where circumstances preclude regular contact with the biological family but the adoptive parents are emotionally open and therefore able to hold space for the child's experience, whatever it may be. In such situations, the adoptive parents communicate acceptance to the child and able to help facilitate his or her growth and healing.

Some adoptive parents (including my own) like to say that adoptive families are no different than other families; they are just formed in a different way. This well-intentioned sentiment is meant to communicate that adoptive parents love their children as much as if they had given birth to them. As an adoptive (and biological) mother I can attest that this is true; I love my two daughters with equal intensity, though my relationship is different with each of them, just as it would be different if I had two biological children. But being an adoptive parent is not the same as being a biological parent. It is different because something more is asked of us, the "sacred task" that Marth Crawford mentions above. The adoptive parent is asked to open his or her heart to something more than just an individual, separate child. Loving and accepting an adopted child means loving and accepting all that the child is and holds within them, including the unbreakable thread that binds them to another family. 

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  1. Rebecca I always love your posts, and though I'm not adopted or an adoptive parent I get something out of your parenting approach with it's loving acceptance of the whole child. This rings true for me as the mother of a special needs child, even though the context is different. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for another insightful post. I usually feel a lot of guilt when i allow myself to really sit and think about my son and his adoptive 'story/status' - so i often block it out. Its only when i visit your blog that I pause to reflect on my own emotions as the mother of an adopted child. (a mother who is struggling to be a 'good' mother, whatever the heck that is) I get a lot of negativity and criticism from my extended family regarding our son and so I rarely discuss him with them. I appreciate the range of things that you discuss on here with regards to adoption, relationships with the birth family and etc. I really wanted my son to meet with his birth family, I felt that it would help. Him - to have another set of grandparents who could love him for him, to have another set of people who could hopefully give him the things that Im not ( does that even make sense?) The birth parents are open to meeting him and wanted to have him meet his other extended family etc. But a therapist told us that would be a terrible idea, said he would be traumatized, damaged forever. Now after reading your blog - i wonder, maybe shes wrong?

  3. Thanks so much for expanding and elaborating on my comment.
    This is exactly what I was hoping to express.
    So many parents get concerned about their primacy, their "realness" that hearts get closed, fears get organized, and the first family becomes a threat - rather than accepted as a the child's reality. Patenting is parenting-
    adoptive parenting means taking onnthese additional realities.

    So nice to feel so understood!


  4. Thank you for another wonderful post on furthering the understanding of adoption and it's consequences.I hope you're thinking of writing a book?
    Lani I'd find a therapist who knows what they're talking about!

  5. Thanks, everyone, for your comments!

    I've gotten as far as putting a book about book proposals in my wish list.

    I had to take a few calming breaths after reading your comment about the therapist. One of my pet peeves is that therapists often position themselves (or are positioned by courts of law) as experts on adoption when many actually get very little, if any, training in adoption issues as part of their education. Don't get me wrong -- I love therapy! It's been hugely beneficial in my life. But though there are therapists like Martha (above) who "get it" when it comes to adoption, there are many others who don't. You can read about my own encounter with a psych professional who didn't get it here:
    I also found myself thinking of this post (not by me) when I was reading your comment:
    It's not about adoption, but it makes the point that the more people who are in a child's life who love them, the better.
    Each of my daughters has multiple parents and grandparents, and they get something unique from each of us! To paraphrase the blogher post writer, love is always welcome.

  6. Lani,
    One more thing: You are a good parent. Trust your instincts!

  7. Lani,
    I agree with Rebecca & Von!

    Many therapists feel they are knowledgeable about adoption because they are adoptive parents, or because they have had one or two adoptees that they have seen in their practice. I don't think that is sufficient, in and of itself.

    I don't know any therapists who are experienced in adoption and active in the adoption community who categorically reject openness in adoptions. The research is very clear that openness in adoption does not harm or confuse children about who their parents are- - that, in general, children raised in open adoptions with contact with their birthparents have significantly less identity confusion.

    There are times, based on very particular histories of abuse, anti-social behavior, etc that it may not be advised or delayed until/if circumstances improve - and I don't in any way know the particulars about your son's birthfamily, and can't offer you any explicit advice. Other than this:

    I would encourage you to contact an agency in your area that facilitates open adoptions, and see if they have any after care referrals for your family for a therapist experienced with open adoption.



  8. Thank you, Rebecca, for another insightful post.

  9. Thank you thank you thank you. I'm literally right in the middle of the very messy process of taking on two older foster children who will eventually (long story) become our adopted children - along with their younger sibling who we have fostered since birth. I have done inclusive foster parenting with this youngest child since birth, but my goodness has it been difficult to do. Not because of the birth parents - although it's quite understandably been hard for them, for me, and for the child at times. But the biggest obstacle I face is from the agency. They all have these very ingrained opinions that open adoption is scary and really just something to look up to as the golden standard, not something to be actually worked through. I am having the hardest time trying to defend my opinion that yes, the children can have some semblance of a real relationship with birth parents after adoption, and while it will be messy and difficult, it IS what's best for them. So, it's incredibly helpful to read your blog and know that I'm not alone, and that I'm not as crazy as the Agency thinks I am (in regards to openness, anyway ;)

  10. Thanks, Roz.
    My daughter's first mother now has frequent professional contact with the Department (DCF, in our area) through her job ( and she recently had a great conversation with the director about some of those "ingrained opinions." The director was excited to hear about the work E and I are doing to try to change some of those opinions, but it really is an uphill battle. So much misinformation based on false assumptions. And "ingrained" is the exact right word.
    Good luck with your journey. I'd like to subscribe to your blog, btw, but when I click or the RSS link I just get a page of code. Any suggestions? (This seems to happen a lot to me with wordpress blogs.)

  11. You said this all so well!!! We share your same feelings towards our children and their families. They wouldn't be who they are today without their loving family in their lives!!!

  12. Thank you for this insightful article. I am just beginning my journey to become an adoptive parent and something I feel nervous about is the issue of open adoption. I really hope that I have the strength to be emotionally open to my child's first family. I must admit that I do feel some sense of loss or perhaps jealousy that I will never have that "connection" with a child that I have given birth to. Perhaps this is where my nervousness about open adoption stems from. Although in my heart of hearts I know that parenting is not just about gestation and birth I guess I feel insecure that there is a woman out there who has a connection with my child that I will never be able to have. Thank you for writing about this issue - it has enabled me to bring to light and example a niggle that I couldn't name before. After all - this is exactly the sort of help I want to be able to give my child: owning and naming feelings and dealing with them constructively.

  13. In reading just a few of your post so far, I am concluding that you, in fact, Rock! Seriously, it means a lot to me as a "first/birth" mom and parenting mom.

  14. Thank you! It's really great to get that feedback!