Friday, January 13, 2012

When Birth Parents Don't Want Openness in Adoption

A reader of my blog contacted me recently asking what adoptive parents can do when they are open to openness, wanting to maintain a connection to the birth family for sake of the child, but the first parents are not open to this possibility. It's a valid question, and one I have been asked before. When I advocate for openness, I tend to write primarily for an audience of adoptive parents, hoping to persuade them of the benefits of keeping adoptions open. But sometimes, the a-parents are not the ones standing in the way of openness.

I thank my lucky stars every day to have been paired with Erica (my daughter Ashley's first mom) for my own experience with open adoption. One of Erica's core beliefs, which she came to as part of her therapy and healing journey, is that parenting doesn't end when one's parenting rights are terminated. Though her hands-on role is reduced (and this is even more the case in terms of Ashley's siblings, who were placed in families less willing to include her), she believes that it is her job to do whatever is in the best interest of her children. This can be a tricky balance of stepping aside (so that bonding can happen with the adoptive family) and yet still remaining available. 

I know that there are lots of reasons why bio parents drop away; not everyone is going to have to inner resources to do what Erica does. And I also think that many b-parents don't realize that continuing to be a presence in their child’s life has a huge potential benefit to the child (in fact, they may have been told just the opposite). This understanding can be a key factor. When I read the blogs of b-parents in open adoptions, I often hear them express that there are things about openness that are difficult for them (the b-parent) but that they will continue the relationship because they believe it is in the best interest of the child.

But anyway, the question was about what an adoptive parent can do when such conditions aren't present. For anyone else who is interested in this, I recommend starting with my earlier post about emotional opennessI firmly believe that "emotional openness" is of key importance, whether or not there is actual contact with the first family. Emotional openness, for me, includes something I call "making space for mourning." It's not necessary to be heavy-handed about this; adoptive parents don't need to walk around all the time saying to their adopted children, “Gosh, it must be hard not having a relationship with your biological relatives.” But parents should try to be alert to those moments when their kids hint at feelings of loss. 

The a-parent can validate the child's feelings, communicating something along the lines of “I understand that you feel that way, and it is totally normal.” One of the major issues often raised by adult adoptees like myself who grew up in closed adoptions is that we never got to grieve. That was what inhibited healing. And, for many of us, one of the things that prevented grieving was the belief that doing so was in some way disloyal to our adoptive families. This is a place where adoptive parents can really make a difference. You can communicated acceptance of whatever feelings come up around adoption and birth families (while recognizing to yourself that these feelings will likely change many times through the years).

The other thing I would suggest is to be open to the possibility of creative solutions. Genetic mirroring can happen with other relatives, too. Bmom and Bdad may be unavailable, but maybe someday a grandparent or a sibling or a cousin will show up wanting a relationship, and if you are open, you’ll be ready. Pictures. Information. Every little bit helps. Again, the hard part for many adoptees in closed adoptions was that we had nothing. We went through our lives without ever seeing our genetic selves reflected back in any way.


  1. Rebecca yet again I'm so drawn to your writing and your willingness and advocating of parents giving a voice to their children's feelings. What better gift can we give to our child, whether or not they are adopted than to say, I hear you, that must be painful and then to allow the child to process that in their own way. I love coming to your site! Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Kathy! Yes, I agree with you that the basic idea of supporting children as they work through painful emotions extends well beyond adoptions. This came up for me just the other night with my biological daughter. As we sat in the dark at bedtime, she expressed something that was really upsetting to her. I just listened for a while, then I reflected some of it back to her in my own words and shared some experiences of my own that were similar. She was really quiet for a while and when I asked her what was up she said, "I'm sitting here quietly but that's just because I'm so happy that you understand." She didn't need me to change the situation or fix anything. She just needed me to hear her! (And for the record, in case you were wondering, yes, my parenting is always this awesome. I absolutely never blow it or say completely the wrong thing. Oh, did I forget to mention that the original thing she was upset about was something I had done? Well, never mind that!)

  3. Surely Rebecca is not advocating that parents give voice to children's feelings? Isn't she advocating listening and feeding back, an entirely different thing from taking away a child's efforts to put words to feelings?

  4. Is listening and giving feedback different from giving voice to a child's feelings? I'm sorry if I used the term incorrectly but that is what I meant. I feel by practicing "active listening" we are giving voice to our children, letting them know that we hear them. For example "You feel that I didn't care about your feelings before. You would of liked if I listened more and didn't snap at you. You got really mad at me. Is that what you were feeling?" That is what I was talking about. I did not mean that I thought she was taking away from the child's efforts to put their feeling into words, only letting the child know that she was in fact hearing the child correctly. Thanks for the reply.

  5. Thanks, Von. Thanks, Kathy. Yes, it's a tricky thing. We certainly don't want to be _telling_ our children what they feel or how to feel, but verbally reflecting back feelings (even unspoken ones) can be very helpful. I'm a big fan of the question mark. As Kathy used it above in "Is that what you were feeling?" for example. Or here's another example. Ashley doesn't talk a lot about the siblings that she doesn't get to see, but she communicates that she misses them in other ways ... pictures on her wall, etc. Plus, I can just put myself in my shoes. Not a huge leap to guess that a child would miss the siblings that she lived with until age 5. One day I said to her "You really miss your brothers and H?" with just a hint of a question mark in my intonation, and she looked at me with intense emotion in her face and said "Yes!"
    So anyway, I think we are all basically talking about the same thing: listening and feeding back. I extend the "listening" part into paying attention to non-verbal cues and feeding those back, but in such a way that you are checking in with the child to see if you've got it right rather than _telling_ them what they feel or should feel.
    There's also a huge element of this that's non verbal: a quality of presence that you have with your child where they can tell that you are really interested in what's going on for them and accepting of whatever it is. There's no one exact formula. It's an interactive thing.

  6. Yes I agree. I do the same thing with my children in regard to our life as a family with a special needs child. I see the cues that all three kids give and the words they say, and don't say. I think it's really important to be open to every family members feelings. No feeling is bad or shameful. Thanks Rebecca, I really love reading your work!