Abrazo has coined a new verb, to describe the process of upholding one’s role after placing a child in an open adoption, and it is this: “birthmothering.”
Unlike in a closed adoption, in which an adoptee’s first mother is expected to slink away quietly into the shadows after placement and never be seen nor hear from again, birthmothers in open adoptions are expected to somehow occupy a position of honor in the lives of their child and his or her family, a role most fulfill with little preparation and even less definition.
Birthmothering is actually harder than most people would suspect. You are expected to demonstrate ongoing interest in the child the legal paperwork says you surrendered forever, yet never overstep your welcome.
You still get all the feels that any parent does, of course, when you see photos of your child or hear of his/her latest achievements, or get all-too-brief opportunities for visits. Meanwhile, you are always mindful of the fact that you are a guest in your child’s life, and that your access is always at the adoptive parents’ discretion.
You have a lifetime connection to people with whom you made a lifelong commitment, when you chose them to parent your child, though you may come to realize over time you really didn’t know them that well, and you might occasionally wish you’d made some other choices.
Seeing the child you placed over the years means you can never pretend the encounter or relationship that led to his or her existence never happened.
To be perched on the periphery of your child’s life and yet to have no formally-recognized relationship to your child and his/her family anymore is precarious, and made even more so by the lack of laws enforcing any open adoption contact agreements in most states.
These, perhaps, are some of the downsides of birthmothering.
And now the good news…
The good news, though, is that as a birthmother in an open adoption, you don’t have to go through life worried that your child has been lost to you forever. Birthmothers in closed adoptions never knew who their child was with or how they were doing, or where they were. Birthmothers in open adoptions get to witness the joys of adoption, too, and not just the sorrow-and-grief parts.
Birthmothering in open adoptions means having a place at the family table; you don’t eat every meal there, but you always know you’re welcome. You have a relationship with your child’s parents, and you know where they are. You need not worry about the child/ren you are parenting ever accidentally dating or marrying a sibling without knowing it. You don’t tense up every time there’s a horrific news story on TV, wondering if the child you placed was involved– because you already know where your child lives, and who their parents are.
Birthmothering means getting to be the “cool” parent; the one who is usually closer in age to the adoptee than the mom and dad who raise him/her, the one who doesn’t harp at them about doing their homework or brushing their teeth or improving their grades. It means enabling the children you are raising to have a lifelong connection of some sort to the child/ren you placed. It means getting to take pride in all your children, not just the ones you raise yourself.
Birthmothering means finding a healthy balance between your loyalty to the adoptive parents with your devotion to the child you share. It means reserving a space in your life for the adoptee and his or her family; making yourself available for calls or visits, finding a way to explain to newer people in your lives who the adoptive family is to you and why they matter, and growing into that relationship over time. It means learning to communicate respectfully when differences arise (as they will; every authentic relationship requires us to deal with challenges now and then) and yes, learning to pick your battles, when necessary.
But birthmothering also requires that you learn to forgive yourself, too, and to be willing to receive the adoptive family’s love as well. This can be especially hard for first moms who tend to beat themselves up for having placed a child for adoption; they sometimes think they don’t deserve to still be in their child’s life, and they struggle to believe that their presence is truly welcome– or needed.
Birthmothering like the best of them
A few ideas, for mothers who place, about birthmothering effectively:
* Learn all you can, upfront, from other birthmothers who have placed. The internet has done much to help get birthmothers out of shadows, so learn from those who have gone before you. Birthmothers from the closed adoption era harbor more anger and shame about their losses, perhaps, yet still have important perspectives to share. Birthmoms who have placed more recently may have more experience with negotiating post-adoption contact and adoptive family relationships, but may also be still learning their way. Remember this: both possess wisdom from which you can benefit.
* Make use of open adoption counseling, which is always free to birthparents at Abrazo. Good counseling is not about telling you what to think or feel, but rather, helping you find answers that work for you. Any open adoption is always a work in progress: it will be what you and the adoptive parents decide to make it, so getting a great adoption therapist to help you all work out what arrangements fit your needs can go a long way towards avoiding problems, and preparing you all to effectively address any issues that do arise over time.
* Remember: the adoptee’s needs must always come first. This doesn’t mean that your feelings don’t matter, of course. But it means that in all things, all the parents involved must always be mindful of their duty to honor the adoptee’s needs at all times. The adults (birthparents and adoptive parents) can attend to each other’s needs and to their own, but they must all agree to work together to meet the adoptee’s needs, always (even when they may not agree on how best to get the job done.)
* Commit to communicating effectively.When you don’t have all the answers, it’s okay to admit it (and if it’s the adoptee asking something you don’t know how to explain, feel free to say “hmmm… that’s a good question; I’d need to think about that.”) If you’re not feeling up for a visit, it’s all right to say so, but be certain that you are not shutting the door on the entire relationship by doing so. If you’re feeling forgotten or left out, then own those feelings and find a way to respectfully express your needs to the adoptive parents in a way that compels them to want to help make things right. This is scary stuff, we know– birthmothers are never being sure of their footing, for fear of intruding or offending, but birthmothering well means building relationships out of trust and a rock-solid shared commitment to the child you all love.
* Set and respect boundaries. This is really important– not easy, but important. Everybody has their own, of course, so being “in relationship” with the adoptee and his/her family means learning theirs and teaching them yours. When you choose an adoptive family, you essentially subscribe to their values, too, by picking them. So whether or not you choose their values as your own, you need to agree to the standards by which they live in your contact with them (which may mean avoiding profanity in your conversations because you know it’s not how they talk, or not showing up for visits if you’re under the influence, because you know they don’t want your child to see you like that.) Likewise, you set your boundaries with them as you see fit (by asking them not to tag you in social media because if there are people on your friend list that you do not wish to share your adoption story with, for example. Or telling them that you are not comfortable with them sharing any information about your current whereabouts with the birthfather. Or asking them to limit the religious language in their letters to you, if it makes you uncomfortable.)
* Be consistent. Demonstrate that you’ve got your child’s adoptive family’s back, and nearly always, they’ll do the same for you. Whatever name you may have chosen for your baby in the beginning, good birthmothering means using the name the adoptive family chose when you address the adoptee. Honor the adoptive parents’ titles by referring to them as “your mom” or “your dad” in conversation with the adoptee; refer to yourself as “your birthmother” (never as “your real mom,” because you know biology is not all that makes a mom a mom, right?) When sending Christmas gifts to the child you placed, include a gift also for any other child in the home, if you’re able? And please, don’t forget your child’s birthday, even if it involves painful memories for you, because adoptees need to know their birthparents have not forgotten their special day.
Good birthmothering means continually tending the garden you planted at placement. You may not always see it yield results, and yet, it will, in time. (Trust us on this.) It may not change anything in ways that seem to matter right away, but it will make a difference, and you’ll see it in the ways that you (and the child you placed) blossom and grow, as the years go by.