How to Ruin an Open Adoption
Most folks don’t seek out advice on how to ruin an open adoption, and we’re glad they don’t.
We believe in open adoption. We see it work wonders for people who truly put their whole hearts into it, who match the right way for the right reasons. And who understand that relationships in open adoptions are always growing and changing and evolving, just as every adoptee’s needs do. And who realize that respect, communication and commitment are the keys to making open adoptions successful over the years.
Yet over the years, we’ve seen and heard plenty of the mistakes other folks can make (usually in open adoptions done elsewhere.) Thanks to them, we’ve learned a thing or two about how to ruin an open adoption, so this is a tongue-in-cheek guide (of what not to do.)
(Don’t) Use Open Adoption as a Strategy.
Open adoption is not a “lite adoption” in which empty promises are made to make a placement happen by putting a shiny bow on what will be a life-changing experience for everyone, for better or worse. Promises made and agreements reached in the course of an open adoption are sacred vows and should be treated as such. Don’t go into an open adoption planning to “phase out” the contact over time, because that only teaches adoptees that even life’s most treasured connections count for nothing in the end. You eventually will be called to account for everything you did and anything you didn’t do (whether that means accounting to the courts, the other parents, the adoptee and/or a Higher Power) so talk the talk and walk the walk, people.
(Don’t) Put Your Own Whims First
The people who ruin open adoptions are usually the folks who are so hung up on what they want and what they think they deserve that they put their own wishes first and then use the baby or child like a human shield, claiming it’s really “all for him/her.” The mother who tells prospective adoptive parents “I’m going to sign the adoption papers eventually, but the baby needs to go home from the hospital with me to meet my boyfriend’s cousin’s kids first” is clearly putting her own desires before her baby’s needs. The adoptive parents who tell the birthparents “we can’t invite you to attend the baby’s christening because then she might get confused about who who her ‘real’ family is” are likewise guilty of putting their own needs before that of their child. Good parents don’t hide behind their kids: they do whatever they need to do to do right by their child/ren, no matter what. Which leads us nicely into the next rule of thumb…
(Don’t) Get Territorial.
Children aren’t property to be owned or argued over, but it’s not unusual for folks to feel territorial, even in an open adoption. Need some examples of what this looks like? Most hurt feelings in open adoption relationships seem to have something to do with possessiveness, and as adoption author Jim Gritter once cautioned: “it is never good for children to be possessed.” Birthparents who get offended that the adoptive parents don’t tag them in every posted picture of an adopted baby or adoptive parents who feel miffed that the birthparents shared a baby picture they posted publicly with a comment saying “look how big my baby is getting!” are likely headed for a world of hurt. Look here, friends: there’s a difference between privacy and territorial behavior. If you’re upset because someone’s actions could potentially put your child at risk, that’s a valid privacy issue that needs to be addressed… but if you’re mad because somebody else made you feel dissed, that’s probably about territory, in which case you need to deal with your own stuff first, okay? (And speaking of territory and your own stuff, that’s a timely segue way into our next rule…)
(Don’t) Fail to Set Boundaries.
This may seem contradictory, considering the rule before it, but bear in mind that every healthy relationship requires well-defined limits. (“Free-for-alls” even lead to trouble at garage sales.) Boundaries are why wives tell their husbands not to leave the toilet seat up. It’s why husbands ask wives to buy their own tampons. It’s why most in-laws know better to overstay their welcome when visiting newlyweds. And it’s why birthparents and adoptive parents need to have honest, straightforward convos early on about what their privacy needs are and what can and cannot be expected in the future. Need space? Say so, owning your own feelings (“Hey, I love you guys, but I think I need a little space, just until I let you know I’m ready to see you all again.”) There’s nothing wrong with temporarily renegotiating the terms of your open adoption, if necessary, as long as the need for the change is communicated honestly and endorsed by all parties and the alteration isn’t detrimental to the adoptee.
(Don’t) Expect the Other Party to Read Your Mind.
Here’s the thing: if you need your child’s other parents to do something for or with you, you need to tell them that’s your need and help them understand what makes it important to you. Just because you share a place in that child’s life doesn’t mean you have been magically gifted with the ability to read each other’s minds. Feel neglected? Share it with an “I statement” (“I feel forgotten when you don’t call me at least once a month to tell me how things are going, even if that sounds silly to you.”) Are you disappointed that your mailings go unacknowledged? Say what you need (“it would mean a lot if you’d just drop me a line to tell me you got my package, or leave me a voice mail, or ask your partner to do it, could you do that for me?”), being sure to give the other party options to respond in a way that honors their need(s), too. And note that “say” is a key word here, because misunderstandings in open adoption often arise when the parties have too little “in-person” communication (ie., phone calls or visits) and try to address all issues via written messages that leave far too much room for misinterpretation. Personal contact is vital for all human connections and that goes for open adoption relationships, as well.
Every open adoption is a reflection of love that the parents involved feel for the adoptee, and of their respect for each other. It is a committed relationship that requires ongoing effort, and like all human connections, communication may ebb and flow over time, yet the benefits to the adoptee outlast childhood and can impact generations to come.
(Does anyone really need any better reason to make their open adoption work?)