When Adoptee & Birthmother Needs Collide
One question that frequently arises in open adoption concerns the conflict when adoptee & birthmother needs collide, and how such issues should be resolved?
It is a question impacted by a host of legal and ethical constraints, and surrounded by emotional landmines, which makes it all the more important that it be answered carefully, with a preponderance of compassion for all concerned.
When a mother releases her child for adoption, the legal papers remind her that once she signs those documents, she will no longer have any right to nor responsibility for the child being placed for adoption. She will no longer be that child’s rightful parent; someone else will forever provide for her child’s emotional, spiritual and physical needs. She will no longer have the right to make decisions on behalf of that child. She will not have the right to inherit from that child. She will not be entitled to expect anything of that child nor to direct any aspect of that child’s life nor care. Her relationship to that child will be terminated under the law, and there will be no going back on that decision, once made.
Until any adoptee reaches the age of consent, their needs are the legal responsibility of the adoptive parents, of course, so the adoptive parents should help manage any conflicting expectations that arise between an underage adoptee and his or her birthparent. When the adoptee is grown, however, what happens if the adoptee’s needs and the birthmother’s needs conflict, for some reason?
Adoption is a daunting decision, one that no mother takes lightly.
In open adoption, relinquishing mothers signing adoption surrender paperwork still are assured that the adopting parents will raise the child to know (and hopefully love and respect) his or her birthmother.
The adoptive parents, recognizing that neither a piece of paper nor a judge’s ruling can erase the truth: that the adoptee will forever share a genetic and yes, familial connection with his or her birthfamily, and that honoring that relationship is a privilege worth upholding.
They voluntarily agree to stay in touch, while honoring any privacy needs expressed at placement. Healthy open adoption agreements carefully specify what access and communication both parties expect to fulfill; in potentially problematic relationships, these expectations tend to be left undefined and discussed only vaguely if at all.
Everyone is extremely emotional at the time at which placements occur, meaning the adults involved may or may not be well-prepared to anticipate their own needs on a long-term basis– let alone the long-term needs of the adoptee, who is not yet able to speak on his or her own behalf.
People who wish to be relieved of their parental obligation and people who want to be responsible parents more than anything are uniquely aware of the authority that comes with making choices on behalf of a child. They also are often the most people who are most surprised (and yes, most resistant to) the need to yield the power of this authority to the adoptee, when he or she becomes able to voice his or her own needs as this pertains to his or her own adoption.
Historically, adoptees have found their voices too often silenced by those around them. In a society that still reminds us “children should be seen and not heard,” adoptees learn early on that expressing interest in birthfamily tends to make adoptive parents uneasy. They learn to keep their questions to themselves, or to seek out answers on their own, or to turn to the internet for answers. Record numbers of adoptees are finding birthrelatives on social media, or via DNA testing, with mixed results when the people they’re finding are ill-prepared for unexpected adoption reunions.
The same is true of birthparents who regretted adoption choices and longed to find their missing babies, or who were promised open adoption yet got shut out afterwards, or those with closed adoption who thought that meant they had to “stay away” until their child turns 18. They, too, turn to genetic testing or the internet or other means to seek reconnection with their child/ren, who too often feel torn between their curiosity about their roots and their loyalties to their adoptive families to respond freely.
So when adoptee and birthmother needs collide, whose needs should take precedence?
There’s no cookie-cutter easy answer here that always applies, of course, as each circumstance should entail a careful review of the needs of all parties. Both parties deserve to be heard with empathy. Both deserve access to qualified post-adoption support. Both need validation and respect. That being said, though, ultimately, if every adoption must (legally and morally) be done in the best interests of the child, then the best interests of that child (even when grown) should still dictate all of his or her parents’ priorities later in life, too, we think.
This is why an adoptee who wants to know who his or her birthfamily is should be afforded every opportunity to get to know about them as an adult, whether or not his/her adoptive family approves.
This is why a birthparent who never told her other children about the baby she placed for adoption must find the courage to right that wrong and tell them the truth as early as possible, so that the adoptee need not carry the burden of being a secret to his or her birthsiblings.
This is why a woman who became pregnant as a result of rape must receive compassionate and effective post-adoption counseling to prepare her for the adoptee’s possible need to meet her in the future, even if the idea of seeing a child who reminds her of her attacker may seem overwhelming.
This is why a birthmother who longs to be reunited with the child she placed must respect the privacy of an adult adoptee who, for his or her own reasons, does not wish to meet the birthparents (yet?), however painfully unfair this may be to her.
This is why a birthmother who never wanted the child she placed to be even told he or she was adopted must still be willing to provide, at the very least, a letter with updated family medical information and a photograph, if that adoptee later wants information about his or her roots.
This is why adult adoptees should always be entitled, like every other citizen, to gain access to their original birth certificate, regardless of whether the adoptee or birthparent ultimately desire to be in relationship with the other.
We understand that this may seem unfair to some. Perhaps, on some level, it is an inequity which comes with the territory, like being adopted is a consequence adoptees have had to accept for better or worse? Granted, not every adoptee may have the insight to appreciate what their needs require of a birthmother who has endured the ultimate sacrifice (and its inevitable aftermath) on behalf of her baby. And after suffering the lasting grief that comes with adoption loss, not every birthmother feels obligated to respond to the needs of the adoptee, especially when the law exempted her from all responsibility for that child long ago. And nobody can mandate that people be “in relationship” if they do not wish to be, no matter who does the asking.
Still: when adoptee & birthmother needs collide, it is an indelible reminder that both are separate individuals forever linked, and while the needs of each are important, we believe the needs of the adoptee should always come first with the first mother who was initially entrusted with his or her protection.