Whatever fears folks have about open adoption, in truth– lost birthmothers can become a much greater problem for adoptees and the parents that love them both.
In an open adoption, the child being adopted has the benefit of growing up with firsthand information about their birthparents. Typically, the birthparent/s and the adoptive parents are in contact with each other prior to the placement. This enables them to become personally acquainted and build a relationship. Together, they celebrate the child being adopted, and make arrangements to keep in contact, just as any healthy relatives do. Accordingly, they respect the child’s right to know and love them all.
The benefit of these kinds of open adoption relationships enables adoptees to grow up with lifelong connections to their people. “Genetic mirroring” is an important part of identify formation. It means you have a whole understanding of who you are based on the presence (and modeling) of your bio-relatives. Adoptive parents can give the children they adopt many advantages in life, but the only way to prevent the genetic bewilderment of a closed adoption is to do an open adoption. That’s something Abrazo’s adoptive parents are happy to do, because they learn here why it matters.
The Impact of Lost Birthmothers
Placing a child for adoption is never an easy thing to do, no matter how “right” the plan may seem. There are those birthmoms who think that the adoptee is somehow better off not knowing about them, not knowing many adoptees experience this as a rejection. Some people fear that birthparents keeping in touch with the child and the adoptive parents will make it harder on everyone– although the opposite usually proves true. There are birthmoms whose grief is so great, they cut off all communication, hoping it may somehow ease their pain. In other instances, open adoption contact is lost when life intervenes; addresses or phone numbers change, misunderstandings arise, or things like incarceration, breakups or health issues interrupt. More often than not, it seems it’s our adoptive parents seeking out lost birthmothers, realizing how their absence may impact the adoptee.
Ethical adoption professionals urge adoptive parents to do all they can to encourage an adoptee’s interest in their roots. Abrazo parents tend to take this advice to heart, but what’s a loving parent to do in the case of lost birthmothers who won’t– or can’t– take part in an open adoption relationship? The loss of a birthparent’s presence can trigger infantile memories of primal wounds for adoptees, lead to fears of rejection or abandonment, and cause a sense of deep loss for adoptive parents, as well.
We were reminded of that challenge today, when our staff sadly discovered from an online posting that a birthmom who’d placed here last fall passed away this summer. The adoptive parents hadn’t heard from her since placement. Yet they’d faithfully sent monthly updates for her, which we’d tried to deliver without success. She would’ve surely been so proud to see how her boy was growing. (And it would’ve done them a world of good to know how she was, too.) We are all acutely aware of how much has been lost. Now, the adoptive family hopes her relatives might connect with them in her absence, so at least the son they shared still has access to her people (and his).
Keeping a Light On
A few years back, there was a particularly effective ad campaign for a national motel chain, in which someone named Tom Bodett promised “we’ll leave the light on for you.” That comforting phrase perfectly depicts Abrazo’s best advice for adoptive parents of adoptees with lost birthmothers. Even when your best efforts cannot keep them connected, you can still keep a light on by honoring their memory and making space for them in your lives. It doesn’t fix everything, of course, but it can help.
Maybe this means celebrating the birthparent’s birthday by lighting a special candle each year, by continuing to search for her &/or her relatives, or by keeping her framed photo in your family gallery. It may mean bringing her up in conversation with your child, by vacationing in her hometown, incorporating her culture in your family traditions, or letting the adoptee send letters or keepsakes to the agency to be held for her. Leaving a proverbial light on is a way of assuring the adoptee that a lost birthmother’s place in your lives still holds meaning for you. (And it helps an adoptee know they can look forward to her return, if possible, because they know you’ll welcome her, too.)
If and when a long-lost birthparent does resurface, please greet her warmly, like a prodigal. Adoptive families rarely know how much courage it takes for birthparents to dare to seek reconnection after a significant absence.
Granted, limiting initial contact to communication between the parents may be optimal, so the birthmother can understand how a minor adoptee might react, and what their developmental needs may be? The adults may need to rebuild any lost trust between them, first, so they are united in their commitment to the adoptee’s wellbeing. Healthy boundaries always apply in any open adoption, of course, and your adoption professionals should stand ready to advise or assist, as needed. (Yet any loving, conscientious birthmom will join the adoptive parents in putting the adoptee’s welfare first, so make that your shared goal from the start, and enable the adoptee to have a say in how they want contact to proceed.)
Honoring lost birthmothers, whether they’re temporarily missing or forever gone, helps to keep her love light (and yours) shining, all for the ultimate benefit of the adoptee.