The Secret To Creating A Successful Open Adoption Relationship With A Birth Mother

This guest blog is by Gayle H. Swift, an adoptive mother, adoption coach and author. 

Developing a healthy, working relationship with a birth mother is one of the most important tasks faced by adoptive parents.

It’s also the one we tend to fret the most about.

Sometimes adoptive parenting can feel crowded; we have all these extra people in our lives.

Because we recognize it is in our children’s best interest, we want to build a healthy, working relationship with their birth mothers.

We know these relationships are a vital and important part of their lives and, therefore, an integral and valued part of ours.

We also know without the birth mother, there is no child, no adoption, and no adoptive family.

The birth mother-adoptive family relationship is a must-make-it-work commitment.

Yes, it will likely be difficult at times, emotionally charged, will generate extra stress and will add another responsibility to your already overfull plate.

But it is not going to go away because it is too important to your child.

secret-to-successful-open-adoption-relationship-with-birthmotherAll relationships have ups and downs, conflicts and resolutions, tensions and celebrations.

But our relationship with a birth mother includes extra stresses because it is founded on the fundamental conflict that requires us to balance co-existing grief and joy, gain and loss.

This tension persists throughout the life of the relationship and does not or end with a child’s adoption.

The “balance of power” shifts after placement

Adoptive parents must resist the temptation to press this advantage.

Maintaining a working relationship with a birth mother may (will!) present challenges.

For the sake of the children, it is essential we figure out how to work through any problems or difficulties.

When we encounter conflict between us and our child’s birth mother, we must remind ourselves not to make “being right” more important than sustaining the relationship.

This is not to deny the importance of boundaries, which are essential.

We must not let relationship fatigue tempt us into closing off this important tie.

Step back and consider the ‘issue” as if it existed with a dear friend or our spouse. How does this reshape your feelings and response?

Birth parents are an integral part of our children

When we respect birth mothers, we honor that part of our children which they created.

If we demean, deny, or try to erase that contribution, our children will learn that part of them is unacceptable.

Once again they will experience rejection. This time it will originate with us.

Of course we don’t want to hurt our kids in this way, so we dedicate ourselves to making this relationship work.

Keep the Proverbial Golden Rule in mind: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you…”

Whenever situations become challenging, refocus on this principle and then concentrate on creating resolution.

Listen to understand both the birthmother’s request and the purpose and emotions behind it

The initial goal here is not necessarily agreement, it is understanding.

Once that is achieved, it is possible to hammer out agreement or compromise.

As with so much in adoption, we must rewrite expectations; do NOT expect that everyone will like a decision.

Do expect that it must be a decision which all can accept.

Be honest with yourself about how you are feeling. What fears, worries, and concerns does her issue/request raise?

Before reacting, digging in your heels or agreeing to something you don’t truly accept, ask yourself,

  • Am I being equally respectful of all parties involved (my child, his birth mother and our family?)
  • Am I looking for an easy exit from the work of the relationship?
  • Will this benefit my child?
  • Even if the request is inconvenient, will it strengthen our working relationship?
  • If I can’t fully agree, what fair compromise can I offer?
  • If I have to say no, what can I say yes to?
  • How might it help if I promise to revisit it at a later time, when circumstances change? (Be sure to deliver on this commitment.)

Base decisions on core family values

Begin with well-defined family values. Usually our child’s well-being serves as the “Prime Directive.”

With this as our North Star, we navigate the daily challenges of family life. In almost every case this means embracing Open Adoption to at least some degree.

For example, assume a family’s values are: Respect, Integrity, Education and Faith.

Before making any decision regarding a birth mother, view it through the lens of each of these values.

Does my decision respect me, my child, his birthmother and our family? Does this choice align with my integrity?  What more might we need to learn? How does it reflect my faith commitment?

Commit to Adoption-attunement

As an Adoption-attuned family (one that employs adoption-sensitive parenting techniques, sound adoption language, knowledge of the attachment process, consideration of the grief and loss process) we know that it is vital to honor birth family relationships.

Even in circumstances where physical contact is not possible, it is important to express respect for birth families without invalidating any trauma which a child experienced.

Value both biological and adoptive relationships

We cannot afford to indulge the fantasy that biological relationships don’t matter, that they can be ignored or dismissed.

Our children need all of their parts in order to complete the task of developing a healthy, integrated self

When we reject or undermine a birth mother’s relationship, we actually telegraph a message to our child: This part of you is not acceptable to us.

This is not a choice adoptive parents would make consciously. We must not succumb to it unconsciously either.

Before altering or breaking an agreed arrangement we ask, Am I looking for a way to “justify” my choice because it would be easier for me? Am I acting out of fear or anger?

Remind yourself of the sacred promise you made to your child and his birthmother before she entrusted her child to you.

Revisit the questions and then begin hammering out a solution.

Commit to partnership not competition

Seeing our child’s birth mother as a rival undermines this important relationship and does a disservice to our child, ourselves and their birth mother.

When we allow fear to color our perceptions it clouds our judgment.

Look for ways to work with a birth mother.

When she experiences us as supporting and honoring her role in our child’s life, she will be inclined to work with us, to be flexible and understanding and will have no fear that we will cut her out of our child’s life.

If she feels shut out, disempowered or disrespected, how will this affect her expectations? How will it color her interactions with our child?

As Lori Holden, author of The Open-hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole asserts, openness does not exactly equate with visitation, (although it usually includes some direct contact.)

Openness is first and foremost an attitude of the heart. (Lori’s book is essential reading for adoptive families and I have previously reviewed it.)

Even if your adoption is not fully open, the underlying respect and value that you hold for your children’s birth family is a foundational pillar of your attachment.

Listen to understand her point of view

When we truly understand what her goal is we can work together to accomplish it.

Listen deeply—without negating.

Listen with the sole purpose of “getting” her viewpoint.

If we cannot accommodate a request the way it is initially framed, strive to find an alternate way to accomplish the goal.

Seek to create a solution that fulfills her goal as fully as possible as soon as feasible.

Bring a solution mindset that is genuinely committed to working things out.

Focus on your goal: your child’s needs

We now recognize that adoption is not an “event,” not a perfect solution from which each party moved forward painlessly.

We understand that adoption is a life-long journey.

As parents we prepare our children to become their best and healthiest selves—emotionally and physically.

We set aside our egos, fears, mistrust and dedicate ourselves to making things work out.

We honor the sacred trust which a birth mother placed in us when she agreed to the adoption.

We must not allow any misunderstanding, envy or annoyance to provide us an excuse for closing off this vital open adoption connection.

A coaching mindset allows us to focus on solutions. It requires a combination of integrity, neutrality, purpose and vision.

It can help open new strategies, interrupt entrenched patterns, calm emotions, and sustain a viable relationship with a birth mother.

Coaching creates a paradigm shift from judging choices as “right or wrong” and instead looks at options as either “working or non-working.”

This holds us in a neutral, non-judgmental mindset of redesigning solutions versus falling down the rabbit hole of fault finding and blame.

Who’s “wrong” becomes irrelevant.

Finding an option that works is what matters

From this vantage point maintaining a relationship with a birth mother becomes a commitment we pursue and honor for the sake of our child. It’s a sacred contract not a burden.

They key is to find a way around the obstacle. Assume that resolution is achievable. That presupposition helps ground you in possibility and encourages persistence.

Get creative. For example, is an in-person visit currently impossible? Try Skype, Face Time or Google Hang Out.

Are unexpected telephone calls becoming difficult to manage? Try using Free Conference Call.com or Google Voice and answer only during preset time slots.

Using a coaching approach in our relationship with a birth mother helps us interrupt old patterns, reframe beliefs and get unstuck.

We move beyond a win/lose mentality to a win/win perspective. All involved benefit from this shift.

Propelled by fierce love for our children, we must stay firmly committed, keep our word and become the parents they need us to be.

Gayle H. Swift is an adoptive mother, former foster parent and a co-founder of GIFT Family Services which provides coaching support to adoptive and foster families before, during and after adoption. She’s the co-author of the multi-award-winning ABC, Adoption & Me: A Multicultural Picture Book. Her blog, Writing to Connect reviews general interest books through an Adoption-attuned lens and looks for ways to use books to serve adoptive families and begin important adoption conversations.

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