Open adoption is a concept that is different for different families. One reason that some people fear open adoption is the lack of clearly determined boundaries. What does open mean? Is it exchanging photos once a year? Monthly phone calls? Daily texts? Annual visits? It can mean any or all of none of these. Adoption boundaries are an uncharted territory.
In the following excerpt from her book The Open Hearted Way To Open Adoption (Rowman &Littlefield), author Lori Lavender Luz discusses boundaries. The book was written with input from her daughter's birthmother, Crystal Hass.
By Lori Lavender Luz, with permission from Rowman & Littlefield
It’s quite a feat to establish healthy boundaries. On one hand, you want boundaries protective enough to keep “bad” things out. But you also want them open enough to let “good” things in. It may be helpful to examine exactly how you define the bad and the good before attempting to put boundaries in place for your open adoption.
Once relinquishment and finalization happen, the adoptive family is in charge of the relationship. So for this discussion we’ll focus on the adoptive family setting boundaries, which the birth family usually has very little influence over. Being at the mercy of the adoptive family is a lament we often hear from birth parents.
For Laura and Rick, who lived in the same town as their son’s birth parents, Jania and Austin, the bad things they wanted to keep out consisted of unexpected visits, too many phone calls or e-mails, confusion with titles, and unvetted people the birth parents might bring into their lives. The good was comprised of tending a natural relationship between their son and his birth parents, having ongoing access for medical, behavioral, and emotional purposes, and enjoying a relationship the two people who helped them build their family.
So Laura and Rick did what they would have done in any other close relationship with in-laws or extended family members. They simply told their son’s birth parents to please make sure to prearrange any visit. They said that they welcomed calls and e-mails to their son and would let the birth parents know and figure out how to best proceed if they saw signs that it was too much for their son or the family. Laura asked, at least for the time being, that she be known as the mom and Jania as the birth mom; likewise with the dads’ titles. Finally, Laura and Rick would want to get to know any person Jania or Austin brought around—a friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, or other relative—before inviting them into their lives. Putting forth these few requests, Laura and Rick hoped to have a healthy and robust relationship with Jania and Austin.
Notice what terminology Laura and Rick did not use. They did not say “We are willing to send pictures each month.” They did not say “We consent to four visits a year.” Whenever adoptive parents use words such as willing to and consent to, they are likely missing the spirit of openness and are instead operating from a place of fear, possibly setting up an adversarial relationship. As James Gritter says in Lifegivers, “open adoption is less a set of behaviors than it is an emotional and spiritual connection.”[i] You do not “consent to” having a relationship with someone with whom you feel an emotional and spiritual connection.
If you find yourself thinking in terms of what you will “grant” birth parents, what you will “give up” to them, then it’s possible that, instead of seeing your relationship as mutually beneficial and having a valid place in your child’s life, you view them as an imposition. At times like this, it would be helpful to ascertain what fears lurk behind those thoughts. Of course, if you have real fears for your family’s safety, then your relationship may end up being somewhat adversarial. But if your fears are your personal demons—like a fear of not being the “real” parent—then the work to be done is is on yourself.
Jania and Austin appreciated knowing what Laura and Rick wanted from them and were happy to comply with what they perceived to be reasonable requests. Over the years the son at the center of their relationship has reaped from their openness all of the “good” without suffering any of the “bad.”
What about the birth mother who repeatedly shows up unannounced? What about the birth father who buys our daughter Mountain Dew even though we don’t allow soda? What about the birth grandmother who calls herself Grammy even though we’ve asked her not to? What about the birth grandfather who gave our son a toy gun against our wishes?
Again, we return to modeling an open adoption relationship on in-law and extended-family relationships. Considering the questions the following way takes the adoption charge out of the picture:
- What would you do if your mother-in-law repeatedly showed up unannounced?
- How would you handle it if Aunt Susie gave your daughter a Mountain Dew?
- What would you do if your father-in-law asked you to call him Dad even though you already have a dad?
- How would you handle it if for your son’s fifth birthday Uncle Billy gave him a toy gun, despite your family’s policy?
There are dozens of ways you could handle each boundary issue. With each case, you must decide whether you will accommodate the other person’s behavior and be the one to make an adjustment or whether it’s worth standing firm and inviting accommodation from the other. It’s also important to consider whether or not you’re dealing with a one-time annoyance or a long-term problem.
The issue of the unannounced visitor is a long-term one. If it truly made my life more difficult for my family, it would be worth standing firm: “Joyce, I know you love to see your grandchildren, and they love to see you, too, but when you arrive without letting us know you run the risk of not getting our attention—you know how busy things get with all the kids’ activities. Also, I respect you and would like the chance to clean up before you come. So, please, give us some notice, and get a green light first. Would you do that for us?”
If Aunt Susie gave my daughter a Mountain Dew at a special occasion, I wouldn’t sweat it. If the dietary rule breaking was a pattern, though, and Aunt Susie was indulging Tessa often, I would reiterate my request that she “Please stick with water or juice. The sugar and artificial colors in sodas make bedtime hard for all of us, and I know you don’t want to make things hard for Tessa, right? We are teaching her to make good decisions for herself, and we need for you to be part of this teaching. Will you do that for us, for Tessa?”
As for the moniker, I would be thrilled to call my husband’s parents Mom and Dad. Of course they wouldn’t replace my own mom and dad. Having a spare set of parental figures who love me would enhance my life, not detract from it. I’d have more people who claim me and whom I claim. This one is an easy one for me to accommodate.
I admit that if we had an antigun stance and Uncle Billy knew about it I’d be ticked off if he still gave my son a toy gun. It would feel disrespectful, and, should I choose to take the gun away or replace it with another gift, it would put me in the position of being the Bad Guy with my son. So, then, how to best deal with each issue: the toy itself and my feelings of being disrespected? Privately, I could say to Uncle Billy, “You just broke one of our very few rules for gift giving, and, more importantly, you broke our trust. We don’t want to have to screen your gifts, but unless you show us that you will respect our boundaries about this, that’s what will have to happen.”
On the other hand, maybe it wasn’t worth engaging in combat on this issue. My son, Reed, was turning sticks, bottles, and even carpet lint into “shooters” before he was able to walk. Maybe the antigun stance was going to prove to be a losing battle and we’d be better off with a strategy other than zero-tolerance. If so, the issue about disrespect for our boundaries would remain. I might gently point out, “Billy, do you see what just happened? We had asked you not to bring guns into our home, and then you brought a gun into our home. How do you think that makes us feel? And what do you think that makes us want to do about you and gift giving?” The goal is to get Billy to see the situation from my perspective, which is always helpful in communicating and setting boundaries.
Lori Holden blogs from Denver at LavenderLuz.com and is a contributing writer to The Huffington Post. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, written with her daughter’s birth mom, is available in hardcover and e-book through Amazon or your favorite online bookseller. Lori is available to deliver her open adoption workshop to adoption agencies and support groups.
[i] Jim Gritter, Lifegivers (Washington, D.C.: Child Welfare League of America, Inc., 2000), 167.
Portrait of an Adoption is hosted by Carrie Goldman, author of the award-winning book Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. If you would like to submit a guest post, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.