Are you scared/hesitant/unsure about connection with first family? I was too.
That’s great that you have an open relationship with your kid’s natural parent, but I could never be so open with my child’s biological family.
Adoption means I am THE parent; I am not going to share that title.
I wouldn’t have any clue how to integrate those kinds of people into our life.
Aren’t the kids confused? How do they know who is actually the ‘Mommy?
Where do you even start building a relationship with people so very different?
I hear this a lot. People see how our family embraces my children’s first parents and families, and it surprises them. It is hard to imagine how we can be ok with incorporating many family members of our kid’s without feeling threatened or flooded. Many of us know now that there are benefits to letting adopted kids grow up knowing their story and having some connection with their first families, but real life logistics can be tricky. Going from almost complete strangers to a big family dinner is a big step, and to be honest a long process.
You might have no idea where to even start. Perhaps you would like that family dinner, but feel like your situation has unique challenges, and it could never happen. Maybe you are conflicted between wanting an open relationship, and feeling like once you open the floodgates, things might quickly get out of hand – overwhelming all and leaving your child disappointed. Maybe you are just scared of the unknown, and so you do nothing, or just the bare minimum required by an open adoption agreement.
I was once exactly like you. Just.like.you. When we adopted our first child at birth, we signed an open adoption agreement with her first mom. I don’t exactly remember all the details, but I think we agreed to send a letter and pictures monthly for her first year of life, and then once annually until she was 18 years old. We went way out on a limb and even agreed to a visit once a year. We felt like superstar adoptive parents because we were so very generous in what we were offering. I mean, one visit a year – whoa! Go us! Where is our ribbon?
So the first year went by, and as a proud new mama, I dutifully wrote our daughter’s first mom a letter each month, and included a million cute pictures of this darling girl. I sent it to the agency, as we agreed upon (because we were not so open as to exchange addresses, like we had our limits people). Month after month I wrote these awesome letters, just knowing her mom would be so inspired as to start up a regular exchange, just like I had seen in the few movies that existed about open adoption (anyone remember the movie Immediate Family ). We were going to develop this amazing relationship, and be best buddies forever.
Month after month went by and my letters went unanswered. Around the 1 year mark, I started to lose steam. I was feeling sad about not hearing back, and that we hadn’t been able to develop that relationship I dreamed about. Because I’m a rule follower, and I hate having unchecked boxes in my life, I kept up with our part of the contract. I wrote a letter with pictures once a year, usually around my daughter’s birthday. I began accepting that we might not hear back from her first mom, and felt sad about that. I did keep sending the letters though, because I had promised her first mom that I would. I really had no guidance of how to handle this disappointment, how to have empathy and understanding of why her first mom may not be responding, or where to go from here. At the time, I couldn’t find any support groups or books that might help me navigate this complex relationship. As a busy mom, I thought about letting this contact slide.
But then somewhere around my daughter’s 3rd birthday, I had a realization. A big realization. I wasn’t doing this for myself. I wasn’t doing this for first mom. I was doing this for THIS KID. This kid, who was the only part of the triad who had had absolutely no say in the decision that would change the trajectory of her life forever. This kid who would forever carry around the hurt, sadness, trauma (whatever word fits best) of not being able to be raised with her first family. The child who was separated from her mother shortly after birth, after being completely intertwined with her first mom for her entire (in utero) life.
As I realized that while connection was good for me, was super important for first mom, it was imperative for my daughter. I didn’t want her to go through life with big holes in her story, simply because I had big feelings about our open adoption not going exactly like I had pictured (one of my favorite quotes is “expectations are pre-meditated resentments”). I had a ton of expectations about how this relationship was going to go, and when things didn’t work out like I had planned, I was hurt. But guess what? This wasn’t about me at all. Not at all. It was about this child who I loved with all my heart. And because of this love, I realized that even if I never heard back from her first mom, it was my duty as my daughter’s mom to keep working on building connection. To keep reaching out, over and over and over. To be vulnerable and continue telling my daughter’s mom that I loved her, that I cared about her, and I thought of her often. And that when she was ready, I would be here to welcome her into our lives with open arms.
When my daughter was 6, her first mom was ready to walk through that door. We reconnected, went out to where she lived to visit, and started building the relationship we have now. Our relationship now isn’t perfect (but really, is any relationship perfect? I think not, as we are all human), but it is pretty darn incredible. We talk about our shared daughter, we delight in the fact that our daughter has her first mom’s incredible talent for writing short stories and poetry. We have developed relationships with my daughter’s biological siblings, and its so cool to watch her go from being the big sister in our family, to the little sis with her siblings.
Recently my daughter expressed interest in building her family tree. I did my best to recreate it from what I knew about her family, but we got stuck on her great-grandmother, and couldn’t go any further back. A quick call to her first mom, and it turns out we were stuck because I had some very important details completely wrong. 5 minutes later, we had that whole section of her family tree done. If I hadn’t keep working to maintain connections for my daughter, we wouldn’t have been able to figure this out so easily. It made me proud as her mom that because of my efforts, we were able to fill in some of the holes in her story that occur when adoption is involved. I kept trying even when it was hard because my kid deserved it. And now we are seeing the benefits of connection all the time.
So I imagine you might be thinking – “Katie, this is all well and good for you. But our story is complicated. Our story is different.” Well there is a lot I’m intentionally leaving out from our story because in the end, this is my daughter’s story, and those are her personal details to share, or not to share. But yep, our situation was complicated too. It still is. But I do believe in most situations, there is a way to build connection. Maybe you will have to get super creative on how to do this while maintaining comfortable boundaries for your family. Maybe there are safety concerns you aren’t sure how to navigate. Its ok to have no idea what you are doing. And if you want help, advice, or just to vent, I’m here. Just reach out. You can find me at www.fosteringconnectionsforfamilies.com.
A local non-profit foster care agency recently made a short video about our family and our journey in building connections with our youngest child’s family. I’m including the YouTube link below. I hope by reading my story and “meeting” my family in this video, you will be inspired to maybe, just maybe, be open to being open. No commitment, nothing written in stone, just a willingness to maybe explore the idea. You can do it. It has been worth the fear a million times over for each of our adopted children, to really know their place in the world and how their adoptions made our family trees grow together, not erase their history.