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Voices From the Heart

a collection of writings from those touched by adoption

"First Steps: Building an Open Adoption"
by Sharon Lind

Featured In Open Page, Summer 2001

I paced the room trying to contain my panic. My three month old daughter refused to be calmed. Her birthmother and birthgrandmother looked on in quiet reserve. What must they be thinking I wondered? Was her birthmother regretting her decision? Had they ever seen anyone so inept at mothering? "Oh, please, please, just stop crying," I whispered gently into my daughter's ear.

I had not planned our visit to go like this. My house was spotless-almost as clean as during our homestudy process. My daughter had taken a nap earlier in the day and should have been fully rested. I had carefully selected her brightly colored romper. Its blue starfish matched the brilliance of her eyes. Her birthfamily arrived late and her birthmother was not impressed with the romper. Kind of boyish looking, don't you think? Shouldn't she be in pink? She needs a bow in her hair. The comments, innocently intended, stung. Fed by the tension in the room, my tiny daughter continued to cry. After much discomfort on everyone's part, the birthgrandmother indicated it was time for them to leave. Gratefully, I showed them to the door. As it closed behind them, I realized my daughter's birthmother hadn't even held our beautiful little girl.

Surely the visit would go down as the worst in history. However, through later conversations with the birthfamily, I discovered nothing could have been farther from the truth. Disappointed as they were, they completely understood. In fact, the birthgrandmother was all too familiar with the pattern of a high-needs baby as her daughter (the birthmother) had been one also! For my daughter's birthmother, the visit solidified her decision to place. She was still emotionally immature and not ready to handle the demands of a fussy infant. Both had total faith in me as a mother-something which I had not given myself permission to be. I learned a lot about myself that day and about my daughter's birthfamily.

Respect Each Other

Not only had I tried to create the "perfect" visit, but I wanted desperately to establish my role as "Mother." Looking back, I realize that my place as mom was already understood by the birthfamily and one meeting could never define our roles or our relationship. Time, patience, and respect define the boundaries and roles in an open adoption. My children's birthfamilies are as respectful of my right to parent as I am of their desire to be a part of their children's lives. Try to step back and allow everyone to savor this unique moment in your history together. As your child grows, she/he will come to understand the important and special roles each of you play.

Bumpy Roads

The old adage, "Don't judge a book by its cover," applies here. A meeting that does not go well is not an indication all visits will be difficult or that "goodness of fit" is missing. Relationships take time to develop and the emotions surrounding placement take time to manage. Based on the visit with my daughter's birthfamily, I might never have seen them again! We would have missed rides on a local carousel, trick or treating at Halloween, and Santa photos together. Nor would I have experienced the look of pure joy on my daughter's face as, for the first time, she played Barbie's with her birthmother.

Be flexible if plans have to change. When we arrived at the apartment of my son's birthmother, she wasn't there. Feelings of irritation bubbled to the surface as I had hired a sitter for our older daughter. We had gone out of our way to make it as convenient for his birthmother as possible. We opted to go for coffee and try back later, all the while trying to decide what her no-show really meant. It didn't mean anything. When we returned, she was there and very apologetic. She had gone to a friend's the night before and simply missed the earlier bus home. Although things didn't go as planned, we ate a late lunch and enjoyed our time together anyway.

Open Your Heart

Just as I would advise those in the early stages of contact negotiation, never agree to anything with which you are not comfortable (either as the adoptive or birth family). If you are not ready to invite the birthfamily to your home, don't. On the other hand, if you cannot wait for the birthmother to see the beautifully decorated nursery, by all means, invite her over. Other than respecting each others boundaries and emotions, there are no "rules" for visitation. See your contact arrangements as a beginning, not as a finite entity. Like many parents involved in open adoption, I find it difficult to recall the exact terms of our written agreements. Even though a number is specified, in reality, my family welcomes as many visits as our collective schedules allow.

If you are not sure how the birthfamily feels about a scenario, ask them. Offer several options, meeting times, or places and let them decide which fit best. Both of the birthfamilies attended their child's Baptism. We talked in advance and invited them to be a part of the ceremony. We all stood proudly together as we acknowledged our blessings in front of family, friends, and congregation. Due to scheduling beyond my control, my son's baptism occurred the day before Mother's Day. At first I fretted about the timing and wanted to be sensitive to his birthmother's feelings. Contrary to my worries, his birthmother felt honored to share in this special time of recognition with me. After the ceremony, everyone gathered at our home for a buffet dinner. Even though it had been only six months, it felt as if his birthfamily had been a part of our family forever.

Plan and Reflect

No matter the outcome, reflect on the positive aspects of the visit. Did you discover something new about each other or a shared interest? Did you participate in an activity that can become an annual tradition? My daughter collects rocks. At the end of a visit, we passed a rock to her birthmother. At our next get-together, she gave the rock back to my daughter. Symbolizing the way we keep each other in our thoughts, the rock has become a part of our shared journey.

If possible, tentatively set the date for the next visit or point of contact. In our busy lives, it is easy to let contact slip by the way side. Open adoption takes planning. See your contact with the birthfamily as a way to learn more about your child and you will have little difficulty integrating openess into your lives. Our common bonds can be found in the emotional journeys we have shared.

One of my greatest joys comes from sharing special moments with my children's birthfamilies. When all is said and done, no other family on earth is as excited by the small milestones my children reach as are their birthfamilies. We are all richer from our experience and while not always easy, open adoption does work and works successfully for those having the faith to embrace it.

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