Recently, I was speaking to a group of prospective and adoptive parents about the importance of keeping their word to maintain contact with their child’s birthparents and was stopped mid-sentence by an adoptive mother. She said, “What if we want to communicate but our child’s birthmother disappears or doesn’t respond to our efforts?”
What a great question. So much emphasis is put on the importance of adoptive parents not “backing out” of their agreement and how devastating it is for a birthmother if they do. Studies even suggest that birthmothers who had the most difficulty resolving their grief from adoption loss were the ones that had been promised an open adoption experience only to discover that the arrangement was later cut off (Donaldson, 2007).
But what happens when the adoptive family maintains their promise to an open adoption and their child’s birthmother bails? It can be confusing and even hurtful. She seemed so enthusiastic about maintaining open communication and staying in close contact. What happened? Why did she disappear? There are a number of reasons this could happen. Let me share a few.
1) Adjusting to a New Normal. During my pregnancy, I spent much of my time thinking about getting back to my old life, re-connecting with friends and starting a new semester of college. When I got back to school, I began to realize that it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. I was a different person and that this new life was going to take some getting used to.
I was settling back into university life and starting new classes while attempting to conceal the remaining physical changes that occurred during pregnancy and after birth. I was trying my hardest to avoid my son’s father who was attending the same school and had moved on to a new girlfriend. And I was beginning to realize that the college life I once loved and the friendships I once cherished seemed juvenile and irrelevant to me.
I was also adjusting to conflicting feelings about my placement – gratitude towards my son’s new family and also heartache and feelings of emptiness; relief that a painful season of my life was over and yet incredible feelings of loss; pride in the decision I had made for my son and at the same time, shame and disappointment in myself, etc. I needed to process with someone but wasn’t sure I could explain the confusion in my head and the emotions that seemed so contradictory. I was different. My whole world was different. It was a difficult period of adjustment.
Although I felt comfort in maintaining connection with my son’s new family, some birthmothers find it difficult to integrate their old life with this new life that includes a child and a new extended family that they are learning to trust. Some birthmothers need time to adjust and figure out how to incorporate the two lives that they are living. According to Patricia Roles, a reunited birth mother and grief counselor, this is a common issue that birthmothers must process in order to resolve their grief and for some, it means backing away for a time.
2) Difficulty Processing Grief. Open adoption can be a great option for some birthmothers. They feel a sense of relief in developing a bond with their child’s adoptive family, especially his or her adoptive mother. They feel grateful to be able to watch their child grow and develop. Openness becomes an important part of their healing process.
Other birthmothers realize that the openness and freedom they have to be involved in their child’s life is just too painful. It becomes a reminder of the life they forfeited by choosing placement. Denial that a loss has occurred becomes survival for some (Porteusi, 1995). Others discover a deep sense of jealousy and resentment towards “the other woman” in their child’s life. A period of distance may be necessary for some birthmothers to process these sometimes raw feelings and adjust to their new role as birthmother.
3) Feelings of Unworthiness. The ability to participate in selecting a new family for her child and the freedom to develop a relationship with them can empower some birthmothers and aid in their healing. For some however, the guilt, shame, sense of failure and disappointment in themselves from not even attempting to parent may keep a birthmother from maintaining the contact she once agreed to. One birthmother explained, “I was looking for some deeper awareness, and perhaps more importantly, acceptance of self. I had given up my child and had to find a way to live with that and not believe I was a terrible person…On some level, too, I felt like I deserved to be punished, and that I did not deserve [this relationship]. Deep down I was prepared to believe I was not good enough (Franklin, pp. 100, 103).”
Birthmothers struggling with feelings of unworthiness and esteem issues may need to process these feelings before they are able to engage in a healthy relationship with you. Try to be patient as she attempts to resolve some of her deeper issues.
Perhaps the most important thing for an adoptive family to understand regarding a birthmother’s withdrawal from this new relationship is that it is not about you. You have likely done nothing to cause this breach in contact. Your child’s birthmother is processing overwhelming and sometimes debilitating emotions, determining what her new normal will look like, trying to figure out where she fits as a birthmother to her child and finding a new sense of self – all of which may consume her for a time.
Also keep in mind that like any relationship, this one will have ebbs and flows. There are times when your child’s birthmother may be busy living her life and not have much contact with you. There are other times when she may feel the need for more contact than usual. The same is true with you. There will be a time when you are getting your child to every extracurricular activity that you innocently signed them up for to help them grow and develop, not realizing the extra time it would consume. You may feel guilty for not having more contact but just feel too drained to send an update or share pictures. Other times you may feel a great desire to share an experience with your child’s birthmother – a developmental milestone, perhaps.
One of the many things that I love about my son’s adoptive family is that every year since my son was born, I receive a Mother’s Day greeting card and lots of love and support from them. They make sure that I don’t feel forgotten, unappreciated or unloved. We may be communicating a lot or we may be going through a period with less contact. Regardless, I never have to question their love for me or be concerned with whether or not I am forgotten. They are consistent!
Remain consistent in your contact. That is my encouragement to you. You can’t control what she does or does not do but you can determine from the start that you will never give her any reason to doubt your love and gratitude for the little life that she brought into the world and graciously shared with you.
Send cards on holiday’s and special occasions. If they are returned, collect them and have them available for her when and if the time comes that she initiates contact once again. If she doesn’t acknowledge them, send them anyway.
Maintain your commitment to visitation. If face to face contact was agreed upon, plan on it until she tells you otherwise. Keeping up on your end of the deal confirms to her that she made a wise decision when she chose to place her child in your care.
Send a text, just because. Again, this is a reminder to her that she’s thought of and not forgotten.
These may seem like little things and perhaps unnecessary, especially if she is not reciprocating. But by keeping up your end of the “deal,” she can remain confident in her placement decision, whether she’s engaging with you or not. This relationship will evolve over the years and may at times, seem distant. Unless there are extenuating circumstances that are preventing her from engaging (drugs, an abusive relationship, mental illness, etc.), you and the child that she entrusted in your care are never far from her mind. I guarantee it!