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couple holding child graphicBy Kirstin Davis

Pact and the Adoptive Parents of Color Collaborative advocate for open adoption, but we know from experience that maintaining contact between adoptive and birth/first families is not always easy or straightforward. We received this question from an APCC member who is parent to a same-race adoptee.

Question from an adoptive parent: We adopted our daughter nine years ago. We knew that we wanted an open adoption with her first family, and we made that clear in our profile. As an adopted person, I fully understand the emptiness of not really knowing who you are. I know what it is like to wonder about…well, everything. The little bit of non-identifying information is almost a tease. It is just enough to make you want more. It is something and nothing at the same time. We were fortunate to meet our daughter’s first parents (I’ll call them A and N) and her brother before placement. We were aware that contact might be emotionally difficult for A and N, so we agreed to let them drive the manner and frequency of contact. We initially agreed to written monthly communication updates, and we would schedule in-person visits when they were ready. So, we felt comfortable that we had a solid plan.

After about nine months of updates, I included a note asking if A and N felt comfortable scheduling a visit. We struggled over asking or if we should wait until they brought it up. We didn’t get a response about meeting, so we kept sending updates. We were excited to share milestones and pictures, but I worried that the frequency of updates was putting pressure on them. Nevertheless I continued the updates since that was the agreement. Over the years, we progressed to texts and direct messages. I eventually set up a private Facebook page to share content rather than send updates in the mail. They were comfortable with that mode of communication. I occasionally asked if they would like to meet in person but always emphasized that it was their decision and would respect their wishes.

We were open with our daughter from her earliest days about her adoption, her first parents, and her brother. We displayed pictures of them in her room and talked openly about the regular updates. As she got older, she would request specific photos be included or updates about events or activities. And she asked about her brother frequently. Since age four or five, her focus has been on meeting and having a relationship with him. And we want to support this request, but we also want to respect the needs and concerns of her first parents. A and I have had several lengthy conversations about our daughter’s yearning for contact. A felt contact would be too emotionally difficult. I respect her feelings, and I’m glad she is open with me about her feelings. We’ve offered to connect her with counseling and support groups, and we’ve asked if we could use an intermediary for contact. But, so far, we have not found a way to make face-to-face visits possible.

As my daughter ages, lack of contact with her brother is more and more difficult. Her emotions range between sadness and loss to anger. She is dissatisfied with our explanations about the emotional complexity of contact. She frequently asks me to request a visit. And this is where I struggle. I genuinely want to respect the wishes of A and N, but my heart says supporting my daughter’s needs are paramount. My contact requests feel more desperate, and I worry that I’m pressing the issue too hard. Balancing my respect for A and N while still advocating for my daughter feels impossible. I ask myself how often should I ask, how many times should I ask? How much is too much?

Response from Pact: The situation you have  described is not unusual—but that doesn’t make it any easier to navigate. Based on our experience working with families in which the first/birth parents are reluctant to agree in-person contact, here are some suggestions of possible next steps and things to think about in the short and long term:

  • Continue to make requests on behalf of your daughter. Although it may feel uncomfortable, offering opportunities for connection is not only important for your child to see but provides a chance for her first family to reconsider. Feelings shift over time, and sometimes families are not in the space for contact in one moment but in the next may be open. That said, set up a schedule for yourself that doesn’t veer into stalking, but remains steady; probably not more than once or twice a year. Either way, keep copies of your requests and updates so that over time your daughter can review them and see that whatever the response (which you cannot control) you were advocating for her.
  • Keep sending updates and remain non-judgmental. Coming back to engaging in contact can be hard for first families after being non-responsive or absent. Offers for connection and reminders of the value for the child may ease that transition for some, but whatever happens, be sure to convey your feelings about their value and importance as well. Often shame, guilt and/or fear drives first parent reluctance for contact. Your empathy can help.
  • As the siblings get older, it may well be possible for them to have a direct relationship with little or no parental involvement. This is particularly true now that tweens and teens routinely maintain long-distance friendships by way of their phones. By maintaining a positive, respectful relationship with your child’s first parents, you are keeping communication channels open to lay the groundwork for future contact.
  • Hold space for your child. There are many things that we, as parents, cannot control in the lives of our children. Experiencing really hard things is one of those things. One thing that you can do is be there for her. Make sure that she has access to opportunities to talk, share and explore her feelings – all of them. Remind her that you are there no matter what. And remember the phases of grief include questioning, denial, anger, and often shame. Give her room to explore each so she can move through the emotions without feeling judgement or fear from you.
  • Give your daughter opportunities to write and speak her truth. Encourage her to write ALL of her feelings out, or dictate them to you and record them; both for her and perhaps eventually for members of her birth family. Expressing herself is key. She might choose to write letters to her brother, and can save them to give to him when you are able to have contact; and/or she may want to write to A and N, explaining why she is mad or disappointed in them. These letters don’t have to be sent, but might help her articulate and move through her feelings.