Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Helping Adoptive Parents Understand the Role of Families of Origin: From the Viewpoint of a Mother who lost a child to adoption

~ by Mirah Riben

The United Nations has determined that the difference between a good and bad life for a child is a mother with a sense of empowerment.

Adopting a child today is far different than it was a generation or two ago when it was felt best to keep the entire process secretive.

Adopting today requires accepting the reality that the child you have adopted has two sets of parents. It means being able to deal with your child's feelings of rejection and abandonment, not just expecting him or her to accept that he was "chosen" and is "special" for having been adopted, which can lead to feelings of indebtedness and gratitude.

Adopting today may mean on-going contact with the family of the child you are raising. Adoptions today either start out open or may become open when a mother or father initiates a search or they are searched for. This will undoubtedly mean a bumpy ride as your child's family of origin will likely be very different from yours and have different styles of communicating and different cultural values, even if they are American.

Your child's family are your child's family not your friends. True open adoption welcomes and embraces an ongoing relationship between the child and his family, not between the two sets of parents. The tightrope you walk, not an envious one, is that even your most well-meaning friendship could appear to be solicitous. Well-meaning comments like "I understand" can be taken very badly from someone who knows you have not walked a mile in their shoes.

Unlike the popular portrayal of adoption by the media and movies such as the purely fictional Juno, adoption is not a win-win. It is a win-lose. The family of origin has lost a child. Many mothers do not think of adoption as a gift or a sacrifice. For them it is a loss and nothing else. No matter how much the "decision" may appear to have been their "choice" it was a choice made as a last resort, quite likely as your choice to adopt was also made only after other methods of parenting were unattainable for many of you.

One way to show your respect is to always refer to them as the mother, father, grandparents etc of the child you are raising, as in their hearts that is their reality. They neither need nor want any prefix. They are not "first" mothers, "original", "birth" mothers, or "tummy mommies". They are simply your child's mother and father. Children are remarkable at not being confused as to who their "mom(s)" and "dad(s)" are!

If you are caring and loving parents you need not fear the old adage that blood is thicker. They will be psychologically bonded to those who care for their needs on a daily basis, even as their natural family members may play important roles in their lives as well. The psychological bond may be tested and strained, especially in teen years, but if it is a strong bond, it will withstand that strain.

The bond with your child is strengthened by the respect you show for their family members, as children, once they've taken a science class, are keenly aware that they share genes with these people and even the slightest look or disparaging remark on your part will strike them very deeply as an attack on them and add to their fear of not having been wanted by their family of origins and possibly not being wanted by you.

The best way to keep smooth relations with them is to keep all promises of openness, or even seek more. The most contentions adoptions are those in which promises were made and not kept. If you are having difficulties, seek a professional mediator.

Often, mothers in open adoptions will be the ones to back off visitation, leaving adoptive parents confused and disappointed. There could be many pragmatic reasons for this such as: distance or new obligations - school, job, new boyfriend, husband or child. Often, however, it is because watching others do what they are unable to, is too painful.

Brenda Romanchik of Adoption Insight reports (CUB ALL email list 3/25/06 with permission), "[B]irthmoms in open adoptions actually experience more grief symptoms than less. But they also grieve in a much more healthy way than our predecessors. We don't bottle it up and shove it under the rug to deal with at reunion. The contact we have forces us to confront our loss. We don't do open adoption because it hurts less; we do it because it is what is best for our kids."

Adoption involves a great deal of loss and hurt. Your child is suffering from that loss as are the members of her family. While an adoptee as he grows may at time be angry at one set of parents and then another, you will, rightly or wrongly, often be seen as the big bad meany who tore his that family apart. No explanation of his family's financial situation or their age will make any sense to a child, or quite frankly to a broken hearted mother. The less you try to defend your position, the better. The less you try to show gratitude the better, because you are grateful for their loss when all one ever needs to is sorry for another's loss.

Adoption is a difficult path. It is said that the truth will set you free, but is also painful. The best thing you can do is to help her accept the reality of her life situation with all of its thorns and all of its joys. We all know that children learn what they live. Let them learn honesty, openness, respect, and grit from you.


Marcy Axness, Painful Lessons, Loving Bonds: The Heart of Open Adoption

Jim Gritter, Lifegivers: Framing the Birthparent Experience in Open Adoption


Open Adoption & Family Services of Oregon and Washington's groundbreaking 2002-2003 client survey project, "Emotional Intelligence in Children of Open Adoption" found the following:

* 80 percent of adoptive parents and their child's mothers reported ongoing visits between the mother and child at least once a year seven to eighteen years after placement.

* As the amount of contact (through visits, phone calls and letters) between mothers [or fathers] and adoptive families increases, so does overall adoption satisfaction as reported by all triad members.

* Ninety-one percent of adoptive parents and their child's mothers reported high levels of healthy collaboration.

* Ninety-four percent of the adopted children are at or above national averages for emotional intelligence. Fifty-three percent of these children are considered highly above average.

* Children who perceive strong levels of collaboration between their adoptive parents and birthparents score higher on emotional intelligence tests.


Dawn said...

Mirah and PEAR -- I wonder if you would be willing to post an excerpt of this over at with a link back to this site? I know our community would really value it!!!!

Origins-USA said...

You have my permission to do so with credit and a link, the rest is up to aPEAR.


PEAR said...

It's OK by us at PEAR.


Deb Donatti said...

Mirah & PEAR,
This is a great article!
I would also like to post this at.. and link back to PEAR and give full credits of course.
Is it possible to post the entire piece there?
The mentioned site is one that I have set up to spotlight the best of adoption related blog articles, as well as blog about adoption myself.

PEAR said...


It's fine with me as long as Mirah agrees.

Gina Pollock
Interim President