I am forever curious about how other adopted families do this. How does everyone else manage incorporating the first family into their child’s world? I admit that I don’t know much about domestic infant adoption or foreign adoption. All of my experience stems from children placed in foster care because their parents were unable to properly care for them. I suppose other situations might be vastly different.
We do have an open adoption with Mary and Carl’s father, Dad C. The biological mother does not want contact. Marcus is an adult and manages his own contact with family so I won’t detail that. I’ve only written about the relationship with Dad C because that’s the only one at this time. Mary is not mentally stable enough to participate in contact right now. We had one visit that was very detrimental to her last year. At the advice of her therapists we are holding off until she can handle contact.
For us, it was never a question of if biological family fit in, it was more how to fit them in. Our children are older and therefore remember their first years with these parents. It’s a part of who they are and so we try to respect that. I’ve gotten a number of emails asking about our open adoption so I will do my best to answer them below. I am in no way an expert so please don’t take this as advice. I mess it up all the time in a hundred ways. This conversation is what happens in our family only. I’d love to hear what it looks like in yours!
Private Information: Dad C has our address, has been to our town, and has seen the kids’ schools. He isn’t allowed to show up to these places and all parties are aware of that. He hasn’t been to our house. I think it helps that he knows the kids are in a nice area. He’s met my mom and the kids’ godparents at football games.
Photos: During one of our first visits with Dad C he asked apprehensively if he could have permission to take pictures. He asked if he could be allowed to post them or share them with his family. Luke and I didn’t hesitate to agree. We took pictures with his phone so that he could be in them. This is one of those pieces I don’t entirely understand. A stranger could come and sneak a picture of my kids on their phone. It really doesn’t affect us if Dad C posts pictures of the kids or tries to paint a Facebook-friendly image of a family that is still together. Who cares? We live in different states and don’t move in the same crowds. I might feel differently if people in the community thought the kids were “back” with Dad C. Probably not, though. Our friends know what’s going on and everyone else can think whatever they like.
Sobriety: I have had some questions about requiring bio parents to be sober. It has even been suggested that bio-parents present a clean drug test for a period of time before being allowed visitation. Personally, I think this is more for a foster-care situation than an open adoption. If the parents could maintain sobriety then they might have been able to parent their children. Since the time to prove they can stay clean and resume parenting has passed, I can’t see that it’s my business.
The bio-parents are only required to be 100% sober for visits. Our children will not have contact with anyone under the influence or behaving erratically. Other than visitation times, it’s their life. I hope they do get clean. If not, it doesn’t change anything. We adopted these children. We parent them safely. If they can feel loved by multiple people and have positive interactions, I think it’s good. Our kids know about their bio-parents problems. They already lived through it.
In-person visits: Luke and I supervise these. We only have them with Dad C because bio-mom does not want contact. We schedule them when/if Carl wants to see Dad C. We will give gentle reminders or prompting that this is available. Typically Carl isn’t that interested in seeing Dad C but he likes to get letters in the mail. Carl also likes when Dad C attends a few sporting events to watch him play. We support this and arrange it as best we can. During visits Carl can give us a signal if he feels uncomfortable or is ready to end the visit. Dad C does not drive Carl anywhere or take him to another location. We usually have a post-game meal at a fast-food restaurant together.
Luke and I field requests for visits. If Carl doesn’t want to see or speak to Dad C, we handle it. It’s OK with me if Dad C thinks we are keeping him away sometimes. It’s fine with me if he believes we are mean for not giving him holidays. We take care of our kids first. We protect them from having to say “no” or be in an uncomfortable position. Luke and I are only concerned with the well-being of the kids.
Letters and presents: Sure. Bio parents can send these any time. We do read them first to make sure they aren’t triggering or inappropriate. Dad C likes to give the kids money. Cool.
I also post pictures and report cards to a closed Facebook group for bio-family.
Boundaries: This one is hard. Dad C doesn’t seem to understand, or at least admit, why he doesn’t have any of his children. This is fine as long as it’s not a conversation with our kids. We know he has several more although he only mentions one other son. This is his private business so we don’t ask him about the other kids. He sometimes mentions he “lost his case” because he didn’t have enough money. We know this isn’t true at all. The kids know this isn’t true and obviously remember why they aren’t with him. We ask that he does not mention the case. We require that he avoids adult conversation, violence, and inappropriate language. He is not able to ask the kids why they didn’t want to live with him etc. On the flip side, he can answer anything the kids ask him.
Do we get along: I guess we do. It’s more about getting along in front of the kids than anything else. Even if I am annoyed or unhappy with something Dad C has done I try not to show it in front of Carl. I dislike that Dad C spends a lot of the visits crying and saying he misses Carl and thinks about him every day. This is probably all true. However, I don’t think it should be Carl’s burden to make Dad C feel better. I don’t think the visit should be about Dad C’s feelings at all. It should be about the child.
I don’t like having to provide prompts and reminders over and over (and over!) again about the children’s ages and birthdays. I am frustrated at trying hard to plan visits and give reminders, directions, and more prompting only to have things fall apart. Dad C and his wife aren’t good at this stuff. Since this is my personal problem and not the kids, I keep it to myself.
I really dislike the different treatment Carl gets in comparison to Mary. He always gets a card and money for holidays and birthdays (as long as I give multiple reminders first.) Mary has never gotten the same. On her last birthday she was overlooked for about 4 months despite reminders. She wrote a sweet letter asking for a card or letter. Eventually she got a card with less money. This came with another card for Carl with money. Luke and I had to make it clear that both children had to be treated the same.
I don’t like that Dad C’s new wife considers herself the “stepmom” and wants the kids to hug her. It’s weird. They don’t know her. She talks to me a lot about asking the kids if they want her to have a baby. We do not allow that conversation because it shouldn’t be Mary and Carl’s burden to handle big adult decisions. She also talks a lot about how the kids are bonding with her and accepting her. She thanks them and says she loves them and talks my ear off about why this is a big deal for her. I know I’m being unfair but that is just plain annoying. It shouldn’t be about her. It should be about the kids.
Neither one of them has ever asked about how the visit was for the Carl. They’ve never asked if he had a good time, if he wants to do something different or how he felt about it. Both of them just talk a lot about how the experience was for them and what they might like next time.
Look, I don’t think we are ever going to be BFFs. As long as we maintain a polite and functional communication for the kids I feel accomplished.
At the end of the day it’s their relationship, not mine. I tell the children the honest truth about everything if they ask. I keep my judgments and opinions to myself as much as possible. I honestly don’t always do a good job. It’s complicated and fraught with my own emotions. In our case Dad C has been respectful of boundaries and we’ve never had an actual problem. During one visit he became angry and struck the table a bit with his fist. Carl wasn’t present for that. Dad C’s wife intervened quickly before he got too angry. This is the only hint I’ve personally seen that he has aggression issues. If he had raised his voice, if Carl had noticed, if anything had escalated we would have terminated the visit. However, cooler heads prevailed and it ended on a pleasant note.
Someone in the blogosphere recently suggested to me that the state lies to kidnap kids and adopt them out. No. Just…no. I’ve seen the evidence in this case. I believe the DCF reports about how my kids lived before they came to us. More than that, I believe my children when they describe how things were in their first family. As accepting and open as I try to be, I’m not an automaton. There are things in my children’s past that enrage me. There are things about these first parents that chill me to my very core. But still, the bio-family belongs to my children. So I try and then I try again.
No matter what happened, no matter what their biological parents did or didn’t do, my children love them. Carl will be thirteen next month. He has such a wise perception of the events in his earlier years. When discussing his biological dad he says, “It’s not my fault he did those things. He made bad choices. I know he loves me though.”
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.