One of the biggest fears faced by birth parents in adoption is that adoptive parents will not keep their promises about future contact. Many birth parents have heard horror stories about adoptive parents who promised the world, only to cut off all contact after the placement. In adoption, we are asking birth parents to place their trust in an agency and social worker, perhaps based on reputation or recommendation. From there, we are asking them to place their trust in adoptive parents the agency has approved, who they may have only met once or twice. It is not a surprise that birth parents fear a lack of follow through. The only way to ease that fear is to build trust, and trust takes time and relationship to build.
So what can an adoptive family do to ease that fear and begin building trust?
–Discuss your commitment to open adoption in your profile. Don’t make adoption or openness the “elephant in the room” of your profile.
–Reiterate your commitment to openness in person when meeting the expectant parents. Don’t be afraid to bring up openness first in this meeting! You can ask the expectant parents what they are hoping for, and share your excitement and commitment again.
–Solidify your commitment to openness with a symbol or gift. Prospective adoptive parents often want to give a gift to expectant parents when they meet before the birth or at the hospital, and this is a perfect time to continue showing your commitment to openness. A gift like a memory box, photo album, or scrapbook, with an explanation that you plan to send photos or scrapbook pages to fill it up, is a great start to this conversation.
–Offer to sign a legally enforceable future contact agreement. If your state allows for legally enforceable future contact agreements, bring this up with the birth parents. Letting them know that you are willing to put your name to a legal agreement for openness may ease some of their fears.
–Don’t make promises you may not be able to keep. It often happens that families get overwhelmed at the hospital and begin offering more openness than they are comfortable with. If you’re asked for something you’re not sure about, let the birth parents know that you want to think about it or talk about it with your partner or social worker before making a commitment. It is always better to say, “I’m not sure” than to say “yes” and then not follow through.
–Don’t offer more contact during pregnancy if you don’t intend to continue that level of contact after placement. We understand the appeal – if the expectant mom has your cell phone number, she can just text you updates about doctor appointments instead of having to go through two social workers to get this information. We support you in having this level of openness, but only if you are comfortable continuing to text directly after the baby is born. If you would rather have some separation after the placement, you should keep the agency involved in your contact during pregnancy as well.
–Set appropriate expectations. Along the same lines as above, if you intend to have direct contact with the birth parents, set expectations to ensure that everyone is on the same page and no one is disappointed. For example, if you share an email address, you may want to mention how often you’ll check it and how quickly you’ll be able to respond.
–Send pictures and letters on time, and whenever possible, share more than the minimum. Think of your yearly updates as a chance to review your year for your child as well as the birth parents. Share all of those tiny moments that no one else will think are quite as exciting as you do – your child’s birth parents will likely revel in them right along with you.
–Be creative in sending updates. Keep a running list of fun “firsts” and milestones to include in your yearly letter. Consider including your child’s artwork or schoolwork as well.
–Involve your child in sending the update. Ask them to write a note or draw a picture for their birth parents to include.
–Offer visits. Often birth parents are ready for a visit, but may be hesitant to ask to set one up. Include an offer of a visit, whenever the birth parents are ready, in each of your yearly letters. This lets birth parents know that the door remains open, but also that you haven’t forgotten.
–Accept letters and gifts from the birth parents. Some birth parents love to respond to letters, or to send their own letters to the adoptive parents or the child. Others rarely send letters, but never miss a birthday. Always accept these letters and gifts, and either share them with your child now, or save them for a time when it will be more appropriate to share.
–If you make a mistake, admit it and commit to do better. Open adoption is a different type of relationship and it will take time to adjust and get comfortable. It is likely that you and the birth parents will make mistakes and step on each other’s toes as you figure out how to do this delicate dance. Be okay with making mistakes, and quick to apologize and commit to doing better.