For me, becoming and being a parent in an open adoption is like a kaleidoscope:
- Intricate and multifaceted
- Dynamic and ever-changing
It can be beautiful, perplexing, or revealing, and, sometimes, allude to things just outside of view or bring my attention to the empty spaces.
The construction of a kaleidoscope reflects the evolving discourse in the adoption community. For example, most toy kaleidoscopes use a three-sided reflective surface inside, which reminds me of how adoptive family systems used to be rendered as a triangle or triad, interrelating three core positions of birth/first parents, child, and adoptive parents. But today, we speak of adoption constellations to better evoke the complex, dynamic, intergenerational relationships created through adoption, like the infinite facets and unique, intricate patterns seen through a kaleidoscope. Openness in adoption is like trying to see and appreciate the multiplicity of perspectives and experiences.
If you look into my kaleidoscope of open adoption experience, you might get a sense of the relationships between myself, my wife, our daughter, her birth mother, and other family members. You might catch glimpses of the times I informed people that I’m a parent by adoption when they said, “Oh, she looks just like you!,” or notice the photo of my daughter with her birth mother on the family photo wall in the living room. You could see my daughter and I role-playing and narrating the imagined reunions between Disney princesses with their birth parents who’ve been left out of the story. You might see me text my daughter’s birth mother each Father’s Day to thank her for choosing me to parent her baby or notice the cards we exchange on other holidays and birthdays. You might hear my daughter and birth mother talking during their annual face-to-face visits. You’ll be dazzled by flashes of joyful laughter and also moved by moments of sorrow, grieving, and tears. In the corner of your eye, you might also sense the doubt or anxiety I harbor about the responsibility of being an adoptive parent, committed to fostering a life-long connection between my daughter and her birth mother, as well as other members of her birth family.
My daughter is now almost seven-and-a-half, a first-grader who’s been mostly at home with myself or my wife for more than a year now due to the pandemic. Often, I wish I had a telescope, crystal ball, or magic wand to help me see what’s ahead and how to navigate it all. In lieu of such magical tools, I rely on the community, especially folks with adoption experience.
Bryan Post’s unique model of trauma-informed, adoptee-focused parenting has been crucial for helping ground me and stay in a relationship with my daughter through the tensest moments this year – and there have been many! This paradigm also helped me appreciate the increased intimacy of this unexpected time together at home.
Over the past year, to continue learning and to grow my peer support network, I’ve also been meeting and interviewing fathers of adopted children, both birth/first fathers and adoptive fathers, which, combined with an abundance of adoption-related books, articles, webinars, blogs, and podcasts, has dramatically broadened and deepened my awareness and appreciation of the diversity of family systems created by adoption, especially the wide-ranging experiences of openness in public and private domestic adoptions.
Peering inside this larger kaleidoscope of fathers’ experiences of open adoption reveals many facets. Some reflect my own experience. Mostly, these conversations have widened my perspective. One dimension that really catches my eye is transgenerational influences.
While each adoption story centers upon each man’s relationship with a particular child, I’ve been equally curious about how men navigate relationships with other family members in open adoptions. The narratives I’ve heard usually span three or four generations. Men begin by reflecting upon their own experiences being parented. Fathers have shared stories of their own birth or adoptive parents, single parents, step-parents, in-laws, and grandparents. Based on my own experience, I feel a special camaraderie and compassion with the many men whose fathers, for various reasons, were absent for all or part of their childhoods. Some men have parents who were adopted themselves, typically in the era of closed adoptions, and they’ve participated in searches and reunions with newly discovered grandparents. The men I’ve met with have also shared how they navigate relationships with their child’s other parents over the years, and most have spoken about building relationships with those folks’ other children, and relatives, such as cousins, aunts/uncles, grandparents, etc. Visits, holidays, weddings, as well as the use of texts, phone/video calls, social media, and ancestry websites, all offer opportunities to interrelate, practice naming and narrating their relationships, and to ‘do family.’
About the author:
Phil Weglarz is an adoptive father in an open adoption, a marriage and family therapist, an associate professor of counseling psychology, and a Ph.D. candidate at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. In 2021, Phil is completing narrative research with birth/first fathers and adoptive fathers about their experiences of open adoption. https://tinyurl.com/fatherstoriesofadoption
Establishing and maintaining a relationship with birth parents during the process of adopting can be an intimidating, sometimes frustrating experience. It can also become one of the most enriching and rewarding experiences you will ever have. These hints may help you keep perspective and stay less anxious as you meet and get to know your future child’s birth parents. While many of these suggestions seem impossible to you now, they are quite feasible, albeit challenging. And while we rarely achieve any ideal relationship with anyone, keeping in mind some of these thoughts may help shift your thinking to allow you to create a mutually respectful, gratifying adoption experience.
- Be yourself. Really yourself. There is a birth family and a child out there for everyone. No matter what your age, religion, ability, economic status, or profession, birth parents will choose you for a variety of reasons. If you pretend now to be other than who you are, your adoption will be based on a falsehood and can eventually have negative ramifications for you and the family you are trying to create.
- Birth parents are at least as frightened as you are. They are afraid of being rejected, afraid they will end up giving birth to a child who has no parents to care for it, afraid they will have to choose to parent when they are unable to. Birth mothers have often been abandoned by their child’s father and have little emotional support from family and friends. Even if they do have partners and family support, this is a very frightening and extremely emotionally demanding time in their lives. In this way, there are many parallels between the adopting and birth parents’ experiences.
- Find the birth parents’ strengths and focus on them. These are the attributes you will eventually share with your child about their origins. Children usually care less about eye and hair color than “am I like my birth family?” Reframe potentially negative attributes in the positive. Most birth parents are quite resourceful, even if they have not made great decisions in the past. Who among us hasn’t made mistakes? Adoption is a great decision and so was following through with action that eventually led them to you.
- Resist the temptation to convince a birth parent what a great parent you will be. Birth parents see adopting parents as having everything they don’t have. These usually include maturity, stability, often a good marriage, financial stability (not wealth), and of course the desire, willingness, and ability to parent. The aspects of your life that you would like to improve are probably invisible to a woman who sees you as someone who can and will provide for her child everything she cannot provide at this time in her life.
- You probably have major issues of control after infertility. Adoption, like infertility, can make us feel “out of control.” Someone else is carrying your child. Be aware of these issues in yourself and try not to exert control where it is inappropriate.
- Get support anywhere and everywhere except from birth parents.
- Keep in mind that adoption is a lifelong process. It began with your infertility and never ends. It continues through to your child’s children and on…. We are leaving something behind, just as genetic parents do. The seeds you plant now will grow throughout the life cycle of the family you create.
- Enjoy this time as much as you can. You’ve earned it.
Carole Lieber-Wilkins is Carole is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in West Los Angeles (CA 18998), also licensed in Idaho (ID 5979), providing individual and couples counseling, as well as psychoeducational consultations for those moving in to alternative paths to parenthood. A specialist in the field of reproductive medicine, adoption, and family building options since 1986, she became a founding member of Resolve of Greater Los Angeles in 1987 and served on the Board of Directors in various positions for many years. In addition, her own experience creating a family through adoption and egg donation deepens her understanding of the challenges others face when exploring these complex family-building options. Please visit her website here: www.LAfamilybuilding.com