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
Carole J. Anderson, died March 31, 2003, after an extended illness of cancer. After graduating from college, Carole received a master’s degree in social work and then went on to attend law school. She later served as clerk for a Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court. Carole was a leader in the field of adoption reform, serving as National President of Concerned United Birthparents for many years.
May she rest in peace, knowing we are still listening and feeling her heart-sent message.
Why did your birth mother refuse to meet you? Carole explains….
There are probably as many answers as there are birth mothers. From some of my own feelings and those of other birth mothers, though, I do have a few possible themes to suggest. Maybe some of the possibilities are behind your birth mother’s refusal to meet you….
In addition to the pain of the losses themselves, there is the additional pain of feeling different from other people, outcast from society. Often there is the pain of feeling that the loss was unnecessary and that the separation need not have occurred “if only…”
…..If only her parents had helped her.
…..If only the social worker had told her what adoption would really be like for you and for her.
…..If only society had supported single parenthood at the time you were born.
…..If only she had not believed she was unworthy of you. If only she had had the money to support you.
…..If only she had somehow found a way to keep you.
…..If only she had believed in her own feelings instead of what others told her would be best for you.
The list of “if onlies” is endless.
- Knowing you could make her losses more real to her, and thus more painful.
- She may have worked very hard at denying her feelings, at convincing herself that your adoption was necessary, at telling herself that giving birth does not make a woman a mother, at pretending that she was not a mother and so did not lose anything.
- She may have denied to herself that it ever happened.
If she has succeeded at numbing herself to the pain by clinging to such beliefs, knowing you would remove the blinders from her eyes, exposing her to the full impact of all the years of loss and pain.
- She may have coped with losing you through fantasizing about what might have been.
- She may see you over and over in her mind just as you were when she last saw you, see herself raising you, see what you would be like at different ages.
- If your birth mother has other children, she may be terrified of losing them, too, if she had not told them about you.
- Many birth mothers were rejected by their children’s birth fathers and by their own parents during their pregnancies. If the people she loved and trusted and whom she though would always love and help abandoned her when she most needed them, she may be unable to trust anyone now.
She may regard all relationships as fragile, and fear that she will be abandoned again if she disappoints the people who are now important to her. Having already suffered the pain of losing one child, the fear of losing her other children and suffering that same pain again may overwhelm her. She may also fear losing you a second time around, if you want to see her only once.
Many birth mothers have internalized others’ rejection of them and believe they are unlovable. Not loving or respecting herself, she cannot believe that others could care about her if they really knew her.
- Suspecting that adoptees who search will ask about their fathers after they have satisfied their curiosity about their mothers, her rejection may be tied to her feelings about your birth father. If she loved him, accepting you could mean reopening the deep wounds she suffered in being rejected by him. IF she did not love him, she may dread having to admit that fact to you.
- She may not want to explain her relationship with your birth father or her feelings about it, and fear that you will reject her if she does not answer your questions about him. She may fear that you would prefer him to her and she could not bear to lose you to the very person whose abandonment made your surrender unavoidable. She may believe that your birth father is a terrible person and feel shame at having had a relation with him, fear that you hat her if you knew him. She may fear that you would be upset! or would think less of her or of yourself if you knew him.
Mothers want their children to be happy, but they also want to feel needed and important to their children. They want to be the ones who make their children happy. Generally, a mother’s needs and her child’s compliment each other, so that both are satisfied by her raising her child, with each needing and receiving the other’s love. The special situation of adoption, though, assures that the birth mother cannot win.
…..If she believes your adoption was the best for you, she may feel worthless or useless as a mother because you did not need her.
…..If your adoption was not the best, she may feel guilty that she did not protect you from whatever happened and she may therefore feel she failed as a mother and as a woman.
Your birth mother’s image of herself as a mother, a woman, and a human being may be at stake. If she has internalized society’s judgments that “nice girls don’t” or that only an “unnatural woman” could surrender her child or that “any animal can give birth but that doesn’t make her a mother”, it will be difficult for her to acknowledge to herself that it is she who is that bad girl, the unnatural woman, or only an animal in society’s eyes.
Subconsciously, some mothers feel that their babies abandoned them….
….Mothers were often repeatedly told that their babies needed or wanted more than they could give them, and that surrender was necessary for the child.
…..Many mothers were told that to keep their children would be selfish, that they had no right to satisfy their need to love and nurture by raising their children, because the children deserve and need more.
Other people spoke for you, telling your birth mother you wanted more than she could give. To your birth mother, this may have been experienced deep within as a rejection by you, as her baby’s deserting her for other people. Even though she knows on an intellectual level that this feeling is not rational and she may feel guilty for it, on an emotional level what she feels may be that, although she needed and wanted her child, her child was not there for her.
Closely related are the problems of competition and sacrifice.
Just as she may have felt that she was in competition with unknown couples for the right to raise you, a contest in which she was the loser, she was also placed in the position of being in competition with you. She may have been told that it was her life or yours, her needs or yours. Because you were not aided as a family but instead treated as individuals whose needs were in conflict, she may have felt that she was choosing between her own happiness and yours.
If she wanted to raise you but believed that your surrender was necessary for you happiness, she may feel that she has sacrificed her life for yours, her happiness for yours. All people want happiness, everyone wants her own needs to be met, and there is usually anger toward injustice. She, however, cannot allow herself to feel or express her anger and resentment, because it was your birth mother herself who decided that you were more important and mattered more than she did, she herself who chose your needs above her own.
If that choice was made by others such as her parents or by her situation instead of by your birth mother, there may be even more anger. There can be tremendous guilt involved for feeling anger, because we have been taught that parents gladly sacrifice for their children. Her anger may therefore be threatening to her, for what kind of person can she be that she could feel anger toward her child?
Yet other parents, other people, do not make sacrifices of this magnitude. What society usually calls parental sacrifice is really more like an investment or a trade-off of some current comfort in exchange for other regards. To give up a full night’s sleep in order to tend a sick child carries with it the benefits of holding and comforting that child, feeling necessary to the child, receiving the child’s love and gaining society’s approval. What most parents think of as sacrifices are small and temporary inconveniences for which they receive personal satisfaction, the child’s loyalty and affection and societal sanctions. The sacrifice of a birth mother’s life for her child’s in unique.
Rather than compensations, the sacrifice is generally answered with guilt, pain and emptiness. Society’s reaction is most often condemnation rather than approval. The birth mother’s sacrifice is unnatural, unrecognized and unrewarded.
Some birth mothers felt less than human during the pregnancy and surrender experience, and may have felt they were regarded as subhuman by society. Just as infants have a need to be nurtured, so every mother has a need to give nurture to her child. You were placed with people who could meet your infant need for nurture, but your birth mother was given no substitute for you. Her need to nurture was not met.
Understandably, many adoptees explain that their adoptive parents are their only real parents and they love them dearly, but that they searched to gain information about themselves. Newspapers are full of articles about adoptees saying that they are not looking for a mother, but for themselves or their own identity.
Your birth mother may feel she is again being reduced to a data bank. Just as she once surrendered you to others while her own needs went unmet, she may feel she is now being asked for information but that again her feelings and needs will be ignored.
She may feel she has given everything without receiving anything in return, and will be reluctant to give still more if she fears that you too, will take what you want from her and then abandon her with no thought for her needs.
Even if she is able to struggle through the many pains and losses that have already occurred, your birth mother may fear that there are more to come if she accepts you now. It may hurt her terribly that she could not mother you.
Opening her heart to you would make your birth mother vulnerable to a later rejection by you.
- If she welcomed you as the beloved daughter or son she lost, how would she feel at being only a friend or acquaintance to you?
- To what extent would you accept her? Would she be asked to your graduation or wedding?
- Would you want to spend Christmas or Passover with her?
- Would you regard her as the grandmother of your children, including her in events in their lives?
- Or would you want to see her on rare and secret occasions, carefully hiding the relationship from others?
- She may feel that not only have adoptive parents taken her place in your life as a child and in raising you, but that by accepting you now she would lose you again, this time by inches, by being relegated to a lowly and insignificant place in your life, if she were included at all….
As an adult, you are unlikely to want your birth mother to be the mother she may, on some level, still want to be.
Your image of motherhood will always be that of your adoptive mother, not your birth mother. You cannot relate to your birth mother in the same way you would have if she had raised you, nor can she relate to you in the same way. Neither of you are the people you would be if she had raised you. Although the similarities you are likely to share would make her keenly aware that you are her child, the differences resulting from your growing up in your adoptive home would make her painfully aware of the distance between you as well.
Because meeting you requires facing all her feelings about your surrender and loss, it may also challenge your birth mother’s beliefs about the value and meaning of life, the importance of family ties, religion and other basic concepts on which she has built her life. Many people want to believe that the world is fair, that everything comes out even, that people get what they deserve out of life. Adoption issues do not fit into such tidy categories.
.…If the world is fair, what has she done that is so terrible she deserve such pain?
….If life is equal why did other people who expressed their sexuality before marriage pay not price for it?
…..If this is justice why did her subsequent children have to grow up in an incomplete family, without their brother or sister.
…..IF families are of primary importance and should be kept together why was her family separated?
How could her church have told her God wanted her child to be adopted or that God created her child for other parents?
How could a loving God want this pain for her?
….If she allows herself to acknowledge her experience, how can she reconcile it with what she believes about life?
….If the foundations on which she has build her life do not match her experience, it will be difficult for her to face her feelings and risk losing those foundations.
Facing you may mean reconstructing! her entire view of life, rethinking all of her values. The issues a birth mother must face before she can accept her adult child are not simple ones, nor are they obvious to her.
Often there are conflicts between what she thinks and what she feels or between her feelings and those of the people around her. Few birth mothers were told to expect these problems or prepared to deal with them. Since little or no hope of a future reunion was offered to surrendering mothers, there was little motivation for attempting to deal with them. Many were told that they would be abnormal if they did not forget about their children, that they should go on with their lives as if they had never had their children.
Most birth mothers, despite the enormity of these issues, do face most of them in the years following surrender. Most people cannot sustain the fantasy that their loss was a nightmare and not a reality. Most people find the strength to face the truth of their own lives, but growth can be a slow and painful process with uneven progress characterized by temporary regression back to suppressed feelings.
To some people, it might seem pointless to attempt reunions when so much pain, conflict and confusion seem to be involved. Reunion, though, does not cause these difficulties. Their source is the birth mother’s unnatural separation from her child. The feelings already exist, and leaving them buried beneath denials and fantasies cannot resolve or eliminate them. However painful the separation experience may be, it is her experience, her life. Attempting to suppress the most profound experience of her life separates the birth mother from herself as well as from her child and is not healthy for anyone. It requires that much emotional energy be spent on denying or numbing feelings, limiting emotional growth in all areas.
Your birth mother’s fear and dread are evidence of the intensity of her feelings for you. If she had no feeling for you, you would be no more frightening to her than a store clerk or a stranger asking for directions.
What she feels may be an overwhelmingly intense but undifferentiated fear and she herself may not understand the reasons for it. Her reasons are her deepest emotions, hidden under so may layers of intellect, rationalization and denial that she is unaware of them. She may try to give sensible reasons why she cannot see, understand or articulate the real reasons without much self analysis.
.….You are offering the opportunity for your birth mother to grow by facing herself and becoming reconciled with her feelings about herself.
…..You are offering the gift of knowing the person her surrendered child has become. These are enormous gifts and you should be proud for offering them to her.
In order to accept them, though, your birth mother must climb a painfully steep and rocky path through her many feelings about your surrender before she can move forward to reconciliation. Her ability to walk a part of that path or all of it is not a reflection on you or on your worth or on your importance to her but on how well she herself can deal with the fears and pains that your loss and society’s attitudes about the surrender have caused her.
….With time and support your birth mother may grow to accept the gifts you offer.
by Carole Anderson
Copyright 1982 by Concerned United Birthparents, Inc.