By Joy Wicks-Nicholls
Openness has been an integral part of our family's adoption and family experience, and its impact on our lives continues to grow. This was not a topic my husband and I prepared for extensively prior to adoption, although once we shifted from international adoption to public adoption we were aware that openness was more likely to be a possibility, and felt comfortable with the idea.
However, I underestimated how meaningful the ongoing relationships with our kids' foster families and biological family members would be for everyone in our family. Seeing our children light up in the presence of their foster families (who cared for them from birth), anticipate and talk about past and future visits, and express the importance of their first relationships makes me so thankful that we have these opportunities to maintain connections.
While meaningful and important, openness is complex.
People have sometimes made comments suggesting that openness may not be as essential for children adopted at younger ages. Although our daughter was just over one year old when she joined our family, out of all three of our children she has shown the most need to know the home and people that were part of her first year. She is more likely than our boys to express that she misses her foster parents. As well, over time, we cannot predict how essential openness and sense of connection and familiarity will be for each of our children. Maintaining these connections means that our children always have access to their first relationships as needed over time, with a strong foundation already established. Sometimes this looks like direct contact with important people in their lives, and at other times it is accomplished through means such as photos and stories.
I also did not realize the desire I would develop to meet more members of the kids' biological families and their first (birth) mom. While we have so far only been able to meet one sibling (a joyful and emotional event for us all), doors may slowly open to expand biological family connections. Overall, I look forward to seeing how this will develop over time, although there are many unknowns and some complicated issues to navigate if and when this occurs. As our children become older, and I become more aware of how easy it would be to locate and initiate contact with biological family members, I realize that this is no longer a vague, long-term possibility, but something we need to be preparing ourselves and our children for now. As well, a recent event involving a biological family member highlights how the opportunity for openness may not always be there.
As a parent I need to be prepared to support my children in their experiences. When one of our children expresses that they wish they still lived with their foster family and misses their foster mom or first mom, I need to be able to hear and validate those feelings, and the meaning behind them. I need to be OK with being one of the mothers in my children's experience, not the only one. I also need to be comfortable enough in my role as parent, to observe the impact of openness on my children and make wise, sensitive decisions with their needs at the forefront.
Practical and logistical considerations exist in navigating openness. In our situation, there is a significant distance between us and our kids' foster families and sibling. A trip to visit them becomes a core part of our vacation time. Thankfully we all love the area where our kids were born, and eagerly anticipate our travel there. These vacations can be busy, making sure we dedicate much of the trip to visiting, while also balancing social activities with quiet family time, and side trips to facilitate our children's exploration and enjoyment of their home area. At Christmas and other times, our children work with us to put together Christmas packages of home-made ornaments, notes, artwork, and photos. As we add more openness relationships, with varying levels of contact, more tasks arise that require thought and an investment of time. Openness is so valuable, however, that these activities are worthwhile.
Openness can require careful contemplation and planning, and at least for seasons may be more contained. At other times it occurs quite naturally and fully as an extension of existing relationships. It may feel comfortable, and may be something your family seeks out willingly, or may require adjustment of personal feelings and expectations to meet others' needs even when it is difficult for you as a parent. Openness may bring surprises, both wonderful and challenging. Part of the beauty of relationships is that there are many ways to facilitate them, and openness can occur in a myriad of ways. Ultimately, weaving valued connections into the fabric of family creates a more textured and interesting life, and contributes to our children's identities and sense of belonging in the world.