By Jennie E. Painter
Years ago following one of my presentations on open adoption relationships, a participant told me that I was so open minded that my brains would fall out. It was difficult for some to imagine that birth-parents and adoptive parents could form lasting relationships and both have roles in the child’s life. That just wasn’t how adoption was done.
But today, open adoption plays a role in many adoptions. As it becomes more common, the adoption community is learning how to do it better. One of the major developments in open adoption is including birth grandparents into the relationship equation. In the recent past, birth grandparents did not have the option to be involved in their grandchildren’s lives. Grandparent support is so important, often anchoring this form of family formation.
A successful open adoption relationship develops like a courtship. When a man and a woman meet and find they share a mutual interest, they spend time together, getting to know each other better. This too is how birth-parents and adoptive parents form their relationship. They spend time learning about each other and sharing their relationship expectations.
When a couple commits to form a partnership, they usually introduce their new love to friends and family. In an open adoption, the parallel is for adoptive parents to meet birth grandparents. This may occur before or after the baby is born. The timing of this connection is often dependent on the relationship the birth-parents have with their own parents. If a birth-mother enters the adoption process with her parents’ support, the birth grandparents can play an integral part in the adoption from the beginning. If the birth-mother has not told her parents about the pregnancy or adoption, the birth grandparents may play a role at a later time or not at all.
The final step is for the birth-parents and extended birth family members to meet significant members of the adoptive parents’ family. Although there is usually no formal gathering to celebrate the joining of two families through adoption, they often meet at the child’s baptism or birthday celebrations.
For the child, extended family open adoption relationships have many benefits. As the child maintains connections with members of his birth family and builds a relationship with members of his adoptive family, the child develops a sense of being part of two families, diminishing issues of abandonment and identity challenges.
But this kind of family formation does present challenges. What happens when a birthparent is not ready to parent but a birth grandparent is ready to grandparent. Bonnie, a 50 something year old birth grandmother, has played an instrumental role in maintaining the relationship between her daughter and the adoptive parents.
“My daughter loved spending time with the adoptive parents before the baby was born. Afterwards, it was too painful. She needed some distance to heal. My grand daughter is now 8 years old and my daughter is fully involved in maintaining her own relationship with her daughter and her daughter’s parents.”
Now that Bonnie’s daughter can manage her own relationship, her defined role has changed. Now she wonders, “Can I have a relationship with my grand daughter independent of my daughter. Will my grand daughter and the adoptive parents still want to see me if my daughter is not with me? Open adoption relationships, like all family relationships, do not remain static. They are ever evolving.
A birth grandparent, especially a birth grand mother, usually does not have the same amount of contact with the child as she would have if her daughter or son parented the child. A hierarchy of grandparents is established, usually giving the adoptive grandparents a higher ranking. Bonnie felt the impact of this during the baby’s first Christmas. “My family was gathered together but my grand daughter was missing. The adoptive parents sent pictures but she was not part of our Christmas, she was not found in our Christmas photos.”
The grief of not having her grand daughter close and the realization that open adoption does not provide the same family opportunities hit her hard. Bonnie states, ”I had to step back for a period of time, asking the adoptive parents to stop corresponding with me for a short while. I needed time to figure out what my role could be in this child’s life and seeing pictures of my granddaughter was only a reminder of what I didn’t have.”
The birth mother, especially an adolescent mother, may still be forming her own identity, while still being parented. This sometimes poses an awkward situation. The birth grandparents may need to be involved to a certain level, although the birth mother may take offense if she feels her parents are usurping her position or role with the adoptive parents. It can be difficult for the adoptive parents to discern where the appropriate boundaries lie as they attempt to establish a relationship with the birth mother without ignoring a relationship with the birth grandparents.
The adoptive grandparents may also pose an obstacle for the birth grandparents in their attempt to grandparent the child. Some members of the adoptive family may believebirth grandparents have no role or are overstepping their role by wanting to become part of the child’s life. They may not have anticipated sharing the grand parenting role with others. Statements about the child becoming confused are often given as a reason for not including the birth-mother and family into the child’s life.
Family adoption education is integral in helping extended family members understand the complexity of open adoption relationships. Family unity helps a child of adoption develop a strong sense of self and an equally strong sense of being accepted, loved and wanted.
It is important for birth grandparents to set realistic expectations of the amount of time they can have with the child and the kind of role they may play in the child’s life. It can be a rewarding relationship but it will not be the same kind of relationship if the child had not been adopted.
As the child matures and becomes more aware of her adoptive status, the connections she has built and maintained with birth family may take on more importance. To become emotionally whole, adoptees usually need and benefit from knowing and having a relationship with members of their birth family. Although the relationships they have with birth and adoptive grandparents may differ, both are important to the child’s life long development.
Jennie E. Painter, M.S.W., is the director of Adoption Resource and Counseling Services in Kingston, Ontario. Learn more at www.openadoption.ca