I hear this a lot so I imagine you might to.
Usually, this story is coming from adoptive parents who have an open adoption and are telling me this story as an example. Sometimes, I get these stories in emails. Often, the adoptive parents who are writing these stories are genuinely upset and confused. They actually believe in the benefits of open adoption for their children. They want the mothers of their children to have contact with the children they relinquished and to know that the kids are doing well. They don’t understand why the mothers, and sometimes fathers, of their adopted children just disappear.
- “We send pictures every month. We keep hoping that she is at least getting some measure of comfort from seeing him grow up, but she has never picked up any packages for over two years”
- “We had a visit planned for months. We drove over 400 miles. I’m really NOT complaining, but both she and the birthfather backed out at the last minute. It was just disappointing”
- “I don’t know what I did wrong, but she just won’t answer any of my calls or texts. I feel like I am bothering her, so I just send the packages now.”
- “She just disappeared. Her phone was out of order and we have no idea where she is now. It’s been five years. I don’t know what to tell our son”
These are not direct quotes, but are conglomerates of things that I have heard many times over the years.
How Could a Birthmother in an Open Adoption Stop Contact?
I did not have an open adoption with Max, I did not have the opportunity to have an open adoption with Max. I don’t even think I had heard about open adoptions until I got online. Sometimes I wish I did, but sometimes, I am glad I did not. Sometimes I am jealous of birthmothers who do have open adoptions. Of course, it would have been much better to be able to see and know Max for all those years. What I wouldn’t give now to have seen him at age 3 or 6 or 10?! To this day, I have never seen even a picture at that age.
I know that IF I had been offered an open adoption and especially if I had been told by my adoption agency how much better it would have been for him, I would have done it. Yet, sometimes I am thankful for the 10 or so years that the Adoption Kool Aid worked its magic. While I never forgot, and adoption was a constant chain of thought in my head, the wounds scarred over. There was a big tough scab protecting me from the reality of adoption for that time. I had a break. I lived a life that was not, for all intents and purposes, about adoption.
I do base my thoughts on a birthmother closing an open adoption on those personal thoughts. I imagine how it would have been living though an open adoption and what it would have been like. I have heard the quiet thoughts of many moms who do live with the various issues that openness brings. Of course, any individual situation will have its own reasoning and merits, but this is my answer to WHY.
Currently, open adoption is supported by two thoughts:
I have other thoughts about open adoptions in general, the marketing of adoption in this form, the ramifications to the adoptee, but that’s not for this post. What is key here is that many agencies DO use the idea of an open adoption as a selling point to recruit expectant moms to adoption. It is sold as benefit to both the original families and the adoptee.
Again, it’s something that relinquishing mothers are supposed to do because it falls under the “best for the child” header and is supposed to make being separated from the baby easier.
Maybe Open Adoptions Are Not Easier?
I got pictures at 6 months and one year though my agency. I was a neurotic wreck waiting for them 24 years ago. I was a complete wreck waiting for my update of Max at age 16. Like a daily mood swing that got hopeful and anxious before the mail delivery and completely foul and depressed after… every day… for 3 months. Those were just two small time periods in the timeframe of this adoption, yet they greatly altered my mental wellbeing during those times. I cannot image living that way for 15, 18, 20 years.
I see mothers living this now on Birthmother Support lists. The dance they sometimes must perform to be determined healthy enough to garnish an update, the debate on when to request an update, how to ask, the fear of being denied and the affects of being ignored. I would go so far to say that even when an adoptive family follows the set schedules and provides consistent updates on the welfare of the child, the anxiety and fear is still constantly present.
Even though I lived it, even now I can’t image how I had the physical ability to walk away from my newborn baby in the hospital. I don’t know how I did it once. I cannot imagine having to repeat the same action over and over again. I cannot imagine having to do this every six months, every year.
That big tough scab that covered the raw wound of my son’s relinquishment would never have healed. Rather, I see that open adoption could be that action that causes this wound to be reopened again and again. How do you walk away from this child that you love so incredibly much and still have the will to live? I know I would have done it, but yes, sometimes I am glad that I did not have the opportunity. Plus, for so many years, my son was only an image that I could imagine. The three years I missed was based on a fantasy built on a handful of pictures, not a real flesh and blood child whose arms I could feel around my neck. It was years later that I realized the true depth of everything I lost. In an open adoption the evidence of the lost baby turns into the truth of a missed childhood. A mother does not miss the ideal, but a real walking talking child.
I do not believe that even the best open adoption mitigates the feeling of loss. I believe that it does tend to keep a mother in reality and make her face that loss, which can be healthier, but also, just so much harder. The adoption never has a chance to become something of the past, but is a constant force in her life. I can’t say which is better because I don’t think that adoption ever leaves us, but if one is expecting that an open adoption should feel good, I can image that it can be rather surprising to find that it hurts over and over again with each after visit, each new good bye. I can imagine that the reoccurring grief gets rather exhausting.
Open Adoption Better for the Child
Yet, our mother must put her own feelings aside, again, for the betterment of her child. I see so many mothers put aside their own desires, hold their tongues, jump though any hoop just to have that promised visit or get that next batch of pictures. They want to be there for their kids because somehow it’s supposed to be good for our children to know us.
Yet, what happens when that evidence is not obvious?
What happens when the child IS doing well and doesn’t seem to give a damn about this “visit”? What happens when the child shows little interest in “Their Birthmother”?
Not that I am blaming the adoptee at all in this scenario, as I know how kids are, adopted or not! But what I imagine is a mother living with this constant open wound, and then getting very little back in return. I see her questioning her own worth to the child. I see her wondering why she should even bother if the purpose of her visits and contact seem to have no positive effect on her child. Does she end up feeling like some unwanted visitor and goes home to find her own new batch of pain and rejection? What if the adoptive family is not a strong supporter of open adoption, but does what they feel they must, as well? What if the adoption agency has little post adoption services to walk the parties through the long term benefits of continual contact? I have yet to see an adoption agency website that accurately talks about open adoption with both the positive and negative aspects clearly defined.
Like many things in adoption, it seems that the reality of a situation is not clearly discussed beforehand, but rather, the participants are left to navigate the waters after the facts.
When a Birthmother Disappears from an Open Adoption
Obviously, I can’t say the specifics to every situation, because I do not know, but I will say this;
I am sure it will feel like a secondary rejection to the adoptee and as a rejection of the adoptive family, but I don’t think it is always about you at all. For the adoptive parents who believe in open adoption and have tried to do everything that they can to facilitate a mutually beneficial ongoing relationship, I don’t think you should beat yourselves up and wonder what you did “wrong”. For the adoptee, I can only say how sorry I am that you have lost your parent again, but to reiterate: it’s not about you. It’s really not.
Generalizing, I think some birthmothers walk away because it is just so hard. For them, it becomes a matter of survival. It’s a question of their sanity. The constant loss and pain of becomes just too much to bear and shows no signs of value. It’s natural for people to avoid pain.
What to Do when A Birthmother in Open Adoption is Gone?
In the end, I still see open adoption as a social experiment. I don’t think we will really be able to understand and give a real value to open adoptions until we have a population of adoptees who have lived it through to adulthood and can speak honestly about the pros and cons of it. Until then, we have no roadmaps and no real answers.
Like you, I’m only guessing, but hope I can provide some insights from my limited view.