Raising your child and navigating an open adoption can be challenging on the best of days. When you add the layers of holiday traditions, sensory overwhelm, or triggering memories to the mix, even the most ardent supporters of open adoption will testify to the potential for messiness. How do you handle your family’s open adoption and all its complexity during the holidays?

You Are Not Alone

Every year, we field questions related to the challenges of the holiday season and maintaining healthy relationships in open adoption. The questions range:

  • How to handle gift-giving from birth families
  • Who to include and to which event
  • Managing and keeping your family’s traditions, values, routines, etc.
  • Handling several different birth families represented in your one family

As you can imagine – or as you may be experiencing – the added layers of holiday excitement, irregular school schedules, extra events on the calendar, and all! the! sugar! can really mess with your ability to handle unexpected visits from a birth mom or uneven gift distribution among your kids.

The good news is that this dilemma is not yours alone. Likely, your child’s birth family might also be experiencing some confusion or stress over what is the right call for these moments. Your child might also be feeling a sense of confusion over the changes to regular contact. In fact, your extended family may also need clarification. After all, the holiday season – no matter what you celebrate or don’t – can be a landmine of conundrums for anything labeled “family.” Etiquette for relationships changes. Expectations change. Memories may be fuzzier in the shadows cast by the colored lights.

Be Gracious, Flexible, and Creative.

Managing your family’s open adoption during these several months means being gracious, flexible, and creative with your interactions. Offer compassion for the challenging parts of holiday memories, triggers, or dashed expectations. Whether it’s your child suddenly verbalizing that he wishes he could remember Christmas with his birth mother or your child’s birth grandparent requesting extra visitation time during Hanukkah, try to be gentle and empathetic with the emotions under those expressions.

Be flexible and creative in accommodating each other – not just for the significant events but also with the more minor things like memories that are recalled differently than you would remember them. Sometimes, the culture around us, with nostalgic music and beautiful decorations, can soften or blur our original feelings of events from the past. That’s okay – we all do it, and the holiday season might not be the time to sort those struggles out between you. You can always assess how you feel about these challenges once the holidays are over and you’ve caught your breath.

What’s It Like Being Raised in an Open Adoption?

What Would You Do?

One common dilemma we’ve heard from families who navigate open adoption is around gift-giving. We love this question, initially posed in our online support community, because it is a great example of navigating the issues, regardless of the holidays your family (or the birth family) observes.

The Example:

(a compilation from several situations represented in our community)

“How do you handle things when some of your kiddos receive gifts from their birth family around the holidays, but not all kids in your home are included? Several of my children got gifts from their birth mom.

However, the remaining children do not share the same birth family and have no contact with their birth parents. It’s painful for the little ones to be left out (how they perceive it in their minds), but understandably, their siblings’ birth family didn’t give them anything.”

The Suggestions:

Not surprisingly, our experienced parents came through with many suggestions to help with this dilemma.

One family seeks mentors for their kids who don’t have involved birth parents to ensure they get meaningful time with those mentors throughout the year. The mentors and kids exchange gifts to celebrate their relationships and the holiday season.

Another family prepares during the year by frequently discussing family differences. They discuss how every family looks different, celebrates uniquely, and observes holidays and special occasions differently. For the kids who get gifts, they set up video calls with the birth family. They reserve that time for the kids to open their presents during that call, and the other siblings are occupied or away from home for the evening to avoid feeling left out.

Families with older children aware of the difference in not receiving a gift might provide extra gifts to even out the distribution of presents. One parent shared that they allow the child to open gifts from the birth family at a different time from the other kids. The benefit is that they also have dedicated time to discuss the child’s feelings. Another family creates hand-made extra gifts throughout the year to have on hand in case of changed plans or missed visits.

A birth mom in the group includes her child’s siblings in every holiday and celebration to ensure no one feels left out, saying, “It’s about being fair, but it’s also just because I love them. They’re my son’s brothers and sister.”

A couple suggested that the children could create gifts for their birth parents to express care and communicate that exchanging gifts is acceptable without creating the pressure that could come from outright asking the birth parent to provide a gift.

Parenting a Child Exposed to Trauma, a FREE Guide

Consider the “Why” Behind Holiday Dilemmas in Open Adoption

Children impacted by trauma, prenatal exposure, or loss often struggle during the holiday season. Again, the sensory overload of all the lights, colors, sounds, smells, and irregular routines can be very dysregulating for our kids.

However, it’s not just children who are facing dysregulation during the holidays! Your child’s birth parents might struggle with the differences between the holiday season and their everyday experiences. For example, a birth mother who has struggled with substance use disorder or a birth dad getting back on his feet might feel tender and stressed while trying to figure out this relationship with you and your family.

You know your child’s birth parents best. What can you observe about their ability to connect and navigate this season with your family? Can you identify what they might need to feel welcome and safe to celebrate your child?

The Example:

Let’s consider our previous example of children in one family getting gifts – or not – from their birth family. You might already know why they may not give gifts this year. Maybe they are trying not to interfere in the child’s life. Or they are really struggling financially. Could they be generally not functioning well or struggling to remain sober?

Why Birth Parents Don’t Give Gifts: Not Wanting to Overstep

It’s common for birth parents to feel uncertain of their role in your child’s life – even years into an open adoption. If you think they are trying not to overstep, try to have a clear, honest conversation about it. They may need to hear from you – and not just during the holidays – that sending or bringing a gift is okay. Assure them that it doesn’t have to be expensive or extravagant. Even better, share specific ideas about things your child will love! The list can include a variety of price points but try to start the conversation in person before you send it.

Acknowledge that the topic can be awkward and that you are not asking for a gift. Instead, help them understand that your other children often get presents from their birth family, and you know they wouldn’t want this child to feel left out.

Why Birth Parents Don’t Give Gifts: Not Able

Whether it’s due to financial strain, substance use disorder, or illness, some birth parents are not giving gifts because they simply cannot. At this point, consider a few options to help you navigate together.

Start a conversation (provided you are in contact) and explain the situation. Ask what they would give the child if they could do so. Then, ask if it’s okay for you to purchase that gift for them to give to the child or for you to wrap and give to the child in their name. If they prefer it, they could pay you back when you see them next or when they can.

When the birth parents are not in contact or are struggling, consider reaching out to an extended birth family member (grandparent, aunt, uncle) and explain the situation to them. Offer to work with them to find a solution and stress that the amount spent isn’t what is essential.

Remove Obstacles Where You Can

Finally, when a birth parent struggles to navigate the holiday season, remember that they may face several impediments that ordinarily would not be an issue. Continuing with the example of gift-giving, consider a few ways to remove the obstacles that might hold them back.

For example, shipping gifts to your child might be impossible without a car to get to the post office. Here are some options to try:

  • Pick up the gift from them and hide it until gift-giving time.
  • Do they have access to a credit card and online shopping? An online wish list offers direct shipping to your home address.
  • Set up a visit at your regular meeting place after your family’s celebration and allow time for them to give your child a gift privately.
  • Invite the birth parents to join your family’s gift exchange.
  • Invite the birth parents to a family event, like dinner or a community concert, without exchanging gifts, so they don’t feel pressure to bring one.

Building Trust in Open Adoption

Most supporters of open adoption agree that while it can be messy, complicated, and bumpy around the holidays, it’s worth the time and intention you invest. In most cases, the benefits of supporting your child and offering opportunities to build relationships with their birth parents or extended family outweigh the mess. Even when issues like gift-giving feel complex, navigating them together for the children’s best interest builds deeper trust and connection among you.

What dilemmas have you faced with open adoption and the complexity of the holiday season?

Image Credits: Trang Pham; cottonbro studio; Askar Abayev