Open Adoption Can be Messy

Dawn Davenport


582274247_1464d3e915_nEven the most ardent supporters of open adoption sometime find it challenging to implement. This is true for both adoptive and birth families. In our eagerness to promote open adoption, we sometimes fail to mention that it can get messy. In my experience lots of family relationships are messy, but we usually have a roadmap for negotiating the more typical family relationships.

Often when adoptive parents face problems with their open adoption, they fear asking for help because some in the adoption world are quick to judge and because they don’t want to seem anti-openness. This leaves them feeling alone trying to figure out what is inherently a very very complicated relationship. I received the following question and with her permission am answering it here.

Our nearly 10 month old daughter’s birth parents both have special needs. We mostly have contact with her birth mom and grandmother. The birth mother lives with and is cared for by the birth grandmother. She is in her 30’s, but has the maturity level of approximately a 13-14 year old. She inherently has trouble recognizing boundaries, so throw open adoption into the mix and that’s a whole new ballgame.

Ours was an independent adoption with no agency involved. We were introduced through a coworker of mine, so because of that, things have been pretty wide open (last names, phone numbers, addresses, etc). They did receive pre placement counseling at an organization, which in hindsight I believe was greatly lacking. Her current counseling is amazing however.

It has only been 10 months, and she is in a wonderful birth parent support group and attends post placement counseling, but it’s obvious she does not understand what open adoption IS and is NOT. I know determining boundaries is a common issue, but in our case… whew. I don’t even know where to start! Haha! For instance, she has asked: to attend well baby visits to hold baby during shots; for us to give her copies of baby’s medical records and (future) school report cards; to spend every single holiday together, major or not (i.e. Christmas Day, etc.)… During visits she has quite literally shoved me out of the way to get to the baby to change her diaper, wipe her face, etc. because “I want to do it.” I would say she sees open adoption more like a divorce with visitation rights, where the child is still hers to parent in a sense. These are just a very small number of examples.  The birth grandmother is a bit enabling of her behavior.

I’m hesitant to post too much information in any group, because I’ve seen how hateful comments can become, particularly surrounding the topic of openness. On the other hand, we are growing weary here and REALLY trying to discern how to handle things in the best interest of our daughter. We love her birth family, they are wonderful people, and they live just 30 minutes away. We agreed to meet monthly the first year (which, in hindsight, has become too much) but my husband and I would like to begin meeting a little less frequently. I can’t express this enough – we LOVE her birth family, we are very pro-openness, we desperately want what’s best for our daughter and we want to always honor and respect her birth family.

Reaching Out Takes Guts

First, thanks for reaching out to Creating a Family for help. I realize and appreciate the trust that it took to share. Second, you are absolutely not alone in navigating what is often a tricky emotional landscape. The special needs of your daughter’s first parents further complicates the situation for you, as well as for the birth parents and birth grandmother, and ultimately for your daughter. Just knowing that it is complicated and that you aren’t alone may be helpful.

It sounds like the birth mother and birth grandmother may not have fully understood open adoption before placement, but given the birth mother’s cognitive impairment, I’m not sure the she would have fully understood regardless of counseling. I’m so happy that even though an agency was not involved you made sure she got pre-adoption counseling and is getting post adoption support and counseling now.

My #1 Rule for Open Adoption Relationships

When faced with bumps in an open adoption relationship, I’ve often counseled people to apply what I call The Slightly Annoying Grandma Rule. I’ve blogged about it extensively, but basically you ask yourself how you would handle the exact situation if it involved your much loved, but slightly pushy grandmother. Chances are good that you would go out of your way to continue the relationship, but would add some boundaries, knowing full well that these boundaries will need to be slightly looser than you would ideally want, but slightly tighter than grandma wants.

Get Thee to a Counselor

I think everyone in this situation could benefit from joint counseling. A good family therapist should be able to help you settle into a mutually satisfying and sustainable relationship. This counselor doesn’t have to specialize in adoption, although that wouldn’t hurt. Even though you didn’t use an adoption agency, you can call a local adoption or homestudy agency and see if they have post adoption counseling that you could access and pay for. If you can’t find a therapist that specializes in adoption, I wouldn’t worry too much since I think a strong family counselor would be effective.

Having an outside neutral expert help establish rules that work for everyone, especially your daughter, helps take you out of the role of “bad guy”. I would absolutely involve the birth grandmother in this counseling since she will be the one explaining and reminding the birth mother of the boundaries. This counseling should have the specific objective of working out a beneficial openness arrangement and need not be long term, although I suspect you’ll need to periodically go back to reinforce the rules for the birth mom since she struggles with boundaries in general.

I’m working on the assumption that the birth mother’s maturity and comprehension level is at the early teen stage. At this maturity level, talking and reasoning often fails, but behavior modification and consistency work really well.

The Young Shall Inherit

Your ultimate goal is to set up a pattern that your daughter can “inherit” as she gets older and begins navigating this relationship with her first mom on her own. Your words and actions should reflect kindness and understanding of her birthmother, but also the need to set and honor boundaries. Your actions now will model how to set boundaries in a kind way.

You may have to alter any arrangement based on your daughter’s needs as she gets older. I would caution you however that often kids react to how their parents react. If you sense your daughter’s discomfort with the degree of openness you have established, look honestly at yourself and see if your daughter is responding to your discomfort.

Slightly Annoying Grandmother Rule in Action

I’d like to address some of the specific examples you gave. I realize they are just the tip of the iceberg, but sometime is helps to see The Slightly Annoying Grandmother Rule in action.

Monthly visits with the birth parents. Only you can decide what visitation frequency is in everyone’s best interest, but it may be that regularly scheduled monthly visits make setting boundaries easier and will help the birth mom adjust. Would it work to meet for 2 hours the first Saturday of the month in a neutral environment, such as a park or fast food restaurant with a play area? The birth mom knows she will get to see and play with your/her daughter each month, but there are limits on how long and what activities are involved. The consistency of a regularly scheduled meeting time automatically sets boundaries.

Birth mother wants to accompany you on well baby visits to hold the baby. A child getting a shot needs her mom and as little outside tension as possible. A parent taking a child to the doctor needs to be focused on what the doctor is saying. I would simply not mention to the birthmother when you are going to these visits. If she brings it up, just say that only you are allowed at these visits. Avoid the temptation to say “only her mother” is allowed. That type of statement would likely only upset her and the deeper meaning would be lost.

Birth mother wants copies of medical records and report cards. Sure. Why not? I’d go even further. Once your daughter starts creating art masterpieces, I’d make sure that she gives one to her first mom on each monthly visit. When your daughter is older, I would invite her first mom to attend school and sports events. In advance of the event, I would specifically tell the birth mother and her mother what behavior is expected. If she doesn’t abide by the agreed upon rules, then she is not invited to the next event.

Birthmother wants to spend every holiday together. This is such a common family conflict regardless whether it is birth family or in-laws or extended family.  Everyone wants to see you (or more likely your daughter) around the holidays. The same techniques you use with your grandmother can work with your child’s birth family.

For the big holidays, you may want to add an additional Saturday visit the week before the holiday or move your monthly visit closer to the actual holiday. For the minor holidays, celebrate them at your monthly visit. Be flexible. If you know that the Fourth of July is a big darn deal to your grandmother, and not a big deal to you or others in your family, then make sure to rearrange your schedule to be with grandma on the 4th.  Ditto with the birthmom.

Given the cognitive disability of the birth mother, at first she will likely ask to spend each holiday with you regardless of any agreement you’ve made. Gently, and with kindness, explain that so many people love your/her daughter that she has to share, and remind her when she will see you again. If she pouts, don’t take it personally.

Birth mother shoves you out of the way to change or feed the baby. Changing or feeding the baby is OK, shoving is not. That’s exactly how I would state it and with firmness.  You may want to establish the rule that she has to ask you first, but be lenient with your permission to allow her to care for your/her daughter during these monthly visits.

As your daughter gets older, she may start wanting only you to hold or change or feed her. Respect your daughter’s wishes, but look for opportunities for her to interact with the birth mom, exactly like you would do with your grandmother.

When my kids went through the typical stranger anxiety stage, I knew it broke my grandmother’s heart that she couldn’t cuddle and interact with them. I found that my little pigs would accept anyone feeding them so long as the food was sweet, so I always made sure that we had dessert on those occasions, and grandma was the one to feed it to them. Obviously this is age dependent, but you get the idea.

We did a really good Creating a Family show on Open Adoption in Difficult Birth Family Situations.


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I’d love to open this up to suggestions on how to handle an open adoption relationship with a cognitively impaired birth mother or any birth parent who struggles with boundaries. Please be non-judgmental in your responses. 


Image credit:  JoePhilipson

16/07/2013 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 21 Comments

21 Responses to Open Adoption Can be Messy

  1. Avatar Sara Bande says:

    This is all very good. We are adoptive parents of a pre-teen and have encountered a glitch in our open adoption.

    We were close with the birthmother from the beginning but in the last year the relationship has cooled.

    She started to get very vocal about her objections to little things and choices we made. She became critical of organized sports, which are a big part of our son’s life, and the fact that I chose to go back to work recently after being a stay at home mom for several years. We are surprised at her constant objection and opinion. The big one was when our son decided to have a birthday with no family and just his friends. It digressed to the point that she refused to speak to us at visits and began to make visitation plans with our son without going through us. She lives a good distance away but began showing up at his school events and sporting events without making arrangements with us.

    I wrote her a few compassionate emails expressing the fact that we needed to communicate about all of this. She didn’t respond. She got a little more aggressive with connecting with our son without our knowledge and my son asked if it would be okay to block her from text messages.

    My son has become increasingly uncomfortable with her behavior and attitude and doesn’t want more visits.

    I wrote her a very clear email addressing these issues again and that we were going to take a break from visits until mid summer. I invited her to open up communication with us but she hasn’t.

    This weekend she drove 2 hours and unexpectedly showed up at a birthday party and open house for one of MY very elderly relatives. She took advantage of the open house announcement and I’m sure felt she didn’t need an invitation.

    My son got physically sick. He panicked and wanted to leave, so my husband took him and left for an hour to help him calm down. There were a lot of my relatives that we hadn’t seen in over a year and this family event was completed disrupted four our son.

    What do we do? We have tried to keep communication open and when we tried to make clear boundaries it went down hill very quickly. Instead of working with us, she’s become defiant and manipulative. We have the power in this situation and no legal obligation to visits or communication, but this is getting strange and worrisome. How do we resolve this?

  2. Avatar Terra L. Redditt says:

    I am a birth mother and I love this article. Some of the things that it said are hard to swallow because I have a very open adoption and we have monthly visits that I hope are never a burden to my son’s mother. But boundaries are so important and it is something I always recommend be discussed before papers are signed to avoid any more heartbreak than will be happening. We never discussed them, in fact, they made a lot of promises that they now realize are unpractical. I felt somewhat betrayed but I came to terms with it and have even established my own boundaries. Adoptive parents should never be afraid to discuss boundaries! They are essential.

  3. Avatar Aaron Howerton says:

    My wife and I have an open adoption with our son’s birthmother. Her age means we also have a relationship with her mother and her three sisters, all of whom dearly love Josiah and dote over him at every quarterly visit.

    Open adoption was not something I was up for originally. I wanted semi-open and had little compromise in me. During our training I became exposed the love and generosity of the birth-mothers decision, however, and did a 360 on my stance. We now enjoy a very healthy and well balanced relationship with Joey’s birthmother, but we are also aware of how fortunate we are to have virtually no boundary or visitation issues. We meet quarterly and they are very adamant about maintaining who Mom and Dad are, always asking for permission to do something. Often times we actually have to encourage them to do it – feed him, change a diaper, play. It’s been just over a year and we’re still working on that comfort level.

    I think the benefits of open adoption outweigh the risks, as most people ONLY know the horror stories because those are what make national news. You just don’t read headlines like, “Another successful open adoption in Maine! That’s 1,554 for the year!” In this particular case, I would definitely push for clarifying boundaries and reducing visits for the sake of the birthmother. With no professional experience backing me, my observation is that she’s not had a chance to mourn (very common need if I understand correctly, despite the overall joy of the situation) and the monthly visits may actually be harming that healing process. The agency we used here in Texas requests a 3 month period before first contact to allow both families time to settle into their new lives.

    Just my two cents – I appreciate the honest dialogue on such a difficult subject!

  4. Avatar marilynn says:

    the sweet food for grandma to feed is a stroke of brilliance

  5. Avatar MsKayJ says:

    So thankful to have found this! Bmom is spending the week with us, and we are in a very similar boat. Although, I would guess her ID to be closer to 15-16, and thankfully she doesn’t get physical. I feel like I’m constantly having to “prove” myself to her though and it is just exhausting. I just wish that she would trust us and let us be the parents, without all the little comments about how things are going to go in the future if our child does this or that, or how certain things will have to go through her first. Ummmm, no. We love them (bmom & family) so much too, but in some ways I just want a break, not the constant grasping for a little bit of control. Again, thank you for this article! I found it at 2am after a tough day and it has made me feel so much better!

    • MsKayJ, I’m sorry your in the position to have to navigate this and I’m thankful you’re willing to try to figure it all out. Is there a birth grandparent that can help you with setting and maintaining proper boundaries? I would suggest that you post this situation over at the Creating a Family Facebook Support Group ( to see what experience others have had.

  6. I think you nailed it, Dawn, especially with this part about modeling relationship-building for the daughter: “Your words and actions should reflect kindness and understanding of her birthmother, but also the need to set and honor boundaries. Your actions now will model how to set boundaries in a kind way.”

    If judgment is an issue, I think I would decline to share medical records and some school records (not drawings and fridge-worthy masterpieces — share away!). The reason is because of private medical and student numbers that could one day compromise the daughter’s identity if the information were mishandled. I would have the same reasoning with any other family-member or friend. If I don’t *know* that the person would safeguard the records, I would not allow those records into the person’s hands.

    Height,weight and growth statistics, though? A-OK.

  7. Avatar Jody Dyer says:

    Thanks to all of you for offering up thoughtful insights regarding the sweet and sour elements of open adoption. I’m living it. My son is three. His birthmother is 24. We have a great relationship based on trust and respect but I sometimes worry if I am spending enough time with her. I don’t want to over obligate my son or hurt their feelings (now or for the future). Thanks for helping all of us!!!

    • Jody, I hear you. But in many ways these are the same issues we navigate in any family relationship, but it’s easy to forget that when we throw in the concept of “birth family”.

  8. Avatar Laura Jean says:

    I think for many families especially initially open adoption is by its very nature stretching what many of us are comfortable with. My point is really that adoptive families with open adoptions should define the boundaries based on what they are comfortable with. The evolution of the relationship with birth parents will influence over time if that is more or less open or how much families stretch their comfort, that is okay and adoptive families should not feel obligated to to be more open then what works best for their family, ultimately that will be in the best interest of the child. A relationship strained by difficulty with boundaries if it can not be resolved is not likely to be in the childs best interest.

  9. Avatar Laura Jean says:

    I do not have personal experience with open adoption but I absolutely would NOT share medical records. Certainly how I might handle the other pieces would depend on the relationship but I can’t imagine I’d be comfortable with letting birth mom be so involved with caregiving such as feeding and changing. I don’t think adoptive parents should feel obligated to be more involved/open/sharing then they are comfortable with. Sure sometimes we are more flexible then we want to be to maintain family relationships but it’s also true that sometimes we limit these relationships because boundaries are not respected. Be flexible with the things you are comfortable with, share what you are comfortable with. It is okay to say NO to the things you are not comfortable with.

    • Laura Jean, thanks for your comment. I think it is often necessary to stretch our comfort limits in adoption because our focus is on what we think is in the best interest of our child. That’s why I use the analogy of how would you handle the situation if the adult was a loved but annoying relative whose relationship you value in your life and in your child’s life. It is definitely fair to set boundaries, and each of us will naturally set them at different places, but it helps to go in acknowledging the value of the relationship and the need to stretch our comfort in order to honor that relationship.

      For me, records of well baby visit, wouldn’t be a big deal. If it felt a little over intrusive, then I would make a copy of the growth chart for her, since that is likely what she wants to see. For you, it sounds like that’s a big deal. Fair enough. I can’t imagine not allowing the first mom to change or feed the baby on her monthly visit if she wanted to. It wouldn’t be OK if she shoved me out of the way or didn’t respect my role as the mom. Personally, I would want anyone who wants to feed or change my child to ask my permission first. I feel the same for grandmothers and aunts and cousins or first moms.

  10. Avatar Kara says:

    I really appreciate the information you are sharing. I would just like to add, that the BM is NOT a 13 or 14 year old girl; she has an intellectual disability. She does not process information like a 13 or 14 year old girl. If you think about her “as if” she is a pre-teenager or try to approach her this way; you will likely end up with hurt feelings. You may ascribe to her certain behavioral motivations and reasoning skills that she simply doesn’t have.

    Individuals with ID tend to be concrete thinkers. They also have an intense desire to be social and “join in”. (I have Ten years experience with children with ID, and PhD on top of it-but take what I’m about to say as a generalization bec. I haven’t observed the BM) My suspicion is that she just wants to be involved with you; because she likes you and you seem to like her. Yes, she will test boundaries, just to see what happens, and yes, it’s annoying. Just set up the rules and for her sake, don’t change them. (and I always tell my students to commit to what you absolutely CAN achieve…better to “add” a surprise than to take away what’s expected).

    Also, I’m a bit concerned that she may not take change well; the “shoving” comment makes me wonder if she will have a full on physical tantrum if her buttons are pushed. I would actually suggest that you get either a special educator familiar with ID to help you and/or an educational psychologist who is familiar with ID.

    Please do remember though; she is not a child nor is she a teenager. She is a woman with an intellectual disability. This means she doesn’t reason like you or me, she doesn’t ‘get’ all the social cues. I know it can be tough-I am in the trenches teaching allied health professionals to work with children with ID everyday. Good luck!!! You’ll do GREAT!!

  11. Avatar DZS says:

    I think another tricky part of the birth family relationship is recognizing that territorial triggers exist on both sides of the fence and that can make it difficult to step back and reframe how you view the relationship. Feeding for instance – seeing the BM feed the child might trigger an uncomfortable feeling of wanting to stake claim as mom. Thinking about how you feel when your friend/aunt/grandma feeds your child can help you realize that someone else feeding your child is no big deal. Reframing as Dawn suggests is very helpful! From there you can focus on any true challenges that exist within the relationship.

    • DZS, I LOVE that–[territorial triggers exist on both sides of the fence]. The hard part is recognizing them as triggers and not blowing them out of proportion. And, let’s face it, some things deserve to be made a big deal of. The key is figuring out which ones those are and letting go the rest.

  12. “But in many ways these are the same issues we navigate in any family relationship, but it’s easy to forget that when we throw in the concept of ‘birth family’.”

    Love that Slightly Annoying Grandma! It is a very grounding mindset to embrace. It removes that shock and fear factor from creating a workable, respectful (and hopefully loving)life-long relationship with the child’s bio mom and family.

    • Barbara, exactly–The Slightly Annoying Grandma is my attempt to normalize the birth family/adoptive family relationship into a context we understand. Thanks for getting it!

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