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