Who Has the Power in Adoption – Birth Parents or Adoptive Parents?

Dawn Davenport


who has control in adoption-birth parents or adoptive parents

The relationship between adoptive parents and birth parents is complicated for any number of reasons, not the least of which is power–or lack thereof.

Before the adoption adoptive parents often feel like the expectant parents “hold all the cards”. They and they alone get to decide who will parent their child. But after the adoption, the power position shifts with birth parents often acutely and painfully aware of their lack of power.

This imbalance of power adds even further complication to an already complex relationship.

Birth Moms Walk on Eggshells

In a discussion on the Creating a Family Online Support Group a birth mom commented:

I feel like I have to be as close to perfect as possible or they won’t let me be in her life….It sucks walking on eggshells. …I wish I could be 100% transparent because I love [the adoptive parents] & think they’re amazing, but I’m just scared they’ll judge me.

Other first moms chimed in with complete understanding.

An adoptive mom encouraged the birth moms to be open with their child’s parents about how they feel. It was the only way she believed that the relationship could improve. She argued that these feeling of fear of being judged would become a self-fulfilling prophecy—a loop the adoptive parents/birth parent relationship could never get out of. She suggested that birth parents take the risk of speaking up about how they feel.

Birth Parents Play Russian Roulette

It was then that an adult adoptee joined the discussion, and so beautifully summed up the nature of the relationship and why first parents are hesitant.*

I think the issue is more about the danger of taking the risk? Because the possibility of never seeing their child again is what is at stake. It is a bit like playing Russian Roulette – 1 in 6 may not sound like a bad risk if one was using a paintball gun where the worst that could happen is that one would be covered in paint; whereas I think we are all agreed that hardly anyone in their right mind would play RR if there was a bullet in a real gun. It doesn’t matter that 5 out of the 6 times, one would be OK, it is the fact that the risk is so utterly high that it is not a risk worth taking whether it was 1 in 6 or 1 in 20 because if you’re dead, you’re dead – the risk will always be too high.

It can be similar for birth moms (and even adoptees) – sometimes the risk is so great that one just can’t risk it however small the percentage might be that speaking up could end in disaster. It is all very well saying to bmoms that they should be honest and perhaps the majority of time it might be OK but the risk is too great because what if they are unlucky and the APs do close the adoption? That is catastrophic because it may mean never seeing their child again, even as an adult – whether the possibility of the adoption closing is 1/2 1/6, 1/10 or even 1/20, the stakes may be too high for it to be worth speaking out.

This is why I feel that if an Adoptive Parent does trust their child’s birth mother, they need to let her know that they trust her and they need to let her know that they are open to hearing honestly from her.

A first mother responded immediately with: “This is the perfect analogy to how I feel. And for the record, I wouldn’t play this type of Russian Roulette with a 1/100 chance of losing contact, …even if it means I have to not be myself in my relationship with [my child’s parents].”

Listen-Really Listen

I think it is incredibly important for adoptive parents to hear these words of fear. You don’t have to agree with them; you might argue that:

…this is not what you want, or

…you don’t feel like you have power over anyone, or

…you feel like you need this power in order to be the best parent for your child or protect your child.

You may be right, you may wrong, but that isn’t the point.

Stop for just a moment. Really stop. Try to imagine what it would feel like if someone held the power to prevent you from seeing your child for now, for 18 years, or maybe forever. It is almost too painful for me to imagine.

Who Holds the Power in Adoption?

By the nature of adoption, adoptive parents have the power once the adoption is complete. In my opinion, this is as it should be. Adoption is not co-parenting, nor in most cases should it be. But with this power comes a heavy responsibility to wield it responsibly. We do this because it is the right thing to do, but we also do this because it is in our children’s best interest.

Who do you think holds the power in adoption?

Other Thought-Provoking Resources You Will Enjoy:

*Shared with her permission.

Image credit: feministjulie

27/01/2016 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 7 Comments

7 Responses to Who Has the Power in Adoption – Birth Parents or Adoptive Parents?

  1. Avatar New AP says:

    I am very new to this as our adoptive daughter was just born last week. We love her birth parents and (most of) their family. We hope they will always be a part of her life. Prior to her birth I always felt like they held the power. But, it was also obvious to me that they didn’t feel the same way. They were very tentative in asking for what they wanted as if we were the ones who had to give approval.

    Now that the docs are sign I definitely feel like the power is ours. It is a relief for me because I know I get to keep my new daughter forever. But my heart really goes out to them. I am trying really hard to reinforce that we want them as a part of her life. I am hoping that, over time, they will realize that we mean this.

  2. Avatar Christie says:

    I think that the power is held by the party that doesn’t want, but that isn’t a good word for it. What I mean is that if you want something and don’t control access to it then the person that controls access is in power. So by that definition, adoptive parents usually have the power. What if the adoptive parent wants visitation and it doesn’t happen? Then the power shifts back to the birth parent in that situation as the birth parent now controls when and if there is visitation. In that situation, as an adoptive parent, you don’t feel free to be yourself because what if the wrong thing said stops the next visit/s from happening. That is why I say the power is in the hands of the party that doesn’t want. Thus, in adoption, every situation is unique to it’s own dynamic.

    • Avatar Carly says:

      Christie, that is a really good point and you articulate it well. I have to agree with you – there are a variety of situations where Birth Parents control the access to something that the APs, or the Adoptee, want – therefore the Birth Parent has the power, in that case. Still, I would think that the majority of the time, access to the child is the *biggest* power element and that is always in the control of the APs (until the Adoptee is old enough to manage the relationship themselves). So whatever APs lack in control (access to Birth Family, medical history, etc.) is nothing compared to what Birth Families are lacking in control. In every relationship, the different parties are in control of different aspects, and that needs to be understood and respected.

      • Avatar Christie says:

        I’d like to think that none of this would be an issue if the best interest of the child were put first. However, as my experience with CPS, DHS, or whatever they called in the state or country you are in, everyone has a different idea what is in the best interest of a child. Therein lies the problem.

    • Avatar Tara says:

      Anecdotally, I don’t feel like I have much power at all, even though I am an adoptive parent. Our agreed open adoption is just about closed and there is nothing I can do about it. I hope that changes but it is totally up to the first mom. That power dynamic will change if she changes her mind so in my experience, it’s true that the power is in the hands of the person who ‘doesn’t want’.

    • Avatar marilynn says:

      That is so interesting and true

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