By Marla Ruth Allisan JD, LICSW

The idea that expectant and adoptive parents might talk with each other can be a source of anxiety for families contemplating domestic adoption. Prospective adoptive parents sometimes express variations on these statements: We don’t want to be reminded of our infertility or of the adoption process. We just want to live our lives. We’re afraid the birthparents will come and snatch the child from our yard. I want to feel like the child is “ours.” Maybe the child will want to go live with them when they’re in the rebellious teen years. The reasons “not” to meet the birthparents often have to do with a fear of not having the chance to enduringly enjoy the parenting role.

Adoptive Parents and Birthparents

Why are adoptive parents reluctant to know birthparents? Adoptive parents have already had a lot of pain and loss during infertility. It can, at times, be easier not to meet, and to perhaps hold an image of a birthmother who doesn’t care, than it is to acknowledge the tender reality that she may have two children and simply can’t afford a third. If one never meets the birthparents, one need not be as aware of their poignant circumstances, and given the pain most adoptive parents have been through, this may feel like warranted self-preservation.

Why do prospective adoptive parents sometimes believe (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) that birthparents might snatch the child from the yard? One possible reason has to do with the principle of “projection.” Prospective adoptive parents want a child they haven’t even met yet. So, on some level, they may assume that the birthmothers, who have carried the child in their body, might want the child even more. Thus, adoptive parents might project their own longings onto the birthparents. In fact, birthparents are grateful to you and don’t want to do anything to unsettle you or the child. They’ve seen the reality TV shows and know of your anxieties; they often bend over backward to make you more comfortable.

Why might prospective adoptive parents want to meet birthparents? One reason is to feel the birthparents’ genuine gratitude toward YOU for loving and parenting their child. Another reason is to have a warm connection that will inform the story you tell your child about their beginnings. A third reason might be to say thank you and meet each other eye to eye. Building a foundation for possible future contact may be a huge gift to your child, both emotionally and in terms of availability of on-going family medical history.

From where I sit, as an adoption professional, there is irony in what I see. “Do we have to meet the birthparents?” is a common question asked at the beginning of the adoption process. Then, some years down the road, it is the adoptive parents who often call the agency asking for assistance reconnecting with the birthparents. Not uncommonly, the birthparents have moved on and haven’t left a way to reach them. (And, at other times, they have a relaxed on-going connection.) It is the adoptive parents who want to give their child a connection that will enrich their sense of self.

During a recent adoption workshop, an adoptive mother who knew both the sting of infertility and the heartbreak of a prior adoption plan that did not proceed to placement, nodded in the direction of the woman who had blessed her with a son. “When we started on this path, it was all about me, about what I wanted, what we needed as a couple to feel whole. And then, at some point, I realized it was about her too.” As she spoke, it was clear that her appreciation for the birthmother didn’t diminish her sense of entitlement to think of herself as a mother. The adoptive mother did not start there. Few prospective adoptive parents do.

It might sound as though I’m biased in favor of openness or that I presume that this is the sole path for healthy adoptive parent development. Not necessarily. I truly believe in client-centered social work; by focusing on the clients’ needs, I think they are best served. I have helped families with closed adoptions (usually at the birthparents’ request), semi-open adoptions, and more fully open adoptions. There are many adoption scenarios. It makes sense to listen with an open heart and to honor whatever is true for you in that moment.

When asked, “Do we have to meet the birthparents?” the answer will depend, as a practical matter, on whether the birthparents want to meet. Most do. But it is probably more important to sit with all the reasons why that is a bit of a scary prospect for some. Don’t rush your feelings, is my advice. Don’t be surprised if they change along the way, as birthparents become “real” people to you. Feel free to consider whether communicating with birthparents might be a positive experience for not only the child but the adoptive family as well.

About the Author

Marla Ruth Allisan JD, LICSW is the founder and director of Full Circle Adoptions, located in Brookline and Northampton, MA; she named her agency “Full Circle” because she believes that giving expectant parents and adoptive parents conscientious and loving care will help bring love “full circle” to the child. She takes special pleasure helping families through clinical and legal complexities in adoption cases.

This article originally appeared in the RESOLVE New England Summer 2008 Newsletter.