Building the Relationship & Learning to Listen

Since it can’t be said often enough, we will say it again. Open adoption is a relationship.

A key to making any relationship go the distance is communication. The typically overlooked part of communication that sometimes needs tweaking is listening. When conversations get tense, the go to mental response is usually defense. While the other person is talking, we are busy preparing our answer response…from our point of view…to get our point across.

And that’s just the words.  What we say is based on so much more than words. We are not machines or robots. The words we use are used in a context. Body language, tone of voice, and cadence all play a part in getting the point across. Think about this sentence: “Junior, get out of the street.” Without context, you don’t have any idea what the situation is. If this sentence is being said calmly and slowly, chances are Junior is on a quiet cul-de-sac where there is no traffic. His mom would just prefer he not get in the habit of playing in the street. On the other hand, if this same sentence is said in a rapid, loud, and fast way while the speaker is running into the street at warp speed, it’s a good bet that a two-ton truck is bearing down on Junior with death being imminent.

What makes the open adoption relationship tricky sometimes, particularly in the early stages, is that much of the communication comes in the form of texts. Unless the text comes in all caps, it’s hard to gauge the feeling behind the message.

While you are building that relationship after placement, (especially IMMEDIATELY after placement) it’s important to realize that emotions are raw. For the birth parent (mother or father) who has just said good-bye to baby, shock, anger or sadness, may be the emotions nearest the surface. For the adoptive parents who may have previously given up hope of ever welcoming a baby into their home, fatigue, joy, or relief may be the emotions nearest the surface. And let’s be honest. For BOTH the birth and adoptive families, fear may be lurking near the emotional surface as well. Fear of having made the wrong decision. Fear of never seeing the baby again. Fear of not being a good parent. Fear of the child someday resenting either set of parents.

So when the first communications begin to go back and forth between birth and adoptive families, recognize and honor those emotional back stories.

When birth mama asks for a visit and adoptive mama’s first thought is “I haven’t taken a shower in two weeks and can barely keep my eyes open”, an immediate response of “no, this is not a good time” does not do anything to build the relationship. It’s better to take a step back, recognize your own emotions, and then respond by trying to understand the birth family’s emotions behind the request. A reply text that acknowledges the feelings is the way to keep laying the foundation for a long term relationship. A text that says “I bet you are missing baby so much. It’s been crazy busy but let me look at the calendar so we can figure something out” followed by a picture of baby is a caring, genuine response to the emotion behind the request.

Likewise, when adoptive an family texts a birth family with an update, it’s a good opportunity for the birth family to recognize the positive emotions the adoptive family may be feeling. Recognizing that in the reply by saying something like “You seem so proud of her! I am so excited to see how big she is getting” reaffirms the decisions made by both the birth and adoptive family. In turn, this contributes to that strong foundation that will carry the open relationship throughout the child’s life.

A final thought for today…texts, letters, and electronic messages do help keep people connected.

But it’s hard to really listen for the more subtle messages that the human voice conveys. When it comes to long term relationships—like open adoption—don’t rely on texts. Call. Skype.  Meet in person. The listening part of communication will only get stronger. Ultimately, your child deserves this…this healthy, honest, and mutual relationship between the most important people in his or her life…their family.