This week, as part of their Sore Points series, The Adoption Social has been asking adoptive parents to talk about their experiences of contact with birth family, direct and indirect. A series of special posts from different perspectives on the subject have been posted on the site, starting here. Well worth a read if you're involved in foster care or adoption in any way.
It's not that I'm against indirect or direct contact as such. It's more that I don't like the tired and hackneyed phrases of justification trotted out whenever someone so much as questions its necessity. Phrases about helping children with their sense of "self" and their "identity", assuring them that they are "not forgotten" and "still loved", smoothing the way for possible future reunion. I'm sure contact can do these things. I'm just not sure it always does. I'm not sure it's enough justification for the relentless "contact is good for you" mantra. It also irks that it's taken for granted that all adoptees will seek reunion as if all adoptees are basically the same and will have the same reactions to being adopted. The stories of adult adoptees who quietly get on with their lives with little drive for more than the most basic contact with birth family (if at all) are rarely shouted out on social media.
And as someone pointed out during The Adoption Social's Twitter Chat on the subject the other night, how can years of unanswered letterbox letters assure a child that he is "not forgotten"? Doesn't it, in fact, do precisely the opposite?
I will admit that when I read glowing accounts of adoptive families who have wonderful relationships with birth families, I tend to think, well, whoopie doo for you. I don't mean to sound harsh, but the comments below such accounts about how open-hearted and amazing those adoptive families are say it all really. This is the ideal and everyone who isn't doing that falls short in some way and, by implication, isn't so open-hearted and amazing as they could be.
In reality, though, every family, every child and every circumstance is different. Where contact is appropriate and well-managed, then it can bring enormous benefit to everybody involved (although not without some sacrifice I'm sure). I really do take my hat off to those who manage it.
Perhaps we are unusual in the adoption world as I fostered OB from very young, and he was adopted as an infant with no memory of any birth family. Unlike many adoptive parents who feel they know too little, sometimes I think I know too much. I took him to many, many contacts with his birth mum before I adopted him. I spent a lot of time with her. I watched as she abandoned her child not once, but twice, and much more that I won't say here. He lived with her a total of 22 weeks. She has never replied to letterbox. Then there's his dad who only saw him once and only admitted paternity after he was tested. Then there's his paternal grandmother who only appeared on the scene after he was a year old, had a few contacts, and now gets letterbox too. At least she did reply once and I admit I found that reply very useful as it filled in a lot of information about birth dad which was unknown to me. I will write her letterbox letter this year in a better frame of mind than I have the previous two years.
So, yes, like many others, I keep doing my duty with regard to contact because I do as I'm told and because of the many future benefits it will apparently have for my son. And because I daren't stop in case the tired old blanket justifications turn out to have been right all along. Like everything else in child-rearing, we ignore the "experts" at our peril!
But I wish more could be done to provide support for, and raise expectations from birth family when it comes to continuing contact. Even at adoption prep there were a lot of knowing looks and clear indications that often birth family members would not reply to contact letters. And yet we have to keep writing them. It's hard enough to explain to my son why he does not live with his birth family. I don't want to have to keep explaining again every year why they don't even write a letter for him. It makes me feel as though, despite the reassurances that the child is at the heart of the process, the whole issue of continuing contact is at least as much about the birth family as the child - in fact Birdy's social worker admitted as much when trying to justify the, frankly, ridiculous contact arrangements that have been set up for Birdy over the next few months. The expectation is on the adoptive parent to dutifully maintain contact, while there is little or no expectation that birth family will do the same and that, apparently, is absolutely fine.
I suspect my feelings and opinions on the subject will shift with the passing of time and the increase in OB's understanding. Should the day come that he wants to know more, or even meet up with members of his birth family, then, provided I felt he could be properly supported through it and he was emotionally strong enough to manage it, I would do all that I could to make it happen. Do I relish the prospect? No. Sorry if that makes me sound close-hearted and less than amazing, but the state of my heart is not the driving force here. My son's well-being, his needs and his wishes are. At the moment, his bog-standard continuing contact arrangements take none of those things into account.