How to Navigate Relationships with Birth Parents in Adoption and Foster Care

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When I was a teenager, I was at a basketball game when my parents were sitting across our small gymnasium waving at me. I didn’t wave back. When my mom came over and lectured me about ignoring her, I was clueless as to what was going on. After a few more situations like these, she took me to get my eyes checked. Sure enough, I needed contacts or glasses so I could see.

I remember driving home with my mom from the optometrist with contacts in my eyes for the first time, and I kept saying, “Mom, I can see the leaves on the top of the trees!” It was shocking how much I had missed out on seeing, but once I was given the right prescription, I could see things clearly.

Whenever life gets complicated, I often think back to that moment and I wonder what I’m currently unable to see. Typically when chaos and heartache are present, we only get bits and pieces of the story. Maybe we can see the trunk of the tree and make out some blurry green thing up top, but we can’t see the leaves. With adoption, it can be easy to diagnose or prescribe a solution for the small parts we see without fully getting the whole picture. But as Christians, we believe in a God who sees and knows all. He is a God who draws near to the brokenhearted. And so, more often than not, when things get confusing, I ask Him to give me eyes to see people the way He sees people. I ask Him for kingdom eyes partnered with a heart bent toward redemption.

Made in the Image of God

In The Way Up Is Down, Marlena Graves pushes us to take a good hard look at the people we tend to ignore: “The people we ignore because they don’t seem worth our time and attention? Because they aren’t famous enough or at all, aren’t rising stars or at the top of whatever game we wish to play? They may be a beggar at the gate of an estate, a janitor, maid, taxi driver, immigrant, elder living alone or in a nursing home, prisoner, or a child. These precious ones could very well be kings or queens in the kingdom come.”

“We believe in a God who sees and knows all.”

In the world of adoption, do we treat birth parents like they aren’t worth our time and attention? Do we treat them like they aren’t worthy of the same redemption we’ve received? Do we use them to grow our families, only to ignore their humanity after a child is in our home?

Do we treat adoptees like commodities? Do we treat our children like accessories to our family, brought in to “complete” or make our family happy without ever thinking about what they lost?

Here is the truth we must all come to agree on: every member of the adoption triad is made in the image of God. This concept is central to followers of Christ, and it is the foundation for how we view and treat all people. And we must beg God to give us kingdom eyes so we can live out those truths.

Adoption and Foster Care Scenarios

So what impact does this have on the way we view and treat or talk about birth parents? Well, this is a hard question to answer because every adoption is different. But here are a few scenarios that I’ll share with you and some examples of what this looks like.

Open Adoption: Honoring imago Dei in all parties looks like adoptive parents serving as a bridge between the adoptee and their first family. This bridge looks different in all families, but it is preserving a relationship and striving toward health and wellness. This doesn’t mean that you throw all boundaries out the window, but rather it creates boundaries that serves first and foremost the child, and then second the birth family, and then last the adoptive parents. It looks like honoring the contract agreement and making adjustments in agreement with the birth family. This might mean increased contact or less contact (depending on the bio family’s requests and adoptee’s requests). But in all seasons, a mutual love and respect between adoptive family and birth family should be sought after.

So one of the unique aspects of open adoption, which is the case with our family, is that two moms, with two different life stories, perspectives, and expectations, come together to love and support a child. The way she loves our child is different from the way I do, and that’s okay. But make no mistake: my kids’ birth moms love them fiercely. At the same time, there are a multitude of reasons why it is best for our children to be in our care. I will not divulge those details, but they chose to place their children in a safe and loving home for a reason.

At first, we weren’t sure how we were going to navigate this relationship, but our typical prayer guided us: “God, give us kingdom eyes and a heart bent toward redemption.” The truth is, I arrogantly went into it with that perspective thinking I would be the one doing a lot of giving, but I’ve gained so much from learning from our children’s first families and from being loved by them. I’ve been so blessed by being accepted by them in spite of my many failings. As I write this book, I’m counting down the days until our first in-person visit with our younger son’s birth mother. She’s coming to our house for the weekend and we can’t wait.

Over time, our relationships with our children’s first families have grown and developed into their own beautiful stories. Their families are precious to me. Their wins are my wins and their losses are my losses. And each adoption has been different. Some relationships are healthier than others, and in other seasons they ebb and flow. But the goal isn’t to have the exact same relationship or even to have a relationship that I deem healthy and mutually beneficial. The goal is to love our children’s birth families exactly where they are, because God loves them. It sounds a lot prettier in writing, but the truth is, this is holy, gritty work but it’s absolutely worth it.

Closed Adoption

This looks like honoring your child’s birth family by never speaking ill of them and sharing what information you have with your child. If no information is given, it means taking great care those first days of their lives and gathering whatever information you can and keeping it in a safe place for your child. It means researching and learning about your child’s ethnicity and medical predisposition through DNA tests. And then it looks like serving as a bridge to their history (e.g., research, cultural awareness, joining clubs or groups). Both honesty and grace should be your guide when it comes to talking about their first families, and never do you help create a narrative that is untrue.

“We serve a God who is in the business of changing hearts.”

Where there are gaps in your child’s story, it is normal for both you and for them to attempt to fill the gaps with a created narrative. Please do what you can to talk honestly about their birth family, but do not cross a line by creating a false narrative (that can be overly positive or overly negative) if you don’t have the facts. You honor your children and their first family by pursuing honesty with grace, and by offering your presence with your child when they grieve the holes and missing pieces of their stories. And as your children get older, you support them as they choose whether or not they would like to research and potentially pursue reunification with their biological family.

International Adoption

International adoption is complex, but even where there is little to no information, you can honor a child’s birth family and heritage. The way you speak about their orphanage, the workers who cared for them, the city and culture they came from all matters. Their life didn’t start when you brought them home. There were days, months, and maybe even years where others cared for them. So ensuring that your child has knowledge (at minimum) and a connection to those who cared for them during their early time in institutionalized or transitional care is another way to honor their birth culture.

Let honor, truth, and grace be your guide. Do not fill the gaps of your child’s story with “what ifs,” but instead speak honestly about the things you know and the things you don’t. But it is important that you don’t speak poorly of their culture and their earliest days, while still speaking truthfully about them.

Foster Care

Honoring imago Dei in situations where parents have had children removed from their care can sometimes be difficult, and yet we are still called to do it. When an adult puts a child in an unsafe environment, it can be easy to judge them quickly and with little grace. However, perhaps it’s better to ask, “What brought this person to this point in life?” Compassion for your child’s first family must always be present, even in worst-case scenarios when all ties to birth families must be broken in order to keep a child safe. We can hold space for multiple emotions at the same time. We can grieve the hurt first families have caused, while still praying for their health and wellness and restoration.

This Is Important and Not Simple

We must always protect our children—that is a non-negotiable. But what a gift to our children to know that their adoptive parents believe that no person is too far from the transformative grace of Jesus Christ. Depending on the severity of the situation, perhaps consistently praying for your child’s first family is a good first step. For others, maybe pursuing a relationship with a biological aunt or grandparent is an option to honor imago Dei in your child’s first family. But regardless, you can have compassion for an individual while still acknowledging that their choices are unhealthy and incredibly harmful to your child’s well-being.

And last, you might be in a situation where none of these scenarios fit. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all, four-step list on how to have kingdom eyes for your children’s first families. Ultimately, it’s our hearts that need changing. And fortunately, we serve a God who is in the business of changing hearts. As Marlena Graves reminded us, it should be our hope that our children’s first families are kings and queens in the kingdom to come.

For Further Reading:

It Takes More Than Love

by Brittany Salmon

Embrace the beauty and challenges of transracial adoption. Being an adoptive parent is hard enough. But when your family is multiracial, things...

book cover for It Takes More Than Love