What Growing Up In An Open Adoption Taught Me About Setting Boundaries

This guest post is by Juliana Whitney, an adoptee.

Open adoption is filled with uncertain boundaries which everyone involved has to be keenly aware of.

It’s one of those situations where you really have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.  It requires an openness to vulnerability.  

In an open adoption, you deal with the boundary between the adoptive parents and the biological parents, the boundary between the child and the biological parents, and even the boundary between the adoptive parents and the child.  

Then there is the boundary between all members of the biological and adoptive families, depending on how close the two families become!  It’s intense, to say the least.  

As every open adoption situation is different, I will give you some background on my own.  

I have been with my mom and dad (adoptive parents) since I was born.  My parents were living in New York at the time and my birth parents were in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  

My parents flew out to Santa Fe, New Mexico and waited for me patiently and probably pretty nervously, as I arrived 2 weeks past the due date.  

Each day they waited for the call that I was on the way.  The day finally came in mid-July 1989 and my parents were at the hospital with my birth parents.

They were able to hold me in their arms basically minutes out of the womb, and took me home with them straight from the hospital.  

My birth mom once told me that when she was wheeled out of the hospital and was preparing to hand me over to my mom and dad, she had the urge to run away with me.  

That’s a powerful urge to overcome and it tells me that the boundary negotiation was an emotional experience from the get go.

At the time, open adoption wasn’t widely practiced and was definitely not widely discussed. Seriously, it was still a popular tactic to just not tell your child that they were adopted.  

My parents and birth parents were each going into this open adoption without much solid guidance, but did so because it’s what they believed was the right thing.  

I am deeply grateful for their willingness to do so and can only imagine that my parents, my birth mom, and my birth dad all wondered about what these relationships would look like long term. 

If I had words then, I would have said to each of them, “Don’t worry.  This may be difficult for each of us at different time for different reasons, but it’s worth it.  You’re doing the right thing.”

At first, the boundary setting had primarily to do with all of the adults navigating the boundaries between one another.  

My parents got some emotional letters from extended family members which they decided to keep to themselves.  

My birth dad says that he and my birth mom made a point to set the boundary of not contacting my parents for the first year of my life, as not to make my parents nervous about possibly having me taken away in that first year.  

By the time I was 1 or 2 (I haven’t asked for clarification on this one) they made contact.

From point of contact all the way through my elementary school years, my parents handled the logistical part of boundary negotiations for me.  

They always made sure that any time we were in the same city as one of my birth parents that they reached out for a visit.  

Before doing so, they were sure to ask me if I wanted a visit with my birth mom or birth dad, before setting it up.  

My parents also acted as the gatekeeper to me whenever one of my birth dad’s extended family members wanted to see me.  

They made sure I was ok with the visit and made sure I knew exactly what would be happening and when.  

It was during these visits that my boundary setting skills had the chance to form.  The skills formed because there were so many questions to be answered in these interactions.  

How close were these relationships?  What did I call everyone?  If I was spending time with my birth dad’s sister, was she still my aunt, or was there some other term?  Do I call my birth parents by their first names?  Does that do the relationship justice?  

Do we say, “I love you”? Can we tell other people how we are related or do we let them try to figure that out on their own?  Does it sting a little when they hear me call my parents “mom” and “dad”?  Do my birth parents still think of me as daughter? Am I their daughter?

Then as I got older and was given the freedom to handle contact with my biological family – Do we reference seeing each other again?  How often should we call?

What are the limitations of each interaction I need to be aware of to make sure that I get to see you again?  Will you want to see me again if I’m not the best version of myself in any given interaction?  

So many questions for my heart, mind, and communication skills to navigate.  What felt like an overwhelming amount of uncertainty at the time was simply the messy process of defining boundaries in relationships that do not have societally prescribed, described, or exemplified boundaries.  

With each visit, more questions were answered, either through words or actions, and I was able to set and understand the boundaries of each relationship with each member of my birth family.  

However, this process didn’t always look pretty or feel good. I give my parents a ton of credit for acting as a support system, while standing back enough to allow me to gain strength through figuring out my relationships with my biological family on my own.  

Explaining the intricacies of what really have to disclose that, what has grown in to emotional intelligence, was at one point, a highly emotional child. Though I wasn’t aware of all the boundaries I was navigating, the impact was clear.  

After every visit with a biological family member, until I was about 14, I broke down in tears.  

Deep, soul touching, stomach aching, gasping for air, purple faced, sobbing tears.  It was hard for my parents to watch and hard for me to explain.   

The tears would start immediately upon departure, whether that be me walking on a plane or getting in the car, them walking out a door, or at the sound of ‘click’ at the end of a phone call.  

The tears lessened as I got older and lasted until I was about 27 when it came to my birth mom.

Over time, as tears lessened and relationships developed, I was able to stop with the overwhelming clutter of individual questions, and narrow it down to what I can now identify as 5 key guiding questions:

  1. Where do I fit in your life?  
  2. Where do you fit in my life?  
  3. What do I mean to you?  
  4. What do you mean to me?  
  5. Why are we each invested in maintaining this relationship?

These 5 key guiding questions helped me to see each relationship as its own entity, rather than seeing all of my biological family members as one big group.  

These 5 questions helped me develop individual relationships, each with their own characteristics and boundaries, with my birth parents and their family members.  

These 5 guiding questions are revisited frequently as relationships change and as new ones develop with even more biological family members.  

It’s important to me to find the strength that comes from the struggles in adoption.  

Though it took a lot of tears and a lot of years to narrow all of the boundary negotiation down to these 5 guiding questions, I now get to use these same questions for relationship boundary negotiation throughout my life.  

I use them in friendships, relationships and in business on a regular basis.  They serve me well.  

What began as a coping mechanism for an adopted child navigating relational boundaries, has developed into a (continually maturing) powerful tool, gifted to me by the messy uncertainty of boundaries in open adoption.  

For this I will be forever grateful.

Juliana Whitney is an adoptee who runs the non-profit organization, That Adopted Girl, and a consulting firm, The J. Whitney Group.

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