The Ethicist: What if Our Son’s Birth Mother Wants a Relationship With Him — but Not Us?

May 6, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “What if Our Son’s Birth Mother Wants a Relationship With Him — but Not Us?”.

We adopted our son about 25 years ago, when “open adoptions” were still a novel idea. We were fortunate enough to meet and spend time with our son’s birth parents and be present at his birth. The parameters of our adoption agreement were solid, albeit tinged with some regret on the part of our son’s birth mother.

The agreement stipulated that we would send pictures and updates once a year and be open to answering any letters his birth mother sent to the agency. Other rules stated that our son could search for his birth parents with our permission after he was 18; after 25, he could search without our permission. We all agreed that he would be the driver of any search and that the adults involved would not supersede his wishes.

We fulfilled our obligations annually and even agreed to therapeutic meetings that his birth mother requested with adoption specialists because she wanted to loosen the arrangements and spend time with our son. Every expert we met with advised us that we should stick with the original parameters of our agreement. We attended every meeting she arranged.

Either because she spent time at the agency or because of the internet, she found out our home address and once sent a long letter wishing to open our arrangement. We were shocked and a little fearful that she found out our last names and address and broke what had been an invisible barrier; fortunately, once we responded through the agency, this avenue wasn’t used again.

When our son went off to college, he told us that she contacted him through the internet — first using an adoption search site and then directly. This was not what we agreed to at all, and it was especially surprising and disheartening that she contacted him without including us.

He answered her, eventually but not immediately. And I think some emails were exchanged. Then, during a summer break from college, he let us know that she had contacted him and asked if he could attend her wedding. She would fly him out, have him stay with her for about a week and fly him back. We were glad for her but dismayed that again she was not reaching out to us. If our permission had been sought, we would have agreed, of course; we always supported our son’s finding out more about his birth family. (All through his life, we mentioned adoption, spoke about his birth parents, were open to any questions he had, which weren’t many — we’ve learned that’s not unusual for boys.) We just expected and wished the request had come from him.

We asked him to give us her address so we could send a card and a present. After many texts back and forth between the two of them, she agreed to send us her email address, which we took as a slight and a bit of an insult. We asked him to send our best wishes. She hasn’t connected with us at all.

That was a few years ago, and we’re still in a standoff of sorts. She has not reached out to us (most likely she feels we should have opened the adoption and agreed to her wishes), but more important — and potentially more harmful — she placed our son in the middle of a difficult situation. We are glad they have met (she has flown him out to California a few times) and have spent time together, but this is not the connected, united family situation we were hoping we could offer our son.

Do you think we should have just given in to her wishes and discarded the original agreement? I know we have no recourse even though she broke the rules that we all agreed to, but how can we explain this to our son without making things even more confrontational?

I’d like to be the “good parent” and write her a friendly “let bygones be bygones” note and express friendship for the sake of the unification of all parts of our son, but I haven’t been able to. Is it up to me or us to make the gesture, after we followed all the mutually agreed upon rules and she didn’t? Name Withheld

My response: I don’t read this as an ethical issue. Every time she does something you don’t like, you respond by rewarding her. You’re training her to ask more and more from you. She asks for more than agreed and you give it. She breaks agreements and you send her gifts (!?!). Actually, more than sending gifts, you work hard to find out where to send the gift to someone who broke your agreement.

You ask about “good” parenting. Since everyone has different values, you’ll just get a label that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve your situation as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes.

Your letter makes you sound like a doormat who wants to write a friendly letter to the woman who walked over you. Maybe I’m missing something. You describe a standoff a situation where she’s getting what she wants and keeps getting more, to your chagrin. Do you have boundaries? Do you want your son to?

You say you have no recourse. You want to explain without making things confrontational. I see all these things as a lack of leadership skills on your part. You don’t know what to do. If you’ll allow me a quick analogy, if you want to learn to create art, taking academic classes in art appreciation may help you appreciate art others made but not to create it. You have to practice, starting with the basics.

You’re asking how to lead people, meaning you want to improve your leadership. Nearly every resource I’ve seen on leadership is leadership appreciation—that is, books on principles and such that help you appreciate others’ leadership but not to lead. To learn to lead you have to practice, starting with basics.

To answer your questions on what I see as how to lead people, I recommend my book, Leadership Step by Step, which gives you exercises to practice the skills of leadership, not just to appreciate others’ practice. You have to do the work of the exercises, not just passively read it, but what expressive or performance-based practice can you learn without work?

I’m not just plugging my book. I wrote it because nothing existed to give you experience and skills, not just appreciation.

Unit 4 covers what you want, though I’d start at the beginning and do the exercises in order.

The New York Times response:

In making arrangements of great ethical importance and emotional complexity, it’s wise to agree to reasonable conditions in advance. Absent some compelling reason, arising from facts unforeseen when the arrangements were made, there is then a strong moral reason to keep your word. The situation you have described is one in which you have abided by your original agreement and your son’s birth mother has not. Because our ideas about adoption have changed, some people will say that she should be allowed to behave as if you had made a different agreement, of a sort that is now more common. I disagree. Her decision to make contact with your son was a response to her own interests, not to anyone else’s. Given that she hadn’t heard from him, she had no evidence that he wanted her in his life. Had your son wished to contact her, he was free to get your permission to do so, and he didn’t. So yes, what she did was wrong.

But it was perhaps not terribly surprising. It’s hard to predict how you will feel after giving up your child. The birth mother, it appears, is resentful that you didn’t agree to open the adoption when she asked you to, and has sought the relationship denied her by going around you. It’s now difficult for her to see you and your spouse as anything other than impediments. You, too, may be resentful, not without reason, given that resentment is the proper attitude toward those who have wronged you. Yet letting go of that resentment will probably do you some good. That’s not to say you should tell her she has been forgiven; she clearly sees herself as the aggrieved party. One of those mid-17th-century maxims of the Duc de la Rochefoucauld’s speaks to this: “We forgive those we find tiresome, but not those who find us tiresome.”

Your son is now an adult and presumably knows everything you’ve told me, including that his birth mother did what she promised not to do. If he wants to develop a relationship with her, that’s up to him. If you want a relationship with her as well — something she seems not to want — he is the person best placed to persuade her to accommodate you.

But first, ask yourself why you want this. We all have relationships with people our parents don’t know. If your son feels that he needs you all to get along — if the “united family situation” you refer to is important to him — he can say so. Otherwise, consider leaving well enough alone. Any strain in your relationship with your son is likely to arise from your resentment of his birth mother. Again, I hope you’ll be able to shed those feelings, but spending time with her while you have them may not be the best way to do so.

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