What matters most is not a list of questions or negotiating points, but finding a way to meet genuinely as people.
By Nelson Handel
When my wife and I faced our first conversation with an expectant woman considering an adoption plan, we were gripped with bone-numbing fear, which, frankly, confused us.
We were both high-functioning, professional types; it was a phone call. We should be able to handle it smoothly. We’d done our best to prepare, as we would for a business meeting. We had “cheat sheets” from our lawyer, tips from the Internet, a list of concerns and questions. We would be, we hoped, ordered and on-point.
Instead, we stumbled through the call. In the young woman’s voice, we could plainly hear the same uncertainty and confusion. We did little that showed our true selves. We never heard from her again.
The personal turned public
Adoption calls upon you to do many things for which you are ill-prepared, like hiring someone to find you a child, or evaluating a potential birth parent’s commitment. The common (biological) experience of building a family is a private process, conducted intimately between spouses or partners. In adoption, potential parents are routinely called upon not only to address intimate questions, but to do so in the presence of lawyers and social workers who are complete strangers.
Prospective birth parents find themselves in the same boat. By choosing adoption, they too must publicly confront difficult questions, like “How do I choose the parents of my child?” or “How do I handle parting from my baby?”
Successful open adoptions occur when adoptive parents and birth parents form a strong, pre-placement connection. Despite what may be vast differences in their backgrounds or experience, something clicks and they discover a sense of fit, of rightness together. Yet within the public glare of the adoption process, the real can easily feel fake, and both parties can find themselves in similar zones of discomfort. Precisely at that moment, they are called upon to meet or talk for the first time. How do you find connection within a process that seems to disconnect you from yourself?
The key lies in returning to authentic human communication. Faced with your first conversation with a potential birth parent, what is most important is not some list of questions or negotiating points. What’s important is to put the public process of adoption aside and find a way to meet genuinely as people. This is not a job interview; it’s more like a date. Your goal is to determine whether you have rapport.
When you meet a potential birth parent, realize that you are encountering someone with a HUGE problem to manage. Treat her as you would any friend with such news. Let your first thoughts be not of your needs and concerns, but of hers. There will be plenty of time later to discuss the “nuts and bolts” of things, like medical history, desire for post-placement relationship, etc. Don’t get ahead of yourself. This is about human connection. Focus on what she needs most, and address yourself to those needs. Isn’t that the kind of parent you would want, if you could choose?
Ask about the pregnancy: how’s it going? Ask her if she likes her doctor, how she’s getting to her appointments, what foods she is craving.
Ask about the people in her life. Does she have friends or family she can talk to about what’s going on? Your empathy might be just the invitation she needs to unload her thoughts and feelings. The more comfortable and positive you are about adoption, the more you normalize the conversation.
Invite her questions. It’s awkward to ask strangers about personal things, especially for younger people. Send a message that you welcome her interest. Answer her questions simply and honestly. Be as open and vulnerable as you would like her to be.
Let the conversation flow without an agenda. In a first meeting, it is less important what you talk about than that you talk, and, most importantly, listen. Remember that, although your biggest fear is that she won’t like you, her biggest fear is that you won’t like her.
Nothing can fully prepare you for the strangeness of this first meeting. But every day, people negotiate the same waters of a first contact. And every day, through the power of love and authenticity, people find a way past the awkwardness and come together for the sake of a child. You can too.
Nelson Handel is a father by adoption, a journalist, and the author of the book, Reaching Out: The Guide to Writing a Terrific Dear Birthmother Letter.