When deciding to adopt, hopeful dads throw wide open the doors of their lives to complete strangers. Often, these strangers don't stay strangers for long. Lawyers, adoption agents and social workers are just a few of the professionals who will spend the following months and years combing through your life. By the end, when a dad finally takes home a child, these people aren't just cogs in a machine; they're family.
However, if you choose an open adoption, there's one more stranger you may soon be calling family: the birth mother.
Choosing an open or closed adoption is one of the essential steps to adopting, and by deciding on open adoption, you are committing to more than just a child. You are committing to a woman or a couple who have lives often different than yours and have chosen to entrust you with their child's future.
That's a massive responsibility, and first impressions matter. When you meet the birth mother for the first time, you want to prepare for that meeting with authenticity and tact.
Husbands Chris and Thomas Ryan-Lawrence, of Atlanta, Georgia, met their son through an open adoption. Despite adoption always being their preferred way to create their family, the two dads-to-be briefly considered surrogacy, but eventually went back to their original path. Open adoption was an extremely emotional process for the family, but Chris and Thomas agree that it is the most rewarding thing they've ever done.
Both dads are entrepreneurial: Thomas is one of the founders of the business-rating site Gayborhood and Chris runs a business consulting services company, which he and Thomas named ARK Leadership in honor of their son, whose name is Noah.
When it came to creating their family, the couple chose to work with the nonprofit Independent Adoption Center (IAC), and they continue to praise the agency for its commitment to helping kids and parents-to-be find their forever families. As a nonprofit, the IAC deducts a fee based on the income of the parents-to-be; they're committed to helping create families, no matter how long it takes. Beyond that, they offer lifetime counseling for the new parents, the adopted child or children, and the biological family.
Chris and Thomas's life changed when they received a call from Noah's birth mom, who had found their number on the IAC website. Both men went into their open adoption wanting their son to know exactly who his family was. They even made a family tree for their 2-year-old son to look at; every morning, the young man says hello to pictures of his family, both birth and adopted.
The couple told Gays With Kids about the first time they met Noah's birth mother, and shared these tips for others preparing for a first meeting with a birth mother.
DO: Share your nerves about the meeting
Chris talked about the anticipation before meeting Noah's birth mother much like a first date. "The analogy that we've used repeatedly is that it's almost like online dating, like Match.com," he says. "You are literally in a relationship-building process with a person."
Chris's agency told him that he wasn't the only one feeling the anxiety. "When dealing with birth mothers, from what we had figured out by them talking to our birth mother and a lot of other parents, is that the birth mother is just as nervous," he says. "We didn't really think about it that way, and I think going into it with our eyes open — honestly, we were all just a bag of nerves — I think that would've helped."
DON'T: Expect you or your birth mother to know her level of commitment right away
Before meeting, gay dads and birth mothers often have very different ideas of how much involvement the birth mother will have in the child's life. Whatever a gay dad thinks, that vision of your adoptive family will likely change drastically after that very first meeting.
For Chris, Noah's birth mother started distantly. "She originally had no plans other than exchanging pictures, but after our first phone call and us just being who we are, it started evolving and she said she might want to take a more active role and see him more often."
Surprisingly to all involved, the two families grew much closer. But Chris knows that's not the case for every gay dad.
"There are some birth mothers who are there for a while and then go away for a bit and then come back," he says. "There are others who for the first year you hear nothing from them and then come back. Our situation, we hope that it will be a more consistent process of her being involved in Noah's life — and it has been."
DO: Be sensitive to language — how you and the birth mother talk about the adoption
Discovering how the birth mother sees her future after the adoption depends on how you and she talk about the adoption. You have to pay special attention to what words she says and leaves unsaid, and you need to respect her choice of language.
Chris could hear his birth mother's initial hesitation during their first communication. "She called Noah 'the baby.' She wouldn't really say 'him' or she would say 'your baby.'"
Of course, the relationship between her and Noah is more involved now, and Chris credits that to being delicate and understanding in those early conversations. When first meeting a birth mother, adoptive dads should do as little as possible to challenge how she processes and explains this decision. Let her describe herself in her own words, and sell yourself with kindness and understanding.
DON'T: Talk about money
Money is going to be a tempting conversation topic — just not for this first meeting. The cost of an adoption hangs over the heads of any couple — gay or straight — so the desire to rush into financials can be overwhelming.
Thomas says that he and Chris were lucky in how quickly they were placed, but they knew all too well the financial burden many gay dads face. "After an emotional two-year or three-year journey, having to take another financial hit, there are people who have to step out of the process as they just don't have the financial means to continue."
Birth mothers are likely considering financials as well, as giving up a baby for adoption often comes as a result of not being able to afford another child. If they bring up money during the first meeting, gay dads should steer the conversation elsewhere for both your sakes. This meeting is about establishing a rapport as parents. There will be plenty of time to talk dollars during the second, third or 30th meeting. Count on it.
One final piece advice Chris offers, which we feel is worth emphasizing here: Regarding adoption, dads should feel comfortable talking about it with their children.
He shares, "Noah's mother is Mama Tara, and that's what he calls her." He continues, "We are also in an adoption group that meets for playdates, and there are all different types of family units in that adoption group. Even if it feels a little uncomfortable, you should live in that uncomfortableness because it's the right way to handle the long-term education of the adoption for your child."
"To summarize, our agency said it best when they told us, 'Our No. 1 priority is the birth mother; priority No. 2 is the child that we're placing; priority No. 3 is you.' And we took that to heart and said she's gotta be top. N0w that we have Noah in our hands, of course, he's ridiculously important to everything we do, but it's important that he has an enduring relationship with his birth mother."
"We always want him to grow up knowing his Mama Tara so when the day arrives that he asks why he was put up to adoption, we can say, 'Oh, well, you're going to see Mama Tara in two weeks, why don't you sit down and talk with her.'"