Danger of secrets


Aya Marshall
Focus on Adoption magazine

A mom discovers that her child's birth sister has no idea that they are siblings--now what does she do?

My daughter Lucy is the second child in her biological family. Her older sister Kate was adopted at birth by a very loving couple. When they were asked if they would adopt Lucy, Kate was already 9-years-old and was the oldest of four children. Though I’m sure the decision was difficult, ultimately Kate’s parents were not in a position to parent Lucy. As fate would have it, the next call came to us and Lucy became our daughter.

When our social worker asked, we immediately agreed to meet with Kate and her family. Although one was mentioned in passing, we never signed an openness agreement. Our social worker was preparing for a leave of absence, and an agreement would have taken time to draft, mediate, and sign. Since safety was not a factor and both sides were keen for the sisters to grow up knowing one another, everyone assumed that an unofficial agreement would be “easier.” In time, we would learn that the opposite was true.

Our first visit with Kate’s family was storybook. We met for ice cream to celebrate Lucy’s first birthday. I was delighted to see that both girls shared a head full of sleek dark hair and kissable bow lips. Kate’s mother brought baby pictures and, while the kids devoured ice cream with their daddies, we sat back and compared “little Katie” and “little Lucy’s” similarities.

Keeping promises

An openness agreement is a written agreement that defines the type of openness between a birth family and an adoptive family. It is likely to include the frequency and type of contact, the length of the agreement, and the method for resolution if a disagreement arises. These agreements are designed to meet the needs of the child, birth family, and adoptive family, and take into account the need for flexibility and change over time. The agreements are morally, but not legally, binding.

We met again six months later over the Christmas holidays. We had lunch at a local restaurant and were just starting dessert when a family friend happened to pass by our table. She stopped to say hi to Lucy and introduce herself. “Oh, you must be Kate!” she smiled. “Lucy’s mom was telling me about you. It’s so nice to finally meet Lucy’s big sister!” She waved goodbye and returned to her table. I smiled after her until I noticed the look on Kate’s face. “L-Lucy’s big sister?” She sputtered. Kate looked at Lucy and back at her mother. “What do you mean, sister?” I didn’t know what to say. I replayed our first meeting in my mind and tried to determine what went wrong for such an obvious mistake to have been made. Kate’s mother took her by the hand, excused herself and left her husband to gather the other kids and pay the bill.

I waited a week before calling to thank the family for lunch and determine what exactly our relationship was going to look like from here on in. Kate’s mother explained that while her daughter knew she had been adopted, their parental guilt for not being able to parent Lucy had prevented them from disclosing to Kate that Lucy was in fact her sister.

Although we have been open from the start with Lucy about her adoption and the fact that she had an older sister, we neglected to communicate this with the very people who mattered most. The openness agreement we dismissed so easily would no doubt have smoothed the road. It may well have prevented young Kate from finding out in a negative way the good news that she was - for the fourth time - a big sister.

Our assumptions about adoption and openness had done a disservice to our daughters and made a great relationship between our families temporarily strained. Luckily, Kate’s parents are good people who were open enough to still welcome us as family (now that it was clear to Kate we truly were). The next visit was a little awkward, but we made our way through, and now Kate is happy to meet with Lucy - who has grown into a precocious and bossy four-year-old.

When I see my little daughter holding hands with her teenage sister, it warms my heart and reminds me exactly why openness is so important. It’s the gritty details that adoptive parents need to address from the outset that will prevent problems for our children and allow them to just be kids and enjoy their relationships.

Looking back, it’s painfully clear just how simple our openness agreement could have been. Our girls did not need a safety net to protect them from witnessing abusive behaviours or the effects of addiction. We didn’t even have the complicating factor of physical distance separating our families; we were close enough to drive to one another’s home. We both had loving families who welcomed our children through adoption.

Perhaps it was the presumed ease at which our relationship would develop that prevented us from discussing the basics. Openness agreements, by design, are intended to ease relationships between biological and adoptive families. They set the ground rules for levels and frequency of contact, expectations for long-term relationships, and suggest means for resolving conflict. We didn’t need a written agreement for those usual factors; what we needed as new parents (who had no concrete idea about openness) was for someone to sit down with both families to help us determine what our relationship would look like in the years that followed.

If we’d had that crucial conversation, at the very least it would have set the ball rolling for both sides to address the actuality that we were parenting children, sisters, who were born of the same birth mother. There’s no English term (at least in my vocabulary) that defines our relationships. Lucy was Kate’s sister, that much was clear…. But what was I to Kate? Her step-mother? No, not even close. An Aunty? Well, kind of. But the simple fact is, we lack the language to identify our roles. When circumstances are this muddy for the adults involved, imagine how confusing it can be for the kids if their parents aren’t prepped on how to guide them.

My advice to parents who are considering an openness agreement is simple: read about it, talk about it, discuss it, and be open to it. Involve your social workers from the get-go, and use a mediator if one is suggested. Talk long and hard with the other adults involved before you bring the kids on board. It can mean the difference between a couple of girls giggling over ice cream and an unpleasant surprise at your next dessert.

Names, including the author's, have been changed to protect privacy.