Academic journal article Family Relations

Birthmother Perceptions of the Psychologically Present Adopted Child: Adoption Openness and Boundary Ambiguity

Academic journal article Family Relations

Birthmother Perceptions of the Psychologically Present Adopted Child: Adoption Openness and Boundary Ambiguity

Article excerpt

Birthmother Perceptions of the Psychologically Present Adopted Child: Adoption Openness and Boundary Ambiguity*

Secondary analysis of interviews with 163 birthmothers revealed that the adopted child remains psychologically present. Ten indicators of psychological presence were identified. Indicators related to roles were more salient the more open the adoption, and supernatural referents were more salient when a birthmother once had mediated communication but now has none. Degree of psychological presence was highest in fully-disclosed adoptions and lower in ongoing-mediated, confidential, and time-limited-mediated adoptions, respectively. Valence was generally positive, but more so in fully-disclosed adoptions.

Key Words: adoption, adoption openness, birthmothers, boundary ambiguity, presence, psychological presence.

Throughout most of the twentieth-century in the United States, adoption was based on a model of secrecy, a practice which continued until about the early 1970s. At that time, in response to social forces and outcries from birthparents, adopted persons, adoptive parents, and adoption practitioners (Reitz & Watson, 1992), adoption practices began a gradual transformation from the secrecy model to an open one, based on increased levels of contact and shared communication. Contact and information-sharing between birth- and adoptive parents after an adoption plan is implemented is called openness in adoption, and the research reported here describes adoption openness on the continuum of openness suggested by Grotevant, McRoy, Elde, and Fravel (1994). Confidential adoptions include minimal, non-identifying health and heritage information provided prior to the adoption but with no post-placement communication between the adoptive and birth families. Mediated adoptions lie midway on the continuum and involve ongoing exchange of nonidentifying information, indirectly through a third party, such as an attorney or adoption agency. Fully-disclosed ("open") adoptions include ongoing direct, identifying communication between the birth and adoptive families.

It is now much more common for adoptive and birth families to have some degree of post-placement contact with one another in a mediated or fully-disclosed adoption. Nonetheless, openness is still extremely controversial, and individuals and institutions still wrestle with the question of whether it is "a longoverdue innovation or a grave mistake" (Siegel, 1993, p. 16). Proponents of confidentiality argue that confidential arrangements best enable all parties to achieve closure and go on with their lives, thereby reducing some of the stress associated with adoption. Proponents of openness, however, argue that including people and sharing information reduce stress for everyone involved by eliminating uncertainty and questions about the whereabouts and well-being of the other parties (Grotevant & McRoy, 1998).

Boundary ambiguity is defined here as a condition that exists when an individual's physical and psychological presence in the family are incongruent, thereby increasing the likelihood that the family members may have difficulty determining whether that person is inside or outside the family (Boss, 1988). Physical presence is simply the person's literal, bodily presence or absence in a family (Fravel, 1995). Psychological presence is "the symbolic existence of an individual in the perceptions of family members, in a way that, or to a degree that, influences the thoughts, emotions, behavior, identity, or unity of the remaining family members" (Fravel, 1995, p. 18); more simply put, it refers to the person being "in the heart" or "on the mind" of family members (Fravel, 1995). When an adoption occurs, the child moves from one family to another, and it seems reasonable to assume that the child would remain psychologically present to the birthmother, that is, in her heart or on her mind.1 Further, because of the very practices that define openness, parties to the adoption would be variously physically present to one another, according to level of openness. …

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