December 22, 2009

In Praise of Extended Visits

So Susiebook asked:
Do you like having these visit weekends, or would you rather be able to have an afternoon visit more frequently? It sounds like you had a good weekend, but it's hard for me to imagine being "on" for a few days like that--I'm worn out after a day trip.
This is one of those "your mileage may vary" situations, and I'm speaking as an adoptive parent, but: I like the long visits better.

We've had both day visits and extended visits with three of the kids' first parents. When Puppy was born we lived in the same county as Kelly and Ray, about a 45 minute drive apart, depending on traffic. Close, but not too close, as Kelly put it at the time. Now we're a different state, although we occasionally visit their area. (I told her the very first time we talked to her that we were probably moving, in case that was a dealbreaker.) We live about a 1.5 hour drive from where Beth and Kevin live. You can do a visit in a day, but it's a long day. Too far to pop over for dinner, for sure.

If you're trying to approach open adoption the way we are, which is to  integrate adoption into our regular lives to the extent that it's possible and appropriate, I think there are two fairly simple means: either to have an ultra-local adoption, in which people live close enough to easily drop by for a meal or come to a dance recital, or to spend longer strings of days together. The sporadic day visits have always felt stilted and oddly segregated from the rest of our life, to me. It's hard to get to know people very well. I was worried when we moved that we were losing the chance to have a certain casual familiarity with Ray and Kelly, but what we ended up gaining by doing extended visits turned out to be better for our particular open adoption (again, from our perspective). When we first were getting to know Beth, both Todd and I both expressed the hope that she wouldn't feel like she lived too close to come up and stay with us sometimes, because we really wanted to have those longer times together.

Other people's experience may be totally different. That's cool.

Some of the things I like about having the kids' first parents stay in our home, as an adoptive parent:
  • They see a lot more of the kids' daily life, from their waking up to their going to sleep. The kids in their natural habitat, if you will. Puppy in particular loves to show off his favorite things. There is nothing quite like seeing a child enjoy what is special to them, whether that be a favorite book before bed or their prized bedroom. Or to see them getting a time out. Ahem.
  • There is more time for adult-only interaction, during naptime or after the kids are in bed. Some of our best conversations--both about adoption and other topics--have happened during extended visits. It takes time for some of us to let down our guard, and there are some topics I wouldn't yet feel comfortable bringing up in front of the kids. There is also time to just watch a movie or something together and maybe discover some common interests.
  • The kids get a better sense of their first parents as real people, I think, as they see them for longer periods and in the context of our everyday life.
  • It's pretty easy and natural to give them alone time together around the house or yard.
  • There are more chances to have them meet the friends and family that make up our local life (and have our friends and family meet them), further integrating our worlds together and normalizing open adoption for folks.
  • It reinforces for the kids that their first parents are part of our regular circle, people who come stay with us just like other family and friends do.
  • Home is a safe, familiar place for the kids. I think the combination of that with the longer window of time helps them relax and open up emotionally. This is especially true for Firefly.
Is it hard to be "on" for a few days, as Susie said? Sure. For one or more of the folks involved, some of the factors that put adoption on the table in the first place also make it more difficult for them to have healthy relationships. (Was that vague enough?) They can be draining to be around. But I've found that a two hour visit with them is pretty much equally button-pushing for me as an extended visit. So I'd rather get the benefits of the extended visit.

I won't lie: it can be hard sometimes. I'm positive that is even more true for the kids' first parents. I've noticed they all nap a lot while they are here, and while some of that may just be part of being on 'vacation' from their regular lives (I loved to nap on trips in our pre-kid days), I'd be willing to bet some of it is a coping mechanism. It took Beth a year before she felt ready to stay the night here. I think it's important for the adults to think ahead of the visit about what sort of self-care would be helpful, whether that means staying at a hotel to have some private space or having a planned phone call with a supportive friend. (During one particularly draining visit, I realized later I had run to the grocery store a lot, probably trying to relieve some of the pressure I was feeling at home.)  This varies a lot for me depending on the person visiting and the time of year. Sometimes a visit is emotionally easy, like this past weekend. Sometimes I don't manage my emotions very well. But, again, I don't know that more frequent, shorter visits wouldn't carry similar pressures (were they even possible right now with Puppy's first parents). I think that is just part of our particular open adoptions, with our family's particular circumstances and particular participants.

Part of it is the sense of isolation open adoption can sometimes bring. I see parallels to other relationship in my life, but the adoption piece puts a different spin on it. For instance, visits from my in-laws are often hard for me, too, but I feel like I have more support for that surrounding me. I can go to my friends and say, "Oh my word, my in-laws!" and they say, "Tell me about it, me too!" They have a category for in-law drama. But I can't do that with open adoption, at least not in my offline life. People don't really get what open adoption is like or why it's important to us, and I don't want them to think poorly of the kids' first families. I'm learning to reach out for support online when I need it. Slowly, but I'm learning.

Overall, I'm a fan of the extended visits. I encourage folks to give them a shot. They make a huge difference in the kids' relationships with their first parents, a difference that I believe would take lots and lots of shorter visits to achieve. That is so very worth it to me.

I'd love to hear other people's experiences with extended visits, especially first parents'.


Anonymous said...

My son and his family live on the opposite coast [the fact that people actually live on that coast on purpose is another dicussion for another time :)]

Being that we are so far appart when we have visits they are extended (A week to ten days), however they are very infrequent because of the expense involved in traveling that distance.

I love my extended visits. I love staying at their house. Watching him play out back with his friends. Sitting with the entire family relaxing watching a movie before mom and dad read each boy a bedtime story.

But I do wonder if it would be better for him if I was there in person more frequently even if those visits were quite a bit shorter.


Eva said...

I just wanted to drop in and say that I really enjoyed this post but I don't have any thing to add because we are not there yet. This definitely gave me something to think about and I like the notion incorporating self-care for all involved.

Lisa V said...

Mallory leaves in 24 hours for a 10 day visit with her first mom's family. I love extended visits. I love that she has them without us, so she is free to figure out what she is feeling, thinking, etc. without feeling like she is under a microscope.

We started having her visit on her own when she was 12. It went so well that I started my son doing the same thing at 6.

Anonymous said...

I was so sure that you had to be working with greater distances than we were. Huh. I'm going to blog about this tomorrow, since once I started talking it went on a bit. ;)

luna said...

I agree about the extended visits for many of the reasons you mention. except for a weekend away with both of our daughter's first parents, we've only really done extended visits with her first mom. she has an open invitation to stay with us.

I think if we ever get to that point with her bio dad, we will take it slow as we are still working to establish appropriate boundaries with him.

I can see how this wouldn't work for everyone though.

Linda said...

I wish my adoption was in a healthy enough place to allow this for Sam because I think he'd get a lot out of an extended visit. His family is in such a state of breakdown right now that we haven't had even a short visit. We attempted several times and got stood up, got lied to by someone (not sure which party at this point) and everyone has disintegrated to the point that they're so unstable, we wouldn't do anything without a social worker present. It makes me so sad. I'd love to have with our bio family what you guys have. Maybe one day?

Heather said...

@Flicka - Our contact so far with Firefly's paternal side of the family has all been done with an agency counselor involved. We're slowly inching forward, and hopefully there will be more trust over time, but we definitely won't be doing any overnights together in the near future that I can see. It sucks, but it's just kind of the reality of the situation. I think we just have to find the positive elements where we can, hold on to those, and figure out how to have some sort of realistic hopes for the future.

I'm really sorry, for Sam and for you, that things have been so hard. Hopefully this is just the beginning of a story that will have a much different ending.

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