6 Tips for Navigating Openness in Relationships

I switched schools in fourth grade. Nervous excitement consumed me on the first day. I wondered, What will the kids be like? Will they be nice? Will I make a friend?

Meeting my adopted daughter’s paternal grandmother reminded me of that day. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach, and my mind raced. What will Grandma be like? Will she be nice? Will we connect?

I was pleasantly surprised.

“Hi. Come on in,” Grandma said. She wore a big smile, but I detected a tremor in her voice. She offered me and my husband sandwiches, cheese and crackers, fruit, and tea. During our visit, she explained the family pictures displayed across a table.

The meeting was intense. I sensed Grandma liked us and knew we represented a hopeful future for her granddaughter. But it also broke her heart. We were taking her granddaughter 16 hours away to live with us. How bittersweet.

Fast forward nearly four years. We’ve maintained a relationship with Grandma. She’s blessed our lives and retained an important bond with our daughter. We’ve experienced a few hiccups along the way, but nothing we haven’t been able to work through. Based on my experience, here are six insights I’ve learned that have helped make this openness relationship successful.

Set Flexible Expectations                                                                                         An openness Agreement that stipulates monthly calls and bi-annual visits exists between Grandma and our daughter, contingent on what’s best for our daughter. This sets the framework for regular contact but is not enforceable by law and, most importantly, is flexible. I signed the contract with every intention of monthly calls and regular visits. After all, how could this not be in my daughter’s best interest? It wasn’t, and I’m grateful for the flexibility in our agreement.

Follow Your Child’s Lead                                                                                              At six years of age, when my daughter joined our family, she didn’t want to phone her grandma. It was too difficult, her sense of loss too painful. I initially dictated monthly calls, fixated on the agreement details, but I realized I was upsetting her. “Not now,” she’d say when I suggested we call.

I came to my senses after approximately six months and followed her lead. For two years, my daughter initiated only a handful of calls. Instead, Grandma made occasional calls and mailed surprise cards and gifts. Today, the relationship feels natural. Sometimes, my daughter will call a few times in a week. At other times, she’ll wait a few months.

Grow the Relationship Slowly                                                                                    Eager to embrace Grandma, I offered to let her stay at my house for her first four-day visit. I was unprepared. Grief over her son’s life as well as the loss of her husband and the hardships her grandchildren have endured were dumped on me. When I got a moment to myself, I slumped into a chair and cried. I’d flung a door wide open and panicked. How can I close it?

I closed the door after careful consideration of my needs, my daughter’s needs, and Grandma’s needs. It took three weeks to calm my emotions and think clearly. At this point, I wrote an email to Grandma where I expressed delight in her visit and pointed out the best way to proceed.

Ensure Visits are “Light”                                                                                               My daughter thrives when visits are short, playful, and conversations are light. Conversely, when visits are long and conversations evoke a sense of loss, such as talking about family members she doesn’t see, a heaviness lingers in her spirit. Due to our distance challenge, visits occur over a three to four-day period. Breaking these visits up into segments of time helps.

Identify the Positive                                                                                                  Grandma is a positive role model for my daughter. She has some quirks, but she means well and overflows with love. I’m happy I can tell my daughter, “You have such a big heart. You’re just like your grandma.” I hope as my daughter comes to terms with who she is, this positive influence from her birth family will be helpful.

Communicate and Be Honest                                                                                Grandma and I share a common interest – to do what’s best for my daughter. I’ve had to be honest addressing tough topics such as limiting calls and keeping visits and conversations light. I’m fortunate Grandma listens, and through our mutual respect and ongoing communication, she extends her love to our entire family and we reciprocate.

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