Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Writing the "Dear Birthmother" or "Dear Special People" Letter

Today Evie is 2 months old! I'm going to wait and write about it tomorrow, however, after we get back from her 2 month doctor visit. We're doing Dr. Sears' alternative vaccination schedule, so she'll only be getting the DTaP and Rotavirus vaccines tomorrow and we'll go back at 3 months for the Pc and HIB vaccines.

If you are new to my blog, and this is the first post you have read, please go read this first before continuing to read this post. Thanks.

So, today I'm going to tackle a very stressful topic (at least it was for us): writing the "Dear Birthmother" letter. I'm only calling it that in my title in order to catch some Google hits, because many people call it that, but our social worker advised us right away to address the letter "Dear Special People." She counseled us that it is not just the birth mother who reads the letter; often the birth father reads it, birth grandparents read it and friends or extended family members read it. Addressing "Dear Special People" sounds corny when you first hear it/write it, but it effectively includes every member of the birth family who may be reading the letter because they love the baby and care about his or her adoption plan. In the same vein, make sure that the entire letter is addressed to the "special people" and that you are not addressing just the birth mother by saying things like "your pregnancy."

Here are some other general tips about writing the letter, garnered from conversations with our SW, our reading and our own experiences:

  • Keep the letter to no more than two pages long, shorter if possible. Often birth families read this letter as a part of looking at your profile; in our case, the letter was on pages 2 and 3 of our profile book. If you've done a good job at creating a fantastic profile (more on that in another post), the family will be eager to look at it and will be impatient with reading too much text. This task was very challenging for me because I have always been verbose in my writing!

  • Going along with this first point, put the most important information (vital stats about you) in the first 1/3 of the letter, so that if the birth parents skim the letter they will be more likely to read what you want them to see most.

  • Try not to gush (this is hard for me) because in a letter like this you risk appearing insincere or like you are exaggerating. Use precise, clear prose so that you leave an impression of openness and honesty. Avoid exaggeration, absolutes ("always," "never") and intensifiers ("very," "extremely").

  • Going along with the previous point, resist the temptation to "pad" your letter as you might a resume by exaggerating positive things about your life. You might think you know what birth parents want to hear, but you could be wrong. Birth parents often choose adoptive parents with whom they have something in common; if you exaggerate an aspect of yourself and a birth parent identifies with that part of your letter, you will have an awkward situation on your hands when you are at your match meeting and they try to strike up an in-depth conversation about whatever it is! If you are pursuing an open adoption, remember that this letter is addressed to people whom you will get to know well over the years; best to begin the relationship as honestly as possible.

  • Despite the previous point, don't reveal "too much" in the letter. For example, one of J's hobbies is home wine-making. We don't keep this a secret, but we also decided that it is the kind of thing that is better discussed in person, not written in a letter. If a birth parent were a recovering alcoholic, J's hobby might alarm the birth parent and cause them to stop considering us. On the other hand, once they have met us and seen that we are normal people, it is less likely that J's hobby would be an issue. In our letter, we chose to emphasize J playing the drums for our church band and his cooking skills, instead. At our match meeting we casually brought up his hobby by describing the European style dessert wine he was making that year and naming "Clio," (vintage 2008 of course). He chose this dessert wine because it should age well enough to be served at Evie's wedding some day.

  • Show, don't tell; paint a picture of what your life is like by using concrete examples and vivid imagery that describes the sounds, sights, smells, tastes and touches of your world. This helps birth parents imagine what the child's life will be like, in your home. For example, instead of saying "we are sports fans," say "Each Saturday in the fall, we gather with close friends in our cozy living room to watch U of ______ football, eat chips and salsa and unwind. We already have a tiny U of ______ jersey hanging in the closet of the nursery and we look forward to cuddling a baby as we cheer on the team." OK, so my replacement sentences were long, but you get the idea. This not only shows the birth parents who you are, it also demonstrates how you plan to smoothly add a baby to your life.

  • At some point in the letter, usually in the first or last paragraph, you make an "appeal" to the birth parents. The best way to do this is to 1. express your intentions to love their child unconditionally and forever, 2. empathize with how they must be feeling as they make an adoption plan, 3. describe the type of adoption you are looking for (level of openness, etc.) and 4. provide them with contact information (agency phone # or e-mail, usually) to learn more about you or meet you.

  • At some point in the letter, usually toward the beginning, you should briefly describe what life circumstances led to your decision to adopt a baby. Our SW said "they want to know specifically why you can't have biological children, but they don't want a blow-by-blow of each IUI." :)

  • Be sure to use emotion words (again, without gushing) because the birth parents are usually quite emotional as they are reading these letters and if they see emotion in your letter they are more likely to identify with you. But again, be honest about your emotions, don't exaggerate.

  • Describe your support system; clearly express how excited your parents are to be grandparents and that your friends have offered to help babysit, for example. The birth parents aren't just looking for a couple, they are looking for an extended family and a network of friends who will embrace your child.

  • If you already have children, it will come naturally to write about them in a loving way that will show the birth parents you are sensitive, caring parents. It is harder if you are childless, so think about the children in your life (nieces and nephews, younger cousins, friends' children) and add a cute or touching story about your relationship with a child. It will help paint a picture of what type of parent you will be. You can also use stories about your pets! :)

  • Paint a picture, with words of course, of your home and your neighborhood. Be sure to emphasize the school district if it is a good one. If you state the name of your town/city/neighborhood in the letter, it sends a clear message of openness to the birth family. Birth families are often very curious about adoptive families' homes and "a nice home" shows up on most top 10 lists of the things birth families care about in choosing an adoptive family. For J and I, this posed a challenge. We live in a 1960's era split-level that doesn't have a heck of a lot of curb appeal:
  • So, in our letter we overcame our lack of a "picture perfect" curb shot by describing our home and neighborhood: excellent schools, mature trees, quiet street (not a thoroughfare), large park nearby, mural in the nursery, hard wood floors in the house, large screened porch and deck...
  • Keep your paragraphs fairly short, as this will help the readers "flow" through the letter more smoothly and encourage them to keep reading. Nothing stops a reader and causes them to start skimming like a really long paragraph (I should offer cash prizes to people who read to the bottom of a lot of my posts!) Do as I say, not as I do.

  • Organize your content clearly into paragraphs so that you don't accidentally repeat yourself. An example outline is: 1. introduction, vital stats (age, length of marriage...), 2. description of infertility, 3. excitement about adoption/story about a relationship with a child, 4. description of pets, 5. description of job(s) and hobbies, 6. appeal

  • Proofread, proofread, proofread. Even though I am/was an English teacher, J and I sent our letter to about six different people (friends and family) to read and give us feedback about tone, content and conventions (spelling, grammar, etc.) Most of them gave us at least one truly helpful suggestion or correction.

  • Resist the urge to print the letter in a fancy font that is hard to read! Fonts with serifs (the little marks that stick out from the points/edges of letters) are easier to read. Use serifs, like this, not "sans serif" like this. Sans serif is easier to read on a computer screen, while fonts with serifs are easier to read on paper.
  • Finally, don't be afraid to use a template. If you find a "Dear Special People" letter that you really like, it is not plagiarism to take style and organization tips from it, as long as you change the content to describe yourselves. We English teachers know that writing a good letter doesn't require "re-inventing the wheel," so to speak.

In conclusion, a few offers of help:

  • If anyone would like to read the letter that J and I wrote, e-mail me and if I recognize you as a "regular" reader I'll probably be happy to forward it to you.
  • If you ask me nicely and bribe me with cookies, I might even be willing to read your letter and offer my "English teachery" feedback; it's true, some of us get a kind of perverse pleasure from critiquing writing.
  • Or, if you want professional feedback from a birth mom and an adoptive mom, Lori just posted this today (we must be on the same wavelength!)

ETA on 12-2-08: here's a recent post that builds on this one.

Tomorrow: Evie's 2 month post, with cute pictures!
Friday: more adoption info--I will try to tackle creating a profile. J has Friday off, so maybe I'll even get it done before midnight. Nablopomo is starting to feel like college: staying up late, writing frantically, to meet a deadline!


  1. Just a quick note...but if Evie isn't going to be in daycare, you might ask your pediatrician whether the rotovirus vaccine is even necessary. We did not use it for our son since he is not in daycare and that is generally where kids pick up this illness. Additionally, this vaccine was taken off the market in the early 90's due to serious side effects and has only been back on the market for a few years. It's worth taking a serious look. We are doing some delayed vaccines, some on time and skipping a couple...each for it's own unique reason.

  2. +t, I totally hear you on this because I don't want to give Evie anything unnecessary, but Dr. Sears says that if Evie got rotovirus it would be a more severe case because she is formula-fed. Plus, we are out and about every week to church, baby yoga and baby aerobics, etc., where she is exposed to other babies and adults to some extent. Vaccines are so complicated! The one I'm really struggling with deciding about is the chickenpox one; I'm leaning toward skipping that one and taking Evie to a "pox party" at some point so that she'll be immune when she's pregnant, eventually... :)

  3. I think it's wonderful that you are so concerned with the vaccine schedule, since quite a few parents don't even think of wanting to know why it's done the way it is. I have Crohn's disease, and while they haven't decided what causes it, they have found links with receiving the combined MMR vaccine. Apparently, if they are given individually, it ceases to be linked to the disease... but it means more shots, so that does stink for the baby and for you, since you have to take them to the doctor and deal with the aftermath (plus paying copays!)

    Thank you for sharing all of this great information! Evie is getting so big and she's so adorable! I love the way that she loves look at the walls in her room. I can imagine how thrilled you were that you made the decision to get it painted since you didn't know if the baby would care...

    Oh, on a side note... I am interested in seeing your letter, but I don't want to intrude. I know I don't really "know" you, so I don't blame you if you don't want to share. :o)

  4. We've always had church, regular playdates and outings for lunch several days a week too and had to balance out the risks vs. the benefits (good point on the formula vs breastmilk though!...of course, I wasn't vaccinated for roto way back when either though) it's good you guys have thought it all out and aren't blindly following the American Pediatrics. :)
    We aren't doing Chicken pox. My understanding is it's a live vaccine I'd rather get "natural" exposure.
    We have skipped Hep B, flu and Roto thus far and are doing delayed on the other age appropriate ones so that we never do more than 2 shots in a 6 month period. We will skip chicken pox and hep A also, and are still considering the MMR issue. Having a boy (who are more prone to autism in general) makes this one especially hard and at a minimum we will do individual sticks rather than the triple jab...although my husband and I are leaning more towards skipping this one altogether.
    If you really want to complicate it all, add in the fact that most vaccines come from aborted fetal about trying to balance religious views, ethics and your child's health!
    There is also a strong connection between multiple vaccines and what typically shows up as shaken baby syndrome due to the vaccines depleting vitamin k and vitamin c.
    It's all so complicated and there is no one answer. Each baby is unique and needs a unique vaccine schedule.

  5. Thanks for the shout out, Karen.

    I'm told that another reason that "birthmmother" is not an accurate appellation is that until and unless she relinquishes, she is an expectant mom or simply a mom. To call her "birthmother" prior to relinquishment can be considered subtle coercion.

    You have some really great points about length and showing vs telling.

    And I think your house looks great!

  6. Interesting that this has gone on to a topic on vaccination... My husband still thinks our son should be vaccinated, but I disagree with all the auto-immune and neurological disorders in my family. T- thanks for commenting, esp. that there shouldn't be a "one size fits all" for vaccination. Karen- I know Evie's history and stand behind you 100 percent!

  7. New reader here...this info is great. Our profile has been out for quite some time now and I've been thinking of re-doing it. I'm going to take some of your suggestions when I update ours. Thanks! BTW, your daughter is beautiful!

  8. I found your site by Googling "creating an adoption profile". You have some great advice! Thanks for posting this online for others to benefit from! Feel free to read our adoption journey on my blog.


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