I was seated in front of my soon-to-be son, shoveling spoonfulsof mashed sweet potatoes into his open mouth while telling him his adoption story. I knew he wasn’t going to remember it. He was 6 months old, with a vocabulary consisting of ahhhs, gurgles, and squeals, clearly not able to fully comprehend the meaning of words. I did not always understand why it was important to start this “conversation” early, but over time this understanding was solidified. I understood because I could see into his future as a boy, tween, teen, young man, and full-fledged adult…an adult adoptee. This knowledge was a gift unintentionally passed to me by men and women who sharedtheir stories of finding and understanding themselves. Being disconnected from their biological family and adopted by another, these adoptees had an extra layer of life experience to blend into who they were…a process made much more difficult when they learned about their adoption when they were “older”. Six. Twelve. Fifteen. Twenty-two. Forty-one. Yes! Forty-one!! That story is for another blog post but the effects of learning the truth as an older child is at the least, confusing. At the most, devastating! It doesn’t have to be this way.
When adoptive parents ask me, “When should we let our child know he/she joined our family through adoption?” My answer is always, “From birth, and never stop!” Sometimes the worries come flooding in: What if they are confused and don’t understand who their parents are? What if they feel “less than”? And there are deeper, unspoken fears. We want to be their parents in every way and worry about losing an emotional connection to our children. We fear we might lose them to this other mother, father, family. Worries abound but humans…especially children…are pretty amazing, resilient, and have an ability to understand things beyond our imagination. People NEED to know all of the truths about themselves…heritage, heredity, origin, etc.
So why begin this conversation at infancy? Why should this be an ongoing conversation throughout life?
1) It helps you practice and get comfortable with the story.
Adoption is beautiful. It’s a love story, for sure. But let’s face it…it does not happen without pain, loss, and sadness. It just doesn’t. And sometimes those topics are hard to discuss with your child. How do you explain that their birth parents were not able to care for them? The reasons are not easy…lack of money, resources, family support, homelessness, lack of emotional readiness, abusive relationships, substance abuse or addiction, physical abuse, and/or neglect. Telling your child they were adopted is one thing, but addressing the reasons why are quiteanother. You WILL need to address those reasons over time and practicing those conversations helps you become comfortable and confident in sharing your child’s story with him/her.
2) It allows the child to weave their adoption into their identity from the beginning.
Think about how children learn language. Do you sit them down at the age of 5 and say, “Okay…now it’s time to learn words, meanings, names of things, etc.”? Of course not! Instead, you talked to your child, even when they didn’t understand the words. Eventually, they learn mama and dada, bye bye, milk, book, dog, cat, and a million other words, sounds, expressions, tonal inflections, body language, etc. If you asked your child at age 6, “How do you feel about this language we taught you?”, you would likely get a very puzzled expression. This language is just a part of them. They cannot recognize a beginning. This is how your child’s adoption story should be…simply woven into the fabric of them.
3) It normalizes adoption and lessens the stigma associated with it.
Imagine I walked up to you and said, “We need to talk. Please…sit down. I have something to tell you.” What does that approach tell you about what you about to hear? Doesn’t itsound weighty and serious; possibly really awful news or something that will be life changing? This approach communicates to your child that the topic is stressful and uncomfortable. The announcement of “You were adopted” feels different when it requires a sit-down, serious conversation. Even if the news is delivered with smiles and positivity, the fact that it required preparation, staging a time to talk, an announcement and follow-up conversations tells your child that adoption is not normal.
4) It empowers parents and strengthens the relationship between you and your child.
I have heard countless stories from adult adoptees about when and how they were told about their adoption. I love hearing, “I have always known.” I am even more thrilled when I hear things like, “My parents are helping me search” or “I think my mom wanted to talk about my adoption more than I did!” These are the ones who will, more likely, turn to their parents for support, ask hard questions, and process their thoughts and feelings about their adoption.
On the opposite side of the coin I have heard, “I tried to ask about my birth family when I was 15 but my mom cried, my dad accused me of being ungrateful, and we never talked about it again.” One man came to see me unexpectedly and told me that two days prior he learned of his adoption from a cousin. At 35 years old, he was reeling from the news, trying to make sense of his entire life, feeling betrayed and deceived. Had these parents made efforts to accept, embrace, and openly share their child’s adoption story, it would have strengthened their relationship with their child. Instead, it placed a wedge between them and lessened their child’s emotional safety to turn to them when needed. Consequently, many adoptees wonder and hurt in silence, decide to search alone, meet their birth parents without their adoptive parents’ knowledge, or wait until their parents are deceased to search.
If the thought of this brings tears to your eyes or causes anxiety, fear, questioning, and confusion, that’s okay! Parenting, in and of itself, is not for the faint of heart. Adding adoption into the mix requires an additional set of skills and understanding. You are not alone! Here are a few suggestions to get you started in the right direction or to support the path you are already on:
Seek professional guidance and support through counseling.
Join a support group of other adoptive parents. Many can be found on Facebook and can be tailored to your “type” of adoption: special needs, private, international, transracial, single parent, grandparent, LGBTQ parenting, etc.
Find books pertaining to this subject for you and your son or daughter. Tapestrybooks.com is an excellent resource for literature pertaining to adoption.