How and When to Talk to Your Child About Their Adoption

“Mama? Where did I come from?” the sweet little girl inquired as her mama was preparing dinner. Her mama reddened then prepared to launch into her scripted speech about what happens when mamas and papas love each other when her thoughts were interrupted by her daughter again. “Billy says he came from the hospital but I just showed up at home one day like a mail package.” Now, in addition to juggling the need to discuss intimate biology with her 4-year-old and the realization that that particular talk could wait she was repressing a belly laugh. If only adoption had been that easy—a mail package. 

“Well,” she began, unable to hold back her smile. “You did eventually just show up from Billy’s point of view. He was the age you are now when you came home, so he doesn’t really remember the specifics. But to answer your question, you came from the hospital just like Billy—the same hospital in fact. But your arrival was a little bit different.” She sighed and paused, remembering her emotions that day, and realized, to an extent, that the talk would have to happen today anyway because her daughter was bound to have more questions after she answered this one. “Every baby that is born is a miracle from God,” she continued, “but you were an extra special one. You see, baby, remember how we always talk about how you were adopted? Remember, that means that you came from another Mama’s tummy but that Mama decided that to give you your best chance, she wanted us to raise you.”  

She paused, giving her girl time to process this information. Her small face screwed up in confusion. “Yeah, you say I was adopted all the time, Mama. How did I get in that other lady’s tummy though?” The mama was about to begin the explanation she had prepared. With the help of a book she had bought a few years ago for her son on just this topic, she explained how a baby got into a woman’s tummy. Wide-eyed, her daughter stared and then asked “So did Daddy put me in the other mama’s tummy?!” Oh, dear. This hadn’t gone quite the direction she had intended. “No, no there was another papa, too. We just—” How do you explain to your 4-year-old that a grown man sired a child then skipped town when he found out? Even she didn’t understand and she was in her 30s. “That man decided he didn’t want to be a papa just yet so he wanted you to be raised by another mama and papa, too.” That was a stretch. He was tracked down and given papers to sign to make his desire to not parent official. “Can he take me back?!” The mama quickly explained, “No, baby but when you’re older we can talk about you meeting both of them—would you like that?” Her daughter climbed into her arms, rested her head on her shoulder, and shook her head in a violent no. The woman sighed, knowing that the next time she was asked her answer could be different, so she decided to let it go for now. The rest of the day proceeded as usual. 

The Right Time to Talk About Adoption

Maybe you’re thinking four is too young. I did, too, until I entered the adoption world. I hadn’t realized that some families keep it a secret for the child’s whole life. I was unaware of the betrayal newly minted adults could feel when they were made aware on their 18th birthday that the dad who taught them how to drive was not the same dad that sired them. I don’t know when I thought was the right time but I wouldn’t have dreamed of making it a secret. A sweet friend of mine is an adoptive mom and she was adopted herself. Her advice was to never make it a secret. I may have waited until my girl could process the information more fully but my older boys were eight and nine when they entered foster care and she was only six weeks old. By the time they were all adopted, it seemed silly to dance around the topic. The boys knew they were adopted and had to consent to it. We hang pictures of that day on our walls. So when the time came for my little girl to ask, “What does adopted mean?” she was well and truly familiarized with the idea. I don’t know that I told her every day but I routinely whispered, “I’m so glad I got to adopt you and your brothers. You are my precious gifts.” These days she rolls her eyes at me and says, “I know, Mama,” but I still am known to say it weekly to all of my kids. 

When she asked whose tummy she had come out of, I was a pro at the sanitized, easy-to-digest, age-appropriate answers. I showed her pictures of her bio mom and dad. They aren’t safe people but she still gets to know who they are, and we have contact with an aunt. I borrowed books from the library for her and her sister’s age group. I let them ask questions. I wasn’t embarrassed, and I made sure that I was in no way derogatory about birth parents, even though it would have been easy to be. They all still randomly ask questions, often when I’m driving or trying to cook. I think because I’m occupied with something else they feel safer asking uncomfortable things. 

A Stained Glass Window

We could have gone a different route. I can see how it would feel easier to not talk about it until a kid was older. Certainly, an older child would have an easier grasp of what the adoption meant to each party involved. However, I think that leaves a place open for brokenness to take hold. Adoption comes from a place of brokenness, and I feel like if it isn’t handled with care, everyone involved becomes broken, too. I think of it like stained glass windows. Glass had to be broken to make the pieces, but the pieces together make something incredible. That’s how I feel about my family. However, if someone were to take a rock—something like my child finding out from a stranger that she was adopted, me speaking badly about birth parents, painting adoption to be all unicorns and sunshine when it isn’t—then the glass will shatter and it will be hard to make it right again. 

Something I should mention is that my kids are different than your kids. If your child is mentally challenged, there is a chance that trying to explain this to them will have little or no effect except to bring confusion and possibly fear. If my girl had been an only child or wasn’t asking questions, I might have waited until she was more articulate to have a full discussion about what adoption was. My sons view adoption as a last resort but their only chance at safety. Their view is understandably different than mine. I make it a point to discuss it differently with them than my younger daughters. 

How to Talk

So, how do you have the adoption talk? That part is truly up to you. If I could have planned it, I would have taken just one kid at a time out for one-on-one time to discuss it. Since it happened organically at my house, I just flowed with it. I didn’t want my kid feeling like she had said something wrong so I answered her questions. It was difficult. She was only four and had so many questions. She has always known she was adopted but didn’t always understand what that meant, even though we had talked about it. She is six now and will still occasionally ask questions to get clarification. 

When to Talk

When do you have the adoption talk? I’m not a psychologist. In my experience and after talking to friends that have both been adopted and are adoptive parents, I would say to tell them when they are little. It would be an awful shock to find out by accident. For example, we went to church with people who were following along on our foster care journey. When we got word we were going to adopt, they wanted to announce it at church. The only problem was that the boys didn’t know yet and we weren’t supposed to tell them until they went to the counselor with their bio parents the next day. We managed to avert the crisis but just barely. Honestly, if anything it gave me a better understanding of who I could and could not tell things to. 

Where to Talk

Where should you have the adoption talk? If you can arrange it, then plan that out. It could be at the park, an ice cream or coffee shop, your living room, or wherever seems best to you. If you can prepare with a book and some pictures, do that. Also remember this will be an ongoing conversation, much like it needs to be. There are things a 4-year-old cannot understand that a 12-year-old will suddenly question. Keep the door of communication open so that your kids feel comfortable coming to you with their big questions. I found out more about biology in my first year of marriage than I did my whole life. I’m hoping to better equip my kids to understand how and why things work the way they do and to be choosy about with whom they do life. 

No Adoption Secrets

And for the love of all things, if you take none of my advice besides this, hear me: please do not keep your child’s adoption a secret. If they find out without you telling them, it will feel like a terrible betrayal and you may lose them forever emotionally if not physically. Something like this is too big to keep a secret. Eventually, there will be a medical procedure or a school assignment that requires the truth to come out, and the fallout from that would be devastating. 

I hope your experience is a good one and that you and your child walk away feeling better for having had the conversation. I hope that they understand. It will pull your heartstrings. If you are a crier (I’m guilty as charged) you will probably cry. It is worth it to have everything out in the open. I will take all of the uncomfortable, tear-inducing conversations in the world if it means I get to be Mama to my beautiful kids. 

Helpful Resources

If you aren’t a words person, many fantastic books can help you. Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis is beautiful. I Wished for You by Marianne Richmond is also lovely. I cannot get through either without choking up with tears. My kids’ stories are so different. Though I chose to adopt them, no loving arms were waiting for them at the hospital. There was a great deal of fear and worry. I don’t tell them that part of their story yet. The older boys know that they were potentially going back to their biological parents, but they don’t like to talk about it. It is entirely true, however, that all of my kids are chosen and loved and we try to dwell on that piece of it. 

Make the Adoption Story Yours

Everyone’s adoption story is different. Some people foster to adopt. Some people travel internationally to adopt. Some get a call at 3 a.m. saying they were chosen and to please come to the hospital to pick up their baby. Whatever your story is, make it yours. How did you feel when you first saw your kids? They’ll want to know. I felt shock, joy, and fear all at once. My kids like to hear how when the caseworkers left, I stared at their dad and asked him, “Wait, they left us alone with three children? What were they thinking?” It makes them laugh to think about me being unsure. They also like hearing about how their daddy wasn’t a baby person but that he snatched that tiny bundle of baby girl out of my arms as quickly as he could without a second thought. Little details will matter to them as much as the big ones, so give it some thought. I wish you good luck. Don’t wait too long.