Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young woman who had a baby in her tummy, whom she loved very much. This is a typical adoption story beginning for many young children who have experienced adoption. The story of a birth mom is quite easy to tell. This holds especially true for younger children. As many children do not find out the intricate details of their adoption until they are older, the story of being in someone else’s tummy and that person loving them resonates at a young age.
Talking About It at a Young Age
By the age of 3, many children understand the concept of babies existing and the tummy of a woman for pregnancy. They also understand the general concept of love. With this, this seems to be our go-to story when it comes to telling of birth moms.
My daughter talks to her birth mother weekly and understands completely that she came from her tummy. She understands completely that she was her mother before I was. She even calls her “mama” followed by her first name. While it’s understandable that my daughter doesn’t get the concept of adoption completely, she has a general idea. However, she does not quite get the idea of a birth father largely because she does not have a relationship with her own, but also because the concept of “birth father” is harder to explain. It is, in fact, quite difficult to explain a birth father.
Yet as Father’s Day just passed, I found it very important to try to figure out how to explain what birth father means to her in a way that she would understand at a young age. It also made me think about how it would explain the concept of a birth father as she grows.
Finding What Works for Your Child
A lot of the intricacies of adoption will really sort of unfold themselves as she grows and learns. Much of it she will figure out on her own. However, I wanted to make sure I was doing my due diligence as her adoptive mother to explain that there was this other important person in her life.
But how do we do that without royally screwing up the story? How does any adoptive parent do that in a way that a 3-year-old would understand? How do you explain to a child that their birth father is out there but that they can’t speak to them or see them? If you are blessed to have an open adoption, how do you explain who the birth father is at any stage?
There are a few different ways to explain a birth father to a child but not all of these ways will help the child understand. It will really take knowing the child to understand what they might grasp. For some, the story of their birth father may come in story form. There may be a book you use to help you explain it.
For others, they may understand early the biology of it all and really just need the facts. For those who have an open adoption, you will get the advantage of having the child’s birth father present to explain who they are and their relationship to your child.
Just as it is important that a child understand all members of the adoption triad, the birth father is no exception. Yet, explaining a child’s birth father to them is harder in some cases than in others and may not be able to be fully explained.
Talking About Biology
The first way to address the subject of “birth father” is to address simple biology. This will vary, of course, based on the child’s age and understanding. For my 3-year-old, the story may go something like this:
“You already know how you were in Mama K’s tummy right? Well, just like me and daddy are your mommy and daddy, and Mama K was your first mom, you also had a first dad. He helped create you and then you were born from Mama K.”
Now, this does not give a lot of detail and it is certainly layman’s terms. However, I need to speak to her on her level. If she has more questions after this, I can definitely answer in a way that I feel is age-appropriate.
At the age of 3, she typically just says, “Oh cool!” and goes on with her normal day. She would not understand an explanation that involved the birds and the bees. As she gets older and learns about biology and how conception truly happens, she will put two and two together, or I can explain how it all works in the context of her adoption story. The age for this will depend on the maturity of the child and when you feel that they are ready to understand conception. You may be surprised at how early this occurs.
If you have biological children, you can also explain this to your child whom you adopted by using them and your partner/spouse as an example. I often talk to my daughter about how her two older brothers came from my tummy. She understands that they were not adopted, but does not quite understand what daddy had to do with it. She understands that her brothers both look like her dad and that she looks like her birth parents. She does not quite understand why that is. However, she does know that her adoptive dad came to be her dad differently than her brothers.
It is completely okay at this age that she does not quite “get it” just yet. I should not expect her to at age 3. However, I should also not underestimate her ability to understand. I should not give up trying to explain to her the concept of her birth father and how she came into this world. In this case, a more in-depth understanding will come with age, wisdom, and maturity.
I asked a few adoptive parents how they explain their children’s birth father to them at varying ages. Not shockingly, many were in the same boat with finding it difficult to explain. I simply asked, “How do you explain ‘birth father’ to your adopted child?” Here are two responses from fellow adoptive parents:
“We have three adopted children from three different sets of birth parents. One has a birth father who was deemed dangerous for her safety so she has not seen him in years. One has her birth father in her life. One has a birth father who wants nothing to do with him. We have very open adoptions where appropriate, and we have spent a lot of time with birth fathers of children in foster care as well.”-Jamie
“I have no real input other than to agree that it is very challenging.” -Jenni
As you can see from these responses, there is not a real definitive answer. It seems that relationship may be key and the idea that children may figure out the information as they grow in these relationships.
I have been struggling with this concept for some time. When Father’s Day came, I realized that I was failing quite considerably. I do not want to screw it up and I do want to make sure that both my children who were adopted understand as much about their birth father as they do their birth mother. I want them to not be surprised as they get older that there was someone else, a whole other family, from which their roots are growing. I want them to know this family if possible and to not struggle with that part of their identity as they grow. However, it is understandable that in closed adoptions, dangerous situations, or situations where the father is not involved, this is not always easy.
I was very interested in what my husband felt about this subject as an adoptive father. I found it strange that I had never really asked his opinion on this matter. Due to added interest, I also asked my 8-year-old biological son the same question. Here is what they had to say when asked, “How would you respond if the kids ask, ‘What is a birth father?’ How would you explain it?”
“At their young ages, it’s hard. Like you can’t just say, ‘He was there when you were made.’ I don’t know. That’s a hard one. I guess I would explain what ‘biological’ means to them. I would say that they have his genes and his blood. Man, that is really hard. Hopefully, they don’t ask me. You can tell them.” – M.J., My Helpful Husband.
“Um, um, like a stepfather? Yeah. A stepfather. Like he was your father, but now he’s not. It’s like this mom: If like someone else adopts someone, they pay for that childcare. That’s a perfect answer, mom.” -Elliot, Age 8.
While not very helpful or funny, it is clear that my husband is in the same boat as many others. My son, well, I am going to have to work on his “perfect answer” and explain “birth father” a bit better so that he understands it is about more than childcare.
Literature and Media
There are books about birth mothers. There are shirts about birth mothers. In infant adoption, the relationship the adoptive parents build is very often solely with the birth mother. There may also be cases where the birth father is unknown or completely uninvolved. There is really no getting around the fact that this is a hard question to broach and a hard road to travel.
However, that does not make it any less important. Birth fathers matter whether involved or not. They are a part of our children and their families are a part of them as well.
In my own experience, my children are too young for me to speak to the extent that they understand the concept of their birth father. They do however understand that they have siblings on both their birth mother and birth father’s side.
We are lucky enough for them to regularly visit siblings on their birth mother’s side. I hope to have the same with siblings on their birth father’s side if those siblings so choose in the future. Distance creates a bit of a barrier for openness, but I simply want to make sure my children have the option to reach out to that side of their family in the future should they so choose.
Answering this question will be a matter of situation and age for many. Explain your children’s birth father to the extent that your situation allows. If they are able to have an open adoption and have a relationship, much of this understanding with grow from that relationship.
For others, you will have to explain to your child what a birth father is in a way that they can understand. Continue to talk with them as they grow and can understand more.
Point out birth fathers on shows like Teen Mom and This Is Us. When I searched for books about birth fathers, I only came across books offering birth fathers support. Hopefully, someone will take the time to write a book that explains birth fathers to adoptees and gives a better picture of what that means. There should be more information and recognition of birth fathers in general and their important role in the adoption triad.
For your own children, it will be about the opportunities they are given. Give them opportunities to understand even if you are not sure that they will right away. Provide them the material and communication to gather the facts. If you are able to build relationships with the birth family on their father’s side, take the leap. Through these opportunities, the concept of “birth father” will eventually click and their understanding will grow as they put the pieces together.
How do YOU explain “birth father” to your adopted child? Make sure to comment and share with others. I would love to get more input on how to broach the subject through varying circumstances and relationships.