Over the years, I have frequently seen parents on adoption forums or in conversations with other adoptive parents ask the common question, “How and when should I tell my child he/she is adopted?” Each family and circumstance is unique, but there’s still a part of me that feels sad for the child when I see this question. Parents generally want what’s best for their kids, and unfortunately, some have been encouraged to keep the complicated topic of adoption a secret until their child is “old enough to understand.” I’m going to propose a completely different idea to solve this age-old dilemma.
Back when our youngest kids were still in foster care, we spent some time with a friend of ours who is an adoptive momma. She shared some wisdom that had been given to her along the way. She had been encouraged to tell her kids their story–early and often. She said it had created the most natural way for them to share the truth with their kids in an age-appropriate way.
At the time, we had no idea if our kids’ case was headed toward reunification with their biological dad or toward adoption into our family, but we knew that practicing storytelling with them would help them find joy in their story no matter the next chapter. Our kids were both under the age of three at the time, and they did not have a clear memory of their scattered lives. The circumstances that brought them into our care were not pleasant, but their homecoming day was exciting for all of us and is burned into our memories and recorded with pictures. My friend’s storytelling recommendation seemed like a brilliant solution to facing the unknowns of our kids’ story, so we began immediately. It went a little something like this:
“I remember the day I met you!” I told my daughter with an enthusiastic smile.
“You do?” she pried.
“Yes!” I confirmed. “Mrs. Laura (caseworker) brought you to our house. Before that, you had been staying with Uncle David and Aunt Nicky. I was SO nervous to meet you, and I really wanted you to feel comfortable with me, so I picked a soft shirt and a warm, soft scarf that I thought would feel cozy to you.” She smiled. “When you got here, you and baby brother were asleep in your car seats. Mrs. Laura got him out while I carefully picked you up from your seat. Your sleepy eyes opened, and I said, ‘Hello, sweetheart! Would you like to come in and see your room?’ You looked wide-eyed at me and smiled a little as I carried you in. You began to explore your room and play with the special toys we had out for you. Bo had even picked a stuffed kitten to give you as a special welcome from him.”
I went on to describe how excited everyone was to meet them and how Aunt Sarah rushed right over as soon as Mrs. Laura left. She held them and played with them until school got out and their big brothers finally got to come home and meet them. My daughter’s favorite part of the story was hearing about how she laughed and laughed at the teasing of those big boys and about how she bossed them around, pointing to a spot beside her and demanding, “Sit!” which they would promptly do.
She loved hearing about all of the love and joy surrounding their homecoming, and it hit me. She didn’t need to know the complexities of the foster care system. She didn’t need to know if they would be staying with us for life or moving to their dad’s. She didn’t even need to know at that moment about her birth or why she wasn’t with her birth family. She only needed to know that we remember when she and her baby brother came home to us and that their presence in our family filled us with joy. It’s not much different than how our storytelling began with our oldest boys.
I never struggled to decide how I was going to break it to my biological sons that they were grown in my womb and miraculously evicted in a hospital birthing room. Of course, I knew the details of conception and delivery would be spared until their understanding grew, but many other parts of their stories were shared early and often because it’s just what we do as we go through life together. We are people with stories to tell, and our conversations with people around us consistently include sharing stories of our own lives and experiences. We don’t wonder if or when we should tell our biological children that they are biologically ours. Why then do we wonder if or when to tell our adopted children that they were adopted? The way I see it, whether adopted or biological, each of our children came into our family as precious gifts from God, and I am thrilled to tell them about it. If I tell them early in life, and often, they’ll never be able to recall the day they learned about it. They will have always known.
I guarantee you my biological sons cannot tell you about the day I first told them they were born in the hospital down the street and that we brought them home a day or two later. It just wasn’t a significant occasion for them. They can, however, tell you that they’ve heard about their baby days on multiple occasions and that they’ve seen pictures of when they arrived in our home and lives.
Thanks to the wisdom of our friend, our adopted children will be able to say the same thing. They’ll never recall the first time we told them they were adopted. They just know it’s always been part of their story and that we celebrate the day we first met them and the joy they brought to our lives. They too have seen pictures of their homecoming day. As an added blessing, thanks to our open relationship with their biological families, we can also share pictures of them as babies and when they were growing in their birth momma’s tummy.
Tell Me Where to Start
If you’ve never thought of honesty in adoption in this manner and you’re now eager to start storytelling, I have good news for you. You can jump right in. It doesn’t matter how old your child is or how they came into your life, you can begin to tell them with terms and details appropriate to their age, about the love and joy you experienced when they came into your family.
The Perfect Time Is Now
It can start casually–today even. My first attempt at storytelling for my daughter began at bedtime on the day my friend shared the idea. The conversation we had is the one I recounted in the pieces above. You could even say something like, “I read today about the fun of storytelling for our kids. Would you like to hear the story of when you came home?” I bet the answer will be yes. We almost all enjoy hearing stories about ourselves.
Keep It Joyful
If your child’s story is messy or complicated, as ours was, don’t let that stop you. Even messy stories have bright places and joy to share. Focus on what makes you smile. Focus on the child and the way others love him or her. For example, there were some delivery stressors with my second and third sons; One son’s heart rate was dropping and the other was delivered rapidly with the cord around his neck. The scary parts of their stories are not the first things I told them. It’s not because I planned to keep them secret. They just weren’t age-appropriate at the time, and parents tend to recall the joy of childbirth when they tell their kids about the day they were born. We don’t really think twice about how to handle these details with the birth stories of biological children, yet for some reason, we can become overwhelmed at the thought of telling an adopted or fostered child the story of their homecoming. It’s okay to save some details for later, but there’s good reason to joyfully tell them their story now. It builds a culture of honesty and an expectation that their story is worth telling and that it’s ultimately beautiful.
Stories Grow as Kids Grow
In our situation, the story began when our children were in foster care, so we didn’t mention their parents’ names or discuss why they weren’t with them when we shared the story of them coming home. Once the adoption was complete, then we added a few more details:
“I remember the day we received a phone call that said they had two babies who needed a home because their parents weren’t able to take care of them at that time.” We then went on with the parts of the story they already knew. We added more details as we remembered them and as they became old enough to ask questions.
When we first began storytelling, only our daughter heard the stories because our son was too young to join in. Soon, he became a part of the process too, and they both had their own favorite details. Sometimes at bedtime, they would ask, “Will you tell me my story?” Now that they are 6 and 8 years old, we don’t hear the request as often, but we still have many natural conversations about the details of their lives. They know their biological parents and speak their names regularly. They know whose tummy they grew in and how old they were when they came home to us. They know what adoption is, and they share their story joyfully because they have learned from us that it’s a beautiful story.
While I do wonder how the tougher details of their stories will impact them when they’re old enough to learn them, I also rest at ease knowing that their place in our family has been so long established and openly talked about that they can face hard things with stability and security. Storytelling is a gift, and it’s one we feel incredibly grateful to have given to our kids. It seems like such an obvious solution to a complicated situation now, but it had not even crossed our minds before my friend shared the concept. My hope in sharing these ideas here is that someone will find a simple solution to the age-old question, “When do I tell my child he or she is adopted?” My advice is: Tell your child now. Tell your child often. Tell your child joyfully, and tell your child more when the time is right. Keep talking. Keep teaching. Keep storytelling because the stories of our lives, obstacles and all, make us who we are, and beautiful stories are worth telling.Are you and your partner ready to start the adoption process? Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98 to begin your adoption journey. We have 130+ years of adoption experience and would love to help you.