In our family, talking with our kids about adoption is as natural as breathing. We have been telling and retelling our boys their adoption story since we brought them home. We are very open about how God created our family, and how happy we are that they are our sons. Talking with our kids about adoption from the beginning helped us practice what we would say and allowed the boys to get used to hearing their story. We strove to make sure that their story was in the earliest of their memories even if they didn’t understand it.
Since our kids are pretty young (ages 2 and 5), the presentation of the facts of their stories is very simplistic and the portrayal of their birth mothers very positive, and, it seems, adoption professionals agree. In her article on psychologytoday.com, Dr. Jennifer Bliss wrote, “Children’s curiosity about their adoption story is a normal part of growing up. Open and informative discussions are crucial for the development of your child’s sense of self. The first couple of years are about building positive feelings connected with the word adoption. Make it a household word from the beginning. Your child should hear the word ‘adoption’ even before they know what it means. We never want them to have a memory of ‘the day they were told they were adopted.’ Parents don’t wait until children understand the words ‘I love you’ to start telling them, and the same goes for their child’s adoption story.”
My husband and I put a lot of thought into the words we wanted to use when discussing our sons’ adoptions and their birth mothers. We wanted to be prepared ourselves and to be able to educate those who worked with our boys on the way they spoke of adoption.
This article also states that adoptive parents should “start practicing how you talk about their adoption and the story of how you became a family, so when they are old enough to have a conversation with you about it, they sense your comfort in discussing it and the pride you have in their story. When those questions arise (and they will), if you are uncomfortable or avoid answering them, you send the message that the subject of adoption is taboo and not a welcome topic of conversation. We never want children to misinterpret your discomfort, wondering if there is something wrong or bad with being adopted.”
In this article, the author reminds us that “preschoolers are beginner thinkers, and their thinking is very literal. … Egocentric, they truly believe the world revolves around them and their needs. … Kids usually love their adoption story, as they are the center of attention, and it tells how they came into your family. The meaning of adoption does not really sink in at this age. The basic adoption story should tell your child the following:
“He was born the same way as everybody else in the world.
“He grew inside another woman, but that woman wasn’t ready or able to be a mother to any baby at that time.
“You wanted to be a parent very much.
“You adopted him and he will be your child forever.”
When we talk to our boys about their birth mothers, we typically refer to them as “the women or ladies who carried you in their bellies.” We have never referred to them as their “mothers.” Our boys have never met their biological mothers, so this is the easiest way to clarify the relationship and to avoid confusion. Some people choose to use names like “tummy mommy,” “first mother,” or even the birth mother’s first name. It really is up to your family. Whatever you choose, make it positive. Depending on the other people involved in your child’s birth story, you may need to consider how you want to refer to them as well: birth father, biological siblings, and grandparents. Here is a sample of a discussion that Joshua, my 5-year-old, and I had just a few days ago:
Joshua: “Mommy, when you ‘borned’ me, did you go to the hospital?”
Me: “Oh, baby, mommy did not get to ‘born’ you. You grew in another woman’s belly. Remember that the woman who carried you in her tummy was not able to be a mommy so she picked me to be your mommy?”
Joshua: “Oh yeah, I remember now. But did you go to the hospital to get me?”
Me: “No, baby, but I wish I had been able to do that. We did not get to meet you at the hospital. You went to stay with a special family who took care of you until an adoption service could find Mommy and Daddy. But if we had known about you, we would have run to hold you! We had waited our whole lives to meet you!”
Joshua: “Yeah. You couldn’t wait to meet me! But why did you meet Caleb in the hospital?”
Me: “Caleb was born a little too early and was very little and needed to get much stronger before we could bring him home.”
Joshua: “Oh yeah! He was tiny! Remember when I got to see him? He was so tiny.”
Me: “Yes, baby, he was! But he is nice and big and strong now.”
Joshua: “Did you know the lady who ‘borned’ me? Did you know the lady who ‘borned’ Caleb?”
Me: “No, I never got to meet them, but I wish I had. Maybe one day we will. I want to thank them for giving me the gifts of you boys.”
See how basic it was? It was simple, straightforward, positive, and reaffirming. Joshua walked away from the discussion knowing more of his and his brother’s stories. The talk allowed me to clarify parts of which he was he was unsure using language that was predetermined and very understandable to a 5-year-old.
The key to talking with very young children about their birth mothers is presenting the facts as honestly and AGE-APPROPRIATELY as possible. That way, as they get older, they do not feel as if you have been lying to them or hiding part of the truth from them. Remember that the facts surrounding the “how and why” they joined your family are part of THEIR story. Eventually, they deserve to know the details, no matter how painful, but those details do not need to enter the equation when they are very young.
However, not all children join their forever families as infants like mine did. Sadly, some children, even very young children, experience things that no person should ever have to experience and may all-too-vividly recall and recount the details. That is unfortunate and so very difficult; albeit, it is still their story. All adoption stems from a loss of some form. It is the job of the adoptive parent to know their child and to acknowledge when they are ready for more details.
One possible way to prepare for the eventual “tell-all” is to read how others have approached the subject. Much like explaining the birds and the bees to children, there are appropriate manners and words to endeavor to use. It is going to be uncomfortable. There is no way around that. The only thing we as adoptive parents can do is to prepare ourselves, and, when the time comes, tell the child “the rest of their story” as honestly as we can. Whatever the situation, your goal is to tell your child the truth, without painting a negative picture of the birth parents.
Fosteringtogether.org published a fantastic article that discusses several hard issues that adoptive children may have experienced, and they give suggestions to how an adoptive parent might address these issues. A few are listed below.
Criminal Behavior: “Always talk about good decisions versus bad decisions…A birth parent may have made bad choices that put her in prison, but she made a good choice to find a safe home for her child. Children know about breaking rules and getting punished, and will understand their birthparents’ story if it’s told in this way. … But don’t embellish details or make up a story. If you don’t know the reason for bad actions, say so.”
Rape: “Rape is one of the most difficult things to discuss with a child. [The author] warns against talking about rape until the child is in his late teens.”
Physical Abuse or Neglect: “Many children have a strong pre-verbal memory of abuse or neglect—a child may be afraid to be alone, or afraid of small spaces, and not know why. … Children—even older kids who remember abuse—may fear that they did something wrong that triggered the birthparent’s anger. Tell them that it’s always a grown-up problem, and never because something was wrong with the child.”
Opioid Addiction: Though this was not in their article, opioid addiction is quickly becoming one of the fastest growing reasons for children to be removed from homes and babies to be placed for adoption. This is not a topic to be talked about with very small or even older children. However, with the too common abuse of prescription and illegal drugs by minors today, this topic may need to be introduced to the child earlier than you would prefer. While drug usage is a choice, children born with drugs in their system or coming from homes where drug use was prevalent, may be at higher risk for drug abuse than other children.
It is so important to make sure you always endeavor to portray your child’s birth mother in a positive manner no matter what. I understand that not all birth mothers are the epitome of excellence, but not all birth mothers are bad people. A lot of birth mothers are women who found themselves in unexpected situations and discovered, or were told by the authorities, that they could not appropriately care for their children. Yes, there are those women whose life choices terribly scarred and endangered their children. Yet, there are those birth mothers who loved their children so much that they chose to place their children for adoption so that they might have a chance for a better life. Some made the choice for adoption prior to giving birth to their child. The reason, while important, is not as important as choosing to focus on the positive aspect of how your child joined your family.
Positive words are powerful. Proverbs 18:21 says that “life and death are in the power of the tongue.” There is a way to positively portray birth mothers. Both of our boys came to our family with birth mothers whose background stories are different. Those stories are not mine to tell, but I can tell you this: both women who carried my boys in their bellies could not be the mothers that the boys needed so they chose adoption. I realize that is a very simplistic summary of “why” they came to our family, but it is 100 percent true, and it is a perfect place from which to launch into the rest of their stories at a later time. And I want them to ask me about their birth mothers. I want to tell them about the women who chose life for their baby when society told them that they did not have to. I want to tell them about the women who providentially chose me to be the guardians of two precious, precocious boys through the miracle of adoption. How our boys think of their coming to our family depends so much on how I tell them they came to our family.
One day, when they think of their birth mothers, I want them to see that God used unexpected, difficult situations to bring two babies who needed a caring home to two parents who desperately longed for children. They made decisions that I may not have chosen and those decisions led them to make a greater decision of love for their babies and led them to place them for adoption. When I choose to speak positively about their birth mothers, my hope is that one day my boys will see them for who they are: women JUST LIKE ME. Women who, like me, are deeply flawed and in need of grace. Women who love, laugh, and cry, just like me. So much of how they respond to them or references of them comes from my positive attitude and presentation. Positivity is powerful and can impact lives for generations to come.
Visit Adoption.com’s photolisting page for children who are ready and waiting to find their forever families. For adoptive parents, please visit our Parent Profiles page where you can create an incredible adoption profile and connect directly with potential birth parents.