“Snuggles pillows soft and deep . . . Baby Llama goes to sleep.” My son smiles and nestles closer to me. He loves the story of Llama Llama Red Pajama. Even though lately we have been reading the Miss Nelson is Missing trilogy at bedtime, sometimes my son takes comfort in the board books we read when he first came home.
“Mama,” he says turning to me, “I know I come from China and my sister is in India. And I know I was in someone else’s tummy before you became my mommy. But where do babies come from?” I take a deep breath. “Are you wondering about your tummy mommy? We can talk about her if you like.” My son rolls his eyes. “No. I want to know where they come from. The babies. How do babies get into their mommy’s tummy?”
I rack my brain for how to explain conception to a four-year-old. The old adage of “when a man and woman love each other very much . . . ” doesn’t seem to apply here since in our version the sentence would end with an orphanage in China and an adoption to America. “Well???” my son eyes me expectantly. “You know,” I reply, “That’s a great question. I think maybe it’s a little bit of science and a little bit of God.” My son seems content with my answer – for now. I quickly tuck him in and turn off the light.
The following week I think a lot about our conversation. I know that straightforward sex talk is important and honest responses are key, even at the age of four. In our family, we use the anatomically correct name for body parts so sitting down with our son to explain the very basics of the birds and the bees is something we could easily do. I decide to take the plunge.
One day after school we sit down for ice cream. I bring up the subject casually. “You know, every baby comes from a man and a woman.” My son looks up, clearly surprised. And in that instant I realize my failing as an adoptive parent. In all our conversations about his birth mother, in all our talks of his journey to join our family, in the very lifebook (2 different versions!) I created, I had failed to mention his birth father. I continue, “You were born the same way every baby is born. From a birth mommy and a birth daddy.” Our ice creams pools into milk at our kitchen table as our conversation flows.
“And my sister?” he asks. I tell him her story is like his. She came from a different daddy and a different mommy. She was carried in that mommy’s tummy. But like him, her birth mommy and daddy couldn’t care for her so they made the difficult decision to lovingly place her with a new family. And that family’s us. Her forever family. My son beams. “Forever,” he repeats.
I think back to what a social worker once shared with me: that children can’t move forward until they grasp the past. Though my son draws picture after picture of the four of us, brought together through marriage and adoption from two different countries, our history is not a collective one. My sons’ adoption story is just that, his story, and he has a right to know that story. Knowledge of our children’s birth families can be very rare, but as international adoptive parents, it is our job to try to share as much information as we know, and to help our children fill in the puzzle where we can – one piece at a time, whenever they are ready for it.
I stress to my son that he, like his sister waiting for us in India, is wanted and loved. I tell him I am always here to talk if he has any questions and that I will always answer those questions as best I can. I tell him to remember adoption is forever. Just as he is our son forever, so will his sister be his sister, and our daughter forever. And that is the beauty of adoption.
My son thinks on this for a minute then gives me a strong hug. “Do you have any other questions?” I gently ask. He takes a deep breath. “Do we turn into statues when we die?” I smile and pull out another tub of ice cream. This could take a while.