This is the perfect week for me to write about some truly cringeworthy adoption talk. There are so many adoption-related comments that make me cringe when I hear them:
“I could never do that.”
“How much did he cost?”
“Adopters aren’t real parents.”
But my all time, hands down, cringiest moments stem from the question I just saw on a popular adoption-related Facebook page:
“When do I tell my child she’s adopted?”
Every adoption professional, every therapist-type with a blog, every adult adoptee—that is, almost anyone associated with adoption in the last decade—will tell you that your child should always know she’s adopted. You should have the talk before she can even understand it, so, by the time she can understand it, you’ve got it down pat.
When I see prospective adoptive parents ask this question, I cut them some slack. Everyone was a newbie once. But when I see actual parenting adoptive parents ask this, I wonder, “Where were you during your own home study?” Because that is something that was covered in our home study—how we were planning on talking about adoption in our home. I wonder what adoption professional they used that wouldn’t tell them this crucial piece of information, or how little time they must spend learning from others, either online or in physical support groups.
When this question is asked by parents of school-age children, I just . . . flames . . . heaving, heaving breaths . . . on the side of my face. If you ask my son, now 10, when he found out he was adopted, he will tell you, “When I was zero!” (And he might add a “duh” if he thinks he can get away with it.) The answer to that question, adoptive parents of school-age children, is NOW. Right now. Buy a book, sit down, read it, tell your child about her adoption in age-appropriate terms, process the information with your child, and apologize profusely for lying.
Which brings me to an even worse statement:
“My cousins/friends/pet groomers have an adopted child who is 9/10/16 and she still doesn’t know she’s adopted.”
Clearly, this child doesn’t know he’s adopted, but this other person—who may be a total stranger to him—does know. This is unacceptable. I used to do scrapbooking crops, with a bunch of women in a big room full of tables. As we scrapped, we’d talk. A woman was having a conversation with another person on the other side of the room. Of course, we could all hear it. She boasted that her teenage daughter did not know that the woman’s husband wasn’t her “real dad” (woman’s words, not mine). The kid didn’t know, but the entire room of people who didn’t even know who she was did. I could have told that story in front of this girl without even knowing it, and I would have outed her parents.
Imagine not knowing a fundamental part of your own life story. Now, imagine learning that information, not from your parents, but from an aunt, or a cousin, or a family friend. Maybe everyone in your life knows, but you don’t.
On par with this is the following:
“Well, my daughter knows she’s adopted, but she doesn’t know that my sister—her aunt—is really her birth mother.”
Yeah, because lying is awesome! Why lie about the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus when you can lie about real people? And that leads to:
“A kid can’t really understand adoption and birth families anyway.”
Kids understand so much more than we give them credit for. My son was 3-1/2. I came to pick him up from preschool. He came running across the playground, yelling, “Mom! What’s my brudder’s name?” I told him. He ran back to his friends and said, “My brudder’s name is Iggy.”
He wasn’t confused. He has a brother. That brother is Iggy. Iggy doesn’t live with us. He lives with his birth mother. He grew inside his birth mother, but she couldn’t parent two children, so she chose Mom and Dad to be mom and dad.
Adults may be insecure about their own roles in a child’s life. That’s no reason to hide the truth or outright lie to children.
A momentary pause to acknowledge that not every part of a story needs to be told in graphic detail from the very beginning. Children conceived through rape or who come from other difficult beginnings can be told their stories in age-appropriate ways. I’ve read many articles by therapists who say that a child should know all of his adoption story before he’s a teen. The teenage years are tumultuous. Teens are trying to find their own identities, so they should know anything important before this time.
Finally, the following cringe-inducing phrases always crop up in these discussions:
“There are good reasons to not tell a child he’s adopted.”
“There are good reasons to not tell a child he’s adopted until he’s ready to know.”
“There are good reasons to not explain that Aunt Isabel is really her birth mom.”
No. There are no good reasons to not tell a child he’s adopted. Okay, maybe, if you’re in the Witness Protection Program, though I don’t see how you could do that and adopt. That is the only good reason to not tell a child he’s adopted.
There are no good reasons to wait to tell a child he’s adopted. It’s been written that a child should never “find out” he was adopted. He should always know. He may not understand what adoption means, exactly. But he will know that it’s normal, that it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and that it’s okay to talk about.
My daughter is almost 4-1/2, and she’s just now starting to “get it”—that she has birth parents, that she didn’t grow inside of my body, and that she has siblings who don’t live with her. But she’s always known she was adopted, and has seen pictures of and talked to her birth parents and her sister.
There are no good reasons to keep the identities of a child’s birth family a secret, outside of the whole (improbable) Witness Protection Program thing. If safety is a concern, knowing the names and faces of one’s birth family is probably a good idea, just in case one should ever run into them. And if you’re thinking that you’re hiding adoption-related information to avoid family conflict? It will come out, eventually, and the fact that everyone lied will cause one heck of a lot of conflict. When I was in high school, a very good friend of mine found out that her aunt was also her sister. Her mom had had the baby as a teenager, and her grandparents adopted her. No one told either my friend or her sister/aunt until they were 18 and 28, respectively. To say it was stressful would be an understatement.
The truth finds a way. To paraphrase a well known saying: Someone is going to tell your child about adoption. Shouldn’t it be you?