by Astrid Dabbeni
Question from an Adoptive Parent:
I have two sons. The older has a close relationship with his birthmother; the younger hasn’t seen his birthmother since he was a baby. We have tried to involve our younger son’s birthmother in our lives, but, sadly, we have lost contact. How do I help my kids with this?
You are far from alone. I’ve heard this question time and again from adoptive families.
I believe it’s not a question of if or when your children will wonder about the absent birthparent. Start with the assumption that they already do. Be proactive in providing background and answers from the earliest possible age — before, even, your child grows brave enough to verbalize the questions himself.
I am a strong advocate of lifestory books in all adoptive situations, but they are perhaps most important when a child has limited or no access to a birthparent. A lifestory book is a combination journal, photo album and scrapbook you put together for your child. It tells your child his adoption story and how he came to be part of your family. It should be creative and fun to look at. It needs pictures with captions.
For example, your child’s birthmother may not be in contact now, but as a gift to your son, you can capture everything you remember about his birth and the days that followed in his lifestory book. I have heard from many adult adoptees, myself included, “How wonderful it would be to have general knowledge of what was going on the day I was born.” What was the weather like on the day I was born? What did my birthmother say and do? How long did I stay in the hospital? Who was in the room when I was born? Was something big happening in the news that day? (It’s best to stick with positive events.)
In an information void, the most seemingly mundane or bizarre things can become very important. When I was pregnant, I was suddenly very curious about my birthmother’s experience of being pregnant with me or my sister. Did my birthmom’s hands get as puffy as mine did? Was she able to wear her rings throughout her pregnancy? Did she experience morning sickness? I would absolutely treasure knowing such simple details.
If you don’t have access to this type of information, how about doing some research? The internet provides quick and easy access to a wealth of information. Find out the news headlines for the day your son was born or what his horoscope predicted. The goal is to fill in some gaps for your child, in order to reinforce the message that his birth and existence is a cause for observation, celebration and reverence.
In my case, my sister and I were adopted from Colombia with no information about our birthmother. The conversation with our adoptive parents involved an acknowledgment that they didn’t know exactly what happened. I believe it would have been appropriate to speculate in our lifestory books how our birthmother might have felt. Some suggestions: “Maybe your birthmother was too sad or distracted to leave her contact information at the orphanage. Maybe she wasn’t a very good writer, and nobody had a tape recorder on hand, so she wasn’t able to leave a message for you.”
Please note the importance of the word “maybe” in each of these statements. By directly but gently addressing the fact that I (the adoptive parent) don’t know anything about your birthmother — and not flinching from that basic, hard reality —you are honoring your child’s truth and story.
For those families with an open adoption, the line of conversation will be different. Depending what you know of the birthparent and the situation, you might say something like: “Maybe your birthmother doesn’t understand how much you think about her and want to see her. Maybe she’s afraid to intrude on our family. But if I could get the message to her that we really want her to be involved in our lives, I would. What if we write her a letter together? We’ve tried many different ways to show your birthmother how much we want to spend time with her; maybe she just doesn’t hear us or understand right now.”
Now let’s talk about bringing in your older son, the child who has more access to his birthparent. I recommend holding adoption conversations with both kids at the same time. This will enhance sensitivity in both children and empower the child with more birthparent access to be part of the solution. I like, for example, the symbolism of candle ceremonies. Suggest that your sons plan a candle ceremony to honor the birthmother they are missing.
With this, as with all tough adoption subjects, the goal is to create an environment where children feel comfortable and confident discussing their adoptions. One of the greatest gifts you can give your adopted child is information about and acknowledgment of his adoption story.
Question from a Birth Parent:
I placed my daughter several years ago in an open adoption. Now my husband and I are thinking about starting a family. I fear this will hurt my first-born child and that she will feel rejected.
I’m not a birthparent, so I won’t pretend to have a full understanding of your feelings and concerns. I do, however, have experience talking with children, and I will respond to your question in that regard.
In this scenario, as with the preceding one, it’s important to anticipate and address our children’s concerns as early as possible. Generally speaking, it’s best when nothing is a big surprise for our kids. It can be incredibly helpful for birthparents and adoptive parents to begin, even when the child is very young, talking about the future.
Change is a given; help your child adjust to that notion. Assuming you have already discussed with your daughter why you planned an adoption in the first place, you might follow up with something like, “Some day I might be in a different situation, and I might have another baby. I would be able to parent that baby, something I missed with you. That baby will be your brother or sister, even though he or she will not live with you. I will love you both unconditionally. Even if I have another child, who lives with me, I will never love you any less.”
So, once again, the idea is to put out the fire before it begins raging in the first place. Doing so creates security in your children — security that they are loved, confidence that they can openly discuss their adoption concerns.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s better to have the conversation “too late” than not at all. By all means, open and honest conversation with your daughter at any point will be one of the greatest gifts you can give her as a birthparent. But it’s harder to convince a child that something they believe is false than to prevent the false idea from entering the mind in the first place.
Every child goes through identity formation. Around the age of 13, many children stop asking questions. But you still have the opportunity to impress the following on your child:
- You were my first, and nothing will ever change that special place you hold in my heart.
- You opened up a new world for me, and brought some very important people, your adoptive parents, into my life.
- Nothing will ever change my love for you – a love that thrives despite my ability to parent you.
- If the birthfather is involved in your daughter’s life, he should have these same conversations with her.
- And, by all means, collaborate with your daughter’s adoptive parents. They can and should reinforce your message of love and support. This is a good opportunity to function as a team.
- Also, consider writing down your most important thoughts, feelings and wishes for your daughter and leaving the letter in the adoptive parents’ care. Should extreme circumstances ever separate you from your daughter, she’ll have your written words as assurance of your love.
Copyright 2006 Adoption Mosaic. This article may be reprinted or copied only with written permission of the author.