Are you an adoptive parent who has a child who is just grasping the realities of their adoption? Are you getting questions about their “origin story”? Need a little advice? Generally speaking, everyone’s adoption story is a little different, but the best answer to the question, “Why didn’t my biological parents want me?” is, “It’s not that they didn’t want you, it’s that they weren’t able to take care of you.” The following article contains hypothetical conversations with your adopted child on this issue.
The Ongoing Story of Adoption
First of all, every adopted child should know they are adopted. No longer are the days of “the talk” or children finding out by accident that they are adopted. With the advent of international adoption and transracial adoption, it’s quite clear that the adopted child does not always look like the rest of the family. Truth is better than a lie; disclosure is better than non-disclosure. Here are a few things you need to keep in mind:
- Early disclosure. Every adopted child should know he was adopted as early in their lives as possible. It should not be a secret. They should know something about their adoption story as young as possible. Perhaps a visit to the hospital where they were born or a visit to the adoption agency where the papers were finalized may be a good idea and make the child proud of his story. But the earlier, the better. This way, there is no confusion or misdirection or deception. It takes away the feeling that they were an accident or that adoption was “Plan B.”
- Speaking positively of adoption. The word, “adoption” is not a four-letter word. It is no longer a stigma. It is not something to be ashamed of. The word “adoption” should be revered and held in high esteem. “I’m so glad we adopted you!” should be a regular phrase in your family. Even if the circumstances of the birth may be negative, adoption is anything but negative. It is the ultimate picture of something good coming out of something bad.
- Past tense. Rather than saying, “You’re adopted,” say, “You were adopted.” This gives a sense of normalcy. Different kids may come into families in different ways; adoption is simply another mode.
- Ongoing conversation. Adoptees always have doubts surrounding the circumstances of their birth. The older they get, the more they need to be reassured that they weren’t a mistake. Overwhelming feelings of being unwanted and unworthy sweep over teens and young adult adoptees because of this one nagging part of their lives. Your conversation with your young person should be, “You were not unwanted. You were loved, you were chosen, you were wanted, you were adopted.”
Your parents did want you!
As stated above, many adoptees have immense feelings of being rejected or feeling unwanted. It’s like your wedding or a birthday party where you remembered who wasn’t there rather than enjoying those who were there. Maybe the person who didn’t come was sick or got a flat tire. The bottom line is that we may never know the full story regarding why birth parents place their children for adoption. But consider these three conversations you could have about your child’s birth parents:
- They wanted to give you life. The fact that you are alive is a testament to the fact that they rejected the choice of abortion and honored life. They could have taken the easy way out and no one would have known about the pregnancy. But the fact that they made the hard choice of completing the pregnancy and placing you in a loving family is proof that they loved you.
- They wanted the best for you. For some reason, the life your birth parents were living at the time was not the best for you and not the best for them. They realized that if they raised you, it would have placed you in harm’s way. They made a loving, selfless choice by letting someone else raise you, someone who could do it better.
- They wanted to place you in a loving family. When your birth parents decided not to keep you, they instead made a life plan for you: they decided to complete the pregnancy, to keep you healthy until you were adopted, and to help choose a family to raise you. They wanted to make sure that their wishes and hopes and dreams for you came true!
Why Birth Parents May Have Chosen to Place for Adoption
The decision to place a child for adoption can be very personal to a woman. Having conversations around that decision can be awkward, to say the least. It will not be easy, in many cases. But the bottom line is this: “While your mom’s pregnancy was unexpected, you were not unwanted. Your mom did a brave thing by carrying you in her tummy for a full nine months and placing you in a loving family.” While talking to your adopted child, please emphasize that. Please keep in mind that some of these conversations may need to to be preceded with a discussion about human sexuality.
- “Your mom and dad were homeless and weren’t able to properly care for a child in the environment in which they were living.”
- “Your birth parents didn’t have enough money to care for a brand-new baby girl.”
- “By placing you for adoption, they showed how much they loved you by making sure your material needs were met.”
- “Your birth mommy was too young to care for a baby. It didn’t make sense for her to care for a child when she was a child herself. Instead, she chose to give her baby to two adults who knew more about raising children than she did.”
- Single parenthood
- “Your birth mommy became pregnant, but for some reason, she and birth daddy decided not to stay together. She wasn’t able to care for a new baby by herself. She decided to lovingly give her baby to two adults who would do a better job at raising you together than she would do in raising you by herself.”
- This a particularly difficult topic and needs to be handled with care. I wouldn’t broach this topic until I was sure that the child was mentally and developmentally ready for this discussion.
- The conversation could go something like this: “Sometimes bad things happen in life. Sometimes a man chooses to have sex with a woman even though she doesn’t want it. When that happens, sometimes the woman gets pregnant. That is what happened to your birth mom. But then a good thing happened: your birth mom gave birth to you! And then another good thing happened: she chose to place you in a loving, adoptive family that wanted a baby girl. So, this shows that sometimes, good things can come from something bad.”
- Mental Illness
- This is another delicate conversation that you will have to tailor to the age and development of your child.
- Your conversation could go something like this: “You know how, sometimes, your tummy hurts, your head hurts, or your body gets sick? Well, sometimes, people’s minds get sick. When that happens, they are unable to care for a child. Your mommy wanted you but was not able to properly care for you because her mind was not healthy.”
- Child Protective Services, or CPS, involvement
- “Your birth parents did not have a choice of whether to keep you or not. The authorities decided that the lifestyle they were living was too dangerous for a child to live in. They wanted to keep you safe and therefore helped to choose a forever family for you.”
There may be many reasons why a woman chooses not to keep her child. These conversations will have to be delicate and you may have to choose your words carefully according to the age and development of your child.
The Changing Landscape of Adoption
Adoption is not what it used to be, so the conversations surrounding adoption will be different. In the early 20th century, most people who adopted were white, well-to-do couples who were infertile, knew of a homeless youth, or had the means and ability to adopt. Adoptions were rare anomalies and were usually secretive. The adoptees usually didn’t know they were adopted until years later, unless they found out by accident. This is no longer the case.
Three things happened that caused an adoption boom in this country. First, the Korean War in the 1950s created millions of Korean orphans. People like Harry Holt, founder of Holt International, paved the way for Americans to consider international adoption. Other countries followed suit, such as India, China, and Cambodia. Secondly, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 opened people’s eyes to failing orphanages around the world and motivated people to adopt from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Romania, among other nations. Third, legislation here in the U.S. in the 1990s paved the way for more American families to adopt from the foster care system and removed many barriers along the way.
The conversations we have now with our adopted children are not the conversations we used to have 20–25 years ago. Adoption conversations are a lifelong process, not a “one and done” scenario. Let’s back up a second. What are some of the changes that have brought us to this point? Let’s take a look.
Open adoption. Open adoptions are a relatively new concept in child welfare. An open adoption, which has been the mode of operation in child welfare for the past 20 years or so, is an adoption in which the birth parents still have limited contact with the adopted child. In the previous mode of operation, closed adoption, there was no contact between adoptive parents and birth parents, whose files were usually sealed under court order. An adopted child did not have access to his culture, family history, or medical history. Now, in most states, an open adoption is expected in private, domestic, or foster care adoptions.
The question, “Why didn’t you want me?” can now be posited directly to the birth parents, rather than the adoptive parents. The thought used to be, “I wish I had a chance to speak to my biological parents,” but now it may be, “I don’t know if I still want to talk to my biological parents.” Especially through the teen years, the adoptee is still trying to discover who he is and where he fits into the world. As the teen is now aware of sexuality and the circumstances about his birth, more knowledge may actually be a curse. Animosity and conflicted feelings are not uncommon in open adoptions.
The cost of adoption. “How much did I cost?” or “Did you buy me?” may be honest questions an adopted child has as he grows up and understands how the world works. Immediately reassure your child, “I did not buy you. But, you know how we pay a doctor when you get sick? We had to pay the adoption agency to help us to find you and to do all of our paperwork. Then, we had to pay an attorney who spoke to the judge on our behalf.” Or if your child was the result of a foster care adoption, you can simply say, “We didn’t pay anything to adopt you.”
The status of adoption. Finally, adoption is not the stigma it used to be. It is not a curse, it is a blessing. It is not a secret! It is a joy! Shout your adoption! Your conversations with your little one should be full of joy, positivity, and hope. In many cases, it is a long-awaited answer to prayer. Let your child know this.
We’ve all heard horror stories of women hiding their pregnancies and giving birth in a public bathroom stall, of women throwing their newborns in a trash dumpster, or of women abandoning their newborn children at the hospital. They have done the unthinkable. But a woman who places their child for adoption has done a brave thing. Be prepared for these conversations. Rest assured, it is better to have this conversation than not to have it at all.
Derek Williams is an adoption social worker and has been in the field of child welfare and behavioral health since 2006, where he has assisted families in their adoption journey. He and his wife started their adoption journey in 1993 and have eight children, six of which are adopted. His adopted children are all different ethnicities including East Indian, Jamaican and Native American. He loves traveling with his family, especially to the East Coast and to the West Coast and is an avid NY Mets fan! Foster care and adoption are his passions and callings for Derek, and he is pleased to share his experiences with others who are like-minded.