Adoption is such a unique way for a family unit to be built, and it contains its own complexity within the adoption triad itself (birth parents, adoptee, and adoptive parents). There are many questions that adoptive and birth families can field from their adopted children that may be difficult to answer. These questions are usually from adoptees seeking to understand what adoption means and what that means for their identity. Because adoption is relatively uncommon, there are plenty of questions that people outside of the triad ask to those connected to adoption. Occasionally, some of those may be naïve and potentially offensive. As an adoptive family, my husband and I have fielded many questions about adoption both within our family and outside of it. To our children, our responses are always developmentally appropriate and delicately honest. We want our children to continue coming to us for questions, knowing that we will tell them the truth. To those outside of our family, our responses are usually phrased as an attempt to educate others while simultaneously affirming our children’s identity as loved adoptees. As a member of the adoption triad, it will be important to decide how open and honest you’d like to be with others when they ask questions. Below are some questions you may encounter and a variety of ways you could respond.
Whether these questions are from the triad itself (from your biological child or the adoptive family) or from outside the adoption triad, these are questions you may encounter as a biological family member.
1. Why did you place me for adoption?
This can be a difficult question to receive from biological children. In closed adoptions, this question usually comes from adult adoptees during the reunification with biological families. However, birth families in open adoptions may be receiving this question from older children or adolescents. It’s important to be honest about the circumstances, but ultimately the decision to place your child is YOUR story. Your adopted child does deserve a response, but it is your choice what details to reveal and which to keep private. This can also be a question that you answer at a later time. If the question is sprung on you, it’s appropriate to say that you will answer that question at a later time, allowing you time to consider how you want to respond. No matter the timing, whether you choose to answer in a vague way with “I wanted you to have the kind of life I/we couldn’t give you” or with specific details connected to your unique circumstance, just being available for the question and hearing it directly from you can be a significant step for your adopted child in his adoption story and your relationship with him.
If this question comes from others inquiring about your adoption story, it may be phrased in a potentially offensive way: “Why did you give up your child?” It is up to you whether to respond with the goal to educate the person who asked or to simply answer or to deflect the question. If you are a birth family that created an adoption plan and your goal is to educate them, you could respond with “Actually, I didn’t give up my child. I placed my child for adoption with a family. I was able to make choices for my child that hopefully communicated how much I loved her. Placing a child means that I didn’t give up because I was able to create a plan so that my child was well cared for and loved.” You could also simply respond with “That is a deeply personal question and a private matter.” I think this response is hard for people to say today because of the open communication in much of our lives, especially with social media, but the truth is that this is YOUR story and others are not entitled to any part of it.
2. What is my birth family like?
Adult adoptees and adoptive families may want to ask specifically about you and your family’s medical history. This is common because both parties want to know about potential medical scenarios they may be faced with that are connected to genetics. This, especially, is advantageous for them to be aware of as it can be helpful in diagnoses and treatments. When responding, you may feel vulnerable, but it really is in the best interest of the adoptee for you to be honest and thorough.
Adoptees also may desire to know what their birth story is like. They may ask questions about the relationship between both biological parents or how the adoption plan was made. Again, if you aren’t sure how to answer, you can respond simply with “I know this question is important to you, and I’d like to answer it at another time.” This part of your story and your child’s story is sensitive, and it’s okay to take your time answering these types of questions.
Adoptees also want to know what about the biological family they could identify with and relate to. They want to know what your interests and hobbies are like. This question can feel significantly less sensitive as you get to share the parts of your life that have brought you joy as you’ve grown and matured. You can share your individual talents and curiosities. It’s possible your adopted child shares your artistic talent and loves to talk about astronomy or baseball. They want to know who they sound like and look like and act like. If he or she asks questions about a biological parent you don’t know, it’s more than appropriate to respond with “I don’t know.” You won’t have all the answers, and that is okay.
3. Do you think about me?
Again, this question from your biological child may catch you off guard, but it is a pretty common inquiry of adoptees. You can respond generally or talk about some of the specific vulnerable moments you’ve had where you thought about your child and his life. You can share with him the wonderings you’ve had over the years and what you hoped for his life and future.
4. Do you regret your decision?
This is a deeply personal question that can have incredibly complex emotions emerge. If this question is from your biological child, I think it’s important to affirm your decision for her life while also addressing the brokenness that comes with adoption. These questions can feel painful, and the answers can be painful to listen to, but there is healing in addressing them together. You can respond to your child with what you wish you could have provided her if adoption had not been the decision, but then also acknowledge that those wishes were not going to be her reality without adoption. This communicates that there may be some measure of regret—regret that there weren’t more options available or more supports in place for a more simplistic scenario, but that you still feel that adoption was the best chance to have the life you hoped and dreamed for her.
Often, these questions come from those outside of the adoption triad. The important thing to remember about addressing these questions is that your adoption story belongs to you. No one is entitled to answers from you if you don’t wish to share.
1. Why don’t you look like your parents?
This question can be jarring for adoptees and usually doesn’t have much lead in from the inquirer. You can respond in a general way, or you can choose to educate the person asking. Generally, you can say, “We look different because sometimes families look different from one another.” That is an age-appropriate response for a wide age range. You could also be honest and say, “We look different because our family is built through adoption, which means we may look different from one another.” Adoptive parents can work to prepare their children to answer this question by modeling responses with adults because it’s not just children that ask this question.
2. Who are your “real” parents?
This question has nuance to it. Asking who your “real” parents are is insinuating that your adoptive parents are somehow not your parents in reality. Even if the person posing the question is not meaning to offend, it certainly isn’t a very sensitive way to ask the question. Again, your response can range from simple to more complex, and with this question, you really have the opportunity to shift how this person speaks with adoptees in the future. “You’ve met my real parents. They are my mom and dad.” This response sends the message about who you believe your “parents” are. If you want to help them rephrase the question, you could say, “It sounds like you are asking who my biological parents are because my real parents are my mom and dad.” Ultimately, it is up to you to share what information you would like about your knowledge of your birth family, but again, it’s part of YOUR story. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing, then don’t.
3. Why did your parents give you up?
This can be such a painful question to hear. First of all, this question is offensive in its nature; similar to the “real” parents question, this wording assumes you were abandoned or that there is some reason that you are aware of as to why you were placed for adoption. Because it is insensitive, you have a few ways you can tackle this question. If you want to just end the line of conversation, you can just reply with “That is incredibly personal, and I don’t feel like sharing” or a simple, “I don’t know” may suffice. You could also take the opportunity again to educate the person who asked the question: “I wasn’t given up or abandoned. I was placed for adoption, which means that a plan was made for me so that I could have the life I currently have.” If you feel comfortable and know details about the circumstances of your adoption, you can elaborate on them, but you should never feel pressure to share.
4. Do you feel lucky that you were adopted?
There is not a simple yes or no to this question, so don’t feel obligated to offer a simple answer. Again, you are always entitled to explain that it’s a personal question and stop there. You could say something along these lines, “Lucky is not how I feel at all. It’s complex with some moments of pain and confusion and some with gratitude, but it doesn’t feel lucky.” Adoptive parents can also step in on this one when adoptees are younger, to redirect questions like this directed at their children. Adoptive parents can express that “We (the parents) are the lucky ones, and we have lots of complexities to navigate together.” This sends the message that adoption is not just a fairy tale ending for adoptees or their adoptive parents without actually getting into the raw feelings that adoptees can feel as they mature and come to terms with their own identity.
There are going to be many questions that you respond to from your adopted children. Many of these questions you can prepare for before you even begin the adoption process while others may be more specific to your child’s adoption story. For adoptive parents also, there are questions that will be asked by others that aren’t familiar with or educated about adoption, and you can choose how to respond in a variety of ways.
1. Why did you adopt or why was I placed for adoption?
These are two very different questions obviously. Why you chose to adopt may be significantly more straightforward of an answer. You can respond that you felt called to adopt, or that it was a decision that just felt right. If this question is asked by an adoptee, it’s important to be honest, but to consider this question from your child’s perspective. Simply saying that you were unable to conceive naturally may not be received so simply. That could be interpreted that the adoptee was only chosen because you couldn’t have your “own” children. It may be more appropriate to discuss the deep desire for a family and that adoption was the path life chose for you.
When adoptees begin to ask why they were placed for adoption, they are beginning to seek out their adoption and birth story. They want to know who their birth family is and how they came to your family. Gaps in their story can be difficult to cope with because it feels like there are missing pieces to their identity. As you are in the process of adopting your child, be as diligent as you can to get as much of their story as you can. If there are details that you don’t know, be honest and say “I don’t know why your biological family chose adoption, but I am sure it was an incredibly difficult journey to that decision. I am happy to help you look for answers together when you are older.” This lets them know that they don’t have to navigate the unknowns alone.
2. Who are your child’s “real” parents?
Again, this first question is incredibly offensive, even if asked with pure intentions. Your first reaction may simply be, “Me. I am a real parent.” That can make the conversation pretty short. You can also take the opportunity to educate this person, just as the adoptee question above. “I am the real parent, but I think you are intending to ask about my child’s biological parents.” This can help them understand the offensive language at being considered a second-class parent. This is also a very private question because this is part of your child’s adoption story, and you need to consider how much of his story you feel able to share. It is truly his story, and revealing details that he doesn’t know or understand yet can be hurtful as he grows. Sharing intimate details of your child’s life with acquaintances may not be appropriate.
3. What do you know about my birth parents?
Getting as much information as possible during the adoption process can certainly be helpful in addressing these questions. It is normal for adoptees to want to know who they look like and act like. They will want to know details about their identity and who they relate to. If you don’t know much, be honest about that, but also ask questions to see what your child is thinking. Many adoptees talk about wondering if they are meeting biological family members when they meet new people, or they daydream about what their birth mother and father look and act like. Engaging in this wondering with your child can help her understand that it is normal to feel that way and that it’s nothing to feel ashamed of or secretive about. Adoptees that have been adopted internationally may also want to know about their home country and culture or customs. Being prepared to answer questions about those connections can help your child feel connected to a piece of her identity. It can also give you the opportunity to explore that culture together as a family.
As a member of the adoption triad, there are going to be many questions that are asked by those in the triad and those that aren’t familiar with adoption. Being prepared for how to respond can help you navigate questions about adoption as well as those innocent questions that can potentially be unintentionally hurtful.
Callie Smothers is a writer, English teacher, and softball coach from the midwest. She and her husband have a family built through adoption, including two ornery, beautiful four-year-olds that are actually 5 months apart. Her family specializes in making messes, creating imaginative stories, and playing hard outdoors as much as possible. Check out her other writings on her Worship in a Warship Facebook page.