As a parent, I have learned that 20 questions an hour is part of our new normal. From this morning alone we had: Which came first, dinosaurs or Vikings? Do I have to eat broccoli? What do birds think about when they fly? And, my personal favorite, why can’t we have candy for breakfast? To each question, I attentively answer, sometimes, “Ask Alexa,” and other times, simply roll my eyes. But as an adoptive parent, sometimes the questions run deeper: “Why am I brown and you’re pink?” or “How come I didn’t come out of your tummy?” To these questions, I try to forge a more thoughtful response. My children’s questions are complicated. Rarely are these tough questions answered with a single simple response. More commonly, the question leads to ongoing discussions of what adoption means and how our family came to be. Here are a few of our top questions, and the ways in which I have responded.
1. Was I in your tummy?
A few months after we returned home from China, we had a playdate at a friend’s house. My friend was visibly pregnant and her daughter was excited to become a big sister. The little girl proudly pointed to her mother’s stomach and proclaimed, “My brother is in there just like I was!” On the drive home, my son asked if I remembered when he was in my tummy. I gently reminded him that he had a tummy mommy, to which he promptly burst into tears. Why couldn’t he have been in my tummy, he cried. Why did his friend get to be from her mommy’s tummy? When we got home, I pulled out some of our favorite adoption books and began to talk through the idea of a birth mother and a birth father again. I reiterated that my son was born, just like all babies are born, from a man and a woman. But that sometimes that man and woman can’t take care of the baby so they make the loving choice to place the child for adoption. “You were lovingly placed for adoption,” I tell my son, “and we chose you, and you chose us, to be a forever family.” For domestic adoptive families, the adoption triad may be better known. If yours is an open adoption, use the birth parents’ names to tell the story of your child, like, “You were in Amanda’s tummy, and Amanda gave birth to you. Then, we adopted you and became a forever family.”
2. Why was I adopted?
One of my son’s absolute favorite stories is of how our family came to be. I begin with when I was living in New York and continue to meeting my husband and moving to our house. I go on to say that we wanted to do things like play soccer, go swimming, have family game nights and movie nights but that we had no one to do those things with us. So we contacted our agency and they matched us with a little boy in China. Over the years, our story has extended to include all the things we wanted to do with a second child but couldn’t. Our story concludes with us returning to our agency and adopting his sister from India. When responding to the question of “Why was I adopted?” be honest. What led your family to adoption? We often read The Not in Here Story since it was our struggles with infertility that initially led us to adoption. What led you to this specific child? Lifebooks can be a wonderful way to tell the story of how your family was formed. I have one for each of my children and their story is one we share with them often.
3. Why didn’t my birth parents keep me?
We were in the middle of our normal bedtime routine when my son first asked this question. “Why didn’t my parents from China keep me?” Though we had talked about adoption for years, my son was older now and the simple answer of, “Your birth parents made a loving choice to place you for adoption,” no longer worked. I thought for a moment. I took his hand in my hand, took a deep breath, and told him the truth. For domestic adoptive families, sometimes the birth family’s background and social history is known. For international adoptive families, oftentimes, there is a mere sketch of a family history. The most important thing is to be honest with your child about their history. This can be particularly hard when abandonment or abuse is part of your child’s storyline. Share what you can in age-appropriate terminology but never lie. And remember, it is okay to say you do not know.
4. What do my birth parents look like?
It wasn’t until my sister’s son was born that my son started to ask this question. At my nephew’s first birthday everyone cooed over how much he looked like Grandpa, my father, and Amma, my mother. He was a perfect DNA replica of my sister and her partner. But my children look nothing like my husband and me. When your adoptive child asks what their birth parents look like, share pictures of them if you have them. Find what features are similar and what features are different. If the birth parents of your child are unknown then imagine with your child what they might look like. Draw a picture together. Does your child’s birth mother have long shiny black hair just like your child’s? Or perhaps similar eye color? It’s okay, too, to think about what other genes may have been passed down. Does your child love music? Perhaps their birth parents loved music as well. It may seem small but such remarks will help your child normalize the idea of their birth parents and most importantly, set the stage for future conversations. Many children may be reluctant to bring up the subject of their birth parents for fear their parents will feel rejected. So bring the conversation to them.
5. Why don’t we look the same?
As a transracial, transcultural family I get this question more than any other. My first answer to my children is always, “Because your birth mother has beautiful brown skin and mommy has pink skin.” We talk about how certain traits, such as hair color, eye color, and skin color, get passed down through DNA. At 6, my son understands the science of it, at 3, my daughter admittedly looks at me blankly. But just as it is important to answer this question for your child, it is also important to teach them how to answer the question themselves. Your children’s peers will ask them about their family. Teachers might ask them about their family. In fact, every time we go somewhere new, my son laments, “Why does everyone ask if Mira is really my sister?” There is no question that, as a transracial family, we stand out. As a family, we talk about how not all families look the same and that’s okay. But it can be hard when others outside your family’s four walls are pointing out this fact constantly.
We stress that families can be made up of different family members, different skin colors, and different traditions. It is important to acknowledge racial differences with our children and to practice color awareness rather than color blindness. It can also be good to point out some things which are similar between you two. A wonderful book, I Don’t Have Your Eyes, by Carrie A. Kitze, does just this. The words in the book are beautiful with sentiments like, “I don’t have your eyes but I have your way of looking at things.”
6. Is it okay to think about my birth parents?
This question always comes up around Mother’s Day and my children’s birthdays. And the answer is “YES!” a thousand times yes. Adoption is a triad and your child’s birth parents are an important part of that triad. Adoptees have two families and it’s important for them, and us as adoptive parents, to understand and support this. Stress that it is okay too for your children to talk about their birth parents. They are a part of your child’s life and they should always feel okay to ask you, as their parents, any questions they might have.
Some parents might think that because their child has not openly asked about their birth parents they are not thinking about them. But here’s the thing. They are. A child may be keeping their thoughts about their birth parents to themselves for fear of hurting their parents’ feelings. Or because expressing their desire to know more about their birth parents might make their parents’ feel rejected. When speaking of your child’s birth parents, keep your language positive and take your cues from your child, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Your child asking about their birth parents is not a reflection of their feelings about you, but rather part of their lifelong journey as an adoptee. It’s up to you as the parent to choose to support and walk with them.
7. Will I go back to my birth parents?
This question came about from my son after my daughter had been home with us for a few weeks. He asked when it was that Mira would go back to India. I looked at him, confused, and said, “We’re Mira’s forever family.” To which he replied, but how long is forever? For children who have had multiple caregivers or who are adopted from the foster care system, the idea of a forever family can seem foreign. It is important to emphasize that when you adopted your child you became legally bound as a family. You are legally your child’s parents and they are legally your children. We are bound together for life.
8. Who am I?
This last question is one that my son has never outright asked but I know is coming soon on the horizon. The question of “Who am I?” is a fundamental one to all people. We are built to process and define who we are, and it is in this definition that we then relate to the world. But for the adoptee, this definition is often multifaceted and can even be conflicting. Many adoptees will experience a sense of loss at the life that might have been with their birth families or in their birth countries or cultures. At times, adoptees may fully embrace their other self, choosing to immerse themselves in a birth culture or language, and at other times, they might outright reject it. If your child is of another race, look for racial mirrors in your community. If your child is from a different ethnicity, look for opportunities to bring your child’s birth culture into the fabric of your own family’s traditions. Though your child will struggle undoubtedly with identity issues, the more open you can be, the more your child may feel free to explore the multiple layers of themselves. And remember the question of identity will evolve and change as your child ages, and at times, such as during adolescence, become more pronounced.
Adoption is not a single act. It is a complicated, lifelong journey that involves the full triad of the adoptive parents, birth parents, and the adoptee. Throughout their lives, your children will have a ton of questions. Some will be easy to answer, others will be messy and difficult. The most important thing is to stay positive, open, and supportive. And know that you are not alone. There are many adoptive parent and adoptee forums where you can find support and many other families who are walking a similar path to yours. And if you need, outside professional help is always a good solution to help facilitate answers to some of the tougher questions about adoption.
Jennifer S. Jones is a writer, performer, storyteller, and arts educator. She holds an MFA (Playwriting) from NYU Tisch. She has written numerous plays including the internationally renowned, award-winning Appearance of Life. Her amazing transracial transcultural family was created through adoption from China and India. She is passionate about the adoption community and talks about the ins and outs, ups and downs, joys and “is this really us?!” whenever she can. She writes about her experiences at www.letterstojack.com.