Keeping a secret is usually a bad idea, especially when it comes to something as important and life-changing as adoption. Are their adoptions secret?
As parents, we try to teach our children this very principle from a young age because we know that not telling the truth rarely leads to a positive outcome.
There are, in fact, oodles of books about the importance of telling the truth geared toward little readers and reading veterans alike. Perhaps one of the most famous movies about telling the truth is the classic Pinocchio. In the film, a wooden puppet is brought to life by a fairy who tells him he can become a real boy if he proves himself to be “brave, truthful, and unselfish.”
Armed with this wisdom, why might a birth parent or an adoptive parent think to keep an adoptee’s adoption a secret?
Although far less common than it used to be, it still does happen.
A confidential or anonymous adoption is when a woman choosing an adoption plan can keep much of her identifying information private with the understanding that any information she shares with her adoption professional will be completely confidential.
Although much more rare these days, there are reasons why some expectant parents might wish to keep their adoption a secret. When this happens, a birth mom will choose closed adoption. A closed adoption is when an infant is adopted by another family, and the record of the biological parent(s) is kept physically sealed. In most cases with closed adoption, a biological father is not recorded.
While closed adoption is less common in domestic adoption, it is still quite prevalent with international adoption. In this scenario, the adoptive parents may not know where the child came from or who their birth parents were. In many cases, adoption agencies will provide as much information as possible through social histories and legal documents. In best-case scenarios, they are able to share this information with adoptive families. Typically with international adoption, the adoptee may not have an opportunity to look for their birth parents before the age of 18. However, is this enough reason to keep adoptions a secret?
Is Closed Adoption Ever Okay?
While almost every expert will tell you that open adoption is the better choice for all involved, there are still valid reasons for closed adoption.
The Adoption.org article “Are There Benefits of a Closed Adoption?” discusses the pros and cons for birth parents, adoptive families, and adoptees in detail, with writer Virginia Spence sharing, “Placing a child for adoption can be a very emotional time…however, a closed adoption can allow a definite break so that the birth mother can heal from that part of her life and try to heal.”
Confidential vs. Closed
On the flip side, just because an adoption is closed does not mean an adoptive family cannot or should not talk to their child about their adoption story. A thread on Adoption.com about the ramifications of keeping adoption a secret points out specific reasons why many feel that keeping adoption a secret ultimately is the wrong decision for all parties involved.
Dr. Jennifer Bliss, Psy.D., LCSW, says when it comes to talking to children about their adoption, “Your child will take cues from you as they form their feelings about the world around them, that includes how they will feel about their adoption.” She further states, “Children’s curiosity about their adoption story is a normal part of growing up. Open and informative discussions are crucial for the development of your child’s sense of self.”
Adoptive families involved in a closed adoption may not have the same amount of available information about the birth family to share, but that doesn’t mean a child should be kept in the dark about how they became part of their family. Adoptive parents should not feel pressured to share things they do not think their child is ready to hear. Still, they should be open to the discussion of adoption and ready to answer their child’s questions in an age-appropriate way.
While there is so much uncertainty involved in adoption–both open and closed–one thing is certain, an adoptive family’s adoption journey is always changing. An adoptee’s understanding and perception of their personal adoption story changes throughout their lifetime as well. Although they may not have access to records, adoptive parents need to begin talking about their child’s adoption early on, so it becomes a part of the child’s story. This also allows them to feel confident rather than insecure in processing that important part of their life.
Reasons Expectant Parents Might Choose to Keep Adoptions a Secret
It is nobody’s business to judge or question an expectant parent’s decision to consider an adoption plan. Still, many birth parents share they feel misunderstood and judged. The Adoption.com birth family forum “Are we still to be judged?” gives voice to feeling unheard and disrespected for their choice.
Considering that 45% of all pregnancies are unplanned, it is not difficult to imagine that many of the women who find themselves in this unexpected situation may feel scared, confused, or unsure of the best plan of action.
There are many reasons why an expectant parent might want to keep their adoption a secret, including:
- Providing a sense of closure from a traumatic situation such as rape or incest.
- Enabling a birth mom to work through grief and loss while moving forward in life with the knowledge that the child is in a safe environment.
- Removing a child from a toxic or even dangerous environment that may include an abusive partner or family member(s).
- Unprepared or not feeling as if she has enough emotional, physical, mental, or financial support to raise a child.
No matter the reason, society needs to be better by respecting the decisions of expectant parents when it comes to adoption. Although the vast majority of professionals and others in the adoption community currently lean toward fully open or semi-open adoption, society must take the reasons a birth parent may have in wanting a confidential adoption into consideration. These have been the reasons expectant parents might keep adoptions a secret, but what are the reasons adoptive parents might keep adoptions a secret?
Reasons Why Adoptive Parents Might Choose to Keep Adoptions a Secret
Similar to expectant parents who decide on adoption, some adoptive parents feel as if they’re under fire from those who feel entitled to question their choice.
In some cases, keeping a child’s adoption a secret may feel like a better, safer alternative. One couple decided not to tell their daughter that she had a different biological father. They justified the choice because the biological dad allegedly was a drug addict. While the girl’s aunt sympathized with the couple for wanting to protect the child from what they obviously felt might be a hurtful or unhealthy truth, she voiced her concern that the daughter might someday stumble upon the information and be impacted in a bad way.
Many adoptive parents struggle with what to share with their adopted child. No matter how much or how little they know about their child’s birth family, it can feel overwhelming and confusing to know how much is too much.
Some reasons adoptive parents might think it’s better to keep their adoption a secret:
- The shame of not being able to conceive.
- The judgment from family and friends who disagree with adoption.
- A belief that they are protecting their child from learning things about their birth family that may include abuse, incarceration, or neglect.
- Unsure if their child is ready or competent to process the information.
Prospective adoptive parents must do their research and receive training and education about adoption before deciding to adopt. While having unsupportive family or friends is not pleasant, keeping a secret such as that of a child’s adoption is not the answer. No one should feel shame for not being able to have a biological child. Nobody should have to feel judged for their choice to adopt.
At some point, it must become more about what you want and need and not what family or friends think or may be worried about. In many cases, family or friends may have misconceptions about adoption. A hopeful adoptive parent can talk to them, ask them questions, and let them ask questions. Still, ultimately, if they choose to move forward with adoption, they need to be ready to do what’s in the child’s best interest.
While adoptive parents may feel they have their child’s best interests in mind by keeping the adoption a secret, professionals and grown adoptees feel just as strongly that not telling the truth will end badly.
Adoptive parents do not need to disclose every detail of their child’s birth family any more than birth parents need to disclose every detail of their family’s history. Still, keeping adoptions a secret can be detrimental to children later on in life.
Remove the Secret and Remove the Stigma
It is in the adoptive parents’ best interest to talk openly and honestly to their children about their adoption. Keep adoptions a secret helps no one, especially not the children. Whether it’s an open adoption or closed adoption, the story of how a family has come to be should never be treated as a secret or something to hide or feel ashamed of. By removing the “secret,” you remove the stigma that adoption is bad. In doing so, parents remove the stigma and stereotype for their child that there is something wrong with “me.”
It is unfortunate that even in 2021, there are expectant parents and adoptive parents who feel shame or “less than” by family members or friends for choosing adoption.
How and when to talk to your child about adoption is a subject that comes up often for adoptive parents. While there is no set timeline or guidance on what to say or when to say it, the consensus is clear that it is better to bring an adoptee’s story to light than hide it in the dark. Waiting for the “right time” can be a dangerous thing, too, as time passes by and before you know it, a child is no longer a toddler but a young adult preparing to graduate high school.
Experts advise adoptive parents to prepare themselves for common questions and conversations. Rather than holding off for the right time, they suggest starting early and making the child’s adoption story a normal part of their life.
Ten tips to talk to kids about adoption include:
- Include all members of your family using the correct terminology
- Introduce the subject from birth or as early as possible
- Learn and use age-based appropriate language
- Be as honest as possible
- Acknowledge the child’s loss
- Talk about the future–birth family/first family reunion and how they feel about it
- Assure them that it’s okay to ask questions
- Let them take the lead in the conversation
- Practice their adoption story with them, so they are prepared to answer questions from peers
- Get professional support if needed
Adoption is a connection shared by the expectant parent, the adoptive parents, and the adoptee for a lifetime. Adoptive parents may feel caught in the middle of wanting to help their child understand their adoption while also wanting to protect them from grief, loss, or rejection. While this is understandable, adoptive parents should know their child’s feelings about being adopted will influence their sense of self-worth and esteem both in the short and long term.
No matter the reason for adoption, the result should be one of openness, honesty, and respect. Adults involved in the adoption equation need to be strong advocates for what is in the best interest of the child rather than their own opinions or insecurities. It’s okay to feel unsure of how to approach the situation so long as the child remains the focus and their adoption is treated with the respect it deserves.
You can find out more information and links to resources on how to talk to children here.Are you ready to pursue adoption? Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98 to connect with compassionate, nonjudgmental adoption specialists who can help you get started on the journey of a lifetime.
Sue Kuligowski is an author at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she’s not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.