If you are in the process of adopting a child, or if you are raising an adopted child, you may be wondering when or if you should tell them they are adopted. If you decide to tell them, the next question you may be asking yourself is, “should I tell my adoptee to keep their adoption a secret?”
In my opinion, no. You should not tell your adoptee to keep their adoption secret. Their adoption is a huge part of their identity, and a sense of embarrassment or shame may form if they feel that their adoption needs to be under wraps.
I always knew I was adopted. My parents started telling my sister and me our adoption stories before we were even able to speak. Because of this, our adoption stories were such a normal part of our lives. My parents shared our stories with close friends and family because they felt blessed by how our adoption gave them the chance to be parents.
I remember being a second grader, running around the playground, playing on swings and slides, etc. Some of my friends and I would chat about whatever while we played, and I told them I was adopted.
Days later, my mom got a call from a church friend that there was a rumor running around that I was a little liar. “Hannah is going around telling everyone that she’s adopted!”
“That’s because she is…” My mom replied. There was some astonishment from the other moms that I knew I was adopted, was comfortable with my adoption, and liked to talk about my adoption.
I loved showing my friends the accessories and trinkets I received from my birth mom in the mail. I loved telling my friends about my younger half-siblings. (That my birth parents are raising.)
I never felt pressured to share, however. In retrospect, I think a big part of my sharing at such a young age came from wanting to impress people. I knew my story was special and that not many people had the same experience. As I got older, I understood more about the adoption process, and ultimately what adoption actually was.
Honestly, in my mind, my birth mom was in the same wheelhouse as figures such as Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. That made the most sense in my mind until I was probably nine-ish.
Once I got into high school, my adoption story stopped being a conversation piece. I became an advocate for adoption education and shared my story because I wanted to help reduce stigmas and false understandings bred by media and television.
I also found the more I shared, the more pushback I got. People didn’t like me sharing my story. I had people who had no ties to adoption that felt entitled to sharing their opinions about how I obviously knew nothing.
That’s when I decided my story is something that, as much as I love it, I don’t like having people analyze and criticize both myself, my parents, and my birth parents. I stopped sharing as consistently as before and made more conscious choices about when, where, and how to share. I still share often, but I also have had the realization that I had more character than being an adoptee.
I had gotten so caught up in sharing my story; I had put the rest of my person on hold. I was able to establish myself in my other hobbies and interests, which was incredibly refreshing.
I think the key to telling adoption stories is it needs to be in the hands of the adoptee. When they’re little, you can tell your part of the story. But you can’t reveal portions of the story that aren’t necessarily yours to tell. For example, as an adoptive parent, you can’t share your child’s opinions and feelings about their adoption unless they are comfortable with you doing so or with people they wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing.
As an adoptive parent, your responsibility is to raise and nurture your child in a safe and comfortable environment. If your child feels a desire to share their story, that is their decision to make. You can offer them guidance on how to go about it, though. If you worry that sharing personal details of their birth parents may put anyone at risk, or sharing in a particular setting may not be appropriate, you can tell them. But as they age, it is ultimately their decision to share their adoption story and how they go about doing so.
In preparing to write this article, I decided to address a few of my adoption advocate friends. Those who have had positive stories and those whose stories have been a little tougher. The first one I spoke to addressed a couple of things I wouldn’t have thought of until she brought them up.
- Not only should an adoptee not be told to keep their story secret, but they also shouldn’t be expected to share if they aren’t comfortable.
In some adoptions, the adoptee feels pressured to tell their story and may, in turn, resent their adoption. Some adoptive parents may feel inclined to tell their child’s story if they have a “Savior Complex.” If adoptive parents share more of their adoptee’s story than the adoptee is comfortable sharing, it isn’t healthy for anyone involved.
- There is a big difference between keeping an adoption story “secret” and keeping an adoption story “private.”
As one friend told me, the first implies shame, while the other implies sacredness. Adoptees shouldn’t feel any level of shame around their adoption. Where they came from and how they came to be where they are shouldn’t be viewed as disgraceful or something that isn’t discussed. Even if the circumstances surrounding the adoption were grim or uncomfortable to talk about with just anyone, the adoptee shouldn’t feel ashamed or guilty. Their origin story is theirs to tell, regardless of what it is.
As mentioned earlier, there may also be some details best kept private as a safety precaution. There was a single mom in our church congregation growing up that adopted three siblings. Their birth mom had several concerning behaviors, which led to the state stepping in and removing the children for their safety. Those kids and their family and friends were asked not to share information about the kids with anyone. They were also asked not to include photos of the children on social media, including the elementary school pages.
There was one incident where someone shared information, and it made its way back to the birth mom. The birth mom then showed up with empty glass bottles and threw them through the windows of the adoptive parents’ house, shattering them. She attempted to crawl in through the windows and had planned to take the kids with her. Fortunately, authorities were called and arrived before anything else happened, but that reiterated the need to keep information under wraps as much as possible.
There are also scenarios where the birth parents may not want their details shared. When I started sharing my adoption story, I wouldn’t share information about my birth parents unless I explicitly shared with them what information I would be giving and where I would be submitting it.
For the most part, my birth parents didn’t mind me telling my story. My sister’s birth mother, however, was a little more cautious of sharing. She didn’t want to share much information because she didn’t want the birth father to access information about her.
These reasons for not sharing details of adoption stories aren’t about limiting an adoptee’s experience. They are for the safety and well-being of the other people involved. Adoptees should not be told not to share their story at all because their story is theirs to tell.
The thing about adoptions is that they are a very intimate part of someone’s life story. Adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents have all been touched and influenced by adoption and should be able to tell their part of their story as they see fit.
Sharing and telling stories can be cathartic for people. To tell someone to keep their story a secret may lead them to change how they view themselves. It may inhibit their ability to love themselves and how they came to be who they are.
If the basis of someone’s life is kept under lock and key, it doesn’t allow for a healthy mentality. Adoption is no different from this idea.
Someone may have had a rough adoption. (Maybe that’s why an adoptive parent would want to keep their story under wraps.) I have a family friend who adopted two boys in less-than-ideal circumstances. The adoptive mom is very open about the adoption being a traumatic experience and how there are a lot of regrets.
When you talk to the boys about it, it is incredibly evident they know very little about their adoption. When adoption is mentioned, members of the family get quiet until the subject changes. The boys don’t feel pride in where they came from or how they became part of the family they are in now.
Not celebrating an adoption story or telling the story to an adoptee with respect if it’s a touchy subject to talk about is just as crucial to a healthy adoption as allowing adoptees to speak about their story how they need to.
If an adoptee feels shame about their story, they may feel an unnecessary need to keep their adoption secret. Being adopted in and of itself isn’t shameful. My sister and I were told our stories often and could discern the parts of the story that we wanted to share with others and which parts we wanted to keep close to our chest for ourselves. For us, adoption was just as much a part of us as our eye color. We were at liberty to share our stories as we wanted to.
I enjoyed sharing my story to the extent that I decided to host an adoption conference for my senior project in high school. That experience was very enlightening. I was able to share my own story, but I was able to provide a platform for others to share their stories as well. It was important for me to see the hardships others had in their adoption journey. All things considered, my adoption story has been a positive experience, but so many of those in attendance shared stories that covered the good, bad, and ugly.
It was a safe environment for people to share their stories. One birth mom kept her story close to her heart. Only her mom knew about the placement. She was able to talk about the process with people that understood where she was coming from.
There was also an adoptee that had had a foster adoption. She was comfortable sharing her story but expressed that she hadn’t always felt that way. She had felt shame when she was younger because of how people talked about the foster program when she was young. It wasn’t until she spoke to other foster adoptees that she understood the value of being open about her story in a way she felt comfortable.
So to answer your question, you should not tell your adoptee to keep their adoption a secret. Being adopted isn’t shameful; it should be celebrated if they want it to be. Being adopted is just a part of their story, and they shouldn’t feel a need to hide their story.
If an adoptee wants to share their story, that is their decision to make. You may want to offer guidance, however, on sharing at the right time and place.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.
Hannah Jennings lives in Idaho with her husband, Nick, and her tabby cat, Charlie. Hannah is a singer/songwriter, and loves to perform. She is also a photographer and enjoys taking family photos. She has been an adoption advocate for more than five years and loves sharing her story as an adoptee.