Today was a reminder that transparency in an adoption triad is key. I had a moment today where my words were not perceived as I intended, and they, unfortunately, triggered some emotions. It wasn’t my fault, but it became an issue because the person couldn’t see outside of themselves. Now imagine that you are going through life feeling confident in your identity of self, happy about your surroundings and groups of loved ones, and nothing super earth-shattering seemed likely to happen to you. Now imagine that someone came in, took away pieces of your story, and said that you were actually XYZ and not ABC like you thought. Would you be shaken? Would you be confused? What about hurt? The likely answer to all of these is yes. This is what it can look like for adoptees when they are not told they are adopted until later in life. Such a storyline seems more common with children from closed adoptions, but I am sure it still happens within even open and semi-open adoptions. Growing up as an adoptee, I always knew I was adopted. I didn’t know who my birth parents were or anything about my biological family, but I always heard my parents affirm they loved me even though they were not present in my life. As I realized adoption was how families could be created, I began to accept with pride that part of my identity. I would brag during the “fun facts” time of the first day of school that I was adopted, which meant two families really loved me. Since I didn’t get to know my biological family as I grew up, I began to make assumptions and fantasies of who they were, what they were like, and if they thought about me. It was pretty confusing and gave me overly positive views of adoption. I never thought anything negative was possible in my story. That everything would always be sunshine and roses. Unfortunately, I was wrong. When I began looking for my biological family in 2010, I was met with some very harsh truths about my birth mother. I met her for the first time while she was incarcerated in county jail. She has been an addict, homeless, and a questionable character since I was a baby. But while she was all of those things, she was still my birth mother. It was a heavy thing to have to process right out of the gate. Fast forward a tad, and I set out to find my birth father. The man my birth mother said was my biological father turned me away when I found him. A few years later, I found out he had passed away. Again, I felt the heaviness. I decided to do a DNA kit to find out more as I kept running into dead ends with my supposed biological father. Through the DNA kit, I found out he was not my birth father, and instead, two men were the option. They happen to be brothers, one is my birth father, and the other is my biological uncle. Both men are disappointing human beings, so it’s become another dead end as I choose not to notify them or dig into that family since things do not seem safe. Yes, it was that bad. I thankfully have a wonderful relationship with my biological grandparents, cousins, uncle, half-sisters, and other family members who have made all the hard stuff worth it. I share this super brief history of my story and uncover a lot of my truths because I have taken a lot away from my 11 years of reunion with my birth family. I believe it has taught me a lot about why honesty is so important in the adoption triad.
Being Honest from the Start Sets the Pace
Telling your adoptee their identity as an adoptee is so important. Not only that you are honest about it, but how quickly you are honest about it is crucial. I have seen many adult adoptees drift away from their adoptive family simply because of the deceit and feeling of betrayal after they learned about that part of their story and how it impacted them poorly. As an adoptee, I would never wish another adoptee to feel like they had to separate themselves from their parents. And I don’t want that for any parents either. Begin to normalize the beginning of their story from day one. It’s never too soon to talk about it, and it’s definitely not going to cause any harm by telling them. I have heard the argument that it might be too confusing for a child. I genuinely believe this is just an excuse for fear of the unknown. Yes, adoption is confusing, but you can tell a child the concept without confusing them. For example, sharing with them who the birth mother is and referencing her or a picture establishes familiarity. So later, as their brains begin to develop further and you tell the story for the 100th time, they’ll know that birth mom means something special to them. I would share with a child this way: “Before you were born, you were in *birth mother’s name*’s tummy. She loves you more than anything, and she made a very hard choice to place you into mommy and daddy’s lives. As you grow up, we hope you can know her and hear more of her story, but know this little one; you are so loved. Adoption may be how we became a family, but love is what started your story.” I would then share that concept over and over again and if the birth mother is in your life, allow her to share her story with the child, too. Over the years, it will make this comfortable for your child to process and ask questions when ready.
Share Birth Mother’s Story
I hope you have the opportunity to know your child’s birth mother. It’s a special bond that can be such a treasure to your family. As you read above, my birth mother had a hard story to tell. My parents knew my birth mother was struggling because while I had a closed adoption, the agency would still request updates from my parents when my birth mother prompted it. My mom and dad never shared the little pieces about my birth mother they did know about as far as her colorful life, but I don’t blame them for wanting to protect me from it. When I was 18, I got a redacted version of my adoption record (anything identifying was covered by White-Out), and I quickly discovered my birth mother was an addict, hardly ever knew my birthday when she requested information, and constantly shared how much she was struggling in the requests for information. It was heartbreaking and disappointing, but when I actually met her years later, I had already processed a lot of that information and only gained specifics down the road. While I don’t blame my parents for not divulging this information to me, I would have wanted to know if I could go back and control that. Knowing her struggles, her walk of life, and the ability to sort of walk in her shoes, gave me a better understanding of where she might have been when she decided to place me for adoption. When I had more information, it made more sense to me why she made the choices she did. So, a couple of things here- if your child’s birth mother has a difficult story, share some of it. You don’t have to give the nitty-gritty details, but at least allow your child to know that she is hurting and has been struggling. Hopefully, that’s not the case for you, but even if it is, she is no less worthy of being known. The other thought is that no matter her background, her story is important. Simply knowing their birth mother got pregnant super young, didn’t have the resources to parent even though she wanted to, but ultimately decided to place her child for adoption, or whatever the situation was, is an important part of your child’s story. Often, simple stories are easier to divulge, right? It’s easier to share the storylines that don’t have harder-to-digest information, but the truth is it’s all hard stuff. It’s sad she lost motherhood and was unable to parent. Honor her and your child by letting them know what led their birth mother to her choice. The best way to do that is by letting their birth mother tell them in her own words or by the birth mother telling you to share with them. The “why was I placed for adoption?” question is one of the main thoughts an adoptee has when they process they are adopted. It matters.
Talk About Birth Fathers
Birth fathers are such an enigma. Many birth mothers don’t want to talk about birth fathers because often it is a sensitive subject. More often than not, birth fathers run at the first sight of those two pink lines. They leave a lot of hurt in their wake, and it’s not easy for a birth mother to forgive and include them after the birth of their child. In short, regardless of the situation with your child’s birth father, ask enough questions to have some baseline knowledge for your child. It’s likely that someday your child will want to know some information on their biological father, so having some information is better than none. If it’s a rough situation, leave it at that. “It was a hard situation, and we don’t know much about him.” Again, better than nothing. Often, birth mothers will share a little bit too. Many birth mothers make scrapbooks sharing the basics, and there may be nothing more than a name and a picture, but it still matters.
Support Your Adoptee in Their Self-Discovery
The last thing I would advise is to be supportive. Something super prevalent among adoptees is the worry that if we ask too many questions or start looking for our biological roots, we will upset our adoptive parents. I struggled with it, and I have talked to many other adoptees who felt that pressure. It’s just ingrained in us because we truly love you, and we don’t want you to think we are trying to replace you, that we don’t love you, or that you are doing anything wrong. Adoptees just have this burning desire to know who they are. So. if your child’s birth mother or father is not in your life as your child grows up, know that eventually, they will want to look for them. They will have questions, and they will want to get closure. If your child’s birth mother or father is in your life, support your adoptee in asking questions and unpacking their story. The main focus is the well-being of the adoptee. Having a supportive attitude regarding their curiosities about self is extremely helpful in creating a safe space for them to process. Try to remember that you are enough and it’s not about you when it comes to this topic.
No matter what your journey looks like as an adoptee or adoptive parents, know that it’s an ever-evolving world. Adoption is complex and takes a lot of patience, time, and effort to unpack. I am still learning more about my story and who I am as an adoptee even 33 years down the road, but the honesty my parents had from the beginning made all the difference.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.
Katie Reisor is an adoptee and birth mom who is passionate about adoption advocacy and breaking stigmas around birth parents. In her free time, she enjoys traveling and hanging out with her dog, Chloe.