"Mommy, Were You Adopted?"
I'm not sure why I never told my children. But when they asked, I knew it was time to end the secrecy for good. By Jennifer Nelson
We were on our way home from retrieving our newly spayed kitten, Princess, from the vet. The black and gray stray I had agreed to give a home to six months before was tucked tightly into a blue plastic animal carrier and strapped in beside my daughter in the back seat. My son rode shotgun—apparently it was his turn to sit up front.
It was one of those peaceful car trips where everyone seemed happy with their lot in life—and more importantly, their seat. One of those rare times when parent-child conversations just naturally flow. Each actually took turns without screeching over the other's voice vying for my undivided attention or my undivided love.
"Did we adopt Princess?" Ashley asked.
"Yes, I suppose so," I said.
Ashley, six, was an excellent reader. While we were waiting for the vet, she read the advertisements, bulletins, and notices posted around the office. "Adoption" was a frequently used word. Pets for adoption, adoption notices, adoption do's and don'ts.
"But what does 'adopted' mean?" Ashley asked.
Andrew turned to me, ready for my answer.
"Well, it's when you bring a pet into your house and raise it. You agree to nurture it, love it, and take good care of it. You agree to become its new family."
"But what about its old family?" Ashley asked, a hint of sadness in her voice.
"Pets can't stay in their own family. They need people to take care of them," Andrew said.
"Aren't children adopted, too?" Ashley wanted to know.
"Yes, children can be adopted, too," I said, my stomach starting to churn at the twist in the conversation.
"But why are children adopted? What happens to their old family?"
I took a deep breath, I saw where this was going. Maybe I saw it even back at the vet's. Why didn't I leave the kids home with their dad, I thought briefly. Then I admonished myself for wishing away such a quality morning with my kids.
"Children are adopted sometimes," I began, "if their mothers cannot take care of them."
"But why wouldn't their mother be able to take care of them?" Ashley pushed on.
"Oh, for a variety of reasons," I said. "Sometimes mothers are too young to care for a baby, or they don't have enough money or experience or they don't have anyone to help them. It's a very big job taking care of children."
"Yeah," Andrew said, glancing behind him at Princess, content in her carrier. "It's a big job taking care of pets, too."
Ashley was quiet for a few seconds. But I felt it coming. We were not done with this conversation, not by a long shot.
I don't know why I never told them. I didn't set out to be deceitful. It's just not a topic that pops up often. Not something I was ever really comfortable announcing. I'm 37 and I can count the number of people I had told on one hand.
When are you supposed to tell people anyway? When you meet them? Hi, my name is Jennifer, and I'm adopted. After you've developed a relationship with them? Maybe after you get to know them and you begin to inquire about each other's background or family. When you give birth to them? Welcome, I'm your mommy, and I'm adopted. It's not like they sent me to classes on adoption etiquette. Okay, so clearly I'd fail if there were such classes. I had made it such a big deal. I had shrouded it in secrecy the same way my parents had.
The truth hits me in the gut and leaves a nauseous taste in my mouth. I feel inferior, like it was my fault that my kids were born to my adopted self. My not-good-enough self. As if I could have changed that and requested they be born to my unadopted persona. Their grandparents on my side are their adopted grandparents; my brother, their adopted uncle. What if this changes things for them?
There, I said it. What if they feel less loved, less connected, or just plain less. I couldn't bear it. I wanted to silence the reality. Or to change it. But did I want it silenced for their sake, or was it my own reality I wanted to change? I couldn't tell anymore. My feelings were jumbled. Had I not told them to protect them? And if they asked, would I tell the truth?
Ashley absorbed the information about mothers not being able to care for babies as best she could. She lived in a world where mothers have plenty of skills, money, and help to care for their children—and I had just crumpled that world.
I was startled by her next question, though I shouldn't have been.
"Am I adopted?"
Andrew turned away from the window he was staring through and studied my face. Surely he remembers my pregnancy and his sister's arrival, even though he was only four.
"No, you weren't adopted," I told her. "You grew in my belly."
I heard relief in her silence. Or maybe I just imagined it.
"Was Andrew adopted?" Ashley asked.
Andrew's eyes betrayed him. He was wondering why he'd never asked this question himself.
I smiled at him reassuringly. It's quietly understood that the "good" answer is not to have been adopted. Or maybe I just perceived it that way. "No, Andrew wasn't adopted either. He grew in my belly, too."
Then my turn came. It had been on the way since I gave birth to Andrew, ten years ago.
"Were you adopted, Mommy?"
My children hung in silence while I gathered my answer. The light turned green, a horn honked—traffic flowed on. In those seconds I wondered if what I was about to say would change who they are or who they will become. Would my being adopted somehow contaminate their little lives; make them feel less connected to the people they've known as their family? Would they be less who they are once they know the truth?
I couldn't deny. I wouldn't lie.
"Actually, yes, I was adopted."
I smiled, appearing happy to relate this news. And suddenly I felt it. I was released. The prison had been self-imposed, the shame undeserved, the fear unfounded. Finally I could see that. I felt lighter the second the words were spoken.
"Wow," they said in unison. "You are?" Like I'd garnered celebrity status. "Do you know your other mom and dad, did you always know you were adopted, why didn't you tell us?" The questions came—fast and compelling. And my answers followed. One by one, as best I could, truthful and whole, on this Saturday morning in my minivan, I shared with my kids what they've always known: My name is Jennifer, and I'm adopted.
And my children? They are who they were always going to be.
Jennifer Nelson is a writer who lives with her family in Florida.
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