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Bringing Birth Fathers Into the Adoption Conversation

By Kathleen Silber   January/February 2008

Q: "We’re close with our four-year-old’s birthmother, Lisa, but we’ve never met the birthdad and Lisa doesn’t like to talk about him. What can we say to our daughter?"

A: It’s wonderful to have such a healthy relationship with your daughter’s birthmother, but don’t assume, as parents in your situation sometimes do, that this relationship alone will satisfy your child’s curiosity about her birth family. Your daughter is at the age when children start wondering where babies come from. Almost every preschooler, adopted or not, will ask, "Mommy, was I in your tummy?" This is when parents should begin explaining that it takes a man and a woman to make a baby. For your family, this means introducing the concept of having a birthfather, as well as a birthmother. Use an age-appropriate children’s book to begin the conversation. [AF recommends Joanna Cole’s How I Was Adopted, one of the few adoption storybooks that explains birth, as well as adoption.]

Your daughter’s ongoing relationship is a good starting point. When birthparents play an active role in a child’s life, it’s easier for her to understand adoption. Lisa is real to your daughter, not just a word, "birthmother." Ideally, of course, she would have a relationship with both birthparents.

Sharing what you know

You are not alone in lacking information about your daughter’s birthfather. Many families have open adoptions with their child’s birthmother, but have what are, in fact, closed adoptions with the birthfather. Parents may receive only sketchy information about him. Or, if they met him, contact was brief and limited to the time of the placement.

What do you know about your daughter’s birthfather? It will be easier to talk with your daughter about him if you can begin with something concrete—his name, the color of his hair, his hometown. These details may satisfy your daughter now, as she just starts to be curious about this person, though she’ll soon have more questions.

At the same time, you might ask Lisa whether she will help you find out more about the birthfather. Say that you’re sure your daughter would benefit from knowing something about the history and characteristics of both sides of her birth family. At the time of the adoption, Lisa may have been angry with him over the failure of their relationship, or his lack of support during her pregnancy. Now that four years have passed, however, maybe Lisa is ready to share more details about him. Perhaps she has a photo to show you. Or she might agree to contact him. If she’d prefer not to, ask if you could get in touch, now or in the future.

One family I know asked their eight-year-old son’s birthmother for help when they were unable to answer his questions. Because the birthmother was involved in his life, she could see for herself that Ryan needed to know about his birthfather. She located the birthfather and arranged for contact. Ryan corresponded with him for some time, and later they met in person.

Open-ended exploration

If you are not able to locate the birthfather now, keep the search option in mind. Most children feel a renewed curiosity during the school-age years. Take cues from your daughter. Years from now, if it seems important to her to know more, you might decide to pursue a more thorough search.

Adopted children are, and should be, curious about both of their birthparents. It’s true that questions about the birthmother usually surface first—after all, they grew in her tummy. But that curiosity will be followed soon by a need to know about the birthfather. As a parent, you must anticipate that need.

Kathleen Silber is associate executive director of the Independent Adoption Center in Pleasant Hill, California, and coauthor of Dear Birthmother and Children of Open Adoption (Corona).

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