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AF answers your parenting questionsSeptember/October 2008

Tummy talk

Q:My four-year-old is beginning to talk about babies and tummies. When I told him that he grew in my heart, he insisted he grew in my tummy. I said that he came from his birthmom's tummy, and asked if he'd like to hear more, but he was quick to say no. What is going on?

A:It sounds like you and your son are having two different conversations. You are discussing adoption, and he is expressing his love for you. Every child your son's age, whether he joined his family biologically or through adoption, fantasizes about being in his mother's tummy, because he wants to imagine being as close as possible to the mother he knows and loves.

There is some emotional truth to the "born in my heart" concept. But it's confusing for a four-year-old, who is literal in his thinking. It sounds like he doesn't want to talk about his birthmother, either. Children may react with sadness to learning that they grew in another woman's tummy, or, like your child, see the birthmother as an unwelcome intruder into his family.

For now, acknowledge your son's love and desire to be close to you. You might say, "I feel as close to you as if you grew in my tummy, and I love you very much."
Joni S. Mantell, Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center, Pennington, New Jersey

The daddy question

Q:I'm a single mom, and my three-year-old has begun asking about her daddy. I've told her that he lives in Guatemala. I've also explained that there are different types of families, and that our family includes a little girl and a mommy who loves her. Is there anything else I should say?

A:It's important for single parents to distinguish between "birthfather" and "daddy." It's normal for children who have a single parent to fantasize about a daddy (or mommy), but parents who talk about a daddy who lives in Guatemala (or China, or Russia) may confuse matters further. It would be natural for the child to ask, "Well, why don't we go find him?" or "Why can't he live here, with us, instead of in Guatemala?"

Be clear that, while your child has a birthfather and a birthmother who gave birth to her, she doesn't have a daddy at this time. You can say, "Your birthfather and birthmother still live in Guatemala, where you were born. We don't have a daddy in our home because I adopted you as a single mom. I wasn't married, but I wanted to have a little girl very much, and I'm so happy I was able to adopt you on my own."

You may want to go on to talk about men (friends, uncles, grandfathers) who aren't her daddies, but who play important roles in your lives.
Lee Varon, author of Adopting on Your Own: The Complete Guide to Adoption for Single Parents (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Reluctant about birthparent contact

Q:Our three-year-old's birthparents have never really been a part of her life. She doesn't even know who they are, but they recently began asking for contact. I've sent photos at their request, but I refused when they asked if she could go to their house for a party. (As far as I know, both are drug users, and their lives are very unstable.) What should we do?

A:I recommend that you and your birthparents reach an agreement about the type and frequency of contact you will have over the years as soon as possible. You might want to enlist an adoption professional to help you. It's always best to work out this type of agreement before placement, but better late than never.

You appear to have negative feelings about the birthparents. It's important to keep in mind that your daughter will internalize the messages you send (both verbally and non-verbally) about her birthparents--"I am bad because I came from someone bad." For the sake of your daughter's self-esteem, it's important to communicate that her birthparents love her. When she is older, you can talk about the problems in their lives that prevented them from parenting her.

If you feel your daughter's birthparents are unsafe, you can decide that you won't allow visits at this time. This is your right and responsibility as a parent. If you agree to a chaperoned visit, you can state explicit boundaries, by telling them, "If you show up for a visit under the influence of drugs, you won't be allowed in our house."

As to your statement that she doesn't know who they are, I think she should, and now is a good time to introduce them. Whenever you talk with her about adoption, start by mentioning the fact that she grew in her birthmother's tummy. Refer to them by their first names, as well as by the terms "birthmother" and "birthfather." I also recommend having photos of the birthparents in your home (in a scrapbook about her adoption). If you don't have any, ask for some the next time you send photos to them.
Kathleen Silber, coauthor of Dear Birthmother (Corona) and associate executive director of the Independent Adoption Center, Pleasant Hill, California

Are pets problematic?

Q:We have a cat and a dog. Will this pose a problem for our homestudy--or after we bring our child home?

A:Not if they have been vaccinated and are well-socialized. Some states may require you to include a certificate of vaccination with your homestudy paperwork.

The social worker who visits you will observe your pets. She will ask how they interact with youngsters, and may suggest ways to prepare them for the new addition. For example, following the advice of their veterinarian, one couple I worked with bought a lifelike baby doll and held it frequently in the company of their two dogs.

After your child comes home, watch your pets closely. Do not leave them loose and unattended around a baby. Most pets adjust well after a child joins the home.

You should also be prepared for unexpected outcomes. If an animal becomes territorial and vicious, it should be relocated. Some parents have expressed concern that removing an animal from their home might damage a child's sense of security. But your first priority is to keep your little one safe. If you explain, she will understand. You should also anticipate the possibility that your child may be allergic to your beloved pet. Discuss these rare outcomes, and what you'll do in either case, with your social worker. For now, enjoy your animals--and your homestudy--and know they should not be a problem.
Amy Rackear, adoption social worker and Northeast Regional Director for World Association for Children and Parents, New York

Sibling adjustment

Q:Our 16-month-old has been home for about a month now, and our three-year-old (who was also adopted) still sees his little brother as Public Enemy #1. Will this get better? What should we do?

A:Yes, it will, though the adjustment may take time (a month isn't very long!). Address your son's concerns head-on in conversations. You might say, "Some kids worry that, when a new brother or sister comes into the family, there isn't enough love to go around." To make the discussion concrete, you can draw a picture of yourself and a big heart and say, "This is how big my heart is from loving you." Then draw another picture with a bigger heart and say, "And this is how big my heart grew when your brother arrived. Mommies' and daddies' hearts can grow bigger and bigger with every child, so we'll always have plenty of love for both of you."

Studies have shown that the social adjustment of adopted and biological siblings is virtually the same. The basic strategies--spending one-on-one time with the older sibling, using "big brother" language to help get him used to his new role, and so on--apply in your situation. While adoption does not change these basics, it is something to consider. This would be a good time to bring out your older son's lifebook, retell stories about the trip to adopt him, and, of course, stress the permanency and dependability of your family. Start a few family traditions--cooking special dinners, having a family movie night--to reinforce this idea.
Mary Ann Curran, director of social services, World Association for Children and Parents, Seattle

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