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20 Questions Kids Ask About Adoption

Your child has questions about babies, birthmothers, and the way he joined your family. Now, you have the answers.

by AF Editors

Children ask questions to figure out the world. If a child's family was formed by adoption, much of her curiosity will center on birthmothers, babies, and the reasons adoption plans are made. We've compiled 20 of the most frequently asked questions, from the preschooler's "Did I grow in your tummy?" to the more complex queries preteens and teens may voice, along with sound responses suggested by experts and other parents over the years. As you talk to your child, adapt the sample language to fit your family's circumstances. Let the Q&A session begin!

1. "Did I grow in your tummy?"

"No, you didn't grow in my tummy. You grew in your birthmother's tummy, and then you were born. When your birthmother and birthfather were expecting you, they knew that they couldn't take care of any baby at that time. Your birthmother found us, and we became your parents. I'm so happy that we are! That is called adoption."

Although very young children can't yet understand reproduction, it's important to introduce the birthfather from your earliest conversations. Your child also needs to understand that she was born, just like any other baby. Some parents skip that step, saying, "No, you didn't grow in my tummy. We adopted you!" This leads the child to believe "I wasn't born, I was adopted."

2. "Why didn't my birthparents keep me?"

"Sometimes when a man and a woman have a baby, they cannot take care of any child at that time. It's never because of anything wrong about the child. It's for grownup reasons. Babies need a lot of care, day and night. They need healthy food, a warm place to sleep, to be cared for when they're sick, and to have grownups hold them when they cry. Your birthparents knew they couldn’t provide all of these things, so they looked for a family that could."

3. "Was my birthmommy sad?"

"Your birthmother was sad to say goodbye, but she knew she couldn't take care of you and provide all the things babies need. She was happy that she was doing her best for you by finding our family to adopt you. She had both sad and happy tears."

Hearing directly from their birthparents can help children. If you don't remain in contact but were with your child's birthmother at the hospital or court, tell your child what she said. If you have a letter your child's birthmother wrote, share it with him.

An Adoption Game Show

"The other night, I was on a game show. It took place in my daughter's bed, during my children's bedtime. I was the only contestant, and I had to respond to rapid-fire questions from the three hosts. Luckily, there were no wrong answers, as every time I answered a question, one of the hosts (who were also the audience members) cheered, 'Yes!'"

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4. "I wish I had grown in your tummy."

"You sound sad about that. That's OK. Sometimes I wish you had grown in my tummy, too, but I feel as close to you as if you had. I love you so much."

Don't be alarmed if your child displays sadness when she first begins to process adoption. In the preschool years, children want nothing more than to be as close as possible to their mothers. Some sadness, or even anger, is a normal reaction, and a way for a very young child to express her love for you, the mother she knows and loves.

5. "Why did you adopt me?"

"Daddy and I couldn't make a baby, but we wanted a baby to love very much. You were born from your birthmother's tummy, but she couldn't take care of any baby at that time. You were ready for a mommy and daddy, and we were ready for you. So we adopted you and became a forever family."

6. "How do birthmommies make babies?"

"It takes a man and a woman to make a baby. Your birthfather's sperm and your birthmother's egg combined inside her uterus to form an embryo. The embryo grows inside the woman, who then gives birth to the baby. You were born the same way any other baby is born. Some babies always live with the people who give birth to them, like your friend, _____, but others go to new parents, like you. That's called adoption."

7. "What happened the day I was born?"

"When your birthmother knew it was almost time for you to be born, she called us and we rushed to the hospital. We got there in time to be in the delivery room! We watched you being born and we held you as soon as the doctor delivered you. Your birthmother held you and said you were beautiful. You were always with us, your birthmother, or a nurse when you were in the hospital; you were never alone there."

If you have a photo from that day, show it to your child. Say something like "Here you are with Ellen on the day you were born." If you don't have any information about your child's birth, you can explain what conditions were probably like where he was born.

8. "Was I a bad baby? Did I cry too much?"

"No. All babies are supposed to cry. That's how they tell us that they're hungry or tired or need to be changed. And adoption is never the child's fault. Adoption plans are made for grownup reasons, usually because the baby's birthparents can't take care of the baby and provide what he or she needs."

9. "What does my birthmother look like?"

If you have a picture, show it to your child. If you don't, but have met her, describe what she looked like. If you don’t know, you can say, "She probably looks a lot like you, so she must be very beautiful." Together, imagine what she might look like, or invite your child to draw a picture.

10. "I wish I could ask my birthmother _____."

"I'm going to write a letter to your birthmother next week. Do you want me to include that question, or do you want to write your own letter to send with mine?" [Or, if you’re not in touch with your child's birthmother] "Why don't you write to your birthmother and ask her that question, and any others on your mind? We can send the letter to your adoption agency. They may not know where she is, so she may not get the letter, but if they do know where she is, I'm sure she’d be glad to hear from you."

11. "Maybe my birthmother was a princess."

"That's exciting to imagine, isn't it? But there aren't many princesses in North Dakota, so I think she's probably like most people, working hard at a job."

Many children, not just those who were adopted, fantasize about an alternate set of "perfect" parents. Encourage your child to talk about these fantasies, but present the concrete information you have about her birthparents.

12. "Why is my skin brown and your skin pink?"

"You were born to birthparents [or to a woman] who have the same beautiful brown skin color as yours. I was born to Grandma and Grandpa, who have the same skin color as mine. We usually inherit our skin color, hair color, and other traits from our biological parents. That's why we look the way we do."

Rather than try to smooth over differences and strike a color-blind attitude, acknowledge the differences within your family, and let your child know that you love the way she looks.

13. "Why couldn't someone teach my birthmommy how to be a mommy?"

"Some women are not ready to be mommies, and they want their child to be with another mommy who is ready. Your birthmommy was wise enough to know that she was not ready to be a mom, so she made the decision to have someone else raise you."

14. "If you were my birthmother, would you have kept me?"

"Wow, that is a big question.... Your birthmom had to make a very difficult decision that I will never have to make. You are my son and we are a family, and nothing will ever change that."

15. "Do I have any brothers or sisters?"

"You have birth siblings. When you were born, your birthmother had two older boys. Those boys were in school and could take care of some things for themselves, but a baby needs much more care. Your birthmom knew she couldn't care for a baby at that time in her life, so she made a plan to find a family who would be able to take care of you forever." If you don't know, say so: "I don't know, but you might have birth siblings. Many birthparents have other children, born either before or after making an adoption plan."

16. "Now that Ellen is married, will I go back to live with her?"

"No. I know that, when we’ve talked about adoption before, I said that Ellen made an adoption plan for you because she was young and didn't have anyone to help her take care of a baby. But when we adopted you, we became your family forever. Dad and I will always be your parents, even when you're a grownup."

You might show your child her adoption decree or a photo taken the day her adoption was finalized in court.

17. "Why is Ellen going to be this baby's mommy but not mine?"

"It must hurt to think about your birthmom raising other children. Sometimes families go through hard times. It wasn't anything you did wrong. When you were born, Ellen didn't have anyone to help her and couldn't take care of you. You couldn't wait until later. You needed a safe family to help you grow up. Now Ellen is able to be this baby's mommy." [Or, if your child has older birth siblings] "When you were born, Ellen was just able to provide for her other children, but she knew that there wasn't enough food for one more baby. She wanted you to have a forever family to take good care of you."

18. "Why won't this baby be my baby sister?" [If an adoption match falls through]

"In order for a family to adopt a baby, the birthmother has to decide that she isn't able or ready to be a mommy. Your birthmother felt that way, and that's why we adopted you and we're your forever family. This baby’s mother decided that she was ready to be a mommy, so the baby doesn't need to be adopted. We will wait for another baby to be your baby brother or sister."

19. "Did my birthparents love each other?"

"From what I understand, your birthparents were young and just beginning to explore relationships with the opposite sex. Sometimes young people become physically intimate when they're really seeking emotional closeness. I don't think they were involved long enough to develop that kind of closeness."

20. "My real mom would let me stay out past midnight!"

"Right now, we're not talking about my being 'real' or 'unreal,' we're talking about the fact that we're not going to make your curfew any later. We can talk about my reality as a parent another time."

A day or two later, you can say, "Remember when you were upset about your curfew the other day? I know you were angry with me when you implied that I'm not your 'real' mother. Now that we've calmed down, I am wondering if there's a question you'd like to ask me about your birthparents, or something you want to talk about. I know you think about them. What can I help you with?"

THE "HOW" OF ANSWERING QUESTIONS

The way you respond to your child's questions can matter as much, or more, than the words you use, especially for younger children. Start talking from an early age, to get used to saying words like "adopted" and "birthmother." Here are 10 guidelines for answering adoption questions.

    + Strike the right tone. Keep your voice positive and your body relaxed. You want to let your child know that adoption is a comfortable topic for you to discuss, and that you're happy about the way you became a family.

    + Play! This may be the easiest way for younger children to work out their feelings about adoption. Use dolls or other props. You can introduce a scenario (Barbie and Ken want to adopt a baby, a stuffed rabbit needs a mommy), but then follow your child's lead.

    + Clarify exactly what your child is asking. His questions may be simpler, or more complicated, than you think, and you want to be sure you're giving him the information that he seeks. A young child who asks, "Where did I come from?" may want to know where he was born, want to know how babies are made, or be curious about his birthparents.

    + Give yourself a chance to think. If you need a moment, repeat what your child asked. If you are still at a loss, it is OK to say, "That's a good question. I need to think about that a little bit. Let's talk about it after we get home, when I'm not driving the car."

    + Admit it when you don't have the facts. If you know little or nothing about how your child became available for adoption, you can say something like "We do know that many birthmothers have to place their children for adoption for the following reasons. [Offer reasons.] Maybe this is what happened to you."

    + Give your child your full attention--or not. If you're in the grocery store, move your cart to the side, get down to your child's level, and make eye contact. As children grow older, some have an easier time opening up when eye contact is not necessary. "Parallel" conversations--when you"re driving in the car, walking the dog, cooking together in the kitchen--can be productive times to talk about birthparents.

    + Be prepared to move on. Even the most intense questions children ask usually involve conversations that last less than 10 minutes (though they may seem longer at the time). When your child shows signs of moving on to a new task or new topic, let that happen.

    + Revisit the conversation. Children will ask the same question, in different forms, many times over the years. If you think of something important after the fact, you can say, "Remember when you asked _____? I thought about that a little more, and I wanted to tell you...."

    + Keep the discussion age-appropriate, but never lie. Since young children don't understand reproduction, telling them about unplanned pregnancy or rape won't make much sense. Reveal details as your child's understanding develops, but don’t say anything you'll have to later contradict. Keep in mind, however, that it's generally best to share all the information you know before the teen years, while your child will take it all matter-of-factly.

    + Drop a "pebble." If your child hasn't asked any questions recently, try to casually start a conversation. You might say, "I often think of your birthmother on Mother's Day; do you?" or "What do you think your birthfather looks like? I wonder if you got your long legs from him." A rule of thumb: If you can't remember the last time you talked about adoption, you're due for a talk.

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