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Birds, Bees, and Adoption

“Where do babies come from?” Explaining reproduction is tough for all parents, and it’s even more complex for us. Here's age-by-age advice to guide your talks.

by Marybeth Lambe, M.D.

When our daughter was six years old, she asked me, “Where do I come from?”

“Georgia,” I replied. “You were born in Atlanta.”

“No,” she was louder now. “Where do I come from?”

You are probably quicker than I in realizing that she was not asking for a geography lesson; rather, she wanted to understand her origins. Her next question sealed it: “Was I made from sex?”

Even though I had covered this territory with her older siblings, I’m embarrassed to admit that I remain squeamish about such discussions. Many of you probably feel the same. It is hard to know exactly what to say and how to say it. Nevertheless, honest talk about sex is critical to children. As parents, we want to be sure they feel at ease in coming to us for candid responses. As they grow, we want them to turn to us, without shame or awkwardness, for help in understanding their bodies and their sexuality. If we do not talk to our kids about sex, someone else will.

For children who were adopted, honesty is particularly important. Our children did not come from an adoption agency. They did not come from an airplane. They need to know they were conceived and born like every other child before they were adopted into their forever families. Sometimes their story of origin is uncertain, or includes painful details, but it must be told—in age-appropriate fashion—if we are to have credibility as they grow.

When your child is old enough to ask questions, she is old enough for straightforward answers. Even if the way your child asks sex-related questions makes you want to grin, you’ll want to avoid laughing at all costs—if you do, your child will feel embarrassed and avoid further discussions.

If your child reaches age seven and has not asked questions, or seems uninterested in talking about sex, you may need to initiate the discussion. Try to find apt moments—perhaps a television show will provide an opening, or a song on the radio. Perhaps a neighbor or the mother of one of your child’s friends has a swelling belly. Adopted kids may have questions but be hesitant to ask them. Some worry about seeming disloyal if they ask about their birthparents. Some sense their parents’ anxiety about such topics or assume that, if they are supposed to know, we will tell them. Look for opportunities to open the conversation.

One Talk Isn't Enough
There’s a lot of talk about having “the big talk,” but reproduction should be addressed in a series of discussions throughout our children’s lives. Some questions need a two-minute chat, while other topics, particularly as children grow up, require a longer give-and-take. While kids don’t need discourses about every detail, they do need to hear about basic values and to have their questions answered again and again.

Our goal is to keep our children away from unhealthy relationships, one-night stands, and casual sex—to protect them from sexual and emotional abuse for which ignorance leaves them vulnerable. We want them to develop healthy, loving relationships, and to understand that their bodies are sacred, and something to be cared for. This can’t be achieved in one talk, but through years of open, honest discussions. Age-by-Age Discussions Ages Three to Six: How are babies made? Where did I come from?

Age-by-Age Discussions

How are babies made?
Where did I come from?

When a young child asks a question, it’s a good idea to find out why. “If a child asks, ‘What do mommies and daddies do to make a baby?’ a parent could ask, ‘What made you bring that up?’ or, ‘What do you think happens?’” suggests Doug Goldsmith, Ph.D., executive director of The Children’s Center, in Salt Lake City. “This helps parents explore what is going on in the mind of the child.” If they know what prompted the question, they can give more focused answers.

Simple, short answers are best: “It takes a man and a woman to make a baby. Babies grow inside their mommies, in a special place called a uterus, until they are ready to be born.” Don’t use cute or made-up terms. Your child can learn correct anatomic language: penis, vagina, breasts, nipples, uterus. It’s vital to include the birthfather, from these early discussions on. Your child needs to understand that he was created from a man and a woman, just like any other baby.

A child at this age may not retain, or even fully understand, the information you offer. He may ask the same questions repeatedly. Just as preschoolers do not fully grasp the concept of adoption and their own adoption story, so it is with understanding sex. It is imperative to keep explanations simple and concise.

If a child wants to know more, he’ll ask. If his question seems too mature, or if he asks for details you feel he is not yet ready for, it is fine to reply: “That’s a very good question, and we plan to talk about it with you when you are a little older, when we know you will understand.”

After hearing your explanation, your preschooler may ask, “Did I grow in your uterus?” Many adopted children express sadness because they lacked this ultimate closeness with their moms. It is important to be clear that he was created by a birthmother and birthfather, and was carried in his birthmother’s uterus. Then, you can empathize, saying, “I wish you’d been in my uterus, too.”

Children this age are often more interested in birth than conception, so that’s what your talk can focus on. Because adopted children sometimes feel they were born “unnaturally,” it’s critical that they know that they entered the world as all babies do. If you were at the hospital for, or witnessed, your child’s birth, give a simple account of that day. Otherwise, explain in general terms what happens when a baby is born. Speaking about your child’s birth sets the stage for discussion about why he was placed for adoption, and helps him understand that his origins include his birthparents. Repeated over the years, this confirms for him that it is acceptable and good to talk about his history.

What does it mean to have sex?
What was it like when I was born?

At this age, kids become curious about the mechanics of sex. Your explanation might be: “A man and a woman lie close together and feel loving toward each other. The man’s penis fits inside the woman’s vagina. That’s called sexual intercourse.” Beyond the mechanics, discussions should touch on sexuality in general—which includes relationships and gender orientation, as well as sexual intercourse.

Be prepared for a reaction of disgust or embarrassment. Let your child know this is natural and common, and that she will feel differently as she grows older. School-age children need time to digest information and to ask more questions. This is also the time to begin imparting your own family values, such as abstinence. In addition, you can reinforce the idea that sex is a positive and wonderful experience, and that making love is a profound bond between two people.

Children who were adopted frequently say that they were “hatched” or born in a non-natural way. This is particularly true if their life stories have been told beginning with the first meeting or “gotcha day,” rather than with conception and birth. Your grade-schooler needs to be reminded and reassured that she was born just as every other child is born—that her birth was normal and was not the reason she was placed for adoption. If you know the specific details of your child’s birth, share them with her. If this piece of her story is unknown, the likely circumstances can be told: “You were probably born in a hospital….”

Discussing conception and genetics can help make the birthparents more tangible for school-aged children. “Your birthfather’s sperm and your birthmother’s egg combined inside her uterus to form an embryo. Your birthmother contributed half of your physical traits—you have the same blue eyes and brown hair—and your birthfather contributed the other half.”

At this age your child will be interested in the idea of relationships—and may want to know whether her birthparents were married. A child born out of wedlock may want to know whether this makes her different from, or inferior to, her friends. If you avoid the tough questions, or seem hesitant to answer them, you communicate that her queries are painful to you or make you uncomfortable. The questions will stop coming, and your child will be left feeling that talk of sex or adoptive history is taboo. It is important to be honest.

Did my birthparents love each other?
How old was my birthmom when I was born?

You and your child have probably been engaging in discussions about sex since early childhood. Even if you haven’t, it’s not too late to start. Teenagers, however, almost never initiate such conversations, so it’s up to you. Now is the time for dialogue about contraception, abstinence, date rape, and other important subjects.

Remember that sexual behavior is not an inherited trait. If your child’s birthmother got pregnant when she was not married, this does not mean that your child will. If you have such fears, examine them honestly, and don’t communicate them to your child. Reinforce the family values you’ve been imparting all along. The fact that you want your daughter to wait until she is an adult, or even until she is married, before becoming sexually active reflects your values and choices for your family. It’s not about her birthmother. If your tone implies that your child came from “bad people,” you may set up a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which she resents your judgment and rebels by acting out sexually.

When our children ask tough questions, we must remember that they may handle the answers better than we would! Sexual education is about helping our children learn how to build relationships and experience intimacy. It is about protecting them from unwanted attention or abuse. As adoptive parents, we should teach them that their birth is about more than a simple sex act. Let them know that they had a valid and treasured history before joining your family.

Marybeth Lambe is a family physician and writer who lives with her family in Washington.




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