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Ask AF - Your Questions About Birth Mothers

Adoption experts answer questions about sharing sensitive information with your child, navigating risky birth parent contact, and more.

by Regina M. Kupecky, Joni Mantell, and Vicki Peterson

 

Have a question? Ask our panel of experts.

When Contact Seems Risky

Q:Our nine- and 12-year-old daughters have the same birthmother. She's been in and out of their lives, but now she's back on drugs. Is it more damaging for children to have contact with a birthmother in this state or for the birthmom to be out of the picture entirely?

A:Ken Watson said, "Fantasy flourishes where facts flounder." If they do not see her, they will be thinking about her and trying to figure it out. They may blame you, or think she doesn't care anymore, or that she is dead. The truth is always best, and you can help your kids process it together. You might start the conversation by saying, "Your birthmom called. She isn't doing well. I know you know something about drug abuse from school. I am afraid she is making bad choices and using drugs. Would you like to see her? Dad and I will be with you, to be sure you are safe." They may or may not want to. If you plan a visit, you should have more talks with your kids about drug abuse, so they know that their birthmom is making choices that are not good for her. She may be OK at the time of the visit, or she may not be. It would be best to meet in a public place, so that your home remains a safe place. If you feel it is not safe for the children to see her right now, tell them that and explain why.
--Regina M Kupecky, LSW

Acting Out After Birthmother Visits

Q:We have open adoptions for our five-year-old daughter and 10-month-old son. Lately, our daughter has been making comments like, "I was in my birthmom's tummy, but I chose to come to my mom and dad." Also, during the last two visits with her birthmom, she hit me and talked back to me. This behavior is atypical for her. What could be going on?

A:Your daughter is right on target in trying to put the pieces of her story together, and you are seeing how complex and difficult it is for young kids to understand adoption. On one hand, your daughter states that she "chose to come to her mom and dad," and, on the other hand, she is acting out during her visits with her birthmother. I think she's expressing confusion about her story -- and about whose choice the adoption really was. While she seems to prefer thinking it was her choice, witnessing her brother's recent adoption may have brought home the fact that babies are not decision makers. And it makes sense to express her upset feelings toward you, since you are the mom she knows, loves, and feels most comfortable with. No reason to take it personally. What she needs from you is some help with her confusion about how adoption works.
Add some age-appropriate pieces to whatever you have told her, with an emphasis on helping her to understand why her birthmother chose not to parent. Be sure to emphasize that adoption plans are made due to grown-up circumstances, not because anything is wrong with the child.
-- Joni Mantell, LCSW
Director of the Infertility & Adoption Counseling Center (iaccenter.com)

What Do We Tell Our Teen?

Q:Our daughter's birthmother committed suicide several years ago. We've never told our daughter, who's now 13 and in a rebellious phase. I just read something that said you should tell your children whatever you know about their adoptions before the teen years, but we can't go back in time to do so. Should we tell her now, or wait until she's older?

A: Yes, adoption professionals do advise parents to tell a child about her adoption at a young age. However, it is OK to wait until a child is a young adult before revealing extremely difficult or emotionally charged information.
As you know, adolescence is a hard time. Teens are dealing with developmental changes and questions of identity. Learning that her birthmother committed suicide is likely to add more stress than a teenager could manage in a healthy way.
Don't get me wrong -- parents should never lie or fabricate a story. If your daughter's been pushing to learn more about her birthmother, you could say that you've learned that, sadly, her birthmother has died. I don't think you need to talk about the suicide before your child is ready to handle it. An exception to this may be made if you think the child might learn about this on her own or from others.
If you do wait until your daughter is in her late teens or early twenties, begin by explaining your reasons for waiting. Before the conversation, it might be helpful for you to speak with a therapist who is familiar with adoption.
-- Vicki Peterson, LICSW
Emeritus executive director, Wide Horizons for Children, Waltham, Massachusetts

Assuming Friends Were Adopted

Q:When my five-year-old plays with his friends, he talks about his birthmom and asks them who their birthmoms are. Why is he asking this? What should we say?

A:Your son's assumption that all children were adopted is typical of young children's egocentric perspective -- if he was adopted, all children must be adopted. But five-year-olds can begin to understand that families are formed in different ways. Talk about this, using his friends' families as examples: "All children are born. Then some are adopted, like you, and some live with their birthparents, like your friend, Dave."
If you're worried about your child's conversations with his friends, remember that his statements are over their heads. As your son gets older, he will become more aware of what he is saying, to whom, how they react, and how he wants to deal with that.
-- Joni Mantell, LCSW


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