Q: “We’re close with our four-year-old’s birth mother, Lisa, but we’ve never met the birth dad 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 birth mother, 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 birth father, as well as a birth mother. 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 birth parents 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, “birth mother.” Ideally, of course, she would have a relationship with both birth parents.
Sharing what you know
You are not alone in lacking information about your daughter’s birth father. Many families have open adoptions with their child’s birth mother, but have what are, in fact, closed adoptions with the birth father. 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 birth father? 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 birth father. 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 birth mother for help when they were unable to answer his questions. Because the birth mother was involved in his life, she could see for herself that Ryan needed to know about his birth father. She located the birth father and arranged for contact. Ryan corresponded with him for some time, and later they met in person.
If you are not able to locate the birth father 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 birth parents. It’s true that questions about the birth mother usually surface first — after all, they grew in her tummy. But that curiosity will be followed soon by a need to know about the birth father. As a parent, you must anticipate that need.