Six-year-old Michael wants to call his birth father in Texas and ask why he didn’t keep him.
Eight-year-old Rachel asks her mother, “Did I look funny when I was born? There must have been something wrong with me.”
Nine-year-old Suzanne wants to know whether her birth mother has freckles like she does.
All three of these school-age kids are thinking about their birth parents. Their questions and behavior are typical of this age but often surprise adoptive parents. Even when the joyous adoption story has been comfortably and frequently discussed during the preschool years, the reality of the poignant (and pointed) questions of seven- or eight-year-olds can be painful for parents to hear.
It makes sense that kids this age would try to understand what it means to have been placed for adoption and why it happened to them. Lois Melina, author of Raising Adopted Children and Making Sense of Adoption, points out that this is the age when children consider life and death, when school exposes them to all kinds of families and they become acutely aware of their own. So, although adoption may seem less important than activities such as soccer or scouts, a lot of thinking about it is usually going on under the surface.
“Just a couple of weeks ago, my daughter said she wanted to know what her birth mother looked like,” says Charise, the adoptive mom of an eight-year-old. Elementary school children typically want to know who their birth families are, what they look like, where they live.
Even children who never talk about adoption are probably wondering about their birth parents. Ronny Diamond runs group sessions for adopted kids ages seven to 13 for Spence-Chapin in New York City. She tells of one session in which “a significant number of parents thought their children didn’t think much about their birth parents,” says Diamond. Having just been with their kids, the group leader reported to parents that all the children wondered about their birth parents and wished they knew more about them.
Set the Stage
As it turns out, Diamond says, “although preschoolers may know their adoption stories and tell them with pride, verbatim, they don’t understand them.” Nonetheless, early discussions lay the groundwork for questions that will emerge in the school years. Some parents are very comfortable talking about the joy and beauty of adoption but shy away from mentioning birth parents.
If you are comfortable, talk about your child’s birth parents in a natural and casual way from the earliest age. For example, toddlers love to admire themselves in the mirror. It would be natural to say, “You have such pretty eyes. I wonder if your birth mom has eyes like that?”
A four-year-old’s “mommy” games will often lead her to ask, “Did I grow inside your tummy, Mommy?” This is the opportunity for parents to tell their child that she grew inside her birth mother, just as all children grow inside a woman, and that she was born, just like other children.
This is also the time to set the stage for adoption talk by distinguishing between giving birth to a baby and being able to care for one. Parents can explain to the child that, after she was born, her birth mother could not raise her, so she made a plan for her adoption.
What’s important to underscore is that it was the birth parents’ situation, not anything the child did, that led to his adoption, that a child be told specifically that his birth parents would not have been able to care for any child.
What Are You Really Asking?
Despite lots of early talk, most adoptive parents are caught off-guard by the tough questions of their seven- or eight-year-old. My own daughter asked repeatedly, “Why, Mommy, why?”
Before you answer specific questions, try to find out what your child is thinking. In the case of a nine-year-old who asks to see her birth mother, Melina asks, “Is she asking, ‘Do I look like my birth mother?’ Is she saying she has something she needs to know or to tell her?” Resist a quick answer that ends the dialogue. Instead, use the opening as an opportunity to learn what your child is thinking and worrying about.
Ronny Diamond adds, “When a child says, ‘Can I call my birth mother?’ that’s not a literal request. She may mean ‘I want to know more about this person.’ That’s an opening. Ask, ‘What do you think she’d be like? What would you say to her? What do you think she might say to you?’ There are many places you can go with a question like that.”
Most children have questions about why their birth parents decided on adoption. It’s important that your child talk about these questions. Suggest that she write a letter to her birth mother asking the questions on her mind.
If you are in a semi-open or open adoption, providing answers to these questions is often all that’s necessary to satisfy a child’s curiosity. For those children for whom there are no answers, sending a letter to the adoption agency or orphanage may help.
Despite parents’ assurances to the contrary, children this age are self-centered and may decide that they were placed for adoption because of something they did. It’s usually not enough to simply assure them that this isn’t the case. Parents should share as many facts as possible to help children come to more reasonable conclusions on their own.
If you have no information about your child’s birth family, don’t assume there isn’t much to talk about. Adopted children with no information have as much curiosity as those in open or semi-open adoptions. And they need just as much support in thinking it through and asking the all-important question, “why?”
“Adoptive parents often feel concerned that they have little or no information,” says Ellen Singer, of the Center for Adoption Support and Education in Silver Spring, Maryland. “But you can help a child understand the circumstances or governmental policies that might have led a birth parent to make an adoption plan. It is important to acknowledge that it may feel unfair.”
Don’t forget that your job is to provide your child with as much information as you can and then let her come to her own conclusions. Says Diamond, “Parents are not supposed to make it neat and tidy. Children have to keep figuring it out and revisiting it.
Fantasies and Sadness
Patricia Martinez Dorner, an adoption professional in Texas and author of How to Open an Adoption, notes that kids often wonder what their lives would have been like had they not been adopted.
Dorner says, “Some children imagine that life would have been perfect if only they lived with their perfect birth parents.” Dorner notes that these feelings are normal and may emerge as sadness or anger over adoption.
Parents should remind themselves that these feelings have nothing to do with a child’s love for her adoptive parents. If anything, school-age kids need more reminders than ever that adoption is forever. Internationally adopted children may benefit from a homeland trip as a way to cope with fantasies about life in another family. Mostly, parents need to let kids know that it’s okay to feel sad (or angry or worried), a difficult task for any parent, and even more so for those of us for whom adoption has brought such joy.
Don’t Give Up
Often opportunities to talk with your child crop up unexpectedly. “It’s usually when you’re not even discussing adoption,” says Melissa, mother of a nine-year-old in a semi-open adoption. “It’s something they have been chewing on.”
Adds Diamond, “If you miss an opportunity, bring it up at another time. If you blow it, go back and try again later.” This can be difficult and emotional. No parent handles every query perfectly and seizes every opportunity. But a commitment to listen and to support your child will go a long way in helping her deal with one of the most complex issues she will ever confront.