Q: I adopted my nine-year-old daughter from foster care three years ago. She has been asking me about her birth mother and I was able to find her on social media. She posts about her “partying” lifestyle and I’m worried about sharing these pictures with my daughter. We have a tumultuous relationship, and I’m terrified she may see her birth mother as younger and much more “fun-loving” than I. I’m also concerned about potential substance abuse as my daughter gets older, as she was born exposed to drugs and addictive tendencies run in her birth family.
A: Talking with children about their birth family is often uncomfortable for adoptive parents, but vitally important. Children DO have many questions about their birth parents, and it is very positive that despite your “tumultuous relationship,” your daughter trusts you enough to come to you with her questions. You are on the right track for trying to find information to share, and your concerns about what to share are completely understandable. What is most important is your relationship with your daughter. You want to continue to foster her trust in you, and that means learning how to be open and honest with her, even about difficult subjects like substance abuse.
Children often have many questions about their birth family as they are trying to make sense of why they were adopted; for your daughter—why she went into foster care and needed to be raised by another family. The challenge is how to tell the truth about her birth mother’s difficulties while conveying messages of compassion about her birth mother. Children cannot feel “worthy” if they perceive their birth family in only a negative light. Try to get past your fears of your daughter viewing her birth mother as “fun-loving.” You may be able to explain to your daughter that from what you understand, her mother is a good person who has made decisions around substance use (what you refer to as her “partying lifestyle”) that made it impossible for her birth mother to take care of a child, and that is why she is with you. (I would add that, while you are sad for her that she could not be raised in her birth family, you are so deeply happy that she is your daughter.) As she gets older, you will have to educate your daughter about genetic pre-disposition to substance addiction, emphasizing her ability to make very different choices about substance use.
You should not feel compelled to show inappropriate photos to your daughter. It would be great if you could find one that could be appropriate, perhaps with some cropping. I also suggest that you invite your daughter to share her questions and answer what you can. You may want to offer to try to find more information if you are able. These conversations provide the important opportunity for your daughter to express her feelings. Her story and loss of birth mother may leave her feeling sad, angry, confused, etc. She may also feel that her adoption makes more sense to her. Encourage her to express any and all feelings, and make it clear that all are acceptable. You will be there to acknowledge and validate her feelings and provide comfort, which is so beneficial for your relationship. Know that it’s also possible your daughter will direct her anger at her birth mother at you; if you can be strong enough to accept this, your daughter may be able to get past this and accept that you will always be a source of support and love.
Finally, I highly recommend, Telling the Truth to your Adopted or Foster Child, by Jayne Schooler. It is an excellent resource for sharing difficult information at different developmental stages.