adoptee's story

When There’s No Birth Parent Information to Share

Question:  For adoptive families who do not have contact with birth families due to a variety of situations — perhaps their child was adopted internationally or through a relinquished/closed domestic infant adoption, and they did not receive much if any info about the child’s birth family — what would you recommend for how to raise their child and talk about their adoption story, knowing that they do not know much about their child’s past and there is no contact with the birth family? What issues should parents and professional look out for, and how can we all best support these kids?

— Kim, adoption professional

open adoption advice

Guest advising today is Gayle Swift, founding member of GIFT, Growing Intentional Families Together. Gayle is an author, coach, and adoptive mom to two grown children.

Counterbalance Fantasy with a Cohesive Narrative

Dear Kim: It’s so great that you’re looking out for your clients and their children. As we know, children yearn to hear their story. They hunger for details—large and small—and seek affirmation of their pre-adoption life experiences. We must honor and share their journey.
filling in the adoptee's story when there's no birth parent information
When information about a child’s history is absent or incomplete, through a combination of detective work and supposition parents must piece together a cohesive narrative of the child’s pre-adoption life. In the absence of facts, children will develop fantasies. Wild fantasies. All kids do this but it may lock them in a negative perception and prevent them from moving forward. We must counterbalance their fantasy with their truth.  This can be done with compassion, respect, and validation for what our children have faced.

Release Shame with Light and Like

gayle swiftTalking about the people and events from their past helps children process early experiences and reduce shame. If not discussed, kids may assume it is too ugly, too shameful, or too much for the family to bear. Retelling their story helps them believe they didn’t deserve and aren’t defined by their past; that they are capable of becoming a loved member of their family; that they aren’t permanently tainted by this adversity; and that we can hear and know their truth and commit to nurturing them through it. We acknowledge and celebrate their capacity to survive. They are the heroes of their life story.

Beth O’Malley, MEd (adoptee/adoptive parent/adoption professional) wrote  Lifebooks: Creating a Treasure for the Adopted Child, which is filled with practical  suggestions, templates and sample pages for telling the child’s story. The lifebook differs from your child’s adoption story because it begins before the adoption. It is based on the facts—and/or the best suppositions of the circumstances—of your child’s life. (Clearly distinguish between facts and guesses. This avoids a breach in trust when the child discovers the fiction.) Create it as a family project. If documents and photographs aren’t available, illustrate the life book with pictures from magazines.

If you decide to place a positive spin on difficult circumstances and experiences, be careful not to invalidate the truth of  the child’s losses. Treat birth parents, relatives, or caretakers with respect. Distinguish them from any bad choices or actions.  Some international histories include abandonment. Mention how other countries have cultural practices and rules different from those in the US. Explain how difficult, unsafe circumstances, lack of resources, skills, family/friends to help their birth parents made it impossible to safely parent any child. Emphasize that it was not the child’s fault in any way.   For more on life books read Beth’s post on difficult adoption topics.

Children’s books showcase others who face similar circumstances and thus make kids feel less alone. Books are a powerful resource that should reflect your child’s particular experiences—or as close as is possible. For international adoptees consider Kids like Me in China by Ying Ying Fry and Three Names of Me by Mary Cummings. Both explore the cultural/political/economic factors that can result in a child’s adoption. They address them with empathy and without judgment.

Keep adoption books accessible so your child can raise the subject simply by plucking the book of their shelf. This is easier for them than asking permission to discuss difficult stuff. They can also revisit the book privately whenever they want. Kids need frequent reassurance that it’s okay to discuss adoption (including both gains and losses.) Parents should routinely suggest adoption books but tune into a child’s mood; never force adoption conversations.

Story telling connects a child to his entire story — the happy, sad and the ugly. Connecting with Kids through Stories  by Denise B. Lacher offers strategies for parents to become agents of healing their child through therapeutic narratives. Stories are told in the third person, through a character whose history mirrors the child’s actual life experiences. (This allows the child to listen and absorb the story without feeling threatened or judged.). Read more about this resource.

Finally, your relationship with your child is the most important thing. Even when the truth is painful either because of what is known or what remains unknown or unknowable, always be truthful.

Gayle is a co-founder of GIFT Family Services, an organization that provides coaching services to families before, during and after adoption. She writes two blogs: Growing Intentional Families Together,which discusses coaching strategies for adoptive parents, and Writing to Connect, which reviews books through an adoption-attuned lens. With her (adopted) daughter, Casey, Gayle co-authored the award-winning picture book, ABC, Adoption and Me: A Multicultural Picture Book. Look for Gayle on Twitter and Facebook.

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My 2 cents

Lori Holden, adoption authorShare What you Do Know. As Gayle suggests, give your child his/her story in an age-appropriate way, even if you’re delivering a difficult piece of it. Be as matter-of-fact as you can so that your own alarming emotions don’t bleed through. This requires you to identify and resolve your own triggers, as I so often recommend. Emphasize that you will keep your child safe and secure from now on. Forever.

Support your child while she grieves her loss. Whether your child is aggrieved by finding out something or by not being able to find out something, you can’t protect her from all sadness and hurt, nor should you. Instead, you abide. You support. You listen. You empathize. You uphold the probability of resilience. You connect.

The time may come when you can fill in the blanks. The Internet and advances in DNA technologies have made once-impossible connections possible. Your language should be tempered with phrases like, “for now we just don’t know” or “we don’t know what may come, but right now this is what we have.” Leave doors open for discovery.

See also: Withholding Information From Adopted Kids (see especially the comments)

Dear Readers, what say you?

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About this Open Adoption Advice Column

  • I may occasionally call on others to help with answers, to tap into group wisdom.
  • I am not trained as a therapist. Please do not rely on words in this space to make your own major or minor decisions.
  • Readers are encouraged to weigh in thoughtfully and respectfully. I ask everyone to remember that this is a teaching endeavor rather than a shaming endeavor, and that we aim to bring light rather than heat. It’s my belief that people do the best they can with what they have to work with, and our goal is to give folks more to work with.

Send in your own open adoption question. I’ll either offer an answer or find someone who can address your issue.

32 thoughts on “When There’s No Birth Parent Information to Share”

  1. My daughter was adopted from China as a 1-year-old. She is 18 today. I think it’s important to “look out for” your child’s developing attitude to being adopted, and that it’s not a good idea to impose one approach on all kids. Some kids are very hungry for information about their original families from the get-go; others evidence little interest or find the subject difficult to talk about. I don’t agree with those who advocate hovering over children, waiting for them to make some adoption-related comment and then turning it into A Major Event, getting out the books or telling the child that “you know” how she feels because you read X author. Let your child find his voice. And besides, your child’s relationship to his original parents (even if it remains in his head) is essentially his connection, not yours, so I think it’s always a good idea to step back when in doubt.

    Honesty first, of course (talk about adoption right away) and it’s also OK to say you don’t know certain things. My daughter was fostered for a year before she was adopted so we would often reprise the stories her foster mother had told about her, and she relished these. Unlike some adoptees, my daughter is comfortable talking about the day we became a family. Over the years she has asked me a lot about the time I actually spent in China with her, about the other babies and families in the group—what the experience was like and what she was like as a very young child. When she was not yet a teen we managed to reconnect with her foster family, and that was another piece of her history. Once she was in high school, we started to talk more seriously about the corruption that has permeated the China adoption system.

    You asked how such children should be raised. If it’s an international adoptee, one of the most important factors will be diversity of community. That’s something that you can try to do before you ever adopt. As kids grow and have the benefit of making friends with others in their own culture, they begin to claim their own identity, and while it will never be “as it would have been” in their country of origin, having this connection to identity and culture is pretty major given the absence of specific information about their families.

      1. Yes, it is important to allow your child’s voice to shine. I believe parents must be intentional about ensuring that they reassure their children that they are open to all of their feelings–the happy, the sad, the angry, the grieving and the curious.

  2. We had domestic open adoptions–open with extended family–that included difficult birthparent realities and an unknown birthfather. I want to second Lori’s reminder to get past our own triggers so that we can be alert to our children’s needs when talking to them.

    A related thing that I fully grasped later than I should have is that although our children are entitled to all the truth we know about their own stories, our friends and family are not. In the process of working through my own thoughts, and my grief on behalf of the kids for what they would have to learn eventually, I told friends information I later wished I had kept private.

    And that brings up another dilemma I had when trying to determine appropriate ages to divulge difficult information. There were parts of the story that I didn’t tell my children when I thought they probably were ready personally, because I didn’t want them to tell kids at school who didn’t have the same support and preparation to deal with it. I’m a teacher and well aware of the hurtful ways other children can use sensitive information. I still don’t know if I got that balance right but playground interactions were causing enough hardship already. I didn’t want to provide more ammunition.

    Something I wasn’t expecting was the level of anger my children felt toward their birthmother as they learned more about her history and as they realized that she was choosing not to have contact with them. This was middle school age for them, and they were in that right/wrong, black/white stage of passionate early adolescent morality. They were also mad at me for not judging her as harshly as they did. The best I could do was to allow them their feelings, try to give them some context, but also encourage them to hold a little space in their minds where they might think differently as they got older. It’s terrible to think of the person who brought you into the world as uncaring and bad. As adults, and now that they have spent time with her, they do see her not as a monster but as a troubled person who was dealt a tough hand.

    In general, I think if we proceed by keeping in mind that our children are entitled to all the truth we have, and that we need to prepare the way for it rather than save everything up for a big reveal on some magic future day “when they’re ready,” we will mostly do ok.

    One more thing–it’s true that “in the absence of facts children will develop fantasies.” But I don’t think it’s true that these fantasies are always negative. In the aftermath of those classic exchanges that went “You’re not my real mom,” answered by “Well I’m the mom in this house,” we would sometimes play around with “real mom” fantasies. I would tell them my idea of the perfect parent when I was a kid (the lady next door who let me read comic books and chew gum at her house) and ask them what their perfect “real mom” would be like. I learned a lot from their answers about what they yearned for, and they learned, I hope, that it was safe to let me know I didn’t fulfill their every need and desire.

    1. In an effort to elicit empathy and support for our kids, adoptive parents often over-share information with friends and family; thank you for sharing that piece of your information. As you experienced, once shared, information cannot be retracted. Just as you mentioned, children can use information to hurt, bully, denigrate or control. Unfortunately, adults can sometimes be equally brutal.

      1. That raises a good point, but as an adoptee I don’t think there is any excuse to withhold information from the child. Oversharing with friends or family, while undersharing with the child for fear he or she will share it with their own friends, can lead to the child hearing parts of his/her story from someone else and accusing you of keeping secrets. Adopted kids may have issues that make us vulnerable to bullying (from other kids or teachers), and when we don’t feel safe at home, when we feel we can’t trust our caregivers, we aren’t likely to tell them what’s going on.

        1. Jodi, I agree; it is essential that adoptees be provided their truth. First,because it is their story and it belongs to them. They should not be the only one who does not know their story.
          Second, to withhold information opens the possibility that the child will feel betrayed by the adoptive parents and will question what else has been hidden form them, what else is a lie. In general, children should know the facts of their story prior to adolescence.

          1. Agreed. The most important thing is that this is the adoptee’s info. It doesn’t really belong to you, the adoptive parent; it has only been entrusted to you.

  3. A terrific reminder about caretaking our children’s stories until they are wholly able to manage them. I have the image of a toothpaste tube. The gel goes only one way, and we must be mindful that we allow our kids to do most of the squeezing (or not, if they choose).

    And I see the dilemma you mention. How to help your son/daughter keep from squeezing too hard, too much, too soon when they may not yet understand the implications of doing so.

    I also see that sometimes a child will WANT you to be angry with his birth parent alongside him. Hmmmm…..I’ll be thinking on that.

  4. As an adoptee, I’d advise being on alert for ways you try to control the narrative. I understand that parents do not want their children to be sad or angry or upset, but watch for ways that you might be shutting those moments down and telling your child that she shouldn’t feel that way.

    My mother is of the “put on a happy face!” school of positive thinking, and even though we are both adults now, I learned as a child (and then again when I entered reunion) that I cannot share with her my negative thoughts or emotions. This is a big roadblock in our relationship, one she doesn’t see, and knowing it is there (and, in retrospect, always has been) hurts.

    1. Yan, thanks for sharing this piece of your experience. When an adoptive parent telegraphs that they are unable or unwilling to hold their child’s pain as well as their joy, it does not heal the pain. This “off limits” message sends the child’s authentic emotions underground and a wall grows in the relationship between child and parent.

  5. Coming from the adoptee side of things, I would say that having a person(s) who understands where you are coming from in terms of loss, rejection, etc. is so so helpful. It’s hard to completely grieve when no one is validating your feelings.
    Also, personally speaking, I know it can be very difficult to speak up and release the emotions I have keep pent up inside as an adoptee, but the more I share my heart, the more I find myself feeling healed. When we speak of our guilt and/or shame, it can be brought into the light of God’s grace and truth and we can find wholeness in Him. I would also say having no info about my birth parents causes me to really go to Christ to find my identity. That is the identity (or lack thereof) that will ultimately matter in the end.

    Thanks for the post and sharing your thoughts through this blog. 🙂
    God bless.

    1. I encourage parents to approach their children’s pain & grief not as something to be cured, hidden or denied but as something to be recognized and which the child is capable of handling.

  6. “It’s hard to completely grieve when no one is validating your feelings.”

    I think I am only beginning to understand the healing power of empathy. When that short clip from Brene Brown first came out (I linked to it in the post under the word “empathize”) I was seeing empathy as a way to connect with a hurting friend. The same video was shared with me recently at an Adoption Camp and of course I’m seeing how helpful it can be in connecting with my t(w)eens, in validating their feelings.

  7. I believe the fantasy is probably a vital part of a child’s growth.

    Everyone fantasizes. As adoptees in closed and/or international adoptions we have unique oppportunities to fantasize about someone who played a major part in our lives though we didn’t know her.

    Realizing the truth or as much of the truth as possible is also a vital part.

    An aside–it’s fascinating how it’s always our birth mother we dream about. I called my birth father the sperm donor long before I ever heard that expression

    1. I was speaking to a class of social workers when one gentleman asked why most of my information focused on the birth mother. He was distressed, suggested that I was minimizing the birth father’s role. Like you, the bulk of adoptees with whom I have spoken evidence much less interest and emotional charge towards their birth father.
      What has been the experience of other readers?

      1. I was much more interested in finding my father. My mother, not so much. As it turned out, my father’s sister brought me over in a closed international adoption when I was almost 2. I remembered my father; I had called him Daddy; I wanted to reconnect with him. Unfortunately, I grew up with none of my own story. My aunt didn’t even tell me she was my aunt until I was 12. There is a huge difference between being unable to share information you don’t have, and choosing not to share information you do have. I had lived with my grandparents for about a year prior to my aunt taking me. I eventually found that out from my mother. I think part of the reason I still call them my aunt & uncle (she is now deceased) in spite of the adoption is because I was denied my own voice, my own narrative, my power to choose my own language for so long. I understand that not every adoptive parent has access to the child’s story, but it would be important to find out as much as you can prior to adopting. And be honest. It’s normal to fantasize, but finding out that your adoptive guardians knew your truth all along is devastating to a child’s trust issues.

        1. I’m sad that you experienced this kind of “omission.” You have direct knowledge of how painful it can be. Plus, it undermines your ability to trust your own intuition and/or non-verbal memories. It destroys trust in a particularly painful way. Thank you for sharing your experience so that others can learn from it.

  8. As an adoptee, Kim’s great question got me thinking :). Could it have made a difference if my adoptive mother had read such helpful advice/suggestions as Gayle and you shared? I am not even sure with my parent’s generation if you were just expected to know what you were doing when it came to raising an adopted child, or perhaps with mine both being in the medical field that the two of them thought they had all the answers. I know my adoptive mother must have felt very inadequate and threatened by her four sisters who had such large (natural) families. Unfortunately, I have a lot of ugly parts in my adoption story which didn’t miraculously get much better or different after being placed for adoption. If I would have had a healthier/trusting relationship with my adoptive mother, would have I wanted her to be the one to tell me my mother had passed away when I was a little girl? As adoptive parents, I can’t imagine how hard it would be to have to tell your child even the ugly parts of their beginnings. But having to learn on my own as an adult adoptee and finding out that my parents did know some of the truths has made my journey/struggles much more difficult. I needed someone while growing up to “story tell” and connect me to the entire story — the happy, sad and the ugly.

    1. JoAnne, ideally, adoptive parents would begin early to plant the seeds of a difficult story. This means sharing age-appropriate information that does not have to be contradicted in the future. Instead, the elaboration adds details as a child is able to cope with them. It is a painful privilege that adoptive parents face as they carefully craft a slow road to their child’s complete story. They can do it with compassion and commitment to being the safe harbor to which the child can seek comfort.

  9. In theory, I agree with much that has been said above: empathizing with the loss that adoptees suffer, accepting that different adoptees with have differing level of interest, accepting that the adoptee is the “owner” of his/her story and should be allowed to manage it as desired, etc. However, I would submit that all of these are bandaid solutions for the gun-shot-wound of closed adoption. There is no substitute for real answers.

    Considering the determined perseverance, time, effort and money that many prospective adoptive parents are willing to devote to adopting a child, I am astounded at the acceptance and inertia they demonstrate when faced with the obliteration of the adoptee’s history. If adoption is really supposed to meet the best interests of the child, adoptive parents must devote the same perseverance, time, effort and money to finding those real answers. Similarly, adoption professionals should devote the same amount of professionalism to facilitating the search for real answers.

    To best support adoptees, as a society, we should fight for adoptees’ human rights. We should demand the civil right of Open Records For All. We should act to dismantle the systems and processes that perpetuate the seemingly impenetrable opacity of closed adoption. We should even go so far as to boycott closed adoptions. To do any less is to accept a world in which adoptees do not receive treatment equal to that enjoyed by the non-adopted.

    Again, bottom line: there is no substitute for real answers.

    1. Thank you for this comment. I have searched actively for information about by daughter’s origins but I have also heard adoptees say that a-parents should not be involved in this process. It’s interesting to hear another view. As for the inertia on the part of some adoptive parents, I agree with you.

      1. I would add a caveat: if an adoptee asserts boundaries around his adoption, they should be respected. For example, if they are not ready/interested in birth family contact, their choice should be honored with the reassurance that the (adoptive) parents will support the adoptee whether/ if he/she changes their position.

        1. It’s actually a little more complicated than that with international adoption, especially when the foreign government is colluding to keep certain facts secret. I have experienced this secrecy myself. My position is that we can be information collectors because we may be in a unique position to gather certain details or make certain connections, many of which could be lost if not acted upon immediately. But what is done with the info should be up to the adoptee.

  10. I like your point that the time may come when you can fill in the blanks; that things are always changing and to hopefully help your child fill in those blanks.

    A friend is going through an enormously frustrating situation where she can’t get her birth father’s name from her birth mother, and I want to scream on her behalf. It’s her story. When the information can be given, it should be given.

    1. Mel:
      It is hard to bear witness to another’s pain. The challenge is to validate their experience without minimizing and/or inflaming. Simply be “with” her; let her take the lead and affirm her as a person.

  11. Being with other adoptee’s helps more than I’d expect even the most aware parent…because they are truly the only ones who are also living with zero information…

    I would suggest that only facts be provided along with what the societal mores are that may have played a role…rather than suppositions because over time those suppositions can be seen as facts and can come back to haunt you. At least that’s what mom and dad did, they explained how and what society dictated…

    And I did have fantasies – and, turns out the picture in my head of the home where my family of birth lived was pretty spot on…even to having the driveway be a slight incline…I think we remember more than we realize…

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