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adoption privacy vs secrecy

Where is the Oversharing Line in Our Adoption Stories?

Question: I just read your article and am an adoptive mom to a beautiful 10 month old boy named Quinton. We have a good relationship with the birth parents and have stayed connected though we reside across the country from them.

We tell almost everyone that Quinton is adopted, often because people exclaim how much he looks like both me and my husband. We feel no shame and only gratitude and pride in and for this beautiful child. But your article gave me pause — is this not my story to tell? Are you saying we should let him reveal that he was adopted to who he wants to rather than us telling them before he’s even ready to understand?

We believe so strongly in the concept of open adoption, that it is better for everyone involved if he grows up without a secret and knowing that we ALL made a loving choice for him to be raised by us.

But I see how this could be seen as me telling his story rather than my own. I mean, it is my story, too, but it certainly isn’t mine alone.


adoption privacy vs secrecy

Privacy Rather than Secrecy

I and so many other adoptive parents can so relate to this issue, Amanda. Many proud moms and dads — especially ones who weathered infertility and uncertainty and finally arrived at parenthood — are so relieved to finally have their dream come true that they share excitedly with others HOW the dream came true.

Yours is a common feeling and a natural response.

It’s healthy that you feel no shame in the story of how your family came together, for nothing good comes of shame in adoption. That’s a win for you and Quinton, and that’s why you’re not dealing with a secrecy issue but a privacy issue.

Which means we must be mindful and purposeful with what we share and with whom. Parents find the line between sharing and oversharing when they cultivate a practice of discernment. That’s just a fancy way of saying that you decide what and whom to tell. Each time.

When You Feel the Urge to Squeeze…

It can be difficult when our kids are babies and toddlers, completely dependent on our judgment for everything, to foresee that eventually they will become their own person. And this person will have his own ideas and preferences about who knows his story, how and when it’s shared. We can’t possibly know this in the early years.

We are caretakers of the story. And the story is like toothpaste. You know, something that never goes back in the tube.

Whenever you have the urge to squeeze, ask yourself:

  • Does this person need to know? The answer to this can be yes for myriad reasons. It could also be no for myriad reasons. The point is to think it through.
  • Why are you wanting to tell? Is it to help your child in some way? Or perhaps to feel special yourself? I’m not saying either is “good” or “bad.” The point is, again, to think it through and examine your motivation.
  • Might there be any repercussions from telling — not just immediate, but long-term? Take a moment to think it through from your son’s perspective in 5, 10, 15 years.

Avoid the Blurt

These moments of discernment will help you become aware of the razor-thin line between your son’s story and yours, if indeed they can be extricated from each other. This way you make a conscious decision about telling. The opposite of a conscious decision to tell is an accidental blurt. If it’s any comfort, I know of very few adoptive moms not guilty of this on occasion, especially in the early years.

There’s a spectrum of sharing about adoption stories. Some parents tell no one because of shame (around infertility, for example). Some tell everyone because they haven’t yet developed a filter. In between are decisions you’ll make over time by asking yourself the questions above. Doing so will help you best balance the present and future needs of your child and discover which part of the story is free for you to tell.

I’m presenting a free webinar next month on this topic for the Embryo Adoption Awareness Center. Here is the recording if you’d like to explore  this issue further.

Bottom line: Sharing versus oversharing? Take time to discern the difference.

See also:

Dear Readers, what say you?


About this Open Adoption Advice Column

  • I 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. 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.

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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18 Responses

  1. We are proud to be parents through adoption. We only mention it to family, close friends, school, and babysitters. No one else needs to know and when our boys grow up, they can decide who they want to tell.

  2. This topic is a good one for all who are parenting. The idea that we focus on our end of the story, but not on the child’s. Something definitely worth considering.

    1. Christy wrote:
      “This topic is a good one for all who are parenting. The idea that we focus on our end of the story, but not on the child’s.”

      I think this gets to the core of the issue. All children deserve privacy about aspects of their personal story. But family stories happen. Where is the line between what I would consider harmless if embarrassing revelations–the bare-butt baby pictures; the funny (in retrospect) sibling fights–and thoughtless disclosures of personal information?

      In our family, the choice of revealing that our kids are adopted was moot, since they were obviously, visually, not born to us. The choice was how much to share about their original families and the circumstances of their adoption.

      I definitely was guilty of a fair amount of oversharing. As Lori says, the line between our chldren’s stories and our own is mighty thin. Becoming a family together, and pursuing an open relationship with their birthfamily was a huge event in my life. I wanted to talk about it, a lot.

      One child had some noticeable behavioral challenges. Knowing when and how to explain that she wasn’t just an ill-behaved brat, without putting out explanation that could cause her grief or embarrassment later, was tough. It’s hard for us non-saints to discern what is our own defensiveness when our kids are acting up and what is necessary context so others can understand.

      Over time, when I began to get a grip, I did make some conscious decisions about how to talk about adoption. I decided that I wanted to normalize the ideas of adoption, and open adoption, and transracial adoption. When the conversation went to bringing babies home from the hospital, or visits with extended family, or whatever topic moms were kicking around on the sidelines during T-ball games, I would share stories from our experience, trying for the common ground.

      I knew my girls would not have much opportunity, until they were adults away from me, to choose whether to disclose their adoptive status, so I wanted to model being matter-of-fact. I think we can err on the side of “adoption is the greatest!” attitudes as much as on shame or secrecy. Our children have the right to feel that it isn’t always the greatest; it’s just an aspect of their life.

      (a long response as usual….)

    2. I think this, too. This question is specifically about adoption, but it goes for all aspects of all relationships: what we share about our marriage, our kids, etc. Though with kids, there is a power dynamic there. I’m online, they’re not. Or I’m engaging in these grown-up conversations, they’re not. It’s hard to know what to do when my decision to tell my story ends up involving their story.

      Lori, I think you did a beautiful job of outlining the difference between privacy and secrecy.

  3. New adoptive parents may find it inconceivable that the information which they share with friends and family can cause pain for themselves and their kids many years in the future. For example, casually mentioning that your child’s birth parents were involved in drugs or spent time in jail can come back to haunt the family. This can be due to the information being “accidentally” shared with the child before parents believe it is age appropriate, Through the years friends/family might be inclined to “remind” parents about these difficult facts by asking questions like, ” Now that Susie is a teen, do you worry he will do drugs, go to jail etc.?” Or if your child has difficulties, people who know the touch information might say (or think,) “What did you expect?”
    Better keep the facts within the family. Although it is tempting to share painful info in order to elicit empathy/understanding for your child, avoid specifics and simply state that there is a trauma history. Details are irrelevant.

  4. I can still see my adoptive mother’s confusing glare if I were to even whisper to anyone I was adopted, but I often wonder what she was telling her close family members about me and especially my adopted brother. An insecure woman wanting to act as a savior in the eyes of others is not very healthy for any child. If she said in my presence when I was a teenager, ” I should have never adopted your brother knowing what I did about his family,” I still fear what she said to others about my beginnings to make herself look good. I learned recently that my adoptive mother’s side of the family has a private FB page where there are over 200 relatives, and no matter how silly it sounds, it still hurts to think my adoptive mother is the one who had the paintbrush in her hand and made us the black-sheep family.

    1. This really helps me to understand what it was like for you: “it still hurts to think my adoptive mother is the one who had the paintbrush in her hand and made us the black-sheep family.”

    2. JoAnne, yourstory painfully illustrates how information shared by adoptive parents can taint the way people view and relate with adopted persons. I’m saddened by your story but do appreciate your willingness to share it. Education is key to improving adoption.

  5. I whole-heartedly agree that adoption is a private matter. Secrets and lies–or even well intentioned filling in of the blanks–should not be part of the story that APs tell anyone.

    I’d like to add one question for APs to ask themselves before sharing information. Am I telling [this person] something that the adoptee him/herself does not know? If the answer is yes, assume that you are sharing something that should probably be left unsaid. The only acceptable exception might be a medical professional or similarly compelling professional who needs actual specifics that are currently age inappropriate for the adoptee.

    And a final word of caution, these sorts of conversations are usually had in the presence of the adoptee. Are you going to be able to explain TO THE ADOPTEE why you revealed this information? Would you be able to give a cogent response to a teenage adoptee for something overheard in childhood?

  6. As an adoptee, I often felt as though my story was not my own, everyone knew I was adopted and although they talked about it among themselves, no one would discuss it with me. It certainly made it that much harder to empower myself to take the reins of my story. Yes, the adopted person owns our narrative – I found your perspective refreshing and posted it to the PACER FB page. Thank you!

    1. The perspective that the adoptive parent owns the narrative is a very interesting one. I have never thought of it that way, my high school sweet heart went searching for his birth parents on little tidbits of facts that he had learned from his adoptive parents over the years. He always expressed that even though he saw his adoptive parents as his actual parents that he just wanted to know why and the circumstances that led to what came to be. It wasn’t until we found his baby hospital bracelet that we found his birth mom’s real name and that she had left his a letter to open when he wanted and was old enough to ask the age old why? It was a lot different from the story than he had originally been told and he was hurt, it really changed his relationship with his adoptive parents.

  7. What a beautifully explained post–I love the toothpaste analogy! We have struggled with this, as I am very open about my own pieces of the process, but worry that I could inadvertently blurt information that doesn’t belong to me. It is a hard concept for our families to understand, that when we are matched with an expectant parent that there are pieces we won’t share, that are meant for us and our child and their birth parents ONLY. They are used to hearing all about our fertilization reports and embryos and whatnot, but this is so different. We had our first profile call, and we got A LOT of information. When I screwed up and spilled the beans even though we agreed to keep it close to the vest until we knew that we’d be matched (or not), I practiced sharing only tiny pieces that I didn’t consider to be something that, if this was our child (and it wasn’t), he wouldn’t mind us sharing. Things like geographical location, due date, openness preference. Medical history and family history, off limits. I got to practice saying, “that’s private” or “we’re not sharing that piece of things.” Awkward, but less so than explaining to a child later why a zillion people know why his birth parents decided to place or circumstances that led to the decision. Love this toothpaste thing, keep coming back to it in my head…I’m going to steal it and use it when future opportunities come up! Thanks as always for your thoughtful insight into such complex topics.

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