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adoptive parent dilemma

I Know Something I’m Not Supposed to Know about My Child’s Birth Mom

Question: We brought our son home through domestic private adoption 14 months ago (he spent a month in agency foster care because of some time in NICU and a bunch of red tape delays).

We have openness with Ben’s birth mother, Tina — at least we did. I send pictures through an app so she can see them when and if she wants. She doesn’t directly inquire about him, though she’ll ask how we’re all doing. Months ago after a long period of not getting any response from  her, I looked on her social media, which was public, and discovered she was expecting a baby.

She’s never told me. We’ve texted a few times since, but she’s said nothing about being pregnant. Last week I discovered she’d just had her daughter. I have filed away the baby’s name in case my son wants to search for her some day. No one in Tina’s family knows about our son. (I have their names and some information as she was very forthright with it. Detectives tried but couldn’t find the birth father.)

From social media, it’s clear that her family is ecstatic about this current baby. I don’t believe Tina has any intention of telling us about her daughter, as then it would open the possibility of my son being discovered.

adoptive parent dilemma

What should I do now and in the future? I am afraid of making a misstep that ruins any possible relationship between us and our son’s birth mom. There is a very real possibility of her closing the adoption, which saddens me. Do I admit I know about the new baby, or continue as if I don’t know? I prefer honestly but it would also require I admit that I have seen this information online. I worry this would make her feel violated.

At what point do I tell my son that he has a bio sister? I would love more contact for my son’s sake, but I don’t want to ruin things in my desire for it.

— Kirsten

An Adoptee on Truth

Hi, Kirsten. It’s tricky to balance two competing sides: the right of an adoptee to know their whole story, and the desire of a birth parent to keep information secret.

I posed your situation to a Facebook community that includes adoptees, first parents, and adoptive parents. Two adoptees responded. (And if you, dear Reader, happen to be a birth parent, please consider leaving your thoughts in a comment.)

Tracy Hammond, gemologist and contributor to the #flipthescript series, agrees you are on the right track by gathering all the information you can for your son. First and foremost collect all the information you can, and keep collecting it. Write it down, keep it safe. Be open and honest with your son.

She continues with advice to always tell your son the truth. While it might seem easier to conceal the truth, you will loose trust and credibility if you do that. The truth always has a way of coming out.

Regarding your son’s birth mom, Tracy says, I’m guessing that her emotions are a maelstrom after the birth of her daughter and it has brought up emotions from her first child’s birth that she kept secret. Because of that she doesn’t have the support system in place to talk about her feelings related to the relinquishment. Denial might be her coping mechanism right now, or it might just be too fresh and painful right now. Let’s hope that as time passes, she reaches out for contact. But in the mean time, keep the updates going, keep sending the photos so it’s all waiting for her when she does want to make contact again.

An Adoptee on Secrecy

Jodi Haywood, marathon runner and contributor to the #flipthescript series, acknowledges the predicament you’re in. Secrecy puts everyone in such a difficult position. Honesty is always the best policy. If bio mom doesn’t want to be honest, and Kirsten doesn’t want to lie to the boy, it’s going to be tough. He has a right to know about his sister, but what do you say when he asks why his sister was kept and he wasn’t? I don’t think there are any easy answers for that.

Like Tracy, Jodi emphasizes the importance of delivering truth to your son. Give your son pieces of his story as he’s old enough to process them, assuming he’s not going to have any face to face contact anytime soon. It’s never too soon to tell him he’s adopted, so when the time does come for the more complicated conversations, he trusts you and knows you’ll be honest with him.  Meanwhile, let the bio mom know that you won’t lie to your son about anything, under any circumstances, to protect anyone, because his trust in you as his caregiver is more valuable than that.

Jodi points out that your son’s birth mom has other problems to deal with, aside from the son you share. Bio mom needs to understand that placing her son is going to affect the future relationships between her children, even if they don’t meet until they’re adults. Children can understand a lot if it’s explained to them in age appropriate terms. His sister may fear she’ll be given away too, if she finds out an older sibling was. It’s best to prepare answers for these questions now, so that when the time comes, no one is at a loss for words and makes excuses for “not wanting to talk about it”.

My 2 Cents: What to Tell the Birth Mom

I agree with Tracy and Jodi that honesty is the best policy, not only toward your son but toward your son’s birth mom, as well.

I suggest you share with Tina that you are aware she has a daughter and that you wish them all well and that you don’t intend to out your son to her family. Do it in a non-threatening way. Hey, I heard congratulations are in order. I am so happy for you. I will follow your lead about sharing Ben’s existence — or not.

It would be great if Tina asks how you heard the news because then you could let her know her current social media settings revealed it. In a way, you are doing her a favor. For if privacy is so important to her, she has some holes to plug.

On Stalking

I wonder if you feel a little guilty about “stalking” her. But really, have you done anything to feel guilty about? So many people these days check out others on social media, and a check-out is not a stalk. Plus, you have no nefarious intent. If you can resolve your own feelings of guilt around knowing about Tina’s daughter, you’ll have an easier time approaching the subject with her matter-of-factly.

On Grief and Birth Mom Privacy

Tina is going to have a hard time grieving the loss of her son if she can’t do it with the support of those around her. I’m guessing, like Tracy surmised, this is something that keeps her from being able to stay in contact with you.

You may not be able to do anything to help Tina around this issue, but I do want to underscore the importance of acknowledging and processing grief in adoption, whether it exists for the adoptee, the birth parent, or the adoptive parent.

Why is Tina not able to share the existence of her son with her family and close friends? We cannot know for sure, but others who have placed tell of the terrible shame that can come from an unplanned pregnancy and from placing a child for adoption. Shame leads to secrecy, which is different from privacy.

How are the two different? Secrecy is wrapped in a suffocating blanket of shame. That blanket is is toxic; it prevents grieving and healing by halting the movement of very big emotions.

On Telling Your Son

I’m thinking you don’t need to bring up his sister right away, but instead wait a reasonable time (a couple of years, say, by which time much could change with Tina) for your son to ask about siblings. When he does, tell him you’ll see what you can find out (this small delay is to buy yourself a day or so to figure out the conversation).

Then tell him. As Tracy and Jodi say, the adoptee’s right to know their whole story trumps anyone else’s need for secrecy that stems from shame.

On Fluidity

Finally, understand that a lot can change over time. What you and Tina are experiencing now will not stay static. You may find that as her daughter grows, Tina’s stance on secrecy may change, as could her ability to compartmentalize the experience of placing her son. You don’t have to figure out forever right now; just the near future.

About this Open Adoption Advice Column

  • 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, please 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.


This post is part of #MicroblogMondays? Whazzat? A post that’s not too long. Head to Stirrup Queens to join the fun.

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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14 Responses

  1. What a maelstrom! Lori, I think you, Jodi and Tracy all have sage and wonderful advice for this mother regarding her son and his biological mom. I also wonder if given this child’s history of being in foster care if there is access to counseling and support in the future as this family navigates this situation. Regardless, I absolutely agree with being honest, even if it’s not what Bio Mom wants. I wish you all the best on the road forward.

  2. I don’t have much to add, except I agree about the Facebook check-in. If you haven’t heard from someone in months, it’s okay to look to their social media to make sure they’re alright. In the “old” days, you might have asked a mutual acquaintance or something like that. If it comes up, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling the Birth Mother you hadn’t heard from her, so you found her Facebook.

  3. Oh, wow…what a twisty situation. Social media probably adds in a whole new layer and level of complexity when it comes to communicating around adoption. I agree, a check-in is not a stalk, and Tina probably could benefit from knowing that her information is so easily found, especially if she seeks some level of privacy for now. So many good points here from different perspectives, with secrecy = toxicity being the common thread. I agree it doesn’t have to be outed right away, but the importance of not lying or withholding information from Ben trumps any need for secrecy or shame on anyone else’s part. I liked the idea of saying “hey, we can honor your wishes about your family, but you need to honor Ben’s right to know about his family members.” Sticky, sticky, but navigable between the several pieces of advice, I think.

  4. I am both a biological mother of adoption 1968 and an adoptive mother of four. My children’s mother had 4 more children in rapid succession after her rights were lost to the ones in my care. A therapist told me she was replace ing the children she lost and was grieving deeply inside but did not want to talk much about her loss other than she was understandably angry. Yes, she did lose custody of the following four also which we tried to adopt but were denied. After I lost my son to adoption in1968 and another son to stillbirth in 1972, I had strong feelings of wanting to get pregnant again to “replace” or “regain”the lost child. Just sharing why Tina may have had another child and not wish to talk about it. And a possible explanation to the child. Grief may be at play here and conscious or unconscious feelings for the lost son. Open adoption or not.

    1. Adoption cannot replace a lost child or heal infertility.
      People must not be taken from their biological parents for a fee and placed with people who feel that other people’s children should be handed to them to make up for their own perceived life inequities.

      1. Perhaps you misunderstood Kathleen, Nadine. She is wondering if the repeated pregnancies were a subconscious attempt to replace a child lost to adoption, not due to infertility. A misguided strategy in either case.

  5. As an adoptive mom I see my role as sensemaker and holder of truth. Sometimes I take time to process the information before I share the truth, but ultimately that information should be shared as is developmentally appropriate. And the truth about a sibling is part of that child’s identity as they make sense of their identity over the years. I have shared with my daughter about her siblings. I struggled with sharing about the sibling who was still born as she struggles/fears death. I processed the information and then I shared. She, in turn, shares her birth family story with friends. I share the level of information that an 8 year old can process. I save the other information for her when she asks the hard questions – why him and not me? And when I share those answers and feel uncomfortable, I know it is with the intent that she lives her truth. Ultimately, truth sets us free, right?

    1. Oh, yes, Caron. Yes about the truth.

      And I really like how you intentionally make processing time for you as you prepare to share, developmentally, with your daughter. I think that’s a key piece in helping the information be received and integrated as well as can be.

  6. Wow, really great advice all around. My instinct would be to collect, collect, collect information (as detailed as possible) for my child so roads are open in the future. The worst is to know the information is out there but be unable to obtain it.

  7. Secrets and lies. Lies and secrets. Two of the most hateful and destructive things about adoption! (Annette Baran & Reuben Pannor, adoption experts authors the book “Lethal Secrets.”)

    It is these lies and secrets imposed on Tina that put her in this bind. It is a shame that pre-adoption counseling is not mandatory for all parties. Someone should have explained to Tina – and you – that lies and secrets are counter-productive to openness. and could even destroy it. Tina was obviously caught between two ideologies. On the one hand she wanted the assurance of update son her son and his well-being, on the other she was pressured to keep him a secret to her family.

    That she left her Facebook open indicates that on some level – even subconscious – she wanted you to know.

    You are doing the right thing dealing with this complicated situation. Continue what you are doing for now – respecting her privacy while collecting info for your son.

    At some point in the future, when your son is a bit older, my suggestion is that you open a discussion with her about her plans, wishes, and hopes for her relationship with him, and ask her if her family knows about him because, in a truly open adoption, he might want to know or meet his extended family members.

    Tina needs to know at some point that having a relationship with her son and keeping him a secret is unfair and painful for him. My hope is that she will be able to put his needs first and find a way to resolve the dilemma she has created for herself and ultimately for him.

    It’s ironic because this is exactly the type of thing those of us in tradition closed adoptions have done for years!

    PS This response is from an author of two books and a multitude of articles on adoption and a mother who opened a closed 1968 adoption when my daughter was a teen.

    Mirah Riben

  8. My daughter’s birth mother had a new baby last year, and another one a few months ago. My daughter knows she has a birth mother, and that her birth mother has babies. She will eventually figure out that those babies are half siblings. We’ve told her that babies can’t wait and the birth mother wasn’t in a good place to be able to take care of her, so we stepped in. I’ve also checked-in with the other side and found out there’s another half-sister from the birth father, even if he doesn’t accept his role. I have names and dates in case my daughter ever wants to make that connection. It’s not up to me to force it to happen, but I’m also not going to prevent it either.

  9. Let me reply from 63 years AFTER my baby sister and I, at age 3, were placed in a state orphanage due to serious neglect. After 6 mo there we were fostered, with the goal of adoption. Our birth mother/father had 5 years to clean up their act, why 5? She got pregnant, married another man by then and signed the papers when I was 9. The two new half sisters knew we existed, and our adopted last name, we only knew of them by first names. Fast forward to now and I get a call from the younger half sister hysterical with joy to find me. BUT neither she or her older HS (2 different fathers) EVER questioned why we were “adopted away to nice people out in the country”..they NEVER asked or fought to find us when older. (did no DNA, etc. someone else did the legwork) Our birth mother died young at 43, their fathers also died when they were adults but they had years to to learn from the source, and did little, or gave up easily.. ALL the uncles and relatives knew we were removed & adopted but no explanation as to why was given to their children, my cousins. So of course when I was found I want to know details, it is still a mystery to me, but I moved on at age 4 because my adopted mom was ALWAYS very clear there was no magical mom and family to take us back. She was truthful on some things, but also withheld other negative info to protect us. She did the right thing. I grew up only mildly curious because I knew sometimes the birth parents are not worthy to keep their children. We were left alone many hours a day, starved- my sister had rickets (unknown now but back then it was common due to lack of fresh air, sunshine, cow milk/breast milk, other Vit D and nutrition). NONE of 4 married uncles were willing to take in 2 helpless girls, even temporarily, it seems, so no family love there for us. Now I am faced with gushing superficial happiness from one 58 yr old, while the other, 65, is constantly ticked off by anything I have said about our birth mother, whom I feel nothing for. No consideration of what this might do to ME, just their headlong rush to finding ‘family’. Honestly these are people I would never choose to be around, and I am not interested now. They have each raised many children of their own, and apparently never were concerned why their mother would give away tiny children. It is a lot more complicated than this, but I have always respected my adoptive mother for being honest about where I came from. If I found anything at all to admire about these HS I would keep trying, but it’s a mess already, there is NO reward at all for me to disrupt my life. Because I have been cautious to open long closed doors I am disliked. Maybe relations will improve in future, but I am 3,000 miles away so distance works for me now. I am not bitter, but also not willing to invite unlikeable people into my life just because they are genetically related.

  10. I have a very similar situation. My daughter’s birth mother kept her pregnancy a secret. She had counseling, but felt strongly that her family would make her keep this child. She had a 2 year old at the time of our daughters birth.
    We have an open adoption and met with birthmom about 5 weeks after she gave birth. Since then no contact.
    The best thing I have done for my daughter is make her a lifebook. Any information that was related to her birth parents and birth sibling, a copy of her original birth certificate, etc was put in this book.
    I downloaded pictures of birthmom and half sister from Myspace and included those also.
    The language in the lifebook was geared to my daughter who was 3 at the time.
    It gave us a starting point for so many discussions. There have been countless times when it became a bridge of connection and further explanations. My daughter is now 9 and she shares it with new friends when she is trying to explain her story.
    The comment in your post about secrecy and privacy was powerful for me.
    I have always been honest with my daughter, but also feel conflicted about protecting birthmothers privacy. My daughter wants to have a relationship with her. The one time I have reached out, I received no response.
    It is a continuous journey into the unknown. I’m grateful for finding this space to share and connect.

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