Question: I am adoptive mom of two adorable kids and I attend a monthly support group for mothers like me in my country.
We have been discussing the importance of telling the child they are adopted. Not everyone thinks it needs to be told, since in our culture (which is fairly homogeneous) you can’t always tell someone is adopted just by looking. In fact, one of our members has a certain pride that her child that looks like a carbon copy her. In this case, the child will never guess he’s adopted, so why tell?
I understand where that idea comes from, but I fear it will eventually harm the child. In attempting to help this mom see another way of thinking, I have quoted books, research and studies. I gave a lot of examples from my experience with my kids. But I am still looking for what could be an AHA Moment for her.
Can you help? — Zilla in the eastern hemisphere.
The Fundamental Question About the Adoption Story
Identity and trust are big issues for adoptees, and you’re wise to help parents do well by adopted children early on, while there’s still time to re-evaluate one’s methods.
The fundamental question adoptive parents must consider is this:
Who owns the adopted person’s story?
I’ll get to that in a moment, but ask your group to consider three main reasons to share information with the adoptee early and often.
1. A sense of Otherness involves more than just appearance. Adoptive parents must realize is that identity comes from so much more than just looks. Just because we CAN pretend that someone is biologically connected to us doesn’t mean we should.
2. The issue of trust. Time and again we hear from late discovery adoptees (LDAs) that they always felt different, even if they didn’t look different. What happens when they inevitably find out is that the trust they had with their adoptive parents gets ripped from under them. If they couldn’t trust their parents to share with them such a primal piece of their life story, then maybe there was never a true relationship to begin with.
Repair from such a breach becomes enormously difficult.
3. Truth comes out anyway. Especially these days when social media connects us in ways we’d never imagined, adoptees grow up and can dig around and find their stories on their own. They may be prompted by that inner feeling of Otherness (#1 above) and then the adoptive parents will have to deal with the big — HUGE — issue of trust (#2 above).
Plus, if anyone knows (or suspects) the true story — doctor, mother-in-law, cousin, neighbor, friend, clergyman, dry cleaner — the potential exists for beans to be spilled in the messiest way imaginable.
And even if social media or blurted news don’t lead someone to their own story, advances in DNA testing make it quite possible that such revelatory information will eventually come out. And then what happens to the parents’ relationship with their now-grown child?
We must remember also that secrecy is different from privacy. Privacy is when the person knows his story and decides who else gets to know it. Secrecy is when the person himself doesn’t know his story.
Listen to Adult Adoptees
It may be that “no one can tell” at first glance but there may be all kinds of dissimilarities beneath the surface. — Jodi Haywood, adoptee and author
You don’t need to show your fellow adoptive moms scholarly studies or research. Just point them toward the words of grown adoptees, stand-ins for their own children in a few years. Wouldn’t they rather know NOW while they can prevent problems of identity and trust? Have your friends read the comments on this post. Or this post from an LDA.
Or better yet, turn your group into a book club for the purpose of reading the invaluable adoptee perspectives in the book Adoptee Survival Guide and Adoption Reunion in the Social Media Age. You’ll discover the fallout resulting from keeping secrets from the person they’re about.
Maybe it’s More About the Parent than the Child
Is it possible to have an open unguarded conversation about WHY some mothers want to keep adoption a secret? In other words, get to the root reason why one might prefer untruth to truth.
- Is it from a sense of insecurity that they want to claim their child as biological? But see? That claim is not true. In making the claim, they are denying the truth.
- Is it from shame? Do they feel there is something shameful about being adopted? If so, if they DO feel that there is something shameful about their child, they would be doing everyone a favor by dealing with that feeling openly and resolving it. There is nothing shameful about a child.
- Is it from wanting to protect the child from confusion? Jim Gritter, an author and social worker who has listened to hundreds of adoptees, says: Is it your experience that to be fully informed is to be confused?
- Does the secret result from an Either/Or mindset? In the west, we are coming out of the age in which a child could have only one legitimate set of parents. Any extra parent had to be negated, denied. Doing so negates either the child’s biology or his biography — a part of the child. A BothAnd heartset is one solution, and it’s not that difficult to make the switch.
- Is it from fear, from not knowing the words to say, how to help the child process this news? Parents need to get over that, perhaps with professional assistance. The best delivery comes when we’ve resolved our own triggers in telling the story (regarding shame, insecurity, confusion, either/or). As time goes on, the news gets harder and harder to deliver — and to receive.
So Whose Story Is It?
I believe, and so do many others, that the adopted person owns her story. I as a parent am merely caretaker of it, gradually handing over the parts of it to her as she is cognitively ready to process and incorporate it.
It is NOT my story to give or not give at my discretion. Indeed, it is not mine at all.
- Adoptive Parents: Want Trust? Give Truth
- For more on Otherness, read The Ugly Duckling and this post.
- For more from adoptees, search the #flipthescript campaign held the past two Novembers.
- Book: Adoptee Survival Guide
- Book: Adoption Reunion in the Social Media Age
Dear Readers, what say you? Please share links to posts and articles that explain why adoptive parents should tell about adoption, even if one believes nobody would ever guess.
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.
Image from The New York Public Library via Martha Swope Photographs
Lori Holden, mom of a teen son and a young adult daughter, writes from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life. Catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.
Lori was honored as an Angel in Adoption® in 2018 by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.