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There was a particularly poignant moment of our adoption preparation training which I remember for its tear-jerking tenderness.
Let me back-track a little, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of attending adoption training. In the UK it lasts for four days, and appears to have been designed by a bunch of sadists intent on putting you off adoption.
Every trick in the book is used to try and deter you from the path you were previously excited to travel: depressing videos, poker-faced presenters, sharp personal criticism, lengthy days with no hint of adherence to the published end time (hello, childcare issues), crappy biscuits.
(Actually, I can’t remember about the biscuits. I think possibly they were quite nice. But maybe that was a reverse psychology ploy, to get you wondering what the Adoption People were trying to sugar-coat…)
So anyway, I remember this one lady well. She was on the adoption team, and led a session about – argh, don’t ask me now. It was four years ago. (OK, so that isn’t the bit I remember well.)
What I do remember well is that we then had a break, and afterwards the same lady returned to say, “Just now I was speaking to you in a professional capacity. Now I’m going to talk to you in a personal capacity”. She went on to tell us how she was adopted at birth, and didn’t find out until the age of 21, being led to believe until that point that she had been born into the family who raised her.
Do you have to tell a child they’re adopted? Er, yes. This woman’s sad story made that much very clear.
The shocking revelation in adulthood that her past was not as she’d thought ruined this lady’s relationship with her mum who, very regretfully, died soon afterwards, so the relationship was never repaired.
I think we can all understand that there have been taboos about adoption in the past, which have led to lies and dishonesty which people thought were in the best interests of their children.
But even today in 2020, when I think people should really know the dangers of not telling a child they’re adopted, I find myself being asked questions about honesty with our adopted children:
- “Do they know they’re adopted?”
- “How much have you told them?”
- “When did you start telling them?”
- “Do they know <insert detail of birth family history that we’ve shared>?”
I thought it might be helpful to outline some of the important reasons we’re 100% honest with our adopted children. I hope that if you’re not an adopter, this explains the approach of the adopters you know – our stance is pretty commonplace amongst adopters these days.
And if you are an adopter, or planning to be one day, I hope that what follows helps you to understand the importance of honesty in your relationship with your adopted child, as well as offering some thoughts about when to tell your child they are adopted.
1 Honesty builds trust
Our boys need us to be 100% reliable, consistent and trustworthy. They’ve had to be separated from a birth family who let them down – the very last thing they need from us is to be let down again.
Obviously we’re human and we fail – we’re never going to be able to match up exactly to what they need. But one things we can do is always tell them the truth. Not telling a child they’re adopted will inevitably lead to fall-out later on.
Can you imagine how your world would fall out from under you if you got to the age of 10 and suddenly discovered that what you thought was your past wasn’t actually your past at all? Can you imagine that you might start to question other things your parents told you? Things about how much they love you, how precious and important you are, how much God loves you, what the Bible says?
Would you not start to question it all, going into adolescence and then adulthood with a suspicion which kept everyone around you at arm’s length, just in case they couldn’t be trusted either?
Even if our children are too young to understand, we will always give them the respect they deserve by telling them the truth.
2 Honesty prevents false expectations
It’s common for adopted children to go through a phase of wishing they were back with birth family, longing for this ‘perfect’ family that they were separated from before they had a voice to express an opinion.
Sadly, it’s very unlikely to have been a happy family situation. Children are removed from families because they’re not being taken care of, or are being put in danger.
Being honest about this, albeit with age-appropriate words (“they couldn’t keep you safe and warm” is my favourite), helps to prevent false expectations from building and growing out of control.
It may also help to prevent the worrying (and dangerous) trend of adopted youngsters finding their birth families via social media. This rarely ends well, and often has a negative impact on the child’s relationship with their adoptive family, as well as the repercussions which ripple through birth family.
Being honest from the start helps our children not to pine for an idyllic birth family which doesn’t exist.
3 Honesty sets the language in place before understanding grows
Our children have a particularly difficult aspect of their life story. When friends ask whether I’ve told the boys about this, my answer is always yes. Right from the start, we would mention this detail whenever talking about birth family.
It’s a bit of a cultural taboo, so we’ve had some interesting moments where the boys have dropped this line into an otherwise run-of-the-mill conversation – especially if others have been present. I think some people are surprised I’ve mentioned it at all to children so young.
But, referring to my first point – our boys need to be able to completely rely on us. If we lie about part of their life story, then what else have we lied about? The rest of their life story? Our own life stories and family backgrounds? The Christian faith that sits at the very foundation of our family life?
Telling the boys this fact early on means that they have the language in place before they gain real understanding of what it means. I would say at this moment in time (they’re 5), they have an understanding of what has happened, but no understanding yet of how it might affect them – and, therefore, no emotional response.
That will come later – and, when it does, I will be very grateful that amidst all the challenging conversations we may have, one thing we won’t have to do is change the narrative. They’ve always had the language – and the understanding will grow from there.
4 Honesty aids neutrality
There are two dangers when sharing your child’s life story with them. One is that you over-emphasise how terrible it was, demonising your child’s birth family and potentially encouraging in them a sense of shame and worthlessness – which is already present and doesn’t need any more fuel.
Or you’re at great pains to tell your child how much their birth family loved them, that they were wonderful people, that they truly wanted to keep their child/ren and were totally able to look after them. But this simply isn’t true, and can encourage the kind of ‘fantasy family’ syndrome I mentioned above.
I’ve found that sticking to the facts, even from quite a young age, has helped me to remain neutral when sharing my children’s life story with them. They can make up their own minds as they grow up, but for now my job is to tell it like it is, without passing judgement on the one who carried my precious boys in her womb.
5 Honesty means they hear it first
Technically, adopters are not meant to share any of their children’s life story with others. We’ve been fairly relaxed about this, sharing some key details with close family and friends. We feel it helps them to understand where our boys have come from, and that secrets within families are not generally a good idea.
However, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable telling others what I hadn’t first told our boys. The reason I can share certain facts with others is because I’ve shared these facts with our boys first. They will never suffer the trauma of having someone turn round to them and tell them something they never knew about their birth family – unlike the poor lady I mentioned at the start, whose whole village seemed to know about her adoption before she did.
When to tell your child they are adopted
This is a common question amongst non-adopters. ‘When did you start telling your children?’ or ‘When will you tell them?’
My only answer is: as soon as possible. Start from the moment you bring your children home. Don’t wait for the perfect time, and don’t feel that it’s got to be some dramatic moment where you’re all gathered together with candles and soft music. Don’t make it any bigger than it already is. Share it as a natural part of your child’s history – as natural as knowing you have a Great-Aunt-Mildred you never see, or a grandparent who died before you were born.
Bring birth family into conversation – not every day, or even every week, because of course you want your child to feel totally secure in your care and in their new family – but on a regular basis, make sure that you include details, where it comes up in conversation.
Children often like to talk about being in someone’s tummy, and this is sometimes provoked when friends or family members are pregnant, so use this as an opportunity to talk about whose tummy they grew in. Our boys are really comfortable about saying they grew in _____’s tummy, even though they see me as ‘Mummy’. (We refer to her as ‘tummy mummy’ so that they will always associate her with the word ‘mummy’ too. As they grow older, I’m anticipating being able to explore the concept of having two mums a little more with them.)
Use any photos or keepsakes which have been passed onto you. Use your child’s life story book (if you’ve been lucky enough to receive one). We have a DVD of our boys in foster care as babies, which they love to watch, and provides a wonderful opportunity to talk about their amazing foster carer, and all she did for them in those early months. Being honest is not just about birth family, but everyone who cared for our children, everyone who played a role in their early life and development.
Sometimes you may feel like you have to artificially engineer an opportunity to mention birth family – at other times it will all come gushing out.
It doesn’t matter: the important thing is honesty. Honesty, honesty, honesty. At every step of the way, from as early as you can, and regularly enough for them not to forget.