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- 3-year-old: "Do I have a mother?"
We are a two dad family and adopted our almost three year old
two years ago through foster care. Our child recently asked if
he has a mother? We replied, ''yes.'' He then asked, ''who is my
mother?'' We weren't expecting this question until he was
older. We started to explain that his mother was sick and
couldn't take care of him, but then decided that was not the
right approach because we don't want him to think that everytime
one of us gets the flu he'll given away. We also think simplier
answers are the best, and answering only the question he asks
would be prudent, however he's a very precocious kid and the
questions will likely keep coming. It is not developmentally
appropriate for us to discuss the birth mother's circumstances
with him and probably won't be until he is an adult. It is also
very unlikely that he will meet his birth mother in the next 10-
15 years and we do not have a picture of her and likely will not
be able to get one. We're feeling some anxiety because we want
to protect him by doing this ''right,'' and we are both reality
based and want him to understand his circumstances in
developmentally appropriate ways, as this is his life. We have
several questions for the group: 1) Can others who have adopted
children and have had the experience of talking about these
issues, share them (of particular interest would be situations
where the children will not likely meet their birth parents); 2)
Does anyone have books on this subject that they would recommend
with good chapters on talking to your child about adoption; 3)
We'd be open to hearing ideas others have as well. Thanks much.
I have absolutely no authority on this subject, but that has never
stopped me before.... Anyway, I heard this lovely story from my
Mother-in-law (her daughter is adopted). She told her that
another mommy had him in her tummy, but he was actually meant to
be with another family. So, the mommy who grew her in her tummy
knew this, and when she was born, gave her to the family that she
was meant to be with (her adoptive family). This makes the birth
mother seem very generous, and also makes the adoptive family seem
like the ''right'' family.
I have also heard parents tell their children that they are
''chosen'' children, and how lucky they are (and the parents, too).
Of all the thousands of children--millions of children--in the
world, they picked just the right one! How lucky is that?!
My daughter is not adopted, but has many friends who are, and
she, too, knows their adopted-stories. She is jealous that they
arrived in the world the way they did, and have such special
Anyway, good luck to you. Your kid already has a headstart,
having such caring fathers as the two of you.
How about some advice from a child of adoption? I ran your
situation by mt husband, who is adopted. He's never met his birth
family, and won't. His birth mother passed away, and his birth
father abandoned him. His parents always told him the total
truth, the mom that gave birth to him got VERY sick and passed
away, and his the dad could not handle a baby on his own, so he
found the best home possiable. My husband did not really
understand then, but he really respects his parents now.
I am a teacher. I have specialize in pre-schoolers, but recently
began teaching kindergarten. I have been in ivolved with MANY
adopted children. It seems to me, that if your son's birth
mother's situation is beyond him now, bring it to his level, as
best you can, then let him grow into it. For example, ''Your birth
was very very sick (Tell him- it's not like when you guys have
the flu, a different kind of sickness, like in the hospital kind
of sickness.) and she decided that it would be best for your son
have 2 healthy parents!'' Then focus on YOU have him now, like
that was always the plan, it's the happy ending to the story.
Best of luck!
You're right, 3 is not at all too early to be talking about your
son's adoption. And there are a lot of good resources out there
to help. ''Raising Adopted Children'' by Lois Melina jumps to
mind as a very good start. I'd also check out what PACER (pacer-
adoption.org) and PACT (pactadopt.org) have to offer - these are
both reputable, responsible, and wonderful resources.
In short, I'd advise being truthful. With a 3-year old,
truthful doesn't have to mean ''warts and all,'' but it means that
you shouldn't say anything you'll have to retract. For
instance, ''your birthmother couldn't take care of a baby, so she
made sure she found you your forever family to take care of
you.'' (Notice the ''a baby'' terminology - it wasn't HIM she
couldn't take care of, it was any child.) Then at age 8 or 10
or 12 or 16 or whenever, you can add details that your son will
be able to understand, always building on the true story you
My daughter is adopted from China, so I tell her (at 2.5) that
she grew in her birthmother's tummy, but that the birthmother
and birthfather couldn't take care of a baby, so they made sure
she was safe and that someone would take good care of her. All
true. Then I tell her that I knew my baby was out there
somewhere, so I looked for her and found her in China, and that
I'll be her mommy forever. I always point out different
families to her so she knows she's on a continuum, and she knows
that some kids' birthmothers and birthfathers are their forever
parents, and some have different birthparents and forever
parents. My daughter hasn't asked about meeting her birthmother
yet, but I'll say that we won't be able to meet her because she
wasn't allowed to tell people her name, so we can't find her.
There will be a lot of grief about that over time, and I'm
trying to be ready for it, to let my daughter have it and work
through it. In your case, you'll have to come up with the
truest, simplest explanation about why your son won't meet his
birthmother (''we don't know where she is'' or ''she's too sick to
see us'' or whatever).
Good luck! Hook up with other adoptive parents to check in on
these questions, which will keep popping up!
I have two children adopted as infants in Guatemala, now ages 7
& almost 12. They are almost certainly never going to meet
their birth mothers. The simplest statement to make to them
when they are very young is ''when you were born your birth
mother was not able to take care of any baby, so she made an
adoption plan for you.'' It sounds a little awkward, but it's
important to say ''any baby'' instead of ''you'' so your child won't
think it was his fault, that he was a bad baby. It's better to
say ''made an adoption plan'' instead of ''gave you up for
adoption'' because ''making a plan'' sounds like a deliberate, well-
thought-out and loving act, while ''giving up'' sounds hopeless
and apathetic. In our case, I know almost nothing about their
birth mothers, so I couldn't answer many questions. I just try
to portray them as basically good people who were overwhelmed by
difficult lives and made the best decisions they could for their
babies. You may know things about your child's birth mother
that you will not feel comfortable discussing with him for many
years. I feel that way about discussing my children's birth
country with them. Guatemala has a tragic history of terrible
atrocities committed by Guatemalans against Guatemalans. If
anyone has any advice about how to present that to kids I'd like
to hear it!
Isn't it amazing how quickly they ask these things. It is
tricky to explain to children why their birth parents are not
raising them. The way we have talked about it in our family is
that sometimes people who become parents are not able to care
for a child. In our case the birthmother was involved in
selecting the adoptive family so we talk about how she looked
for a family that would love her child and take care of it.
Every child's adoption story is unique, and you have to be
honest and yet stay appropriate. If she was an addict that had
her child removed from her, something simple like, ''Your
birthmother (name goes here if you know it) loved you, all
parents love their children. Sometimes parents cannot take care
of children. When that happens families that are waiting and
hoping for a child are united with the child as a family. (Name
your child calls your partner goes here) and I were SO excited
when (social worker's name goes here) united you with us to be a
family forever and ever. I know that your birthmother wants you
to be well taken care of and that is what we will always try to
Eventually you will get the ''Why couldn't she take care of me?''
Two things with that questions 1 - make it clear it was not him
specifically she couldn't care for, she could not care for any
child properly, and 2 - don't make something up. It is OK to
have questions without clear answers. ''Sometimes people can
have very serious problems that make it hard for them to take
care of themselves or anyone else. I don't know all the details
of why (birthmother's name) couldn't take care of you. I do
know that she wanted you to be well taken care of since she
couldn't do it. Do you sometimes think of reasons why you think
she couldn't take care of a baby?'' You'd be amazed at the ideas
that they come up with, this can be a good time to air his
hidden concerns. Good luck. Feel free to email me if you want.
Our approach has always been to try to stick to the truth, to
keep it simple, and not to bring in details that haven't been
asked for. You at least don't have the complication of
explaining why your child didn't grow inside you! We basically
told our two adopted children, at this age, that their mothers
couldn't care for them and wanted them to have a family with a
mother and father who could take care of them. Obviously, in the
case of two dads, you wouldn't use exactly these words. You CAN
tell him that his mother is someone you have never met and that
he has not seen since he was a baby (he may be thinking it's the
lady next door). You can add that some people become mothers at
the wrong time. They want the best for their children but can't
always provide it. Sometimes the best thing they can do is let
other families raise them, etc. Just a couple of sentences may
be enough at one time. He'll come back with more questions when
he's digested the first answer. Even a pretty awful situation
can be presented honestly but in a very limited way. (For
example: Your mother just wasn't able to care for you in the way
a mommy needs/wants to, so the foster care agency found us
because we could take care of you; if the next question is why,
you can say you're not sure because you never met her, but some
mothers just can't get a job, don't have a partner to help, or
have health problems that keep them from providing what a baby
needs). If the truth is drugs, mental health problems, or abuse,
a time will come when you feel more comfortable telling him,
obviously not at this age, but maybe before full adult hood.
That's a judgement call you can make later on. Sounds like you
have a bright, inquisitive child--enjoy him.
An adoptive mom
You asked about a book: ''Talking With Young Children About
Adoption'' by Mary Watkins and Susan Fisher is widely available
and discusses what children understand and feel about their
adoption stories at different developmental stages. I'm a
single adoptive parent of a daughter who may someday be able to
meet her birthmother. The challenging questions for us have
been about Dads. I'd be glad to talk to you more if you'd
contact me by email -
I already wrote some advice about explaining adoption, but I
wanted to add this point I forgot last time: your son doesn't
have a mom. Your son has two dads. In addition, he has a
birthmother and a birthfather. It occurs to me that if, as you
say, he asks if he has a mom and you say ''yes,'' that will always
be confusing. He has two dads and no mom. Just as my daughter
has no dad, just one mom (and our neighbors have no dads and two
moms, and our friends have one mom and two dads, and ... you get
the idea!). She has an unknown birthfather and birthmother, but
they're not her dad or her mom.
I guess that makes my 4 cents by now!
I would highly recommend you call PACT, An Adoption Alliance
organization. 510-243-9460. They are having a workshop called "Stepping
Stones", talking with children about adoption. June 8th, 9am - 12:30pm.
in Oakland. $25.00. I recently went to one of their workshops and found
it to be extremely educational and addressed everyones specific
situation. The women who lead it have grown adopted children and share
their own experiences as well as all the families they have worked with.
They deal with all colors and styles of families. They also bring a huge
selection of adoption books to purchase.
Let me add my 2 cents worth here. I am the single mother of my
son adopted at birth who is now 5. When he was 3 he started
asking about his father- where was he and why didn't he have
one? Developmentally, this was the right age to asked these
questions. I actually think your daughter's question relates to
the make-up of your family and is not necessarily about
adoption. Questions about adoption usually come later when kids
start to grasp what adoption really means, around age 6. In the
meantime, as everyone else has said, you need to talk opening
about adoption, using appropriate concepts and language for her
age. This is how I answered my son's questions: In our family
we don't have a daddy, we just have a mommy. I went on to
explain how different families look, etc. I did tell him that he
had a birth daddy, because he is adopted. My son's questions
really focused on the daddy issue, and not on adoption. So- in
addition to checking out how to talk about adoption, it's good
to check out developmental issues of young children in general,
and then how they relate to adoption. Now- some other resources
to check out- a book called Real Parents, Real Children.
Another one called How To Talk To Young Children About Adoption
(or something like that). Tapestry Books is a resource that
focuses exclusively on adoption issues (they have a Web site and
a catalog). Subscribe to Adoptive Families- a good magazine. And
the last thing I want to say- I disagree with the idea of
telling adopted children that their parent(s) ''chose'' them
because they are so special. This could give the idea that some
day they could be ''unchosen.'' I get a lot of good advice by
talking with other adoptive parents who have been through or who
are going through similar stages. Good luck!
One other avenue you may wish to pursue is talking to adults who
were adopted as children, or reading books from that
perspective. As with everything, there is a range of experience
available, from people who are truly angry and unforgiving
regarding the circumstances of their birth/adoption, to people
who feel completely happy with their adoptive families and have
no desire to know anything about their birth families.
I think one of the challenges that adoptive parents face is how
to be non-defensive when one of the real issues in adoption
(such as the grief or anger of a child over having been given
away) seems to challenge the validity of your own parenting.
Giving a kid the room to face their negative feelings and grow
with them, while trying to avoid projecting your own feelings
over your status as a parent, can be the best gift any true
parent (adoptive or biological) can give.
The three best books I read were Lost and Found & Journey of the
Adoptive Self by B.J. Lifton, and Birthright by Jean Strauss.
(Journey of the A.S. had some really strong stuff in it I didn't
agree with, but overall, I liked it.) Both of the Lifton books
deal explicitly with identity issues frequently associated with
not knowing much, if anything, about your birth family.
Good luck. I'm glad to see that you are dealing with this early!
Wish my adoptive parents had had the courage and resources to
deal with the situation better.
This message is more for the other adoptive parents that
responded to the dad asking for help.
I just want to caution you, when you tell you children, ''Your
birth mother couldn't take care of ANY baby.'' While it's a good
thing to make sure that the child doesn't see this as a personal
issue. However, I know many children that grew up, and met their
birth parents, only to find that they birth parents had other
children. So, maybe telling your child, ''You birth mother wasn't
in a situation to take care of ANY bab then.''
Just a thought...
We adopted our
daughter when she was 2 days old. She is about to turn 4. We have
always talked to her about our having adopted her. Our daughter is very
smart and full of questions and the key is keeping it all age-appropriate.
I would like to recommend a book by Lois Melina (who is great in
general regarding adoption) called, ''Raising Adopted Children''. I would
also like to recommend going to a workshop by Jonathan Pannor. See
http://www.post-adoption.org/. He does Workshops & Counseling
for Parents Building Families through Adoption and I took one with him
about a year or so ago that was extremely helpful for the same
questions you are raising.
this page was last updated: Mar 16, 2004
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