What’s a parent to do when you find out that the story you were told about why your child was placed for adoption is not exactly the truth, maybe not even close to the truth. Should this matter to us? How then, do we handle talking about adoption with our kids?

Tips for helping adopted children navigate their story

Over the years, I’ve heard from adoptive parents who have found the following changes to the adoption narrative:

  • We were told that our daughter’s birth mother in Ethiopia was dead and that our baby was found abandoned in a field. We hired a searcher, and it turns out her birth mother is alive and well, and not even all that poor by Ethiopian standards.
  • Before the adoption, our son’s birth mother told the adoption agency that she was raped. After we’ve gotten to know her, we strongly believe that she was (and is) a prostitute, and the birth father was one of her “customers.” We don’t know for sure.
  • We adopted our child from Guatemala, believing her birthmother was unmarried and desperately poor and wanted her baby to be adopted so she could have a better life. When we found the birth mother several years later, she said that her aunt basically kidnapped the baby to be given away for adoption without her permission. We now don’t know what to believe or what to tell our daughter.

We all have a narrative that we believe about why our children came to us through adoption.  This story is told to us by the birth parents or the adoption agency, or we piece it together from the documents and what our kids tell us.  In many ways, this story forms the backbone of our adoption. What happens when we find out that the story is untrue, or only partly true? Should this matter to us? What do we tell our child?

Unknowns in Adoption

All children come to adoption from tragedy — be it poverty, illness, lack of family support, rape, or abuse.  We know it is a tragedy when a child cannot be raised by his birth family, but we may not know what the tragedy was. The story of the tragedy we were told may not be the truth, or at least not the full truth. Documents may not be available; people with information may not share for any number of reasons; adoption agencies may not have the information; and sadly, adoption workers may not tell all the information they have.

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The story of the tragedy we were told may not be the truth, or at least not the full truth.

And what exactly is “the truth” anyway? My grandmother used to say there are three sides to any story: yours, mine, and the truth. Stories shift both with time and who is doing the telling. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t telling the truth; it means they are telling the truth as they see it from their perspective at this point in time.

What Do We Tell Our Kids

I believe that children have a right to their story — all of it. Parents must share what they know and what they don’t know. If the story has changed, the children should be told.

But what if the story is especially difficult? What if the story is not “appropriate” for children? What if it involves rape, drugs, prison, kidnapping? Parents must lay the groundwork by talking about their adoption, starting when the children are very young. Parents can then add details as the child ages. The goal is for the child to know all the details by adolescents.

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Want some help Talking about the Difficult Parts of Your Adopted Child’s History?

Has your child’s adoption story changed? How have you handled this new information? How has the new information affected you or your child?

Image credit: Daniela Hartmann; Sheng P.