“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Doesn’t Work for Adoptive Parenting Either
I think most adoptive parents are on board with the idea that children should be told that they are adopted from a very early age. We start incorporating the word “adopted” into our vocabulary from the beginning. We make and read their Life Books to them after their baths as they sit on our laps in their cute little footy pajamas. Naturally we are pleased as punch when our toddlers proudly tell the world they are adopted with nary a self conscious hesitation. Yes, we pat ourselves on the back, we have aced this adoptive parenting business.
As our children age, they outgrow their Life Books or at least the sitting on our lap while we read it to them part. They don’t openly announce their adoption status to the world. They become busy with growing and mastering and all the other parts of being a kid, and then a tween, and then a teen. It’s easy to believe that our job is done. We’ve told them, they’ve accepted it, now let’s move on.
We know, however, from talking with teens and adult adoptees, that kids don’t stop thinking about being adopted when they outgrow their footy pajamas. In particular, they wonder about their birth parents: who they are, what they liked to do, what they looked like, why they didn’t parent them. Some kids think about this a lot, some think about it a little, but from what I can tell from talking to teens and adults, most think about it some.
There are some kids who will readily talk and ask these questions to their parents and birth parents, if they are in an open adoption. But lots of kids, my own included, might think and wonder, but never bring the subject up. And even the most curious and talkative child will steer clear of this conversation if they sense that it makes their parents uncomfortable. It is way too easy for parents to assume that if it isn’t spoken, it isn’t thought. If the kids don’t ask, then we don’t need to tell. This is mighty convenient since we just as soon not talk about it anyway. If we’re not careful, this can become a self perpetuating cycle. Our discomfort, keeps them silent, and their silence justifies our own.
So what’s a parent to do? First of all, we need to accept that we are 100% our kid’s parent. We will be there for them, and they for us, for the rest of our life. Their curiosity and desire to know more about their birth parents has nothing to do with us and doesn’t threaten our relationship. Part of “being there for them” is being their go-to source of information on all the Big Four Topics of Life (BTLs): sex, drugs, rock and roll, and adoption. (OK, it’s really the Big Three since it’s only in your dreams that they are going to view you as an expert on music. By the age of thirteen, fourteen at the latest, they are going to think that your musical taste and computer literacy are both hopelessly out of date, but you still want them to come to you with their questions about the other three.)
Kids have a tendency to not voice their questions about the BTLs leaving the ball in the parental court to still provide information even when not asked. If you’re lucky, your little darling will respond like a sponge when you open the conversation about adoption. I’ve never had that experience, but I have dreamed about what it might be like. My experience involves a lot of me throwing out a conversation starter and watching it drop like a dead weight. Still, I look for opportunities to start the conversation because I want my kids to know that I am available when and if they want to talk. I have to consciously look for times that I can bring up birth parents, genetic traits, and adoption. I toss the opening out there, and then respect their decision to either run with it or let it drop.
Oh, and as long as we’re talking about BTLs, we need to talk about the fourth BTL–race. Especially if we are raising a child of a different race, we have to talk about race and prejudice and navigating our white society as a minority. We have to be open to listening to their experiences without trying to minimize or explain.
The other thing I can do as a parent is to realize that I can’t be their only go-to resource. They need to have the opportunity to talk with other adopted people—kids their own age and adults if possible. Sometimes it’s simply easier to open up in a group of people who are living your experience. As much as I want to be “enough” for my child, I’m probably not.
The truth is that sometimes these conversations make me uncomfortable. So does talking about sex and drinking and drugs, but I still do it because that’s part of my job as a mom. Unlike footy pajamas, kids don’t outgrow the need to talk, or know that they can talk, about the BTLs.
Image credit: Bindaas Madhavi