Whose Story is it To Tell–Oversharing in Adoption

Dawn Davenport


Oversharing your child's adoption story

We posted on our Adoption in the News page a sweet video of Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels and his wife Heidi, with their three children, the youngest recently adopted from Ethiopia. (I’ve attached it below.) Handsome mom and dad with three adorable kids–what’s not to love, right? Well, there was that one little, or maybe not so little, thing.

The newsman introduced the newest member of the Hamels family as having been abandoned at birth in a field…all alone. One of the Creating a Family community commented that clearly the Hamels had not listened to the Creating a Family radio shows since they had over-shared personal information with the whole world. So what? Is that really a big deal?

When our kids are tiny, it is easy to forget that they will one day grow up and hear the stories we tell now repeated back to them. Some children, teens, and adults will not care one way or the other, but some will be horrified that what they consider personal information is known by all.

Imagine little Johnny playing with his eavesdropping cousin and hearing, “How come your mom had syphilis?”  Or little Emily overhearing some sweet lady at church saying, “Can you imagine her real mother just dumped her on the side of the road!” A friend’s teen son was terrified that his friends would someday know that he lived in a car before he landed in foster care. No matter how often his parents assured him that his living circumstances when he was a toddler did not reflect on him, he remained deeply embarrassed.

It may seem innocent enough talking about this information when your child is a baby or toddler, but she will not always be young, and the people you are telling will not forget the details. It is human nature to tell others what we know, so the people you tell will probably share the information with a few of their closest friends, who will share with a few of their closest friends, and on and on.  Another friend reported that when her pre-teen daughter went through the typical sticky finger stage and snitched a candy bar at the store, her grandmother’s neighbor remarked, “Well, her mother was in prison so what can you expect.”

Privacy vs. Secrecy in Adoption

Personal information belongs to your child not to the world or even to members of your extended family.  Privacy is not the same as secrecy.  As your child grows, you will honestly and compassionately share all of her information in a manner that she can understand.  You will answer her questions and assure her that she is more than a reflection of her birth parent’s history.  You will place her birth parent’s action in the context of their society and culture.  This is what parents do, but you will not have the opportunity to shape what your child hears if your child is getting this information from others.  It is for you and your child to decide who else should know this information, and when your child first arrives is not the time to make that decision.

But What About Family

A special caution with extended family. You may choose to share more with family members, but I still urge some restraint.  You have to assume that whatever you say may be repeated to your child someday, so tell only what you want her to hear from others.

For example, you might say that her birth mother was young, estranged from her family, and struggling on many levels, but leave out the part about supporting herself through prostitution.  In utero exposure to alcohol and drugs are a trickier issue, since this knowledge may help your family, friends, and school personnel understand your child better, but I would still urge caution, especially at the beginning. You can always share more information in the future if you think they need to know or if your child wants to, but you can never take back information once it’s told.  The good news is that in my experience the nosy background type questions diminish once your child ages.

Wanting to Tell Comes From a Good Place

Wanting to share our kid’s adoption story most often comes from a good place. We are proud of adoption. We are proud of the obstacles our children have overcome. But good intent does not do away with our need for caution. As an adoptive mom wrote in the Motherlode column of the New York Times:

[T]here is still an air of mystery to adoption. I still field questions like “Couldn’t you get pregnant?” and “Do you ever want children of your own?” No, I didn’t try to get pregnant. Adoption was my first choice to become a mother. And yes, I wanted children of my own and I got one. My son is my own. DNA is just a bunch of code living in our cells. He is mine and I am his.

These are the things I want to tell people when I talk about adoption. I love to talk about adoption. But to do that, I have to tell them first that my child was adopted. And I need to stop doing that.

Because even though it is part of my identity now, it is a bigger part of his. And as his mother, I owe him the chance to figure out what that means to him before he shares his story with the world

Do you think information as minor as having been abandoned in a field is something that parents should not tell to the world? How do you draw the privacy vs. secrecy line?

This blog was originally posted in 2013 and updated in 2015.
Image credit: val.pearl

19/10/2015 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 32 Comments

32 Responses to Whose Story is it To Tell–Oversharing in Adoption

  1. Pingback: Oversharing in Adoption: 5 Adoption Details to Keep Within the Triad

  2. Avatar Nancy says:

    We adopted older children (7 and 8) who have clear memories of their birth family, and we’ve never put any restrictions on what they share with anyone. As a result, we tend to give a heads up to unsuspecting Sunday school teachers and friends who may be surprised by hearing about dad’s jail time or a rather graphic, and planted by bio dad, memory of how mom died. We never share anything with people who are not closely involved in our children’s lives, and we do not share anything the children themselves don’t share. We’re matter of fact about it because we don’t want the kids to ever get the message that they have anything to be ashamed of, and any hint that they have to keep something secret delivers the wrong message. Now, as our son grew older, he didn’t want to tell people he had been in foster care or that he was adopted, and that’s fine. He doesn’t tell anyone, and we don’t. Our daughter, on the other hand, wrote an essay about it and hung it in her school hallway in the sixth grade. We explained that some students might not understand it and might try to say hurtful things about it, and she said that was fine. It was just her story.

    However, we don’t publish their stories in the media or on Facebook or anywhere else. We have a sense of family privacy and of boundaries without having a sense of shame about the poor choices of someone else. This is just the story of how we became a family and nothing more.

    I also have adopted nieces and nephews, and they have even more complicated and difficult backgrounds than my children. In their cases, I have no wish to know all the sordid details or to share them. That should not happen. As a family member, however, I just want a heads up about triggers or safety issues or how I can be the most positive and loving influence in their lives that I can be.

    That said, I would be cautious about phrases such as “found in a field” or “abandoned,” particularly when adopting infants who haven’t yet confronted the facts of adoption. I would not share the specifics of my children’s story in the media. I promote adoption as a wonderful means to creating a family, and I promote foster care and the domestic adoption of older children. However, the story should be about the fantastic children and the building of a family, not about the “heroics” of adoptive parents who rescued children from untold horrors. The latter is when I think people tend to overshare. Adoptive parents aren’t heroes. We’re just people who wanted desperately to have children and who went about it a certain way.

  3. Avatar Anon AP says:

    One approach I’ve been testing out is to consider how much would need to be explained for someone else to explain it. Anything said to another person will be shared. For example, let’s say the adoptive parents used the phrase “found in a field”. If you leave the phrase there, then others will fill in with their own perspectives, beliefs, biases, hence “abandoned” vs. “placed in a” vs. “left in a” vs. whatever. If in order to present the situation truthfully and with care requires a paragraph long explanation, then it’s probably best left either unshared or only shared with those willing to really listen and be respectful. Assume the worst possible variation will be repeated and see if you’re comfortable with that.

    Also, it’s critically important to tell people when information is not to be shared any further than their ears. Since we’re the ones with the concern, we have to be clear in communicating the boundaries.

  4. Avatar Cheryl says:

    Good points are made here.
    It is also the story of the adoptive family and of the birth family, so it isn’t as one-sided as some in adoption make it sound. You can’t force everyone else to keep mum always. But our society has lost a lot of the sense of what should be kept private.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Cheryl, that is certainly true about the changing value on privacy. It makes me wonder if what we want and need to keep private changes with generations. Specifically will it be different with this next generation that is being raised with Facebook and other social networks.

  5. Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

    I really wrestle with this issue too. Inherently there is nothing wrong with sharing information that may have some negatives associated with it. As Dawn said, we know all sorts of things about people who are in our community and family and it doesn’t negatively affect our opinion of them. The reality is that often children in other countries where there is not an established system for relinquishing children are “abandoned”. Sometimes this abandonment is more of a “placement” since the place was chosen with care to ensure rapid finding, but sometimes an abandonment is an abandonment. My instinct is to want to control how that story is told to my child. But as Tracy points out, we as parents change what we think as we go through the acts of parenting.

  6. D S D S says:

    I’m torn on this issue. Many details of childrens’ lives and histories are shared in general (whether adopted or not). I recognize that there is an added element to the history when dealing with adoption but I don’t see it too much different than knowing your cousin’s history and pregnancy, your friend’s history and pregnancy, etc. It all eventually makes up the story of the child. In our case we are very open about how and where our children came to be and maybe that is also a by-product of the openness of the birth parents as well. Pretty much nothing is off limits information-wise from the birth family and extended family. Everyone is very free with history and current info. Heck we even witnessed a (birth) family argument during a visit once and no one thought much of it just the same as if you were watching your auntie fuss at your uncle. I do see value in not always telling their stories indiscriminately however in our case I don’t see much reason not to share either. Maybe because there isn’t much in the way of ‘tabloid type’ info involved?

  7. Avatar twinmama says:

    Great article Dawn. We adopted before and so everyone knew our children were adopted but we have never shared the details of their story. Now as we contemplate embryo adoption/donation, I struggle with even sharing the fact that our next children will be adopted. We plan on telling all of our children their personal story of how they came to join our family, but not sure about telling extended family about the embryo adoption if we don’t have to. Dawn, and anyone else who has insight in this situation, please comment!

  8. Tracy Tracy says:

    Family and close friends, no. In an interview, to the whole world? For me, yes. Now. But maybe in my first adoption I would have said no.

    AND specifically regarding the Hamels, it’s likely that in their “newness” to the IA scene, that just came out in conversation and likely wasn’t necessarily intended to be made quite “so” public – the editing of an interview like that certainly adds variables they might not have fully considered for this issue or this stage of their journey. Even as public as they are used to being…

  9. Avatar Anon AP says:

    We’re really trying to navigate this line right now (and into the future). The path our daughter’s birthmother took before our little one came into our lives is complex and there are many moving pieces and people, each with their own stories. Some of the stories could be viewed as necessary context for our family when our daughter will say things like, “my brother…” Sharing other stories would be the equivalent of gossip and would violate the privacy of our daughter and the other birthfamily members. It’s easy to draw a line in some cases, but where those two pieces (context and gossip) are intertwined, it gets really very complicated to know when to stop the line of conversation. And there’s no way to stop people from speculating aloud. Sigh…We don’t want our daughter to feel like we’re ashamed of her birthfamily or of her start in life, and we’re worried that being stiff and convoluted in talking about her adoption will send the wrong message to her. At the same time, it’s going to be necessary in some cases. In summary: ARG! This is hard, hard stuff!

  10. Avatar Tracy says:

    To Christie M’s point – the context is everything! The kind of sharing she is speaking of, in a context where folks need/want to learn more is crucial to further educating and building healthy responses. But educating the fellow shoppers in the local grocery store, not as much. I’ve gotten MUCH more circumspect with what I share, with whom, and where b/c of the mistakes I made early on. And educating myself was the starting point. But I could only be ready to hear that I needed to reconsider my previous stance by the learning curve of life and by exposing myself to multiple viewpoints.

    To circle back to the closed group conversation, one of the best things about sites like this is the (now) more private nature of the conversations that allow us to give and take and thus learn without fear of reprisal or “haters.” I also learned this the hard way – too much time on too many public blogs where anonymity cloaked ruthless and divisive responses rather than fostering informed and informative dialogue. Being in those places of limited viewpoints only served to make me feel defensive or condemned when I read there. I want to learn from all sides of the adoption relationship but I don’t want to do it in an atmosphere where I’m the only one learning….

  11. Avatar Dawn Davenport says:

    Vera, I get it. With some people you have to draw very clear lines.

  12. Avatar Amy says:

    For us this was hard when we were first matched and then once our baby was born. We had 5 months to build a relationship with our baby’s birth mom and we were so excited to share our story. We know that it is our baby’s (now almost 3 years old) story but it is our story as well. It is how we became parents. We have an amazing open adoption. Our story is very unusual and we want to share how blessed we are not only by our little one but by the birth mom who blessed us. She is like a niece to us whom we see a few times a month. I know that we shared details early on that I don’t share now and I also agree with what The Gang’s Mama who that as parents we often share too much about our children, whether they be adopted or not.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Amy, it sounds like what you are sharing is not over-sharing. I don’t see anything wrong with sharing. And you make a really good point that much of the adoption process is our story, as well as our child’s story.

  13. Avatar Patty says:

    Thanks Dawn. I of course changed all the names and my daughter approved but we’ll see in ten years. I hope many people more get the courage to adopt by then! Then it will all be worth it!

  14. Avatar Vera says:

    unfortuntely with my mother it is all or nothing-she feels because she is my mother she should be privy to all info and she also loves to over-share. She also felt that she is equal to me as far as our son is concerned -if you were to know our relationship you would understand.

  15. Avatar Dawn Davenport says:

    Patty,I know exactly what you mean about having to decide how much to share when you write a book. You write the book to be helpful to others and that requires some amount of sharing. I have a semi-funny story on that. For my book (The Complete Book of International Adoption) I “interviewed” my teen son about his opinion on circumcision (without using his name of course). I let him read it and asked whether I could include it in the book. He thought about it and said, “Yeah sure Mom, probably no one is going to read this book anyway and for sure no one I know.” Well, thanks for the vote of confidence son! I have had quite a few people tell me that they really really appreciated hearing his thoughts on this topic.

  16. Avatar Dawn Davenport says:

    OK, let me ask a specific question: Do you think it is over-sharing to tell family, friends or the whole world that your child was abandoned in a field?

  17. Avatar Toni says:

    Good advice.

  18. Avatar Dawn Davenport says:

    Vera, I was pretty careful to not make it seem as if I was withholding information. I recommend giving out general info, such a his birthparents were coming from a hard place, but they really cared for him. Or her birth parents were really poor and had no way to care for her. No one need know that the hard place was jail or that they were living under a bridge. I don’t want to make it seem as if we have to dangle the fact that we are withholding info in front of our family and friend’s faces.

  19. another great post from your desk, Dawn. Lots of really good points here. I have learned a LOT about this issue in recent years. But it’s also important to remember that every mom over-shares at some point in her parenting journey – adoption issues or otherwise.

    While I know that over-sharing can’t be taken back, it can be learned from and done differently the next time. As the proverb goes, our first born son (sons, since they were so close together!) has been a guinea pig in many ways for us, so our first adoption was a steep learning curve for us. I don’t say that to minimize the issue, just to put it into some context or perspective on the bigger picture of parenting mistakes and learning curves we all experience.

    Typically, over-sharing is a function of maturation – and not solely for adoption issues. It’s one of those things that we should consider cutting ourselves some slack over once we’ve learned that we’ve done it. It’s also important to extend grace to others who are on their own learning curve. There’s enough other stuff to feel totally guilty about in parenting, right? Especially because this is such a subjective issue: everyone has a very different idea of just what constitutes over-sharing….

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      The Gang’s Momma, I’m giving you a standing ovation (even though you can’t see it). I couldn’t agree with you more. It is so important to remember that our kids are not weak flowers that will wilt at the slightest error. And some of their history is important to share, or at the very least innocuous, so why not share.

  20. Avatar Patty says:

    This is an issue close to my heart, especially after just publishing my memoir of my adoption story. I agree with you on many levels but I chose to think of the many people who are struggling with infertility, like I was, and who doubt adoption is possible. I just published a blog about the reasons I chose to publish a very personal story. Yes, its scary but important all the same. http://www.childdrenched.com

  21. Avatar Vera says:

    I totally agree, my husband and I refuse to disclose anything about my son’s circumstances or info on his birthparents to anyone including our immediate family. I firmly believe that it is his story to tell not mine. Sadly this has caused some major friction with my mother who feels that being my mother she has privy to all of this info but my husband and I stand firm. Besides protecting his privacy, we want to make sure that when he is ready to know these details (he is only two now so while we do talk about adoption we do in an age appropriate way) he hears from us.

  22. Avatar TAO says:

    I think it was much easier back in my day – we were either illegitimate (the majority), or our parents had died. Everyone basically had the same story – although even adopted for some people meant we were still suspect because of illegitmacy.

    I personally cringe when people share the intimate details – like my disdain for the TV shows of adoption – those babies stories are public before they are even born and to me that is shameful.

    Being adopted and having fun stuff / adventures etc posted on-line is fine to me, because all kids who have parents on-line do it, so it isn’t the same. I doubt any child would be bullied/made fun of for that – intimate details – yes.

    I do think you have to continually educate people about it, especially during the earliest phases because that is when everyone seems to be so willing to share.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      TAO (The Adopted Ones), yes, I posted this blog as a gentle reminder to those at the beginning. Most of the time when our kids are older we are more aware of them when we get ready to share anything.

  23. Avatar Christie M says:

    It is a fine line, and many have strong opinions on either side of that line.
    We have adopted older children, not babies. That sometimes makes a difference. Our children have shared their memories and talk about them periodically. While I do not find it appropriate to share everything, some sharing is helpful for those coming behind.
    However, that sharing should NOT take place without the expressed PERMISSION from our children.

    I recently spoke at a conference in Houston, TX and my girls bravely volunteered information they said I could include in my talk.
    The reason the information was important, was to share parenting strategies for children who come from very tough situations.
    Had they not given permission, I would have found a different way.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Oh Christie, what a good point and one I should have thought of when writing the blog. Sharing absolutely is essential in helping those who are just at the beginning of the adoption journey. I’m going to have to think on that for a while. It seems that there is line here that we need to walk. We can share to help others without over-sharing. Such a good point. What do others think.

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