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