Are you sharing too much information when you tell strangers about your child's adoption or birth parents?
Are you sharing too much information when you tell strangers about your child’s adoption or birth parents?

In my family, especially now that I have teens, the expression “TMI” is often in use. My kids, usually one of my sons, will go into great scatological detail about something that we don’t really need or want to hear, and someone else, usually me, will say “Okay guys, TMI” (too much information). The tables are turned when I start into one of my “information is power” speeches. Someone, usually one of my kids, will say “TMI mom”, especially if I’m talking about reproduction. (Of course they’ve also been known to put their hands over there ears and chant “lalalalalalal”.)

It’s not just potty and sex talk that can provide too much information. This point was brought home to me a few weeks ago. We were picking up one of our daughters from a week long event and going through the usual rigmarole of waiting and idle talking with other parents while our kids collected shoes, towels, cell numbers, etc. I was chatting with a dad as our children were exchanging information. He asked what I did, and when he heard that I was involved with infertility and adoption, he told me that his children were adopted. He then proceeded to tell me in detail his son’s birth family history: mother had affair while married, got pregnant, husband had hissy-fit and rejected child, child “put up for adoption”.  All the while, as he talked, I squirmed. His two children, and mine, and their friends were standing a couple of feet away. As soon as I could, I changed the subject.

This man was not a bad father; he clearly adored his children and would do anything for them. Maybe it didn’t bother them at all, but it bothered me big time. This information was none of my business, and I wanted to scream TMI.

TMI in adoption doesn’t have to be so obvious as sharing intimate details with a complete stranger. I know a woman, who is one of the kindest people in the world and would never intentionally hurt anyone, much less her child. And yet, while she was waiting for her daughter to join the family, she shared with close and not-so-close friends her soon to be daughter’s personal birth family history which involved prison and major dysfunction. I am sure that this information was passed along in the normal course of conversation. (Hey, did you hear so and so is adopting. It’s taking a bit longer since the mother is in jail and the father is a druggie and the aunt….”) The community has embraced this beautiful child, but she won’t always be a young child and this is very personal information that belongs to her, but now is known by many others that she didn’t choose to tell.

I know of a teen who was absolutely horrified when he realized that his friends might somehow know that he spent a few years living in a car prior to his adoption. His parents assured him it wasn’t a reflection on him or his character, but that isn’t an easy sell when you are 16.

But then I look at myself. On occasion I have told people that one of my children was a special needs adoption. I love the twist in the story: us expecting an ill, small, frail child and being overwhelmed with joy when we first saw our healthy, husky, robust child. I know there is nothing too personal about this story, but is it anyone else’s business? And perhaps more important, is it my story to tell? That’s a hard question to answer because in truth it’s a story we share. For me it is a story of hope and grace, but for my child, is it a story of rescue? I have never once felt like we rescued this child. It feels much more like we received the greatest blessing imaginable, but what does my story say to others? To my child?

The truth is, I don’t know the answer. What I do know, is that I feel differently about telling the story now that my child is older.  The story doesn’t feel like mine, even though I share a role. Unfortunately, once a story is told, it can’t be untold. People don’t forget. Even as I type, I wonder is it OK to share it with you, even though no name is involved. I concluded yes, but only because I’ve never mentioned names, and the focus is on my thoughts as a parent. But still, I wonder and worry.

I am not criticizing sharing private details of your child’s prior life with a select few. We all need support. Nor am I suggesting that we shouldn’t share details with those professionals that need this information to help us and our children. But, I think we have to be very careful what we tell and to whom. Not all family and friends need to know everything. There is a big difference between secrecy and privacy. It is far too easy for normally caring and thoughtful adoptive parents to fall into the TMI trap. I know because I’ve been there myself.

Image credit: Susan NYC