Telling My Son He Was Adopted

Telling a child who doesn’t remember their adoption is always tricky.

My son came to me at thirteen weeks, and had been horribly neglected. He needed a lot of additional care, but I’ve never been the type to let a baby “cry it out”. Our children’s cries are the only means of communication they have, and we should answer them. He never wanted me to put him down, as he didn’t know when I would return. Once I did, he would scream and moan and wrap his tiny fingers around anything he could grab: hair, clothing, skin.

I tended to his diaper rash, eye infections, cradle crap, yeast infections. I cuddled him and read to him and fed him every two hours around the clock. I soon grew to feel what every foster parent dreads: that I didn’t know how I could give him back.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to find out. He was freed for adoption, and I adopted him just before he turned four. I am the only mother he remembers.

I never lied to him, but I put off telling him he was adopted. He was delayed, and I didn’t think he could grasp it. When my niece became pregnant, he was fascinated: Ashley was growing a baby? In her tummy?

He peppered me with questions: What was it like when he was in my tummy? I responded, “You didn’t grow in my tummy.” “Did it hurt when I came out?”, he asked. “I didn’t feel a thing,” I answered. Finally, when he was six, he put it together:

“If I didn’t grow in your tummy, whose did I grow in?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. And he turned ghostly white, the color falling down his face in a line. That week, he would misbehave badly at school, unusual for him. But at least the door was opened now.

We talk about his mother a lot. I tell him that she made the right decision, that she loved him enough to realize that he deserved better than she could give him. I tell him she tried for thirteen weeks to care for him while suffering with a terrible disease, addiction.

Sometimes I let him steer, sometimes I bring it up. He worries that she is still ill. He wants to know she is okay, but I can’t give him that. I ask him if it bothers him that he doesn’t look like the rest of the family; it doesn’t. We sometimes talk about the other biological family members who signed off, and why they could not take him.

I never say anything bad to him about his mother. Neither he nor she deserve it. I tell him what I do know, from a caseworker who knew her family, that she was a beautiful woman from a good home who fell in with a bad crowd, and couldn’t find a way out. We put together a little life book about him, and plan on sending it to his family through DCF so they know he has been taken care of always, and always will be.

I tell him that I feel sorry for her, because she doesn’t even know how wonderful he is. I tell him that I am sorry that she didn’t get to raise him, but that if she couldn’t, that I am glad I got to.

He is 13 now. He does worry. He worries that if one family could surrender him, that I might as well. I reassure him this will not happen. He loves to look at his adoption papers, and we read the words, “This adoption is permanent and irrevocable”.

He has repercussions of his time in the womb, and he expresses anger that he is different because of it. I tell him how hard it is to break addiction, and how horrible it must have been for her to lose him because of it. I tell him, “She didn’t know it was you. If she did, she would have stopped, I’m sure.”

I am fortunate in that I have adopted relatives and friends that can coach me. When we watch movies with an adoption theme, such as Meet the Robinsons or Despicable Me, I use them as tools to open dialogue. My son knows that we can talk as much, or as little, about his other family and his adoption as he needs.

He has wanted to talk about the mechanics of adoption, how the courts work. He has asked for his original birth certificate, which I don’t have. He has asked for pictures of his mother. I think that every adoptee should have a picture of their biological family. What harm could this do?

I know we must always emphasize that adoption is not being rejected, but being chosen. We must always assure that love is the same no matter how someone came into our family. We must never give the impression that an adopted child is second-rate.

I know that my feelings about adoption have evolved. I am no longer threatened by the thought of him finding his other family, and only hope that they will welcome him and expand the circle of people who love him.

I did not intend to adopt a foster child. But now, my feelings about adoption have strengthened: every child deserves a safe and loving home. I wish I had adopted years ago. I hope to adopt again. I wish every family who balks at adoption as some sort of Plan B or consolation prize would see it as a gift and a miracle. I wish every person could know how it feels to give what they have to a child who doesn’t have.

I have gained far more than my son has. I would take nothing to give him up, and give everything to keep him.

About the Family
Lisa MacLean adopted her son, now 13, from foster care in November 2008. Lisa is a course developer, professor, editor and author whose recent works include the worldwide-selling book, “Cracking the Code: How to Get Women and Minorities into STEM Disciplines and Why We Must”. She and her son live in a home full of rescued pets and attend a UCC church.

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