by Beth Hall
Why adoptive parents need to talk about birth/first parents
Birth parents are surely the least understood and most often villified members of the adoption triad. Outsiders to the experience of adoption will often recommend that it is best to ignore or forget them, so that children will not have to face the challenging circumstances that led to their placement for adoption. But in fact, adopted people have to process the complex experience that is adoption, and they need the help of their parents to do so. This mean that whether you feel empathetic or uncomfortable with the idea or reality of your child’s birth parent(s), you must handle your feelings separately from your children in order to free them to explore their feelings without being burdened by yours. 
If the process of navigating feelings about your child’s birth/first parents frightens you, then the danger is your child could become frightened. If you approach the journey of adoption with the understanding that you and your child will grow closer the more you dive into the complex, lifelong conversations about the experience—which necessarily includes their birth/first parent(s)—then you will be able to build intimacy because of the shared courage required when taking an honest and in-depth approach. Children are rarely confused if the adults around them are clear and confident. If they are given reassuring messages that the adults who care about them that are confident, that all is fine, then all in fact is fine for them.
- Remember that without their birth parents, your adopted/fostered child would not be in this world.
- Use respectful language about birth parents.
- Talk with your adopted/foster child about their birth parents.
- Consider an open adoption if you can – it helps children understand their experience.
- Keep your word to your child’s birth parents, always.
- Tell your child the truth, in the most empathetic way possible.
- Think that speaking negatively about a child’s birth parent will strengthen your position as your child’s “real” parent.
- Be fooled into thinking that a child who doesn’t talk about his birth parent(s) doesn’t think about them.
- Assume that because your child’s birth parent(s) are unknown to them they don’t need to talk about them.
- Make assumptions about why your child’s birth parent(s) placed your child (or had your child removed from their custody) – always stay with what you actually know.
Do remember that without their birth parents, your adopted/fostered child would not be in this world.
Embracing the fullness of who adopted and/or fostered children are and who they are becoming, necessitates recognition that it all began with their birth parents – literally. Birth parents are the first parent to every adopted and/or fostered child, by virtue of the fact that they conceived and gave birth to this child who would not be on this earth without them. That is not changed by their later behaviors or decisions; it is simply a fact.
Do use respectful language about birth/first parents.
It is essential that adoptive parents talk with their children about their adoption journey during each developmental stage. Gently reminding even the youngest child that he was, in fact, in his birthmother’s tummy, and also acknowledging that he belongs with you, is a way of always telling the truth, while encouraging him to explore the topic.
All children typically spend a lot of time trying to figure out how they came into their family. This often results in a lot of discussion about who belongs with (or “to”) whom, and where babies come from. It is age-appropriate and normal to see young children wanting to playact about being born. In families built by adoption, this sometimes results in children creating fantasies about how they were born to their adoptive parents, or even born several times to each set of caretakers they have ever had. Again, this is a normal and healthy exploration.
Sometimes parents whose children have been harmed physically or otherwise by their birth parents do not feel particularly grateful or kindly towards the people who hurt the child they now love. It’s important to remember, however, that children are concrete thinkers. Adopted and fostered children think of themselves (and every child) as connected to the person who gave birth to them; therefore, if we speak ill of children’s birth parents, we are essentially speaking ill of those children. Research demonstrates that self-esteem in adopted people is directly linked to the respect and acknowledgement their birth parents were given by the caring adults in their lives.  All people, even those with the worst of problems themselves, have some redeeming qualities that can be valued even if their behaviors cannot.
Do talk with your adopted/foster child about their birth parents.
It is natural to be a little nervous when you bring up your child’s birthparents for this first time. But remember, practice makes perfect. Start while your child is young, so that you can become more comfortable over time. Maybe the first time you will stumble a little as you say the words “your birth mother” or “your first mother.” The next time will be easier. Have you ever been in a situation that scared you a little, but you acted calm and confident in order to engender the same response in your child? Projecting comfort and confidence about the topic of your child’s birth family—even if you have to pretend a bit at the beginning—is the best way you can convince her that this a safe topic. By doing so, you will begin a lifetime habit of open communication about all her family connections.
Keep in mind that adoption is confusing for adults, and perhaps most especially for those who were adopted; adoption was a choice made for them rather than by them. Joyce Maguire Pavao refers to this as “normative crises” in adoption.  It is not unusual for an adopted child to be bewildered about who is the “real” mother, and perplexed regarding the hows and whys of an experience as huge as being moved from one family to another. Adoptive families and adoption as an institution are often misunderstood, and there are almost always aspects of the placement that are not clear. This is just as true for the adopted child as it is for those unfamiliar with adoption. It is because of this that and open and honest dialogue is vital to adoptive families.
Do consider an open adoption if you can – it helps children understand their experience.
When considering adoption, prospective parents are asked almost immediately to a make decision about whether they are seeking an open or closed adoption. Making parenting decisions before you become a parent can be challenging, particularly when they relate to a subject like adoption, about which there are many myths, assumptions, and stereotypes.
An open adoption means there is direct contact and ongoing communication between the adopting family, the birth family and usually the child to whom they are all connected. In a closed (sometimes called confidential) adoption, no identifying information passes between the birth and adoptive families. Related terms sometimes employed include semi-open adoption, in which the adoptive and birth parents meet, exchange non-identifying information, and maintain contact through an intermediary; and cooperative adoption, in which the adoptive and birth parents agree to remain in close and ongoing contact, and the birth parents agree to play an active role in the child’s life.
What we know from research, and the testimony of adult adopted people, is that closed adoption has not worked for most of them. Many adoptees have grown up feeling they didn’t fit in, feeling something was missing, and feeling confused about where they came from. Moreover, many have reported feeling it would be a betrayal of their adoptive parents—whom they love—to ask questions or seek information about their birth families. Open adoption developed as an answer to these haunting issues so eloquently articulated by adult adoptees. To be clear, open adoption is not co-parenting; open adoption embodies honest acceptance of the truth in adoption—that every adopted person has two families, and each family is critical and central to who they are.
The first children of open adoption are now nearing their thirties. Some people respond to the idea of open adoption by wondering if the children will be confused about who their “real” parents are if they know their birth parents. The research is still in progress, but so far, the results indicate that as long as the adults are not confused, the children are not confused. In fact, children of open adoption appear to be less confused than those whose questions go unspoken or can never be answered. Open adoptions in which the parents—birth and adoptive—put their children’s interests first, and understand their supportive but different roles, and are working very well. In addition, by working to remove the veil of secrecy in which adoption was traditionally cloaked, open adoption alleviates the stigma and shame once attached to being adopted, making it a more accepted part of everyday life.
Do tell your child the truth, in the most empathetic way possible.
Many adoptive parents struggle with having to tell their children painful truths, hoping that somehow not telling will actually be easier for adopted children (people) in the long run. The idea that the truth is somehow exempt from being part of someone’s story if it is too “painful” or “difficult,” misses the point of what it means to be honest. Most of us will tell the truth when it is easy and there are no negative consequences. Lying is only tempting when telling the truth is hard.
Children are not adopted for un-difficult or un-painful reasons. While perhaps it is true that there is a gain for all parties in adoption, the gain always generates from loss. If we are afraid of or deny that loss, we are denying the very basis of our relationship as family. By living in fear, we will fall into a trap that has us believe we can’t feel positively about the non-genetic connection inherent to adoption unless we lie about the loss. Alternatively, embracing the loss means our family connection is not threatened by either history or the bond of genetics.
Psychologists generally see lying as a strategy to address one of four issues: 1) avoiding consequences based on fears, 2) mitigating low self-esteem, 3) rebellion against authority or 4) gaining attention (albeit negative) to enhance social status. If you want to teach your children to tell the truth they must see you telling the truth yourself, especially when it is hard. If you model lying, or simply not telling the truth (because we have a “good” reason), then you need to expect your children to do the same.
The primary reason adoptive parents cite for keeping a difficult truth from their child, is their fear that it will have a negative impact on the child’s self-esteem. Psychological research demonstrates that we are not merely the product of our genetic code nor our circumstances. Think of all the amazing people who have become leaders and heroes despite great personal odds. Don’t fall prey to the thinking that children are limited to their genetic and experiential histories—there is so much more to each of us than that.
Don’t think that speaking negatively about a child’s birth parent will strengthen your position as your child’s “real” parent.
Every adopted person has two sets of real parents, both of whom give her love and life in different ways. The term “real” tends to convey a critical judgment, as if only the “real” parents matter. In the end, adopted children come to understand that they have come from their birth parents. As previously mentioned, if a child’s adoptive parents cannot speak positively about the birth parents, the child will eventually see the negative comments as a reflection of himself or herself. She may even begin to take action to fulfill the societal expectation (and perhaps the adoptive parent’s fear) of possessing the negative aspects or qualities of the birth parent(s). Just as you want respect and courtesy from your child’s birth parents, you must show respect for and courtesy toward them. This will go a long way in demonstrating and modeling what it is to be a real parent.
If you are fearful of your child’s birth parents or feel they don’t really matter, it may makes sense to explore your or own sense of legitimacy as a parent. All of us have to face a society that believes “blood is thicker than water.” This makes us, as adoptive parents, more susceptible to self-doubt and uncertainty. But the truth is our strongest ally. Our love for our children, for all that they are—which includes the legacy that they bring from their birth parents—is the strongest cement for long-term family connection.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that a child who doesn’t talk about his birth parent(s) doesn’t think about them.
It is common for children to not bring up questions about many important things like how to make friends, how to treat other children, or how to cross the street safely. But that doesn’t stop us from understanding that we need to talk to them about treat others with respect or how to cross the street safely.
Adopted children need to be told about their birth parents. Genetic heritage does influence people, the only controversy is how much. As parents, we have to help our children feel connected to their heritage. During the latency years, around eight or nine years old, it is common for children to say that they wonder about their birth parents often. This is triggered when they realize most of their friends live with and are parented by their birth parents. As egocentric thinkers, it is common at this age for children to assume that they are the cause of everything that happens to them. This kind of thinking applies to their adoption as well, unless we talk about their birth parents and the circumstances that led to their placement.
Don’t assume that because your child’s birth parent(s) are unknown to them they don’t need to talk about them.
Many adult adopted people describe wondering as children whether they were literally born (separate from having been adopted), since no one ever spoke of their actual birth. It is important for adoptive parents to look at their own motivation should they find themselves participating in such an omission. Every child deserves to be celebrated for their entry into this world, included adopted children, whether or not you were with them at the time of their birth.
In international adoption, adoptive parents sometimes make the mistake of thinking that talking about their child’s birth country is a substitute for talking about their birth/first parents. Ask yourself if you might be doing this because you don’t want to talk about birth parents. If that is the case, then your children will likely sense your discomfort and be hesitant to express their own true feelings to you. In the long run, they will look to you for approval of their natural feelings of curiosity and sadness. These feelings are not a reflection of your parenting or love for them but rather, they are normal responses to the reality of being adopted from another country.
Children who grow up with a positive image of their birth parents are more likely to have positive self-esteem.
Don’t make assumptions about why your child’s birth parent(s) placed your child (or had your child removed from their custody) – always stay with what you actually know.
Here are some common responses that adoptive parents make in response to children’s questions about why they were placed for adoption.
Your birth mother (parent)…
… was too poor to keep you. This sounds like a value judgment that is placed on the birth parent. Most often, being poor is associated with not having any money. Think about how your child will interpret your response. And remember, poor people parent children all the time, so this is not likely to be a reason in and of itself.
… was too young to keep you. In some situations, age may be the reason for placement. Maybe a teenager wants to parent her child, but she is being financially supported by her parents and they are not willing to support her child as well. Age is often only a small piece to a much larger puzzle.
… couldn’t keep you. This will most always spark another question, “Why couldn’t she keep me?”
… had so much love for you she decided to place you. Adoptive parents love their adopted children, so does this mean you will place your adopted child for adoption? Be careful about saying this, it sounds like an easy answer to a very difficult and complex question. Generally birth/first parents don’t place their child (or have them removed) because of love alone.
… didn’t want you. This answer is purely negative and is non-explanatory. If a birth mother does not want to parent her child, there is a reason beyond this. Abandonment issues are automatically present in adopted children. This kind of statement doesn’t help to reassure a child of his place in an adoptive family; it only hinders.
If you have contact with your child’s birth parent(s), this will be a question you can refer to them. If you don’t, then you can conjecture with your child but keep in mind, it is their answer to this question that matters most. Spend more time listening to your child’s thoughts than offering your own; they will feel supported and understood in their journey toward making sense of their own story.
Talking about first/birth parents is an important part of adoptive parenting
Talking about adoption and birth/first parents can feel complicated and scary for adoptive parents and their children who have questions about their identity, and an ever-evolving understanding of the joys and losses that are part of the experience. What matters most is that you talk, because that is how children come to know that it is truly okay to be adopted. And since birth/first parents are how every adopted child began, talking about them is an important part of the conversation.
Beth Hall grew up with an adopted sibling and is the white adoptive mother of a Latinx daughter and an African American son (both now adults). She co-founded Pact, An Adoption Alliance in 1991 to combat the discrimination she witnessed against adopted children of color and their birth families. She is the co-author, with Gail Steinberg, of the book Inside Transracial Adoption (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2nd Edition, 2013), as well as numerous articles on adoption and race. She is a nationally known advocate for adopted children of color who regularly lectures and leads workshops on ethical, anti-racist adoption practices.
 The term triad in adoption applies to the three principle parties impacted by an adoption: the adopted person, the birth/first parents, and the adoptive parent(s).
 The term birth parent applies to the parent that is the genetic parent of an adopted or foster child. The term is evolving and many birth parents now prefer the term first parent to designate their role and significance as one of an adopted person’s parents.
 See Being Adopted, The Lifelong Search for Self by David Brodzinsky et al.
 See Pavao’s book The Family of Adoption.