How to tell the truth about adoption

by Adele Pereira

A witness appearing before a judge, in a court of law, swears to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Surely the people in your life, with whom you have chosen to have or maintain a relationship with, deserve the same no-holds-barred plain and simple truth. But many of us have not been taught HOW to tell the truth; in a way that it is well received and understood for what it really is.

On top of that, since we haven’t heard anyone else really talking about adoption, we have no clue where to start and how to go about it. Of course, different people have different types of relationships with you, on different levels of intimacy and so, of course require different ways to be told the truth.

This is how we told each of the categories of people in our lives:

  • Immediate families: long personal conversations without their children present. Then later we told their children in age appropriate ways and videotaped it so that we could replay it for our adopted children.
  • Relatives, friends (old and new), colleagues: short personal conversations with those we meet on a regular basis and a creative, suspense filled PPT by email to those we meet rarely.
  • Neighbours, those who work for you or come to deliver stuff to your house: short personal conversations

The most important person you have to tell is YOUR CHILD. This is about her/his life and s/he deserves to know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Of course, you will tell the child different amounts of information in different ways all through their lives. Just as you will not send a 3 year old child to college, you will not tell a 3 year old child something only a college student can understand. So you have to tell a 3 year old what a 3 year old can understand and keep adding to that as s/he grows older.

But first things first! Here are some important guidelines to help you tell the truth about adoption:

1. Document as much of the adoption process as you can: 

Make notes, take snaps, write down details on your calendar/diary/phone as they happen. You cannot possibly remember everything that happened, so the more you document, the more information and tools you have to share with your child. My favourite photo of all time is the one where I first held my long awaited baby girl. If I didn’t have that photo, I would still have the powerful memory of the event. But having that photo makes it an unforgettable reality for me and for her.

2. Get familiar with the right terminology:

All of us learnt our abc before we learnt to make words and then sentences with them. So learn the right words to use to describe adoption and it will become a lot easier to form sentences with them! Moreover, when you show you are confident with the use of these words and your explanation of the adoption process, people will automatically respect your privacy because they won’t have the words to ask unnecessary questions!

For example, many well meaning people have told me “it’s good you have adopted, now just see, you’ll have your own child too”. (wink, wink). I tell them, “Oh aunty, Esther is not my biological child, but she definitely is my own child.” By saying that, I am making it clear to the aunty (and to Esther who has heard this conversation many times) that our intimacy and belonging as a family is an entirely different matter from us being biologically related – just as my OWN husband is not biologically related to me either. Then after the conversation with the adult ended, I would keep telling Esther- you are my own, my only, my baby girl, my precious daughter, my princess- all along stressing on the word MY.

Similarly, curious aunties have hesitatingly asked us- Do you know who her parents are? Or do you know her real parents? A big smile on my face helps them understand the answer clearly- Selby and I are her real parents because we are the ones parenting her and we’re not legally allowed to know anything about her birth parents/the woman who gave birth to her/her tummy mummy. Then we go one step further to really seal the matter: “When she turns 18 years old, she is legally free to ask the adoption agency to reveal all they know about her birth family and if she wants to do that, I will wholeheartedly help and support her.”

Now the real question they want to ask is- “Aren’t you afraid that she will go back to her real parents?” But the smile on my face and the confident answer to the previous question has nipped this question in the bud. And hopefully, the next time they ask an adoptive parent such questions, they’ll use the term birthparents not real parents.

(If you Google positive adoption language, you’ll get many more examples of the right terms to use.)

While these words will help you communicate with adults, you must find other words that your child will understand, words that are familiar in your language and cultural context. For example, we call the stomach ‘tummy’, so we’ve taught our daughter that a pregnant woman is a tummy mummy, meaning she has a baby in her tummy. Using this terminology, I’ve explained to her (before age 3) that:

  • I never was a tummy mummy meaning I never had a baby not even her or her brother in my tummy
  • Everyone has a tummy mummy- meaning everyone came from some aunty’s stomach.
  • She also has a tummy mummy in whose tummy she grew from a small baby to a big baby, then she came out and came home to live with us, her dada and mama.

3.   There is no RIGHT time to talk to your child about this. There is no RIGHT age:

The longer you postpone the first conversation, the harder it will be to start the conversation. The time is now, because the relationship you are building with your child, you are building right now, not in the past or the future. So right now, just focus on explaining the facts to your child as she would understand them at her current age. Instead of approaching it like a formal announcement or important instruction to be given to the child, take full benefit of daily conversations and ‘teachable moments’ – like every time you see a pregnant woman, tell your child that’s a tummy mummy because she has a baby in her tummy. In this way, you are building her understanding of a basic concept that allows you to have many meaningful conversations with her about her adoption as she grows.

4. Children are resilient beings. They can handle the truth:

They are created to be so because they have to undergo so much change and adjustment in the normal course of growing up. Every single day, in a young child’s life brings physical, emotional, intellectual and social change, that the child himself has to adjust to. Adults react badly to change and any life-changing news because we have stopped growing up. For children, change is an everyday part of life and so by nature they are resilient. Moreover, in the case of adoption, you know for a fact that your child is resilient. By the time your child comes to you, s/he has already survived being separated from her birthmother in whose womb she lived for 9 months, being handled by many caring strangers- police, hospital staff and adoption agency staff and have been through many medical tests that are required by law. Some children have survived crying for help (on the road / dustbin / train / nullah) after they’ve been abandoned, some have survived surgery. Children are resilient. They can handle the truth.

I’ve experienced tremendous joy and peace in the process of telling my daughter about her adoption, because every time I do, I rejoice in the fact that she is alive, safe and in my life as my daughter and at peace that she is getting better prepared everyday to accept her history as it is and will be confident to face the world about it.

If you would like some practical ways to start telling your child she’s adopted, please take a look at the article titled ‘Fun and effective ways to tell your child she’s adopted!


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