Before anyone’s imagination runs wild, I’m not talking about that “B” word. I’m talking about another “B” word – one that plays a much larger role at my house. And many others.
Because of human biology, we all have a birthfamily. Nothing will ever change that fact of life.
Yet birthfamilies can present a dilemma for families who’ve adopted. Whether the place was here in the United States or abroad. Whether the children were newborn or older.
The same goes for those families fostering wards of the state, raising step children or assuming responsibility for kin. Eventually, most children will bombard their current parents (or caregivers) with questions about their other parents.
The ones that gave them birth.
Probably sooner than later. And especially during May and June when special days celebrate mothers and fathers.
These holidays are not an easy time.
What goes through an adopted child’s mind when making a Mother’s Day card at school? Which mother? Do fathers count too? How about bringing baby pictures to school – when you have none? Where does a family tree project truly lead? Who’s roots are more important?
Over the years I’ve conversed many times with my six children about their birthfamilies. They came to me as two separate sibling groups.
For starters I am always honest. Yet I respect their feelings and share any negative fact in a positive way. When lacking details, I generalize – using my own birthfamily as a guide, never an absolute. At the end of the day, a little information or insight is better than none.
Without question, a parent saying “I don’t know” will be interpreted as “you don’t care.”
The ones that gave them birth.
On the surface these conversation may appear to be a once-and-done. But in reality, those conversations continue for years in many children’s heads, regardless of their willingness to share with their new parents.
How am I like my mother? In what ways do I resemble my father? Are our interests and talents the same? Who am I – really? Do my parents ever think about me?
Each is a simple, human question which all individuals – not just those adopted – routinely ask themselves. I surely did, when developing an identify as a teenager and young adult.
And every person needs an identity to feel whole.
Over the past 19 years as an adoptive parent, I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum in talking with my kids. One group of siblings hardly knew their birth parents, but the other had nearly a decade of experience.
I should have seen the handwriting on the wall. Yet no one ever talked to me about my children having two families. That’s right – two families! The one before the adoption and now me.
Several years after adopting my first sibling group, I lucked out and was able to contact the birthmother through a third party. My children and I briefly met her, took pictures and visited a handful of times over the next two years. Although the birthmother respected my boundaries and enjoyed herself, my four young children showed little interest in more interaction.
Perhaps the visits made them sad. Perhaps the visits left them wanting more than she would ever be able to give.
For the time being, their curiosity had been satisfied – which was a blessing. Shortly thereafter, their birthmother disappeared for the next 12 years. Since then, my oldest daughter – with the most recollection early in life – expressed her desire for additional contact, believing she carried the responsibility for her three younger brothers.
How could I argue with that? In fact, I admired her empathy which mirrored my own. I was also proud of her determination to dig deeper into their roots.
Meanwhile, the birthfamily experience with my two oldest sons took a very different turn.
Before they moved into my home, their birthmother requested voluntary contact semi-annually – since her rights had been terminated. The child welfare case manager agreed to be the go-between for privacy reasons. Although open to the idea, I needed time to think.
Well, that plan went out the window.
The birthmother spilled the beans during her final visit with her sons. With that brief 30-second conversation, my sons assumed the plan was a go. Furthermore, they were certain that she would send Christmas and birthday gift – because she promised.
And thus, their fantasy began.
Still cautious, I allowed my sons to write letters and send school pictures under my supervision. This resulted in six or seven large envelopes being sent to the case manager who forwarded them to the birthmother. After that, we waited and waited.
For months my sons ran to the mailbox – hoping for a letter or a package. Nothing arrived. No letters returned undeliverable.
Then one of my sons accused me of hiding her Christmas presents.
With those angry words, the damage had been done – even though I wasn’t his actual target. I was simply the convenient adult in the line of fire, like thousands of other adoptive parents.
Soon we went to court to finalize the adoptions – 15 months after the initial placement. With the child welfare case closed, the case manager could no longer forward letters. And without the birthmother’s address, our efforts to communicate stopped.
But the grief of two boys – 10 and 11-years-old – did not. Frustration turned to anger.
In hindsight, my sons were re-traumatized – probably more than once.
Should I have refused their desire for contact? Of course not! Their anxiety certainly would have been much worse, with me their enemy – and never their new father.
A hard lesson in life for them. A tough lesson in empathy for me – which pushed us to connect as a family and further understand one another.
When both became adults, they found their birthmother on Facebook. The long-awaited reunion began. Yet the fantasy didn’t exactly have a storybook ending.
Although she was relatively stable, bad habits die hard – like her not keeping promises.
But my sons had seen for themselves and could no longer blame me. That’s the day I truly became their father for life. DCP
Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE
To learn more about Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love, Craig’s soon-to-published memoir about raising six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love
To follow my son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page Andrew Peterson Goes for the Gold