' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Should I tell my (adopted) child she's adopted?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Should I tell my (adopted) child she's adopted?

Same-size Lorraine and real daughter Jane
You would think that the old and tired question of whether to tell your ''adopted" child she or he was adopted would have gone the way of Fifties Poodle skirts and Sixties love beads. But you would be wrong.

Over at Salon the guy who writes the advice column "Since You Asked" finds himself responding to an I-own-this-remarkable-kid-adoptive-mother who basically asks if her daughter ever need to be told the truth of her origins, and oh,. how she is wrestling with this question. (This issue of truth in identity must be in the air because yesterday's column idea--about daddies--seemed to come to me out of the blue.)

Are you friggen' kidding me? In this day and age?

Why not wait until some truth-telling cousin spills the beans? Or your best friend's daughter who is friends with your  daughter, and who has heard her adoption spoken of at home, blurts out the

news when the two fight, even though she's been warned never to tell? Of course she going to spill the beans one day. Of course. It's too juicy a secret to keep. 

First, Adoptive Mum talks about how she was at the edge of a nervous breakdown in her awful corporate life before she adopted:
"I was completely washed out, I would be suicidal if that did not require an effort and the ability to feel. And then like a miracle I got my baby. I remember being quite ambivalent when I went to meet her. Yet, something clicked when I held her. I felt a sense of fierce belonging I have never felt before and I know my baby knew me too." 
Hmm---what is wrong with this mental picture? That "fierce sense of belonging" to someone else's flesh and blood creep you out a bit? Did me. 

"Can't We Just Forget About It?" goes on to say that since everyone's teenage years are filled with angst, why should she add to that by telling her adopted daughter the truth? "Can't We" says the child's birth mother can't be traced. (Really? I found myself asking--why not? Was she a drop-off at a hospital after a home birth and there is no original and true birth certificate?) And she kinda implies that maybe she will tell the kid later on, but goodness gracious, how is she going to do that? 
"What if knowledge of adoption compounds this angst? Leads to greater estrangement? I am going crazy, Cary, I can’t think straight. Isn’t love enough."
Well, no. It will surprise you to learn that Truth is better. Always. You might want to talk to some late-discovery adoptee (LDA) about this. They usually are not, er, thrilled to know their adopters have been lying by omission to them all those years. And the child is probably going to find out eventually one way or another, and then have enough "angst" to put Kafka to shame if Kafka were still alive! More angst than you have ever dreamt about in your craziest freak-out-adopter moments! Her letter ends with the observation that whenever she hears the kids of Tom Cruise or Brangelina being referred to as adopted, she sees red. Her own daughter hasn't started school yet, but she is torn up about this awful and unexpected torment of adoption. Boo Hoo.

Columnist Cary Tennis does start out well enough. He points out that someone else may tell your precious child the truth, and then you can explain it, but he then asks what it would be like if you, Dear Adoptive Mum, learned this about yourself: "That might not be a bad thing. You might acquire a new, more flexible notion of selfhood." That sounds, well, flexible, all right. Like Spandex--and Spandex is a good thing. Right? We need a LDA to set the record straight.

The advice is the smooth Pablum that adopers love to hear: that the adoption issue really won't be that important in the individual's life, that love and a good home will have taken care of any issues that might arise, and that maybe once she learns that she is adopted, it will even be a "gift" to her. Yes, that is what he wrote. I can hear you all gagging all the way to Sag Harbor. I suppose it will be a "gift" if the adopted individual by then hates Adoptive Mum so much that she is ever so glad that she is not related to her in any way shape or fashion, just by the odd circumstance of being in the wrong place at the right time. He does go on to say that his best friend in junior high was adopted, adding: 
"...and it bothered him. I don’t think it was the fact that he was adopted. I think it was the way his parents handled it. The being-adopted part of it just stood in for a much larger grievance."
Oy vey. He just can't see or doesn't know that adoption is a world-altering piece of information, and not the simple matter he is so intent on ensuring the letter writer Adoptive Mom. Cary admits that myserious origins will be an issue of some degree but cannot help himself, he downplays the magnitude again and again, as if he is reassuring himself:
"Well, there is another mystery that if handled well could be a kind of enlightenment: For who among us can say with any certainty that our origin is not in some way a mystery to us?
"Let’s put it this way: What does it matter whose car we came in? We’re at the party now.
"We step out and there are glittering lights and a carpet and we walk up the steps to be greeted by old friends and new. Whose car did you come to the party in? What does that matter? We’re here. Let’s find the coat check."
I'm finding it hard not to be both furious and amused with his unknowing and mindless response--did he do ANY research about what it means to feel abandoned at birth and raised by genetic strangers? Did he not watch one single interview with Walter Isaacson about Steve Jobs and the sense of abandonment that Jobs felt because he was given up for adoption, even though his college-educated mother certainly made a plan because she wanted the adoptive parents to promise they would send her boy to college.

Although we first mothers hate to think that what we did was in any sense abandon our children, when we sat there with the our social workers, hour after hour, spilling out or sorrow as the adoption proceeded, perhaps it is time to revisit how being given up plays in the heart of the adopted. We will better understand them when we are reunited if we accept that no matter how the adoption happened, no matter that we felt society and our parents had a gun to our collective head, no matter what, to the individual given up, adoption registers as abandoned at birth. If we want reality in language, we need to start with ourselves. I don't have to say "I abandoned my daughter," because it doesn't feel like that to me, but I should accept that she must have felt that I did. As I write this I recall the day we were play acting and she put her hands around my neck and shook me, repeating over and over: "Why did you give me up?"  --lorraine
A side note: Obfuscation in adoption language and feelings seems to be coming to the forefront. I just finished reading Joan Didion's latest memoir, Blue Nights, and she misses so many distress signals from her daughter about what being adopted meant to her, Quintana. More on that coming soon. 

See also: Adopted People Are Not Allowed Ancestry Because It Might Upset Somebody
for first mothers:  Writing the first letter
and to read this noxious column:  How do I tell my daughter she’s adopted? 
If you leave a comment please direct readers over here for www.firstmotherforum.com.  Thanks.


  1. I'm glad you brought this up - I read that post and the comments (!) -things like being "being born in my heart" and the typical adoption puke-fest.


  2. Un-freaking-believeable! Especially in this day and age. My son found out he was adopted at 12, by accident, from a school therapist. I believe that was the beginning of the anger, distrust, dishonesty, etc., that has plagued his life.

  3. I'm cathching up on new comments to this letter at Salon. Glad to see some outstanding comments from adoptees and mothers!

  4. Okay - so idiocy is piled on stupid. First, the parts that don't make sense - she is a 38 yr old burn out, whose had a break down and was still approved to adopt?

    Not tell the adoptee... hmmm, can we say if she finds out later it is going to create what she fears the most? Losing her little mental health crutch.....


  5. I say this is adoptive parent delusion... "My child will have no issues with being adopted. She'll be different than the rest. Our relationship will be exactly as if she was born to me. So why SHOULD I even bother to tell her?"... Gee, I wonder what happens if her first mother finds her. It sure would blow her mind to have her other mother show up when the daughter didn't even know she existed. Yikes.

    Btw, so now adopted kids are even better than anti-depressants?


  6. Awful. I'm in the middle of a blog post about it, and then saw you'd beat me to it!

    The worst line for me was the glee with which the adoptive mother said the child's birth mother was untraceable. . . .

  7. Robins, thats how i saw it too. She had everything else in life and it did not fulfill her so she needed something else...another little human but wait she was unsure at first then whamo....the baby did it. Fulfilled her. so now because she is use to having it her way she is unable to think of the what the child needs....it is after all all about her.

    Yup, nice little antdepressant. I can't help but think what is going to happen to this child when she exerts her own biological/adoptive personality. Another nervous breakdown and the child has to deal? Or another case of fully compliant child who never knows who they "really" are because they are so use to keeping everyone else happy?

  8. From Cary Tennis under the comment section at Salon (apparently he got an earful):

    Cary TennisSalon Core Member
    Wednesday, November 2, 2011 at 11:12 am

    I got some angry, name-calling personal notes about this column, which shocked and frightened me with their ferocity; it was like being yelled at. So it is good to see that the letters here are on the whole reasonable and goodhearted.

    I can see how the car metaphor was offensive to some. I didn't mean to offend anyone.

    The letters to me personally charged that I had advocated this parent lie to her child. I think that was a misreading. I think I said it would be wrong to deceive the child. But I did not take the opportunity to provide clear and unambiguous instruction. I didn't provide a timetable by which the parent ought to inform the child. I didn't think it was my place to tell the mother what to do in such stark terms. She's a stranger to me. Those who read this column know this column is not really about giving stark, explicit instruction. As far as practical advice, there is much better advice in the comments than in my response. But that is frequently the case. What I do is a little different, and I reject the premise that my column should follow certain rules, that it should decide issues as if it were a court of law, or that it should resemble all other columns of similar format. The very reason for its existence is that it does not resemble other columns.

    One thing the letters I received alerted me to is that there is a very angry group of adoptees out there whose rage has perhaps not yet been heard by the general public. This seems to be a stage of social progress, leading to greater sensitivity and awareness in the long run. Wherever we look at struggles for liberation and equality, we see that strident, angry voices are a part of it. I think it's completely appropriate. And those of us who, by dint of luck as much as anything else, have access to the media megaphone are well advised to hear that anger. So I hear it. I don't like being called names, but it's worth it if I'm able to learn something. I learned something here.

    Cary: Welcome to the world of writing about adoption.

  9. Oh, how I've tried to rationalize Salon's adoptive-parent-heavy biased editing and story publication. (Even some adoptive parents agree how biased they tend to be.)

    I'm glad to see Tennis swallow crow and conclude that, indeed, strident voices are a part of social justice's genesis.

    We'll see if he follows through.

  10. Lori - I worked for an agency for a time. Homestudies were rubber-stamped through regularly, social workers were lied to by potential adopters regularly.

  11. Wow, maybe were making a dent! Love the fact that he heard the adoptees.
    My blog today was about the fact that IMO we mothers that don't raise our children ABANDON them. I think all the sugar coating does no one any good. In fact when telling my story I think I'm going to start saying "When I was 21 I abandoned my child to adoption. I was coerced by my family and society. Yes it is very sad, isn't it".

  12. "The worst line for me was the glee with which the adoptive mother said the child's birth mother was untraceable."

    But I bet the kid isn't untraceable. It took me a couple of letters and a few weeks. If the agency hadn't cooperated, I already knew.

    The woman is a loon ... I shudder to think what will happen when the kid goes ballistic. Notice, I didn't say if.

    Gary Tennis seems rather young, sheltered, inexperienced, and doomed to be shocked often. Did he think treating an adoptee as "it" would go unnoticed? I doubt that he was aware he did it. He is speaking of a human being, not some professional accessory.

  13. unbelievable that question would even be asked! I will add that not only that should be told to adoptee but all information that the adopted parents know. Personally I just learned the name that my first mother gave me and that information was held from me for 37 years. It makes me wonder what other information is not told becuase it view as unimportant.............yet its my connection.....my identity

  14. I'm glad Cary Tennis responded as he did. I suspected he would take notice of the comments - he often re-visits an issue when people point out things he failed to take into consideration. He strikes me as a thoughtful, considerate guy who is willing to listen and learn, unlike the pretentious doctors-know-it-all (Drew and Phil).

    Re: Robin - "Btw, so now adopted kids are even better than anti-depressants?"

    Yes, even Lindsay Lohan wants her own little adoptee to help cure her substance abuse problems! (God forbid this should ever happen).

    With enough cash anyone can buy a baby to make them whole -ain't it grand?

  15. Re Anonymous: "Homestudies were rubber-stamped through regularly, social workers were lied to by potential adopters regularly."

    My child was placed with an adoptive mother with serious health problems. Somehow a young healthly mother such as myself was inferior to an older, sickly woman.

  16. I cannot believe this question. If I hadn't read it on the Salon website, I would have thought it was from The Onion (a news spoof website). And the response should have been "start talking to your child immediately about adoption," not some type of lukewarm wait and see approach.
    But the line in the original letter that most creeped me out was: "Yet, something clicked when I held her. I felt a sense of fierce belonging I have never felt before and I know my baby knew me too." I am an AP mom to a son adopted from Korea. I "knew" him from 2 pictures and a few well-baby visit statistics. I certainly did not feel a "fierce belonging" when I first met him, and he definitely made it quite clear that he didn't want to leave his foster family. We were strangers---how could he know us?!
    Children should not be used to preserve or restore mental health; that is unbelievably selfish. Who would want that burden?

  17. I just read the Salon article but will read the comments later. Maybe I'm just being my suspicious f-mom self, but I don't think this was written by an adoptive mom I think it was written by an adoptee who's read or been told some of the things we say and is obviously very clever to be able to write a letter like this I found it very interesting and helpful The part about being just a car -Ha-I jokingly referred to myself as one at one of the adoptee-firstmother support groups I went to for 7 years before realizing that my scapegoat days needed to stop. It's either various pets or animals or different kinds of cars that we are subtly and not so subtly compared to. Like I said, maybe I'm just being paranoid. But adoption is enough to make anyone crazy

  18. I am heartened by the writer's response to the letters. The car comment made me angry. I don't know how many times a day I hear the sentiment "family is everything" yes, unless it is ours.


  19. I wish adoption would go the way of Fifties Poodle skirts and Sixties love beads.


  20. Sorry, but while I completely agree with the sentiments expressed in response to its content, this letter rings inauthentic

  21. I found out I was adopted at the age of 23 during an argument with my female adopter. I hate them all for lying to me and have nothing to do with any of them to this day. I had an horrific time during my teenage years. Did not fit in anywhere or feel comfortable at home with my apeoples. I attempted suicide but instead of my adopters telling the doctor I was adopted they instead told me I was nuts and barely spoke to me after the incident. I was defective goods. No help, care or compassion. Their lies had to be protected at all costs..... almost cost me my life.

  22. My problem with this letter, which I am convinced is bogus, is that I can imagine a similar letter written from the supposed POV of a stereotypical happy birth mom/adoptee or a bitter birth mom/adoptee.
    There is a phoniness about a debate bounced between constructed versions of opposing stereotypes (such as the "ignorant adoptive mother" ) that turns people off.
    If, as I believe, the letter is inauthentic, it is being used to influence public opinion in a manipulative and dishonest way.

    It is all very well to justify such an action by saying well, this is what the "other side" (for example, the NCFA and LDS) does, so it is permissible - i.e, "fair game" as the Scientologists call it - to use the same kind of shabby tactics as they do.
    But a strong persuasive argument such as open records and OBCs for all gains nothing from being twisted in such a way. In fact it distracts disturbingly from the real issues.

  23. I have to say I have heard MANY adoptive mothers speak this way about "their" children". I have seen with my own eyes a potential birthfather write that he wanted to slap the "birthmother" that decided to keep "his " baby. This guy can not be considered ignorant either he is a pediatrician. He could be considered ignorant in his lack of knowledge on who the baby is before papers are signed, he could be considered ignorant for thinking that he owned this little human being just because someone, also in ignorance, said they could.

    I believe this letter is authentic because i have seen variations of such attitudes on many forums. Its no joke, its not someone trying to skew attitudes...its a real problem that some adoptive parents have. I have also seen the parents of donor conceived speak in this way. "Their" baby is all about them and their needs, hurts, wants the baby themselves is not even thought about in their oh so wonderful love of this child.

    If in fact this letter is not authentic it does hits some pretty common attitudes that are out there and if others want to negate it I believe they are just in denial.

  24. Lorraine wrote:" my husband he said, that unless adoption touches your personally, you just don't pay attention to it or read anything about it, and assume that it's honky-dory for the adopted."

    That hasn't been my experience at all. Whenever I talk to someone who has no personal connection to adoption at all, s/he intuitively thinks it is a negative thing. That it would be difficult and painful to lose one's bio-family continuity and that they think along the lines of Steve Jobs' little neighbor who thought being adopted meant your REAL parents didn't want you.

    I think this is why the pro-life movement and the pro-adoption people work so tirelessly to put a positive spin on adoption. Because they know that most people don't see it that way.


  25. I suspect we'll never know if the letter was authentic, but my guess is that some version of it is. It was most likely edited, but the content was true; or a version of several letters. Or...Cary Tennis heard versions of this from his acquaintances and wrote it from that.

    I think he's learned a bit about adoption. If we were surprised at how clueless he was, my husband said, that unless adoption touches your personally, you just don't pay attention to it or read anything about it, and assume that it's honky-dory for the adopted. Cary went so far however, to dismiss his junior- high friend's trouble with his family, and not attribute it to adoption. There is so much adoption today among the 30-40-50 something educated today today that the rest of the world wants to believe that it's all cool, no big deal. Maybe he wants to adopt himself.

    November 4, 2011 8:18 AM

  26. Robin: I've been away a bit but meant to answer you: It's one thing to tell someone that you are adopted; another thing to read about adoptee angst or birth mother anguish or the movement to open records. Yes, your acquaintance will relate to what they assume is painful; but until that moment, they are not reading our side of the story. If they were, Didion (see next blog about Blue Nights) would not be so clueless.

    Last year I wrote a post about one of my husband's college friends who came to visit. I had never met them before. When I told them about my experience--what do you write? always comes up--the woman was surprised that I had the deep feelings and longings I did. Her only experience with adoption previously (other than happy adoptive parents) was that the sister of a friend of hers had also given up a child. She was rather astonished at my reaction.

    We are not getting through to the masses; if we were, adoptees would have their original birth certificates. Unlike the gays, our movement has not yet reached critical mass. That's why I always encourage everyone to speak up, act out, demand your rights and do not hid the truth under a bushel about your right to know the truth of your origins. Everyone person you do not tell is another opportunity missed.

  27. I watched a heartbreaking video yesterday that shows a young mother giving her newborn son over to his adoptive parents in the hospital room. It was very upsetting. I showed it to my a mom, and she watched, dry eyed and said, well why did she do it then? She has no sympathy for a woman who gave up a baby, my mother included. She says she just can't understand a woman giving up a baby no matter what the circumstances. I felt for the poor little baby being deprived of his beautiful, young mother to be raised by a cold older woman. She grabbed that kid up and couldn't get out of there fast enough. It was horrible



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