My five-year-old son, Victor, has known his birth parents his entire life, and he’s met all of his birth aunts, uncles and grandparents.
We go to adoption gatherings and meetups, and he knows umpteen kids who were adopted. We talk about adoption, we read about adoption, and we stand out as an adoptive family. Sometimes, I feel like we are adoption. The problem is we’ve done such a great job of normalizing adoption that Victor thinks all kids were adopted.
This came to light while reading I’m Adopted, a children’s book that explains adoption in simple terms through photos and text. I always ask Victor which of the kids in the book look like his friends or have similar situations. He’ll point to a girl and say, “That’s like Sophia,” and we’ll talk a bit about her experience joining her family. He gets to see that he’s not the only one who was adopted, that all experiences are different, and that he has peers and a real community.
Why wasn’t he adopted?
We’ve talked to Victor a lot about how he entered our family: how we all slept in the living room that first night because of a suffocatingly hot, record-breaking heat wave; how he took the bottle right away; how he went through a record amount of diapers; how cute he was, and how happy we were to finally be a family with a child to hold and to love.
My own feelings and memories are always there lurking in the back of my mind, though: how we witnessed his birth mother sobbing on the hospital bed the day we went to pick him up; how it felt like the worst kind of torture; how that memory still brings me to my knees; how we relived the grief during the first visits with his birth family; and how we watched them struggle to come to terms with one of the most difficult decisions a person can make.
How do I explain to a five-year-old that most people never have to experience this–-that most kids’ parents simply talk about that wonderful day they gave birth to their children? How do I explain that most children stay with their original parents and family, never have to wonder what life would be like had they stayed, and never have to ask “Why?”
All the (wrong) answers
I hadn’t ever anticipated needing to explain why some kids live with their biological families. This is the societal norm; we adoptive families are the exception. Somehow, though, we’d managed to normalize adoption to such an extent that he thinks all kids were adopted. This question is really the flip side of the big adoption question, which is “Why was I adopted?”
A series of inadequate and troubling responses blew through my brain.
“Well, because Kris lives with his birth parents.” (Wrong terminology.)
“His birth parents kept him.” (Ugh.)
“His birth parents didn’t give him away.” (Double ugh.)
“He lives with the parents that gave birth to him.” (Confusing.)
“His birth parents didn’t place him for adoption.” (Still confusing.)
“He only has one set of parents; the ones who gave birth to him.” (Ouch.)
“He doesn’t have birth parents; he has, well, parents.” (Makes no sense.)
Finally I simply said, “Because he lives with his parents.”
Luckily, Victor was bored by then and moved on to other pressing issues, like which zombies are the most powerful and which snakes are the fastest.
Books to the rescue—sort of
Although Victor seemed unscathed, his question preyed on me, and I wanted to strike the right chord the next time he mentioned it. I looked through our book collection, and found How I was Adopted by Joanna Cole. We read the story, which is narrated by a little girl. “Many children stay with the women who gave birth to them,” she explains. “Some children do not. Some children need to be adopted the way Mommy and Daddy adopted me.” Victor liked the book and seemed satisfied with the explanation. Phew.
A few days later, I told my husband that Victor thought his all his friends were adopted. Victor looked at us quizzically. “Mom,” he said. “What does adopted mean?”
Apparently it means we still have more work to do.
Charlotte Taylor is a mother in an open adoption with her son’s birth parents.