By Carolyn Berger, LCSW
When my biological son, Zach, was born I remember looking at him and thinking how he didn’t look anything like I’d imagined. With his dark wavy hair and olive skin he looked very different from the pink baby with just a touch of blond hair that I had been. Yes, he was definitely a stranger—but one that I would get to know over time.
Ethan, my adopted son, couldn’t have looked more different. His birthmother pushed with all her might and there he was-- pink with a touch of blond hair. He looked like someone I could have given birth to, but my overwhelming thought was, “Hello, little stranger.”
So no matter how each of my sons entered the family, I felt the same in the beginning.
As I raised my sons, an underlying theme was how parenting was the same for each of them and how it was different. True, there were groggy days when I forgot which one I’d adopted and which one I’d given birth to, but usually Ethan’s “birth status” was in the back of my mind, informing many of the things I said and did.
An adopted child is like any other child, but there’s another layer to his identity. This other layer is something we talk about frequently and I keep in mind always.
Ethan has a birthmother and a birthfather who are indisputably a part of who he is. I make sure to honor his birthparents whenever possible. On the way home from the hospital I began practicing: “Ethan,you have gorgeous blond hair—it’s like Barbara’s hair,” I said. When he got older and started playing the drums, I told him that Michael, his birthfather, was a musician, too.
When you’re an adoptive parent you need to recognize that your child’s identity is formed not just by one or two parents but by four. Whether the adoption is open or closed the birthparents are with you. If your child isn’t bringing them up in conversation, you should—because they need to know that it’s okay to talk about their birthparents.
My kids fought a lot and once the unthinkable happened. I came upon Zach telling Ethan he was more a member of the family than Ethan was—because he had Mommy and Daddy’s genes. Inside I recoiled. I was angry with my older son, but I stayed calm and said, “You know your Daddy’s a lawyer and he will tell you that according to the law you are equal—the law, not genes, is what counts.”
Whew! I felt wrung out for the rest of the day. But, when I picked Ethan up at nursery school his teacher pulled me aside. “Ethan told the whole class he was adopted,” she said. “And he told them he didn’t have his parents’ genes but that he was equal to his brother Zach.” I learned that Ethan revealed all this with a sense of pride. I was stunned!
Sometimes with adoption the worst moments become the best teachable moments. You have to be ready for them.
When you become an adoptive parent, you become an adoption educator. If someone asks you in hushed tones whether you’re worried that the birthmother may change her mind and come back to get your child, you will want to explain that this very rarely happens. Or, when you hear a birthmother stereotype you may counter this with the fact that birthmothers are a varied group of people—no, they’re not all teenagers living in trailer parks in the South—and, they have names other than “the birthmother.”
Like Angela. Or Marie. Or Claire.
Your job as an adoptive parent will be to promote adoption as a normal, healthy way to create a family. It will help your child and it will help other children, too.
In her article “Caretaking Your Child’s Adoption” Dawn Smith-Pliner talks about adoptive parents’ responsibility to hold on to everything they know about their child’s background so they can answer questions as they come up.
You’ll need to answer these questions with honesty and sensitivity in age-appropriate ways. And if you haven’t got the answer to something, you need to tell your child that you don’t know it but that you will try to find it—with all your might.
If your child hasn’t been in touch with his birthparents you may discover he has many questions when he hits the teen years. And, if there are facts about his beginnings that are disturbing, you will need to find a way to explain this so that it will inform him and protect his sense of his own identity at the same time. This can be especially difficult if your child was conceived through rape or incest, or a birthparent is in prison. But it can be done.
Does this sound daunting? It is! Parents who have adopted have many challenges. After a while you may find yourself embracing these challenges—they are all a part of who your child is.
Know that as difficult as it can be at times, the experience of parenting an adopted child is an enriching one. You may even find yourself enjoying the complexities.
Carolyn Berger, LCSW, is Chair of Path2Parenthood’s Adoption Advisory Council. She has a private practice in Manhattan and Larchmont specializing in Fertility, Adoption and All Family Building Options.