So What About Dad? Creating Space for Birth Fathers in Adoption Stories

Birth fathers, even if unknown, influence the lives of adopted children. However, birth fathers are rarely considered important in adoption stories. In the absence of factual information, adoptees develop fantasies, which are imaginative stories about their birth fathers. Adopted children create these imaginative stories, filled with internal images, thoughts and feelings, so they can wonder about the birth father-- his personality, his likes and dislikes, his goals, his relationships, his struggles, what he is like as a man and what he would have been like as a father. Adoptees do this in an attempt to connect to their birth fathers and to make sense of their own identities. By encouraging discussion of both positive and negative birth father fantasies, adoptive parents can play a significant role in helping their adoptive children form more secure attachments and develop more positive identities.

Fantasies we have of our fathers influence our self-images and our relationships with others. Even children whose fathers are dead, absent, or never known "fill the void" by developing imaginative stories about their dads. Although they might not always let their parents know what they are thinking, adopted children develop a wide variety of birth father fantasies. A relationship between birth father and adoptee always exists, even if the connection is made through fantasies about the birth father.

We all know that the common thread that runs through adoption stories is a focus on the birth mother. Usually, the birth father plays a lesser role or isn't mentioned at all. By not asking: "So what about your birth father? Do you ever think of him?" we do not give the relationship between the birth father and the child placed for adoption the significance it deserves.

Family narratives, or stories about our families, are so important because they give meaning to relationships and shape identity. Stories about fathers are central to family narratives. Most of us can remember asking many times, each time hoping to learn more than the last: "Daddy, what did you like to do when you were a little boy?" or, "Dad, did you have a temper like I do?" or "Tell me how you and Mom met." Even if our fathers were not physically present in our lives, we nevertheless had our mothers or other family members who could fill in the missing pieces so we would have a pretty good picture of our fathers. Adopted children want to solve the mystery of an unknown past. Therefore, when adoptees have little or no information about their birth fathers they try to fill in the blanks in their family narratives with fantasies about them.

Birth father fantasies serve as a crucial internal connection between adopted children and birth fathers. They influence an adoptee's view of themselves and they impact upon how they relate to men in their lives. Some typical birth father fantasies include:

  • My birth father abandoned me because I wasn't good enough. I always have to be good so people won't leave me.
  • My birth father is a loser because he didn't have a job. I want to be just like him so I'm never going to work.
  • My birth father must have been a nice guy. So maybe other men in my life can be nice guys, too.
  • My birth father left my birth mother because they argued all the time. I guess relationships end if you disagree.
  • My birth father must have been really smart and is a doctor. I want to get straight "A's" in school so I can be just like him.

Some adoptive parents worry that if their adopted children think about or talk about their birth parents, it means they will love them less and love their birth parents more. As a result of this worry, some adoptive parents avoid encouraging any discussion about birth father fantasies. In reality, talking with adopted children about birth father fantasies strengthens attachments with adoptive parents.

By changing the typical adoption story to one that includes imaginative stories about the birth father, adoptive parents are helping to enrich and enliven their adopted daughter's view of birth fathers as well as improve her self-image and her relationships with men. By asking: "So what about your birth dad? What do you think he is like?" adoptive parents are helping to broaden an adopted son's view of masculinity and what it is like to be a man… to be a father. We need to remember that this alternative adoption story that includes birth father fantasies is not a static, one-time telling. It is a lifelong conversation between parents and child that is retold and reworked, depending on the age and life circumstance of the adoptee.

To help your adopted child feel safe talking to you about birth father fantasies, adoptive parents should initiate conversations about birth fathers. It is important to approach these conversations with an accepting and nonjudgmental mind-set so that your child can feel comfortable sharing with you all his imaginative stories about his birth father, both positive and negative. Talk with your child, not at him. It's hard not to fall into the trap of lecturing or dismissing a child's thoughts and feelings as incorrect or unimportant, especially when parents don't feel equipped to help their child deal with the many complex feelings that could come up when talking about birth fathers. All conversations should be two-way discussions in which adoptive parents convey that they are really interested in hearing about what their child is thinking and feeling about birth father fantasies.

Don't be discouraged if your child appears to be uninterested in talking about birth father fantasies or tells you that she never wonders about her birth father. By showing your child that you are curious about his birth father fantasies and that you also wonder about his birth father, you are creating an atmosphere of safety and security. Eventually your child will feel confident enough to discuss his birth father fantasies with you. Adoptive parents should be aware of their attitudes about their own fathers. How you experience your father will affect how you talk to your child about her birth father fantasies. To really give adoptees the space to speak freely about birth father fantasies and share their imaginative stories with you, it is essential that adoptive parents be as comfortable as possible with their own fantasies about fathers.

Conversations about birth father fantasies are crucial since they serve as a needed bridge for adoptees between past and present, between known and unknown, between who they are and whom they believe their birth father to be and between fantasies about fathers and actual, lived experiences of fathers and men. By giving adopted children the space to create imaginative stories about birth fathers and include them in their adoption stories, adoptive parents can provide a vital link to birth fathers, even if the connection is through fantasy. Through ongoing discussion of birth father fantasies, adoptive parents can help their adoptive children better integrate the often conflicting images about birth fathers into a more whole internal image. And this, in turn, can have a positive impact on identity development and even strengthen attachment to adoptive parents.

Jeannine Zoppi, PhD, is a clinical psychologist licensed in NJ and NY. Dr. Zoppi has a private practice in Caldwell, NJ where she specializes in the treatment of adoption issues, adult survivors of childhood abuse, PTSD and trauma. She is a member of The Path2Parenthood Adoption Advisory Council.

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