My son has always loved hearing his adoption story. He will occasionally ask for me to recount it before bed, rather than reading a bedtime book. Maybe it’s the way I over-animate it, maybe it’s the way he feels special and loved when I tell him I couldn’t wait to get my arms around him, maybe he just wants to get out of practicing his sight words for a night….
It starts out with me telling him how much we wanted a baby to love. How Mommy couldn’t have a baby in her belly, so instead we wished for him. And then one miraculous day, we got a call telling us that our baby boy was born. So we ran around the house like crazies, packed our bags, drove to the airport, and flew all the way to Missouri. We ran as fast as we could straight to the nursery to find him sleeping, waiting for his family to arrive.
I tell him how Daddy was the first to hold him, how he smiled and whispered, “My son,” and then Mommy scooped him up and said, “My little prince,” and we rubbed noses. And from that day on, we were a family and our special wish had finally come true.
As the years progressed, we introduced a few more terms into the storyline so that he understood there was a ‘birth mom’ and that she consciously picked us to be his mom and his dad. We showed him a map so he could see exactly where Missouri was, relative to where he lived in Connecticut. And for a while, that was the extent of the discussion, although we always knew the day would come when he’d want to know more.
For now, we’re content with the fact that we’ve successfully integrated this story into the family dialect in a way that was positive and self-affirming for him. To ‘normalize’ it had always been the goal. We wanted him to feel as though his adoption was an event that happened in his life, not something that defined him as a person. And thankfully he seems to be getting it, even at 6.
Still, we were prepared well by the agencies we worked with on what to do when those questions eventually did come. We were coached to answer what was asked, as briefly as possible, using a Yes/No response when warranted. We were told it was best to let him to take the lead. He would ask us whatever was on his mind at a time when his curiosity and emotional capacity would best be able to handle it. We were also reminded that this was a journey and that there was no rush to try and answer it all in one sitting, or to provide overly realistic or candid answers to difficult topics that perhaps weren’t age appropriate.
And then the day finally came when he did want to know more.
I don’t remember the day of the week or what, if anything, prompted the conversation. But I definitely remember being caught off guard and having to physically catch my breath when it started. Perhaps it was my surroundings…Why is it that the most challenging questions our children can possibly ask us come out of nowhere and in the oddest of places? He had just gotten off the potty, completely naked, and I was about to give him a bath! Regardless of where we were, there was no putting it off.
“Mom, what was that lady’s name – my birth… my birth mmm….”
“Birthmom? Do you mean the nice lady that carried you in her belly and made us a family?” I asked.
“Yes, birth mom. That’s right! What was her name again?”
“Her name is Haylie, sweetie,” I say, and wait for a reaction.
“Haylie. Ok.” He pauses briefly, then shifts his gaze upward and looks me directly in the eye from down in the tub.
“Why didn’t she want me to be her baby? She didn’t love me?”
In that very moment, I felt my heart shatter inside my chest and I wanted to burst into tears at the sheer thought that my child felt unloved, even for a single moment. My mind raced wondering where he’d heard such a phrase, because that was not language we ever used in our home. Was it school? Did he see something on TV? Damn parental controls on that iPad, that thing was going straight in the trash! But I had to collect myself quickly, and be both positive and clear in my response.
“No buddy, that’s not it at all. In fact, she loved you more because she wanted you to have the happiest life and she felt she was too young to give you that. She wanted you to have a nice, happy, and warm home with lots of toys, friends, good schools, and two parents who loved you more than life itself.”
He took a moment to digest the answer, fiddling with his bath toys while I continued to shampoo his head.
“OK…So then what did she look like?” I appreciated the question for a brief moment.
“Well, you get your blonde hair and sweet round face from her. And, she was short, like mommy is.” This made him giggle for a bit because I’m usually getting picked on for my height relative to how he seems to be growing like a weed, and will likely surpass me before he’s out of 4th grade. I hoped the physical description would help him see where she and he were similar, but also where she and I were similar. I wondered if perhaps we were done with this round of questions, but he had one more.
“Is she….Is she my real mom?”
Holy smokes. For a moment I’m pretty sure I blacked out. This was THE dreaded question. I steadied myself and put on a smile.
“Sweetheart, there’s no such thing as a ‘real’ mom or a ‘fake’ mom. There’s just mom. She gave you life, but I’m your mommy. I’m the mommy that cuddles you after we read bedtime books, I’m the mommy who plays with you, takes you to a friend’s birthday party, the mommy who loves to go on rides at Disney with you. Just because you didn’t come from my belly doesn’t change that I’m your mommy.”
I waited for a moment to see whether he was internalizing it, as it’s the toughest of concepts. He didn’t say anything so I continued, offering a path forward.
“Is it a little confusing to say mommy and birth mommy together?” He nods his head.
“OK, so what do you say we just call her Haylie, and love her because she’s Haylie. And you can just call me mommy and love me because I’m mommy. Is that easier?”
He says yes, almost relieved to situate us in his little brain.
“Great!” I tell him. “That’s what we’ll do, then. What do you say we finish up in here, brush our teeth, and then you can go pick out a book for bed.”
He asks for a few moments to play with his bath toys. I realized I needed the moment as much as he did, so I went into his room to get his pajamas out, I steadied myself on his bureau, and took a deep, cleansing breath to collect myself. Then I got right back in there and finished the bedtime routine…because that’s what mom’s do.
Admittedly, after he fell asleep that night, I shed a small tear next to him. I felt good about where we landed and how I was able to manage the discussion. He got it, and that was the most important thing. Frankly, it’s the only thing that actually mattered.
Still, there was a small part of me that struggled with the fact that there were “two” of me in his world. I couldn’t help but feel a little… expendable. He didn’t understand quite yet that there were two people in his original equation – a birth father – in addition to his birth mother. But it wasn’t time to go there just yet. Eventually he’d figure that math out and we’ll handle those questions when they come as well.
For now, we took a small but very significant step forward in broadening his understanding of what it means to love one another, to take care of one another, and that it’s our commitment to each other by choice that made us a family. For now, this was about inclusion, feeling loved by many vs. one, and that there can be enough room for us all in his heart.
Susanne grew up in Westerly, RI and for the past 12 years has called Trumbull, CT her home. She works full time from home as a Clinical Project Manager at a Boston-based medical device company, and is mom to an energetic and very funny 6 year old son, Dylan. Susanne met her husband, Sean, in 2003 and they married in June, 2006.