Find Us on Facebook

Talking About Adoption – Family Living

by Mari Mennel-Bell

Positive talk about adoption emerges from feeling good about it, from feeling that your baby came into your life as a matter of much-welcome destiny.

Several years ago, I went out for dinner with a friend, may newly adopted infant, and my four-year-old son. I remember thinking proudly, “Look at me, the mother of two, and life is going so smoothly!” But on the cab ride home, my friend asked, “Do you know anything about the baby’s mother?” In a flash, my confidence crumbled; and for an endless moment, I felt like a child pretending to be something she’s really not.

Drawing in my breath, I replied softly, “I am his mother.” I could sense that my four year old, whom we had also adopted, was listening attentively. And I went to explain that because our baby’s birthmother was not yet ready to be a parent, she chose me to be his mother.

An adoptive parent who is asked such a question will want to consider several points. First, how can you avoid taking this type of question too personally and withdrawing emotionally from the person who asks it – or worse yet, from your baby? Second, how can you handle insensitive comments or questions with tact and authority? And finally, how can you build a strong foundation of self-esteem in your child so that the adoption does not become a highly charged issue later in life?

Current Trends in Adoption

Answering questions about adoption means acknowledging the numerous changes that have taken place over the past decade. In earlier times, unmarried women were expected to carry an unplanned pregnancy through to birth in seclusion and shame. Today, many single birthmothers are not only going public during pregnancy, but making their own adoption plans. Deciding that one is not ready to parent a child requires a great deal of courage, however, and society offers little if any support.

Fortunately, courage abounds. Many of today’s birthmothers are using progressive adoption agencies or independent (private-placement) adoption so they can be in the driver’s seat. They insist on picking the prospective parents of the baby, arranging for their preferred level of contact with the adopting couple (phone conversations, letters, or meeting and getting to know the family), and choosing how and when to say good-bye to the baby, who will give the baby to the new parents, and what kind of contact they will maintain with the family. In short, the birthmother is finally beginning to control adoption.

Birthmothers are also demanding that hospitals be more respectful of both their situation and the needs of the baby. Regrettably few hospitals are sophisticated enough to deal openly and sensitively with the birth of a baby about to be adopted. As a result, hospital births are still fraught with disappointment for birthmothers. Forward-thinking people, however, are pointing out that babies should experience as little time as possible without a mother and that the transition from the body and arms of the birthmother to the arms and breast of the adoptive mother should occur in a quiet, reassuringly darkened, warm room. Hopefully, we will soon see an end to the days spent in a noisy hospital nursery and the transfer accomplished in a hospital parking lot.

Bonding with Your Newborn

As an adopting parent, you can begin right away to build a strong foundation of self-esteem in both yourself and your baby. The first step is to realize that “a mother becomes a mother through the intimacy of her relationship with her baby.”(1)

The night after my friend’s comment, for example, my baby was unusually colicky. As I paced the floor with him at 2 am, and again two hours later, I could not help crying and letting myself think the unthinkable: “Maybe she’s right. Maybe I really am not his mother. Would his birthmother be able to console him better than I could?” The next morning, when he awoke and gave me the world’s most appreciative, all-adoring smile, I knew that in his eyes I am his mother. And I remembered that Eliza had chosen me to be his mother because she was not yet ready to parent in a way she thought a child should be parented.

In the first days at home, an adopting couple can do much to facilitate the lifelong process of bonding. Since you did not share the gestational months with your baby, the following ideas will help make up for the loss of those initial experiences. First and foremost, answer your baby’s cries promptly. This will help build a foundation of trust, a deep sense that you are and will be “there” for your child. It will also build your confidence in knowing that you understand your baby better than anyone else does. (Your baby will know you are trying to help, even if you do not successfully solve every immediate problem that arises.)

Be careful not to overestimulate your baby. Amid the instructions to family and friends, reserve plenty of time for quiet intimacy.(2) Acknowledge baby’s need to be peacefully alone with you, getting to know you. If you have something soft and familiar from baby’s birthmother or the hospital, keep it close by; the continuity will help adjust to life in a new context. Be with your infant as much as possible, both day and night, and ignore all comments that suggest you are spoiling your child. (Babies cannot be spoiled from love!)

Also arrange for lots of physical contact. Wear your baby in a frontal infant carrier – not only outside the house, but also indoors, while doing chores. This will create a womblike experience, soothing for both you and baby. Consider the family bed, an age-old sleeping arrangement that allows for real familiarity. What better way is there for baby to come to know your smell (a very important sense to an infant), the rhythm of your breathing, and the feel of your heartbeat? Read up on infant massage; touch and stroke your baby to your heart’s content; sing and dance together to all kinds of music (try James Taylor’s version of “Getting to Know You”(3)); bathe together regularly; and let baby doze on your bare chest. Skin-to-skin contact goes a long way toward deep bonding, and toward healing any wounds suffered on the individual paths that brought you to adoption.

If you decide to bottle-feed, hold baby in the nursing position – nestled against your bare chest, when possible – and remember that eye contact is a way of reaching into the heart. In lieu of bottles, you may prefer a nursing supplementer. This ingenious device, when filled with formula (or any other liquid) and hung from a ribbon around your neck, will allow baby to suck from a tiny tube resting on top your nipple. Baby’s sucking actions may initiate lactation, although you are not likely to produce as much milk as a mother who has given birth. It takes determination to master the mechanics of the supplementer; but once you do, your baby will almost certainly nurse with gusto. Having used a supplementer for seven years, I can say that this gives a nursing mother and baby an opportunity to experience profound feelings of connectedness.(4)

Early in my first child’s life, I wanted to be able to nurse on demand – anytime and anywhere – so I sewed two pockets onto a halter, one under each arm, to hold the supplementer’s Lact-Aids under my clothing. After my second child arrived, the boys would occasionally nurse together . . . until one day, my almost-four-year-old son announced he would like the supplementer filled with apple juice, which he proceeded to sip while curled up on the sofa. This gentle form of weaning served us well.

Comments about Adoption

People’s comments about adoption stem not from a desire to hurt, but rather from ignorance and discomfort with the subject. Many preconceived notions about adoption derive from the negative adoption language used in society. To overcome hurt feelings, simply reflect on some of your own preconceptions and ways you’ve found to overcome them. Work on feeling more natural and at ease when you talk about adoption, and remember that children take all their early cues from their parents.

Dealing with unsolicited comments means taking command of the situation, and this requires preparation. So sit down with your spouse, and find words and phrases that feel right to both of you. If you have an older child, consider that he or she may be listening to conversations and drawing personal conclusions.

Some people may ask very personal questions and tell insensitive stories about adoption in front of your child, as though he or she were invisible. If someone asks, “Do you love her like your own?” you can reply, “Of course. She’s my child.”(5) If a stranger remarks, “Where did he get that gorgeous red hair?” you can say, “It was a gift from God.”

Positive adoption language (PAL) is essential, says Pat Johnston, a researcher in adoption terminology. According to her, “the real mother” or “the real father” is inappropriate use of language. Likewise, “the natural parents” is inaccurate because the phrase implies that the new mother and father are unnatural, artificial parents.(6)

Rather than refer to your child as adopted, refer to your family as created through adoption. Try to help people understand that adoption is a process – a way to create a family, not a label to be placed on a child. When people ask how your family came into being, say only what you are comfortable sharing. Do not be embarrassed to say something simple, such as “Yes, our family was created by adoption; it was a thrilling experience for us when John became our child” and then change the subject. To those who persist beyond your level of comfort, you can say, “How children come into a family is their story to share.” Remember that children, especially as they grow older, have rights to privacy too.

Equally important are the words you use to describe the transfer of your child from the birthfamily into your family. Phrases such as “They gave the baby up for adoption” imply an uncaring motive. To avoid a negative portrayal of adoption, mention that the birthmother “made a plan for the baby’s adoption,” “arranged for an adoption,” or “selected our family to parent the child.” Rather than saying, “When we got the baby” or “When we picked the baby up,” try “When we brought the baby home from the hospital” (or wherever the transfer took place).(7)

The Impact of Media

The media image of adoption leaves much to be desired. News commentators and TV producers often sensationalize adoption issues. Researcher George Gerbner of the University of Pennsylvania found that on television, “nearly one in five adopted characters decides to hunt down . . . [his or her] birthparents, a number that exaggerates by 18 times what real-life adoptees do.”(8) Prejudicial language and misrepresented story lines also portray adoption in a negative light.

If your children are exposed to these distortions, you can transform the experience into positive learning by modeling ways to maintain a healthy skepticism toward the media. Let your children hear you question views expressed on TV or radio. Also teach them to speak up when someone expresses a limited viewpoint on a subject. This way, when your children hear negative talk about adoption – in the media, at school, or from friends – they will regard it as another misunderstanding in society rather than a flaw in themselves or their life circumstances. As your children become empowered, their friends will regard them as experts on adoption and will look to them while forming opinions on the subject.

When you hear or read something upsetting, take action! Respond to negative reporting. Write your legislators about issues that arise. And encourage birthmothers, adopting parents, and teens or adults who were adopted to share their stories and help change the image. As your children mature, they may want to join you in speaking up on adoption.

Answering Your Child’s Questions

Adopted children want to know about their birth, about the adoption, and, particularly as they get older, about their birthparents. If you are able to refer to your child’s birthmother by name from the beginning, you will set the stage for conveying a natural, matter-of-fact attitude to your child.

Children respond more to the feelings and nuances behind words than to the words themselves,(9) so try to resolve your feelings of entitlement before your child begins asking questions about adoption. “Entitlement” is the sense that your child is unequivocably your own child. Jerome Smith and Franklin Miroff deal with this experience in their book You’re our Child: The Adoption Experience. Other helpful resources include Linda Bothun’s guide When Friends Ask about Adoption, Elizabeth

Hormann’s book After the Adoption, and Lois Melina’s monthly newsletter Adopted Child(10)

Some of your child’s questions may seem to come out of the blue; others will be clearly sparked by situations. If, by age five, your child has not begun to ask questions in response to your open talk about adoption, it is a good idea to stimulate conversation. You might ask, “What do you think adoption means?” The book Susan and Gordon Adopt a Baby is a fun way to introduce the concept to a child between the ages of one and six.(11) The arrival of a sibling is an ideal occasion for sharing the process of adoption and how miraculous it is for the family. Another way to create dialogue is to share the excitement of friends who are adopting a baby, and to tell your child what it was like for you.

Answer your child’s questions literally, honestly, and as simply as possible. If your child is not much of a questioner, you may want to end each answer with a forwarding thought. For example, if your child asks, “Where was I born?” you might answer, “You were born at _____ hospital (or in the city of _____) because that was where your birthmother lived.” Avoid overwhelming your youngster with information. Trust that the questions reveal what sort of material he or she is capable of dealing with at any particular time.

The next question may not come for months. Our first son was two and a half when he asked. “Did you take me to the hospital to be born?” “No,” I replied, “we brought you home from the hospital after your birthmother Sarah gave birth to you.”

Days or even months later, your child may ask, “Was I in your belly?” Now is a good time to explain, “No Daddy and I could not make a baby because. . .”

Eventually, your child will ask, “Whose belly did I grown in?” or “Do I have two mommies?” These questions indicate a new level of understanding about what adoption means. In the process of answering them, help your child explore the underlying feelings. Ask questions about the questions – for instance, “Do you like to think of yourself as having two mommies?”(12) Take your cues from the phrasing you hear, and remember that your child’s ideas about adoption are age appropriate and still evolving.

At some point, your child’s birthfather will be of interest. If you have little information about him, consider Franz Rohr’s advice: “Rather than to say nothing, it might help a child if the adoptive parents tell him they believe the [birth]father was a fine person since the [birth]mother loved him.”(13) Remember, the way in which children view adoptions becomes the way in which they will help their schoolmates and friends understand and respect it.

Children often want to know why their birthmothers made plans for them to be adopted. The best response is to create a frame of reference. You might say: “Do you remember how you wanted to climb to the top of the monkey bars last year? As much as you wanted to do it, you knew you weren’t ready to. That’s sort of the way your birthmother felt about not being ready to take care of a baby. It was simply not the right time for her to be a mommy.” Explaining that she was unprepared to care for any baby will prevent your child from jumping to the conclusion that he or she was a bad baby.

Adoptive parents often worry about whether their children will want to “search” for their birthparents. This worry usually dissolves as the entitlement process and the parent-child bond become more secure. Once you “know in your bones” how vital you are to your child, you will realize that no one can threaten this relationship.

Confident in your role as mother, you may even decide to initiate or reinstate contact with your child’s birthmother if the two of you have been out of touch. A holiday greeting or news of a sibling’s arrival is a good opener. And she, regardless of your original agreement, may appreciate hearing that you and your child are well and happy. Your child will be glad, too, just knowing that you care enough about the birthmother’s feelings to share with her the exciting events of family life.

Children whose needs are met openly and lovingly throughout their lives feel comfortable with their adoption. Moreover, as a recent Bryn Mawr study on the adjustment and identity formation of 260 adoptees points out, when children are adopted before the age of two, “if parenting attitudes and skills are positive and strong, the relationship differs little from that of nonadopted children.”(14)

I knew that speaking positively about adoption was paying off when my four year old overheard me ordering flowers to be sent to Eliza upon the birth of our second child. My son’s little face lit up, and he nodded enthusiastically, saying, “Oh, yes! To tell her thank you.”

Positive talk about adoption emerges from feeling good about it, from feeling that your baby came into your life as a matter of much-welcomed destiny. You were meant to be your child’s parent in the same way that any parents are “meant to be” parents. As Fleur Conkling Heyliger puts it:

Not flesh of my flesh

Not bone of my bone

But still miraculously my own.

Never forget

For a single minute

You didn’t grow under my heart

But in it.


(1.) Peggy O’Mara, “Of Cradles and Careers,” Panel #308. A talk given at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York (Summer 1986). (2.) Elizabeth Hormann, After the Adoption (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1987). This lovely book discusses ways to bond with children of various ages at the time of their adoption. (3.) On the cassette tape For Our Children (The Walt Disney Company, 1991), a benefit production for the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. (4.) To learn more about adoptive nursing, contact your local La Leche League or Lact-Aid International (800-228-1933), or send $2.50 to Mothering for a copy of Elizabeth Hormann’s article “Nursing the Adopted Baby,” which appeared in issue no. 24 (Summer 1982). (5.) Linda Bothun, When Friends Ask about Adoption (Chevy Chase, MD: Swan Publications, 1987). This helpful question-and-answer guide is available for $4.95 plus $1.05 postage and handling from Swan Publications, PO Box 15293, Chevy Chase, MD 20815. (6.) Pat Johnston, “Speaking Positively: An Information Sheet about Adoption Language.” For a free copy, send SASE to Perspective Press, PO Box 90318, Indianapolis, IN 46290-0318; or call 317-827-3055. (7.) Ibid. (8.) Psychology Today (Nov 1988): 12. (9.) Jerome Smith, PhD, and Franklin I. Miroff, You’re Our Child: The Adoption Experience (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1987),p. 59. (10.) See Notes 9,4, and 2; subscriptions to Adopted Child are available at $22 a year from PO Box 9362, Moscow, ID 83843; 208-882-1794. (11.) The Children’s Television Workshop, Susan and Gordon Adopt a Baby (New York: Random House, 1986). (12.) Bernice Hauser, at The Horace Mann-Barnard School (Bronx, New York). (13.) Franz Rohr, How Parents Tell Their Children They Are Adopted, p. 18, This booklet is available for $1 from the New York State Adoptive Parents’ Committee, Inc., 210 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010. (14.) Kenneth Kaye,” Turning Two Identities into One,” Psychology Today (Nov 1988): 46.

Mari Mennel-Bell live with her husband Joel Greenbaum and their two sons, Fritz Evan (8) and Jamie (4). They recently moved from New York City, where Mari served as adoption workshop coordinator for a hospital-affiliated parent education program, to New Paltz, New York, where she is studying for her master’s degree in social work. She also does adoptive nursing counseling through the La Leche League network.

COPYRIGHT 1992 Mothering Magazine
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

One Response to “Talking About Adoption – Family Living”

  • Jona:

    Hello there! I could have sworn I’ve been to this website before but
    after looking at many of the articles I realized it’s new to me.
    Anyhow, I’m certainly pleased I came across it and I’ll be book-marking it and checking back regularly!

Leave a Reply