Thursday, November 3, 2011

Why We Tell the Truth

At Salon's advice column, Since You Asked, an adoptive mother essentially asks for permission NOT to tell her child she's adopted:
The only problem, Cary, is that despite being educated and well informed, I can not imagine telling my daughter that she is adopted.

* * *

From the start I started getting irrationally offended when friends referred to it. I cut off someone because she said “oh, she has really taken to you.” Like, why should she not, she is my daughter. I regret that this was shared with the whole family and I had a bit of a showdown where I made it clear that this is not something we discuss or even refer to whenever we meet or ever. Everything I read tells me that this information should be shared early. However, I also read that adopted children grapple with the issue, agonize over it. I mean, why should my lovely daughter have to deal with something her peers do not? Also, her birth mother cannot be traced. The information will really not help her get her genetic or medical information. If after a childhood of happy memories she does come to know, would it really shock her so much? Surely she would be strong enough to deal with it then.

* * *

I am going crazy, Cary, I can’t think straight. Isn’t love enough? . . .  I just want to be her mother, not her adoptive mother.
Even worse, after a few stabs at suggesting it might be a good idea to tell her the truth, the columnist gives her the permission she seeks:
What would you learn if you learned you were adopted?

You would learn that what you thought was true wasn’t true. It would be more a kind of unlearning than learning. It would be an acquisition of not-knowledge.

Maybe it would be like learning that most of the universe is dark matter and dark energy. You would have to start over. That might not be a bad thing. You might acquire a new, more flexible notion of selfhood.

For one thing, you would have to conclude that you are not your genetic origin, right? Ideally, you would learn that you are a unique being, much loved, who came to be in a particular family here through unique circumstances.

* * *

Let’s put it this way: What does it matter whose car we came in? We’re at the party now.
Wow.  I don't even know where to start. How about with birth-mother-as-car?  And if it's international adoption, I suppose she's an exotic foreign car?!  Now, I'm familiar with the whole birth-mother-as-medical-equipment thing, as merely a pass-through body, as the wrong tummy.  But this is my first exposure to birth-mother-as-car.  God.

So I guess we need to go back to the basics of WHY we talk adoption with our kids.

1. We tell our children from the very beginning that they are adopted because it is in their best interests that we do so;  whether it is best for us, the adoptive parents, doesn't matter.  It is good for us, too, but the only thing that really counts here is our children.

2.  It is every human's right to know their own story.  Our children's stories begin before we enter the picture, even with newborn adoption.  They have a right to know, we have a duty to tell.

3.  Openness and honesty are FUNDAMENTAL to healthy relationships, and that includes the relationship between parent and child. How would you feel if someone you loved kept a big secret from you "for your own good?"  Once trust is destroyed, it will be nearly impossible to get back.

4.  Keeping secrets is hard.  All the psychic energy put into keeping adoption a secret takes a toll on the adoptive parent and the parent-child relationship.  If you have to be so careful NOT to reveal the secret, and guard against anyone else telling the secret, where's the room for a genuine relationship?

5.  It is almost impossible to keep a secret that anyone else knows.  I remember walking in on an adult discussion as a child and learning a BIG family secret.  Children eventually find things out, and one social worker has written that adoptive children, who often feel the presence of secrets, are more likely to snoop in order to discover those secrets.  How do you think a child would react to learning the truth from someone else, rather than from her parents?  See breaking trust, above!

6.  Don't you want your child to hear it from you instead of someone else?  Who do you think would do a better job of telling your child she's adopted -- you, or her cousin taunting her about it?  Face the fact that it is inevitable that your child will find out.  Let it be from you, who can be gentle and supportive, not from near-strangers.

7.  We keep bad things secret.  So if you are keeping adoption secret, once your child finds out, she will learn from your previous silence that adoption is bad, shameful, something not to be discussed.

8.  Biology matters.  It isn't safe for an adopted person to assume they share the same genetic heritage as their adoptive family.  Filling out medical history forms, needing a blood transfusion, any number of reasons make it important for adoption information to be shared.  This is the case EVEN IF WE CAN'T SHARE INFO ABOUT BIRTH PARENTS BECAUSE WE DON'T KNOW IT!

Can you add to the list of WHY we must disclose early and often in the comments?

Oh, and you might want to check out the reaction of first mothers to the Salon piece at Birth Mother, First Mother Forum. And check out this piece in the Australian Family Relationships Quarterly about late-discovery adoptees and their issues.

I've always thought that the WHY of telling is a no-brainer.  Harder is the HOW of telling, which is why I tend to blog more about that.  Here are some previous posts that I hope are helpful on the HOW of telling:

Ten Commandments of Telling
Talking Adoption Tips
Planting Seeds
Have You REALLY Told Her She's Adopted?
"Let's Play Adoption"
Telling About Abandonment
Crafting Your Adoption Story
Should You Talk? Should You Wait For Questions?


nichole said...

That answer is so shockingly ignorant and arrogant I kind of can't see straight right now.

nichole said...

(I mean the columnist's answer! Your response is thorough and right-on. See what I mean, I'm totally fragmented. Thank you for this post.)

Liz said...

Number 8 on your list is the one that immediately came to my mind. Also, what happens when the daughter is an adult and is pregnant with her own first child and starts to ask her mother questions about what it's like to be pregnant/give birth/etc.?

Reena said...

Aside from all the ethical reasons you list for this mom to tell her daughter she was adopted--it sounds like a lot of people in their life know. She will never be able to keep this secret so she is setting her daughter up.

Anonymous said...

Not telling is committing FRAUD by omission. I can't believe someone would do that to somebody they claim to love. And I can't imagine the victim of that fraud ever trusting her parents again.
Courtney (AP to Koren adoptee)

Anonymous said...

Well this will be unpopular but here goes:

First, let me preface by stating I believe all children have the right to know they are adopted and agree completely with Malinda's list.

However, I am an adult adoptee who was not told until well in to my upper twenties. Somehow the "secret" was kept by family at large and I had no inkling or suspicions guiding me to ask or consider adoption.

My family ( adoptive ) promised my birth mother that my adoptive status would always remain a secret at her insistance and they kept that secret for her, despite reaching out several times and asking her to reconsider over the years.

Ironically they did tell my younger brother of his adoptive status.

It was only when my father was ill & dying, my birth mother agreed that I could be told. She does not however wish to have contact with me.

Its a strange new world for me now, but not one I hold rage against. It is what it is. Not the hand dealt I would have wished for, but then again, most things that fall into the "bad news" category are not. And by "bad news" I don't mean adoption per se, but rather the betrayal of not being told.

Sometimes I wish I had never been told. That's the god to honest truth! Or never been told so late in life!

Who should I blame for the deception?

I have, instead, decided to simply move foward and save the assignation of blame for others.

Just wanted to add another twist to this discussion. It does happen ~ it did to me. If anyone is reading this, birth mother or AP's who find the option of not telling attractive or best for the child....please reconsider!


Truly Blessed said...

Years ago we lived next door to a lady and her nephew. He was about mid-30s, she was in her 70s. We moved away but came back to visit often and was surprised to learn that the nephew had purchased the house next door to ours and was living there alone. When we saw him, he was simply bewildered. He told us that he had recently found out he was adopted and couldn't live with his Aunt anymore and didn't know who he could trust anymore. He said that every adult in his family had lied to him his entire life and he was having a really hard time getting past that. Bewildered, is truly the only word that fits what this man's demeanor was every time we saw him after that.

I cannot fathom any adoptive parent not telling their child their story -- from birth on. But the letter writing mom in the advice column will likely rationalize her decision and one day her daughter may walk around as bewildered as my former neighbor was, unable to trust any of her own history because all of the adults in her life lied to her.

Truly Blessed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

We have told our children their stories from early on; in that retelling and sharing of our origins as an adoptive family we honor their life before us and those that came before us. We continue to honor them by not shirking our responsibility and belief that ethically speaking sharing is right.

That is their right and frankly their birthright.

No excuses for not telling.

And yet, please make no mistake: it is hard, dam* hard to peer into a tiny trusting face; a face you cherish above all else, and tell them that they didn't grow in your tummy like their brother or sister, but were brought home through adoption.

Its not ugly, the word adoption, but let me say that anyone who has watched the emotions flicker across a child's face ~ confusion, possibly fear or anxiety, sadness....once they TRULY begin to intuit just what adoption means and the losses inherent with the gains....well, its not all academic or black and white. There are times many of us wish we could spare them from that reality. From being "different".

The truth yes...but is it so hard to fathom a mother's love blinding her from not wanting to tell or wishing to delay? Not so much. Not from where I am sitting tonight.

She needs to tell, yes....but its no so surprising her wish not to.....


Kris said...

I really didn't realize there were still parents who did not tell their adopted children the truth. One piece of advice we were given: The child should always have known. In other words, they shouldn't remember the day they "found out". It should be something they have always known about themselves. How arrogant to keep this kind of information from the child.

Campbell said...

Joanna, thank you for sharing your experience. So many scenarios in adoption, I hadn't heard or read that one.

Who should you blame for the deception indeed.

Anonymous said...

Kris - I've heard that same advice. Our kids were 5 and. 2 when they were adopted, so of course our 5 (now 6) year old will remember. Our 2 (now 3) year old won't, but I can't imagine not telling him (even if he didn't have his sister to remind him). We've definitely made an effort to make sure that adoption is never a new concept.