My Daughter's Story

When our children come to us through adoption, how do we explain it? When your child's origin story is a tale of tragedy, how do you respond?
11/21/2013 09:58 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

When our children come to us through adoption, how do we explain it? When your child's origin story is a tale of tragedy, how do you respond?

Most of us, these days, don't try to keep it a secret. We didn't. We thought we did everything right. Emma always knew she was adopted. We put pictures of her biological family in her photo albums. We read her picture books about adoption. We sang "Happy Adoption Day" to her at bedtime. We thought that would make it all OK. We were wrong.

I remember sitting in Emma's bedroom listening to her cry about the family she didn't know, and feeling utterly unable to respond. I understand, I think, how Bertha Serrano must have felt in the pediatrician's office when her son burst into tears because he didn't grow in her belly. Loving parents want to relieve their children's pain. We want to make it better. Of course we do.

When Serrano talks about her book, Born From The Heart, I can see her trying to make it ok for her son. She wants to prove to him that she loves him, that she really wanted him, that he wasn't her second choice. She thought that what he needed was "assurance that he and she had a bond as strong as biology." She goes on to say,

"When he asks, 'Where is my mom? Where did I come from? Why did my parents leave me?' -- I want to turn it around and instead concentrate our energies on how much your dad and I wanted you, and how much we were fighting to get you. That's the story that he needed to hear," Berta says.

Maybe. Or maybe that's the story that she needed to tell him.

The first rule about talking to kids about adoption is "answer the question they are asking." Turning it around and concentrating on her experience is not answering "Where is my mom? Where did I come from?" "We wanted you very much," is true, of course. "We wanted you very much," is the easy part. Everything else -- the real answers -- is the hard stuff. Everything else is their story, not ours. Their story starts with their biological families, not with our wishes and dreams. We did not love our children into being, no matter how much we may wish it were so.

How much do kids understand? More than we think. Less than we'd wish. They hear what we don't say, and remember the words we use. Serrano points out that her son, now several years older than when she wrote the book, understands what she's saying. He wants a bicycle, and he tells her "my heart is growing for the bicycle" -- just as the adoptive mother's heart grows for her child. That is not the lesson I would want my child to learn about parenthood and families and adoption. My daughter is not a bicycle. She didn't come to us simply because I wanted her. She came to us because the woman who gave birth to her, who also loves her and wanted her, couldn't care for her at that moment -- because of economics and health care and relationships and families and difficult, messy, painful complications. She couldn't understand all of that as a small child, but I did -- and it was my job to give her the answers that would make understanding it as an adult possible. I had to face my own discomfort about my economic privilege in order to give her first mother the respect she deserves.

My daughter knows we love her. We don't tell our kids their adoption stories in order to prove that we love them. We prove our love the same way every other parent does, by being there. By feeding our kids and hugging them and singing to them and teaching them and tucking them in and brushing their hair and telling them "no" and holding their hands when they cross the street. We prove our love simply by loving them. No different from biological families.

And just like biological parents, we have to learn that raising kids isn't about us. Telling them our stories is the easy part. We tell them their adoption stories for the hard part: so that they have the truth about themselves, so that they feel complete. We tell them because it's the right thing to do. My daughter's story starts with loss. To truly be her mother, I have to accept that her loss is real, and I can't fix it. She has to write her own book.