Talking to Your Kids About Your Own Adoption
By Rae Ann Fera
Photo © dolgachov/123RF
Sep 5, 2017
“Mommy, why don’t you look like Nonna?”
It was a simple question, but when my daughter questioned why I didn’t resemble my mother one quiet evening a few years ago at the dinner table, she had no idea what she was really asking me. I don’t look like my mom because I’m adopted.
Now before you assume I didn’t discuss this part of my life with her because I’ve got hang-ups about being adopted, let me say this: I don’t. At all. At age seven I gave a class presentation on what it meant to be adopted. My mom (5’ 1”, olive complexion) and I (5’ 10”, ghost-white complexion) used to laugh hysterically when people marvelled at our resemblance. My dad and I have the same sense of humour. My brother and I have the same love-torment relationship that most siblings have. I’ve just always known. My family has always been my family, no matter how we came to each other.
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Still, I was caught off guard when this innocent and keen query came my way. Why hadn’t I told her about this, especially given how open and comfortable I am with it? What should I say? How would that make her feel about who she was?
My family has always been my family, no matter how we came to each other.
When you do any research about talking to kids about adoption, it’s always about their own adoption. Advice includes making them feel comfortable that they’re loved, that their home and family is permanent, and that they were given away out of love. For an adopted child, many of the motivations behind their parentage are beyond their understanding, particularly when they’re young. They just worry about their parents not being their “real” family.
But there’s not really any well-trod advice on explaining to your kids that you are not the biological byproduct of their grandparents. I know this from Googling … after the fact. Failing any useful back-pocket knowledge, in the moment I simply sputtered into my soup and stalled for a second with my go-to retort whenever I’m unprepared to answer a kid-question: “What makes you say that?”
“Mom,” she said, with drawn-out effect as seven-year-olds are wont to do, “you don’t look anything like her.” Touché. This point was reinforced by the fact that her father looks like an exact 50/50 split of his folks.
Telling her I was adopted turned out to be the easy part. So many kids are these days — both of our neighbours have adopted children — which is much different than in my day when it was rarer and still cloaked in a bit of secrecy and shame. That part made sense to her. The questions that arose were about her. Most notably: “Am I still Italian?”
Family heritage has always been fuzzy for me. I’ve always identified as Italian because it was easy, that’s what my family was (see: short, olive complexion). I also always knew I had French Canadian heritage, but I never felt particularly connected to the idea of genealogy or family lineage. My family started with me and I didn’t feel connected to my forebears, beyond the ones that I knew.
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The issue with that approach, of course, is that that wasn’t the case for her. Her mother and father were her parents, her grandparents were their parents, she was a Canadian with Italian and English heritage. This is who she was, and suddenly my revelation threw that into question for her.
After I insisted to her that it didn’t matter if we were “really Italian”, that we were Canadian, and after the predictable (and loathsome) question “do you know your real mother?”, it was over. In true childlike fashion, she was on to the next utterly banal thing.
I, however, was a bit shaken. I sat there silently berating myself for not bringing up this basic truth sooner (when it was easier … it’s always easier when they’re younger) but I was also struck by the gross oversight on my part.
In our little nuclear family of three, my adoption had always been my thing, something from my past, something that didn’t really matter anymore. But I came to realize that, in fact, it wasn’t just about me. I owed her that knowledge because it’s a part of who she is, as well.
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