An Adoptive Parent writes:
The other day my 6 year old African American daughter, Tasha, floored me and I wonder if you have any ideas on how to handle this. Tasha was with Eileen, my 5 year old bio daughter (European American), at an after school activity. One of the other children asked how they could be sisters. They both chimed in that Tasha was adopted but that they were sisters because they love each other. The follow-up question was “What happened to your real mom and dad?” Tasha calmly looked up and said, “My black mommy and daddy are dead.”
That pretty much ended the conversation, but it’s not true that her “black mommy and daddy are dead”! I think this is her way of trying to feel more permanent in our family. (She had 5 foster homes before coming to us in December.) I’m not comfortable with lying to her, but I don’t want to make her uncomfortable since she’s been adjusting so well. Any ideas?
Michelle Johnson Answers:
Fortunately, I was very comfortable talking about my adoption growing up. This was due in large part by modeling my parents’ openness to discussion on this issue. As a child, I regurgitated their answers, as I was too young to comprehend their meaning. As I grew older, I sought and found from my family, more complex ways to explain my existence in this multiethnic family.
While I never said or believed my parents were dead, I often was quick to claim adopted status for my brother, while omitting my own, which was clearly obvious to anyone with eyes. So, when kids or adults asked us why we were different from our parents, I would chime “He’s adopted.” For the most part this was not upsetting to him, and I would always answer affirmatively if the follow-up question was “Are you adopted too?” For me, it was harder to discuss that we were not related biologically. It was like in saying so, I felt an emotional separation from the one person who was most like me, and it often left me feeling sad.
The reality is that in a very real sense, birth parents do die in our minds as adoptees, because our relationship with them ceases, and memories of them fade in time due to the closed nature of our adoptions. For some children, fully closing the door to their pasts by creating a death, is easier to do than deal with unanswered questions, or the unending possibilities inherent in birth parents living apart from us somewhere in the great unknown.
While difficult, you must address Tasha’s statement,and more importantly her rationale and feelings for making it immediately. Not to do so is to allow her to both tell and live a lie, hurts trust between you, and will surely lead to greater and more numerous ones in the future, as children have overactive imaginations by nature.
In my mind, the four most likely reasons why Tasha said this are:
1) It was a quick way to end the conversation and avoid a lengthy discussion on her part about why her parents made an adoption plan. Sometimes we adoptees get tired of playing the role of educator to those around us.
2) Tasha feels that in placing her for adoption, her parents, through their actions proclaimed her as dead to them. This form of perceived rejection can be devastating and must be addressed and placed within a positive framework of giving the opportunity for a better life, and not that of assigning to death.
3) Related to number 2, Tasha may have taken the offensive in her mind and proclaimed them dead as a form of self-protection. If she cuts the ties by imagining their lives to have ended, she is the one who has left the relationship, not them, and this may feel powerful to her. It is false security however, because as she gets older, it will be more difficult to live with this simplistic answer as her mind develops in its complexity.
4) Finally, there may be a less concerning reason she made this statement which is logical only to a 6 year old. This rationale may make you chuckle in relief (that things aren’t as bad as you think they are). As the television show says, “Kids say the darndist things.”
Regardless of whether you should be concerned or not, talking it through now, and revisiting this conversation at different stages of Tasha’s development in the future, can only help her come to terms with her difficult beginnings, and more importantly help her build a more positive future built on the truths she will need to become a healthy and well adjusted young woman.