An Adoptive Parent Writes:
Our mixed race 5 yr. old daughter was recently told by a friend that we are her pretend parents and that her real parents probably miss her. Our daughters response was mostly a stunned silence followed by nervous laughter. We tried to talk to her about this but she really was not interested, so we did not force it. She has always known that she is adopted. We are a white couple and also have a 3 yr. old son who is African-American. How should we best respond to the situation and what should we suggest our daughter say to others who may ask about her “real parents”?
Michelle Johnson replies:
Issues of adoption must always be handled in an age appropriate manner. By age five, your daughter certainly has a grasp of the basics of adoption. The words we use in this context are often outdated, and misleading. One of the struggles we at the Coalition continually face is the way adoptive families are classified in terms of language, especially the law. Any parent who loves and raises a child who is not biological to them knows that they are indeed real and natural parents. What they are not and can never be is the birth parent. For you, this means your children’s life stories began without you.
Your daughter already understands the difference between real and pretend. Whether it’s imaginary playmates at a tea party, or imitating a race car driver as she peels through the house on a Little Tykes scooter, she uses her imagination for entertainment. She can, however, differentiate between these activities and actually having people over for dinner where tea is served or being a passenger in your car.
To best respond to this situation, use her knowledge base and your gentle wisdom when she is receptive to this conversation. Reassure her that you are not her pretend parents, but her real ones. This is important because you don’t want her to feel there are anything less than legitimate and complete intentions on your part. Throughout her life, she will experience moments of uncertainty about whether you will be there permanently and for the long haul. This is natural since her first relationship (with her birth parents, her mother in particular), one that was supposed to be for life, was severed. Acknowledge that her birth parents probably do miss her, and certainly think about her. If you know more information about how she came to be adopted, share this with her at age appropriate times, and always with sensitivity and whenever possible, a positive point of view (without lying or stretching the truth).
Further, talk with her about how you and your wife see/define parenting, and ask her to tell you what she sees her friends’ mommies and daddies (who are biological to them) do with them. At that point, you will be able to say “We do similar or the same things.” She’ll see that the main things parents do are love and protect, care for and teach their children in many ways every day. She will be able to distinguish between the biological function of bringing a child into the world, and raising a child, and that this latter action defines true parenting.
Share with her that her biological parents gave you the most precious gifts of your life: her. As she grows, she’ll deepen her understanding that every time you stay up with her when she’s ill, kiss a bandaged knee, pick her up from school, share her birth culture (critically important) with her or simply say you love her, that you’ve earned the rights of real parenthood. As I was growing up, I used to read a plaque my mother placed in the window above our living room hutch. If you don’t have it, buy it. It said:
“Not flesh of my flesh, nor bone of my bone,
But never the less still my own.
Never forget for a single minute,
You weren’t born under my heart, but in it. ” Author Unknown