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How to talk to a child about an unknown birth father


We are looking for some advice/experience in communicating to our child about his BF. We have background information on the BM but the BF is unknown.  BM requested a closed adoption.  From reading many of the recent posts we understand how critical it is to be honest.  We know there are antidotal things we can say like he must be very handsome like you or he probably is really good at music or xxxx  we can look at her background, interests, etc. and find things that may come from his BF but again this is speculation.  Appreciate any insight, thoughts, help finding the “right” words. etc.  thanks!!

Replies

One idea: They have DNA tests that can be done and tell you some basic information about your mother and fathers heritage and ancestral origin. They break it down by mother and father. They also can tell you if you have any matching relatives in their databases. Its probably about $100-300. I want to do it myself. This of course will not tell your child much, but something is better than nothing. Here is one link, but Google for more options: http://www.dnaancestryproject.com/ydna_intro_howto.php

Posted by Private And Foster Mom on May 11, 2012 at 11:36am

I am curious about advice on this one especially because it seems to me that we will have this conversation at an age that pre-dates when we would ideally have the ‘birds and the bees’ conversation. My daughter is still too young to worry about this yet, but I am sure it will feel like a blink of the eye and it will be here. Input appreciated.

Posted by JustLaugh on May 11, 2012 at 5:30pm

My 5 year old just asked me about her birthfather last night.  I didn’t know what to say other than I don’t know about him.  I know that’s the wrong answer, but it’s true and I was caught off guard.  I’d love some advice too.

Posted by Joanne0911 on May 11, 2012 at 5:50pm

I to would love advice.. my little one will have questions in the future as well I am sure!

Posted by comotoi on May 11, 2012 at 8:43pm

Good for those of you who are raising this topic, because it is an important one to think about and then address with your child.  I have some thoughts to share for your consideration, as you decide what YOU will say.

    Adopted children really need for BOTH parents in a two-parent family to talk openly, honestly, and often about their birth parents—known or unknown.  Each time the birth mother is mentioned, it is a good idea to also mention the birth father.  Unfortunately, so many adoptive parents do not know to do this and the result is not terrific for their children.  The children sometimes think that they never had a birth father, or they blame their birth father for the fact that they were separated from their first family.  That can eventually erode their sense of self worth, or interfere with gender identity development, regardless of whether the child is male or female.

    When the birth father is unknown, parents should state that fact, and reveal some of the reasons why birth mothers don’t or can’t give that information.  Sometimes a birth mother spent time with the man (the birth father), but then stopped seeing him before she learned that a baby was growing inside her, and didn’t know how to find him again.  Sometimes a birth mother felt so hurt and angry over telling the birth father that a baby had started to grow because he didn’t say the things she hoped he would—that he could stay and help raise the baby—and so afterward, she didn’t want to tell anyone who he is.  Some birth mothers spent time with more than one man and do not know which one started their babies to grow, and so cannot say who the babies’ birth fathers are.  Sometimes a birth mother has had a big argument with the birth father and doesn’t want him to know that a baby started to grow, and doesn’t want anyone to know who the birth father is.  We really don’t know why your birth mother can’t tell who he is, or decided not to.  Some birth mothers tell later, when their feelings aren’t as strong and they can bear to think about him.

      One thing I/we DO know is that you are like your birth father in some important ways.  That is the way it is when a child is born—he/she gets some things about how he/she looks and acts, and some of his/her special talents from each birth parent.  You are a wonderful, kind, smart, fun-loving person (or describe YOUR child’s characteristics), and so we know that your birth father had to have some of those things about him, too.  I/we are guessing that he would be proud to know that about you, if he knows that you were born after he and your birth mother started you to grow. 

      It is also helpful to tell your child that you will ask his/her birth mother again, because you know they are now old enough to be wondering and wanting to know.  You’ll want to say that you hope that she can tell more now, but that may or may not happen.  You might encourage your child to tell you what he/she would like TO know (you can write these things down for him/her), and tell your child that you’ll be sending the list to the birth mother. 

    I would encourage you to follow-through by sending a letter to the birth mother (via the adoption agency or whatever intermediary exists- if its a closed adoption), or send it/give it to her directly, if you have an open adoption.  It may be easier for her to receive a letter that explains why you are opening up a difficult topic—that the CHILD really wants and needs the information—than for her to have to face you in person while you ask.  That way, she will have privacy during her first reaction, and then can think about how she will respond, after she’s had a bit of time to think things through from your child’s point of view. 

      Its helpful to encourage your child to draw pictures of what he/she imagines that the birth father looks like, and others that show what they would do with the birth father if they could spend a day together.  Or parents can help their child make and keep a Wish Box—into which wishes go for the birth father.  These types of activities can be the conduit for opening up more conversation.  Remembering that while its important for YOU to talk, its what your CHILD thinks/believes/feels/wonders about that is what you really want to get out on the table. 

    That is far easier with a younger child than with an older child who has begun to have confusing, upsetting feelings towards one or both of their birth parents.  Often, children want to know what you know about why their birth parent or parents made the decision not to raise them, but underneath is another, unanswerable question that is more at their core:  “Why didn’t they do WHATEVER they had to, to fix their problems well enough to have kept and raised me?”  Children tend to feel hurt, sad, angry, confused, and rejected over the fact that their birth parents did NOT keep them, even though there is lots of evidence that their birth mother/parents made the best possible decision under trying circumstances.  Kids just don’t have the capacity to understand grown-up problems (the problems of teens SEEM like grown-up problems to a young child, if and when their birth parents were teens at the time of their birth).

    The experience of most adoptive parents is that their child tends to stop asking questions, or asking for their story, and express reluctance to talk about their birth parents at some point—usually about age eight or nine (but it can be even earlier for some).  While most adopted kids yearn to know their birth parents and think of them very positively at first, they tend to feel confusion and anger as they mature and are old enough to realize that they were not kept and speculate about why.  They also, at that developmental stage, tend to feel different from their peers and realize that their situation is not the norm, and dislike that.  Many hope that if they don’t talk about their birth parents, they will stop their thoughts and feelings about them, too—and stop talking for that reason. 

    It is not a good idea to let adoption and birth parents become the proverbial elephant in the living room, when kids stop wanting to discuss this.  Instead, let your child know that you’ve noticed that they are no longer comfortable asking qustions or talking about their thoughts and feelings. Let them know that many kids—just like them—also find it hard because it brings up such strong, complicated, confusing feelings—- and wish that they could just erase ALL of it!  You will want to tell your child that that is not possible, and it is healthier—a better way to take care of oneself—TO talk about feelings, and their thoughts about the people who gave them their start in life—even though that is not easy. 

    When and if you come to the realization that your child has not been willing or able to discuss birth parents for a long time, it is time to consider doing something other than waiting and hoping that they will, or telling yourself that your child is “fine” when he/she is NOT fine.  Consider enrolling your child is an adoption workshop, or series of sessions for adopted kids that help them TO talk.  Or consider finding a therapist—one who has specialized training (many claim to understand adopted kids, but really don’t and do not have any idea how to delve into a child’s thoughts and feelings about growing up adopted).

    I mentioned that BOTH adoptive parents should talk with their child about his/her pre-adoption history and birth parents.  That is because children often get the idea that one parent is interested and comfortable with this, but the other is not.  Or, that one parent really did not want to adopt, and doesn’t like to think about the fact that their child came to them via adoption.  Parents do not have to say the same things, or handle the conversations the same way.  They just have to have some balance with each other.

Jane A. Brown, MSW

Posted by Jane Brown on May 11, 2012 at 10:59pm

Our daughter’s biological father is known, but what I know about him I’m not looking forward to sharing. Things like jail, drugs, lack of financial or emotional support for her biological siblings. I’m glad I have some time to practice before her questions get hard.

Also, thanks (Jane) for the detailed advice on what to consider when addressing questions. I hadn’t thought about how my openness to discuss could be compared to my husband’s tendency not to be part of the conversation. He was very open to welcoming our daughter, and I wouldn’t want her to ever think he was ever hesitant about loving her forever and ever.

Posted by yesimln on May 12, 2012 at 1:20am

yes, thank you Jane, you left us with a lot to think about… The DNA testing is also an interesting concept. With technology advancing I wouldn’t be surprise by the time our little ones are adults that they will be able to identify an entire family tree - oh my!

I hope people will continue to weigh in and I have asked advice from our former agency as well as friends that have adopted. If I hear anything different I will post. 

Appreciate the opportunity to discuss through this forum.

Posted by sls on May 12, 2012 at 1:25am

if the state did DNA testing already would they have looked into possible matches or only the 2 men that were in question?

Posted by comotoi on May 12, 2012 at 1:40am

from the first reply above currently the testing only gives insight to heritage and ancestral origin. though it does sound like if there was anyone already in the system could could be matched…  will have to look into this more…  I don’t believe any state is currently doing this -

Posted by sls on May 12, 2012 at 1:49am

Since some of you have written privately and/or publicly about having difficult history information that you will need to find a way to share, I thought I might add a little more food for thought.

  One of the most important things we need to teach our children is that our genetic inheritance does not write the script for how we will behave.  In other words, that although we inherit some of our personality traits from our genetic family members, that does not mean that we will necessarily make the same behavioral choices they made. 

    We need to look for teachable moments—stories we see or hear about in the news, for example, in which someone or an accumulation of experiences helped to change someone’s behavioral path.  That lays the foundation for us TO be able to talk about what lead to a birth parent making poor choices—didn’t have unconditional love, didn’t have good adult role models, didn’t get medical/psychological help that was needed, experienced trauma and losses and toxic influences. 

    Too many of our adopted kids fall victim to the addage: the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  They learn that one or both birth parents behaved in socially unacceptable ways and worry that their behavior is a script for their own. 

    By not revealing their pre-adoption history, we convey—usually unintentionally- that we are fearful of the same thing.  We actually can exacerbate our children’s worries that they will turn out to be people who behave badly, as their birth parents did (when that was the case).  When we are honest and open, but make sure our kids understand why humans sometimes behave as they do when their environment is/was toxic, we remove the temptation for kids to think that they have no choice or control, and will behave in unthinkable ways and end up like their birth parents—in jail, with addictions, abandoning children they were not ready to parent, etc…

    I enourage adoptive parents to make a plan for revealing to their child, his or her pre-adoption history.  Try to imagine being a child who is five, then ten, then fifteen.  What questions would the child have at those ages/stages about his or her birth parents and whether or not their characteristics and behavior affects them.  What information will you share at that age/stage, and what other questions will that stir up in the child’s mind—do you think?  If there is difficult history information, how and when will you share it?  How might that affect a child’s beliefs about him/herself and how could that show up in his/her behavior?  Every couple of years, you will want to take out the plan and re-work it, because of what unfolds with your child. 

Jane A. Brown, MSW

Posted by Jane Brown on May 13, 2012 at 2:34am

A good book re this is
Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past
by Betsy Keefer and Jayne Schooler.
You can buy on Amazon

Posted by Regina on May 13, 2012 at 7:28am

Excellent post, with some very good ideas.  I want to add that it’s important when asking the birth mom for info to remember that children are sometimes a result of incest and/or rape.  Be sensitive to the birth mom’s feelings, and don’t assume that a reluctance to share the info on the father is silly. Be sure you are ready to deal with this possibility before you ask.

Posted by Happy Camper on May 13, 2012 at 10:43am

Interesting thoughts.  Our situation (2 kids adopted from foster care) is different in that their birth mother is the same but the father is different - one known father, the other unknown.  I"ve oftened wondered how this will affect our son when he realizes his sister “knows” who her father is but he does not…or that she has a birth father but he does not…but how silly…everyone has a father!  It’s just a different way I have to express & share this with him…we have no contact with the birth families (due to the circumstances in which they were in state care) so our daughter does not/will not really “know” her birth father either (unless she seeks him out at a later date).  Anyway, until they are quite a bit older, I talk to them about how not everyone is ready to be a parent and why they might not be ready - I don’t think the fact their there has been addition, incarceration, etc. in their birth family means much…doesn’t mean that our kids will be that way and definitely not a message I would ever send to them, but also doesn’t mean that the birth mom/dad is a “bad” person…it’s all about choices, support systems, unconditional love…unfortunately, not everyone has that.  I think talking about birth mom AND dad, even though it seems the 1st natural questions are about birth mom , is a great idea…I’m going to incorporate that into our conversations.

Posted by Luna on May 22, 2012 at 10:40pm

Thank you Jane for all your information. You gave me some great ideas that I would not have ever thought of.  Especially having both parents talk about adoption. I talk about it a lot more than my husband does with our son.

We have a very difficult story to tell and at times I panic about how we will talk about it with our son.  When we met his birthmom we were told she was 13 and the birthfather was 15.  After she delivered, the hospital SW called and reported that a 13 year old had given birth.  By law they had to investigate.  When they did, they found out the birthfather was about to turn 20.  He was arrested for statutory rape, did some jail time, and then was deported (during the investigation they found out he was an illegal alien).

After the birth, our son’s birthmom did not want any visits but w/i the last year wanted to see our son. I want to ask her for informaion about birthfather to tell our son but I don’t know how to broach the subject with her.  I don’t want to upset her but I also would love information.  And also, she was 12 when she got pregnant so how much could she truly have known about him.  Any ideas for how to handle this?

Posted by RRB on May 22, 2012 at 11:32pm

I grew up in a closed adoption with no info whatsoever on my father.  My adopted brother came with the notation that both of his parents were in college.  My info only stated that my mother was single and 17.  Period.  That was it.  That was all the family information I got.

Although the topic was never directly addressed, my adoptive father definitely assumed that my father was a draft-dodging, dope-smoking hippie who bolted.  I don’t remember him ever verbalizing that, but he wasn’t exactly difficult to read. 

As it turned out, my dad was career military and stationed far enough away from my mom that prohibiting contact between the two during her pregnancy wasn’t much of a trick for the maternity home.  The agency did, indeed, have quite detailed information concerning his identity.  They simply chose not to share it.  They chose not to share it with my adoptive parents AND they chose not to share it with the court.  There is no mention whatsoever of my father in my adoption file held by the court. 

My best advice, especially for the OP who is in a closed adoption possessing no information except what the agency chose to share, is not to make presumptions.  If you don’t know, simply state that you don’t know.  Offering apologies and recognizing that the child has the right to that omitted information would be a nice gesture as well.  Women today are still encouraged to “forget” the father when it comes to the paperwork.  It still happens.  Without direct contact with the mother, one simply cannot assume the father is truly unknown.  When assumptions are made, sometimes people end up looking rather foolish when the whole story comes to light.

As for the DNA testing, I certainly recommend it.  I’ve tested at two companies, and although random close matches are rare, it does offer very valuable information on ethnicity.  When everything is an unknown, being able to throw at least a few things into the known category is pretty amazing.

Posted by Jeanne on May 23, 2012 at 12:02am

Jeanne, thank you for everything you have said.  Your comments from your perspective are invaluable. You are right about the assumptions - how do we truly know?  We can speculate among ourselves based on our son’s interest and talents; yet it could be a combination of BM genes and environment exposure on our part or???  We only know what we know and this is what we can share.

One day if his BM changes her mind and our son wants to find her; we will support this - we certainly would not want him to harbor misconceptions (even positive) if they are found not to be true!

again, thank you for your post I think it will help us to be better prepared.

Posted by sls on May 23, 2012 at 12:19am

sls, you’re welcome.

It’s very natural to want to fill in the blanks.  BJ Lifton addressed this issue and the creation of the fantasy or ghost parent.  But while we construct fantasies in a perfectly normal attempt to fill in the missing information, we must also must remember to remain grounded.  The unfortunate truth is that some things really are just a blank.  The possibilities for the true story behind those blanks are endless.  Those blanks are the reality that adoptees in closed adoptions must come to terms with.  It may not be right, and it may not be fair, but it is our reality.  That’s where you need to connect with your child—at that blank. 

Maybe someday he’ll fill some of those in.

Posted by Jeanne on May 23, 2012 at 12:48am

well said, thank you!

Posted by sls on May 23, 2012 at 12:53am

Although it is obvious, I am always surprised by the way in which we talk so much more about birthmothers than birthfathers. When I was adopted, many years ago, if the birthfather was not married to the birthmother, his name was not allowed to show on the adoption documents. All that existed was non-identifying information. So, I know that he was Scottish, Catholic, and as the social worker stated, from discussion with my birthmother, “outgoing, gregarious and somewhat irresponsible. I received this information when I was in my 20s.  It also said that my mother had ended their relationship before discovering she was pregnant and had decided not to tell him she was pregnant, because she would not marry him as he was not suitable marriage material. A social work colleague said to me that she thought this was a judgemental statement by a punitive social worker. I replied that I thought this was what my birthmother said, because my close friends who I share this info with agreed that this sounded like the kind of careful thoughtful statement that I would make.
I did find it disappointing not to know more, but with the information I got, it made me feel it was better to know somIething instead of nothing. I agree with Jane Brown that there are a variety of reasons why birthparents choose adoption and making very general statements when children are young is very important.  One statement I like is that the birthfather or birthmother was not ready to be a parent.  I do not like filling in unknown gaps with make believe. I mean statements such as “I am sure he was a lovely person”, or “he was a bad person” are not helpful to children. Even worse, which my parents used all the time when I was growing up, “You don’t need to think about that” and “That isn’t important”.

Posted by JaneBB on May 23, 2012 at 12:55am

Although it is obvious, I am always surprised by the way in which we talk so much more about birthmothers than birthfathers. When I was adopted, many years ago, if the birthfather was not married to the birthmother, his name was not allowed to show on the adoption documents. All that existed was non-identifying information. So, I know that he was Scottish, Catholic, and as the social worker stated, from discussion with my birthmother, “outgoing, gregarious and somewhat irresponsible. I received this information when I was in my 20s.  It also said that my mother had ended their relationship before discovering she was pregnant and had decided not to tell him she was pregnant, because she would not marry him as he was not suitable marriage material. A social work colleague said to me that she thought this was a judgemental statement by a punitive social worker. I replied that I thought this was what my birthmother said, because my close friends who I share this info with agreed that this sounded like the kind of careful thoughtful statement that I would make.
I did find it disappointing not to know more, but with the information I got, it made me feel it was better to know somIething instead of nothing. I agree with Jane Brown that there are a variety of reasons why birthparents choose adoption and making very general statements when children are young is very important.  One statement I like is that the birthfather or birthmother was not ready to be a parent.  I do not like filling in unknown gaps with make believe. I mean statements such as “I am sure he was a lovely person”, or “he was a bad person” are not helpful to children. Even worse, which my parents used all the time when I was growing up, “You don’t need to think about that” and “That isn’t important”.

Posted by JaneBB on May 23, 2012 at 12:55am

We recently asked our BM about the BF only to be told that he was killed last year.
Our son has not asked about him yet, but I will tell him that he has passed and
when he is older I will tell him all that we know, which unfortunately is not much.

Posted by LisaC on May 23, 2012 at 1:03am

JaneBB, your social worker friend may be right.  My non-id stated something similar.  It had a little different twist.  Mine stated that my father wanted to marry my mother, but she declined knowing that she would not be happy with him.  I got that information about five years ago, many, many years after I met my parents.  My mother has never seen it because she would flip, but I did show it to my dad.  He wanted me to be aware that it did not happen like that.

The strangest thing about that non-id is that I sat down with the director of the agency back in the mid-80s before I found my parents, and the real story—the one that actually happened—was the one he read from my file.  All I was really after back then was a location—city, state, something—and he gave me the whole sordid drama, without names, of course.  So I know it exists in their record.  Yet when I asked for my non-id in writing years later, I got the one with the beautiful little story about how happy my mother was with her ‘decision’.  I’m certainly not the only person who has experienced this.

Posted by Jeanne on May 23, 2012 at 1:35am

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