Talking with our adopted children about their first family

Joy for the Journey panelAt the adoption retreat that I attended last month, the organizers put together a fabulous panel of birth parents and adult adoptees who talked about their experiences–  Robyn Afrik, Dr. Fran Edwards, and Darrick Rizzo were just some who spoke. Very often in the adoption ‘triad’, the voice of the adoptive parent is heard loudest, and birth parents and adoptees are sometimes not heard, or are marginalized, so it was really meaningful and rich to hear from others about their experiences with adoption.

There was a wide range of experiences among the adoptees. It was moving to hear about the hard and the good, and about the variety of relationships they experienced. Some adoptees shared stories about reunion with their first family. Others talked about rich relationships with adoptive siblings, or parents.  Some relationships with both first family and adoptive family were excellent and others were less satisfying. But I got the impression that those who were able to make contact with first family were glad to get some questions answered and know at least something about the people from which they came.  Even if someone is very happy with his or her adoptive family, it’s a really big, hard thing to not know anything about your first family.

Also hugely interesting to me were the words of the birth parents. There was so much longing in their voices as they described the agonizing decisions that led to not being able to parent their children, and also so much pride as they talked about their children now.  It seemed so obvious that they’re still parents in their hearts, even though they made the hard choice not to parent. One birth dad, Darrick Rizzo, signed papers as a teen because he was promised an open adoption including contact with his son, only to have the adoptive family disappear and not allow any contact.

I know that it can feel intimidating to adoptive families sometimes– the idea of having open relationship and contact with birth family, and in other cases it isn’t even an option.  But I came away from that discussion convinced that it was deeply appreciated both by the adoptees and the birth parents who were able to be in reunion.  I’ve read that it can be a key to emotional wholeness for many adoptees. I think we as adoptive parents would be wise to understand that, and to foster connection whenever it is safe and possible, even if it can sometimes feel scary to us.

Those brave story-tellers also left me remembering how important it is for us as adoptive parents to be honoring in our words about our children’s birth family.  I know there are birth parents out there whose choices are less than stellar.  Some children even need to be removed from family due to neglect or abuse.  Especially in situations like that it might be tempting to lay blame, or to be less than honoring in our descriptions and words. Our momma-lion instincts rise up and feel angry on behalf of our precious ones, and all that they endured before they came to us.

But still we need to remember this:  our children came from their first family. Their very DNA is entwined. If we disparage their first family, we’re also disparaging our children, whether we intend it or not. And our children will feel it. For the sake of our children, it’s up to us to find ways to honor the very real relationship that already exists between our children and their first family.

Denying it doesn’t make it go away.

Talking about it doesn’t make us less their parents.

It just shows our children that we’re brave enough and strong enough to be trusted with their feelings and wonderings and thoughts. Not all kids will choose to talk to us about those feelings.  In fact, some of the adoptees that I spoke with said that many adoptees feel disloyal even broaching the subject.  But that truth makes it even more important for us to be the instigators (at least sometimes) of such conversations– proving to our children that it’s okay to wonder, and to have questions, and longings for the loved ones in their mysterious past.

Maybe even to be brave enough to take steps to help our kids unshroud some of that mystery.


Our son’s meeting with his first family


  1. I’m so glad my grandma was able to open her adoption papers. We found her sister, who didn’t know she existed. Her adoptive family is awesome. Her birth family is awesome. We don’t have all the questions answered (her birth mom had died long ago), but the extension of family and questions that were answered are priceless.

  2. I am so thankful for our open adoption with our son’s birth mom. I wish we had that for all our adopted children.

  3. Have you ever read this fabulous post by Beth Woolsey

  4. My son is very positive about his birth mom and I reinforce that. We say a lot that she loved him but couldn’t take care of him. He was 7 when we adopted him from foster care so he knows about drugs and boy friends and police and sleeping in cars and shelters. We still hear about her and see pictures of her (and her new babies) through relatives. I am thinking about writing to her and I know a relative gave her a recent pic of him. I want both of them to know the other is ok, but it would be unhealthy to have contact at this time.

    He never met his bio father but seems to idolize him as a great basketball player. I kind of think he never needs to know that he was a drug dealer and sex offender.

    He is almost 11 now so we’ll see how these conversations go as he gets older.

  5. This is a tangent from the crux of the conversation, but… since reading your wonderful book I have been wondering how you handle all the orphans in works of literature and film with your kids. There are so many, and while I understand why that gets used as a writing tool it would seem to make so many things bigger than they already are. We recently watched, “Meet the Robinsons” and I began to wonder about this. I wonder for my own children, by birth, if this common theme of orphans makes them less sensitive to the reality because they all seem to get happy endings. I would love to hear your thoughts about this. Thanks, again, for all you do. Your book was such an encouragement to me – even with just kids by birth.