Thinking Developmentally About Birth Parents

Patty Cogen, MA, Ed.D.
© 2001


Mayhem in Manhattan

Birth parents. The topic is inflammatory. Last October I spoke in Manhattan to a group of FCC parents in the small chapel of an upper Westside Church. Things were calm until the topic of birth parents emerged. Without warning, the two sides of the aisle erupted in passionate, dare I say heated, discussion.

For the sake of clarity, I will represent the three basic viewpoints. First, there were parents who felt their children were grieving deeply for the loss of birth parents (perhaps a “primal wound”). Second, there were parents whose children were sad but not particularly overwhelmed. The third group were parents who worried because their children had little interest in birthparents at all and even avoid the subject.

The parents were essentially divided over which type of response was “healthy” and “appropriate”. I suspected that each child’s response was in fact appropriate for that child’s developmental level. As children develop, they have different reactions to many things, such as olives and pizza, Barney and Harry Potter. Birth parents are another flavorful, or colorful topic, to which that children, as they grow, have changing responses. Parents can support their child best when they understand how children developmentally work to understand the topic of birth parents.

For adoptees and their families, this work is a life long “journey”. Below I have shared some typical “birth parent miles stones” for adoptees between three and ten years of age. Please note that all the children described here have no conscious pre-adoption memories. By contrast there is a small group of children who arrived with and still have memories of their pre-adoption life. These children have a distinctly different set of issues that this article does not address.

A Quick Word About Temperament

Temperament shapes how a child feels about many things, including birth parents. Some children are matter of fact and cool, “It’s sad.” End of topic. Some children approach the world, and birth parents, with unstoppable curiosity; they ask a million questions. Other children are emotionally intense about everything and anything; they are heart broken thinking of their missing birth parents. Knowing and reminding yourself about your child’s temperament will help you judge her emotional response to the topic of adoption in general and birth parents in particular.

A Developmental Approach To Understanding Birth Parents

A child cannot begin to understand the concept of birth parents, or process emotions about birth parents, until a basic fact of reproduction is grasped: A baby grows in a mommy’s body. This seemingly simple sentence can take even non-adopted children years to understand. Non-adopted children usually grasp this clearly by age five or six, if it is clearly and repeatedly explained to them.

However, adopted children have an additional and even more challenging fact to assimilate: “You did not grow in this mommy’s body, but in another woman’s body, who was your birth mother.”

Grasping this statement takes a wild leap of imagination for a child. First the child must realize that the one mother she (or he) has known and loved wasn’t always there! This is the first shocking loss. It includes the loss of a known, loved and trusted mother, the loss of continuity with mom, the loss of the belief that “mom is always there”. Second, the child must face the fact that some strange woman grew the child in her body. One can almost hear a child thinking: “What?! Who was she?” How could some stranger have such an important role in my life, and I never knew about her?” Third, the child must juggle the two moms in proper sequential order; the birth mother is “lost” and replaced with adoptive mother. “Gee, this is a lot of switching around! A kid could get confused.”

Although we as parents have learned to say relatively glibly, “you grew in another woman’s body”, that statement is a major intellectual and emotional mountain for our children. Some children try to climb the mountain, and become overwhelmed and deeply sad, in the process. Some children chose to “go around” the mountain, briefly noting its existence, feeling a some small degree of sadness or anger about its daunting presence. Still other children choose to ignore the mountain and may actively avoid it, traveling in another direction.

The mountain analogy parallels each of the three observations that parents make about their children’s reactions to birth parents. Later in life, children might make other choices in relation to the mountain. Everyone comes to the mountain in their own time, in their own way.

The stories of real children of eight and nine years old reveal how long it takes for adoptees, even under the best of circumstances, to approach the “birth parent mountain” and some of the different ways they deal with it.

I Wasn’t Born…

Not long ago, I asked a group of seven and eight year olds adopted from China a simple question: what would they like their parents to know about their adoption? I suggested it might be something the child didn’t feel comfortable telling mom or dad directly. No parents were present and this was to be an anonymous list which children knew would be shared later with the parents. I had asked this question of nine and ten year olds and received repeated outpourings of questions such as “why didn’t my birth mother keep me?”; “why did you keep (or not keep) my Chinese name?” and “do you think it was hard for my birth mother to give me up?” I was curious to see what a younger group of children would say.

There was a long silence, in which I began to wonder if it was hard for these children to imagine that they might have ideas on the topic of adoption that their parents didn’t share. I have discovered in other settings, that adoptees are less differentiated from their parents on adoption concerns than in other areas, such as preferences for movies, food or music.

Finally one child said, “I wasn’t born.” This seemed to satisfy the group, as no other child offered a comment. So I probed, “does that mean that if you are adopted you don’t get born?” No one disputed this. Although by age eight many adoptees may be able to repeat the “facts” of reproduction, applying it to themselves appears to be a more challenging task.

What were the children thinking? First theory: the concept of birth was viewed as antithetical to adoption. You were either born or you were adopted. This makes birth parents irrelevant at best. No wonder some of these children were avoiding the topic or just not interested. Second theory: the wish to be born from the adoptive mom was still so powerful, that birth and birthparents were relegated to the outer edges of consciousness. “Yes, I have birth parents, but I don’t want to think about them”.

Although cognitively non-adopted seven and eight year olds generally understand the simple facts of reproduction, the added adoption piece makes this far more complicated. Consequently adoptees need more time and more discussion to accurately apply these concepts to themselves and their lives. It also means adoptees at seven or eight years old may not be ready to engage in the emotional aspects of birth parents.

How can you tell where your child is? Ask questions, ask your child to tell their life (not adoption) story from her/his view point. Play dumb: frequently ask “why?” or “how does that happen?”.

When Children Mirror A Parent’s Feelings

Parents provide a guide for their children about unknown, unfamiliar topics or situations. For example, when you and your child face a new experience together, your child will look at you to “read” your face and body language, assessing how you react. Birth parents are, if not new to a child, complex and hard to figure out. Naturally a child watches how (adoptive) parents react to the birth parent topic. The vignettes below shows how linked a child’s view can be to a parent’s view of birth parents.

The mother of an eight year old boy (adopted at birth domestically) found him sobbing. The two words she got from him were, “birth mother”. Since previously the boy had been unemotional about the topic, mom was surprised. With mom’s encouragement, he explained, “I feel so sorry for my birth mother, she’ll never have a wonderful child like me!’ The mom was shocked because this comment was such an adult perspective. Yet her son was deeply upset. Then she realized that his words reflected how she felt about her son’s birth mother.

A second example of “whose grief is it?” came from a nine year old girl adopted from China who, , despite having no memories of her first mother, was eloquent over her loss. Other parents, whose children were all but avoiding the subject, listened to this girl’s comments in awe. However, the mother of the child revealed that she herself was adopted, and was grieving the loss of her birth mother, a grief she had shared with her daughter.

This lack of differentiated feelings between an adoptive mother and child about birth parents is not uncommon. It may explain a child’s overwhelming grief or in the case below, a puzzling emotional response.

The mother of a nine year old girl was worried about the way her daughter insisted on saying “I’m so lucky” regarding her adoption, while avoiding mention of her birth mother. I asked mom to repeat how she told the adoption story and when she did, we became aware of how adoptive mom emphasized her luck in finding and adopting her daughter. Once again, there was a lack of differentiation between the mother’s and the daughter’s feelings.

It is clear that even children who have successfully separated and individuated from parents in many ways, often mirror their parents on adoption issues. Teaching our children to differentiate between their feelings and parents’ feeling on adoption subjects, including birth parents, takes time and attention.

A Birth Parent Formed in the Adoptive Parent’s Image

Children may be puzzled, sad or mad that the mommy that grew them in her body wasn’t the same mommy they know and love. For a child with no memories of birth parents, birth parents are sketchy at best, perhaps dimly resembling some Asian person the child knows. By contrast, a child’s image of adoptive parents is vivid and filled with detail. When faced with the blankness where the image of birth parents should be, a child often imagines birth parents to have the qualities of adoptive parents. Consequently fantasies about birth parents sound remarkably familiar; birth parents often mirror adoptive parents.

Birth Parents: A Family Issue

Birth parents bring up the adoption triangle. In human relationships triangles are notoriously unstable and difficult. Birth parents are inflammatory because they complicate the relationship between adoptive parents and children. They stir up conflicting feelings in everyone.

The parent-child relationship must grow, stretch and change to accommodate birth parents. It’s somewhat like having a boarder move in to the extra bedroom. But boarders eventually move out, and rarely, if ever come to dinner. By contrast birth parents may pop up at any and all family events; we may not know them, or see them, but they stay forever.

As an adoptive parent, it is beneficial to the harmony of the house to think of birth parents as partners in parenting. We all contribute to the life of our shared child. Birth parents contributed to a child’s appearance, her ethnic heritage, and a set of specific talents, skills, and personality traits. Adoptive parents contribute a loving family in which this wonderful child can bloom to her fullest potential. Like any complicated relationship, the triangle of birth parents, adoptive parents and their shared child, grows and changes over time.

It is the journey, not the destination, that is important when children deal with the topic of birth parents. More than anything else, children need their present parents to journey with them, even when that means waiting patiently for the journey to continue.

Part of what is necessary is making those birth parents more real to children. But how? Read on…

Bringing Birth Parents Out of the Closet

In the book, When Children Grieve, the authors, John James and Russell Friedman, point out that you can not grieve and fully say good bye to anyone unless you know them. You have to know what you lost, in order to grieve that loss. For example, if a child loved playing checkers with Grandma and Grandma dies, the child grieves by knowing that she will never play checkers with Grandma again.

This led me to consider how little our children really know of their birth parents, and therefore how hard it is to really realistically grieve for them. This may be why some children are not particularly sad, or not sad at all. They can’t grieve for someone they never knew. One the other hand, does that mean that those who do feel deep sadness some how “know” their birth parents?” I think that the explanation lies in the fact that when birth parents are not present, adopted children use their adopted parents as a model for imagining what their birth parents must be like. Consequently, children who are caught up deeply in the sadness of birth parent loss, may in fact be imagining losing parents who are just like their adopted parents. Losing adoptive parents would be tragic, and so the child grieves for the loss of birth parents as if they were the parents she knows.

Discovering Birth Parents Without Leaving Home

I asked a group of nine year olds a startling question during a workshop. “What if your birth parents showed up at the front door of your house one day, like Stuart Little’s birth parents did in the movie. How could you recognize them?”

The children looked at me and giggled nervously. I stuck out and curled my tongue and asked them to see if they could do the same. While their tongues were busy, I announced, “This is something that you can do only if your birth mother or birth father could curl their tongue. So if strangers come to the door claiming to be your birth parents, this is one way to check them out.” The group dissolved into laughter.

Then we began making lists of things that they could use to identify their very own birth parents. Being nine years old with a basic grasp of genetics, they knew that hair and eye color, shape of eyes, and skin tone were all genetically transmitted. But we added items like hair texture, dimples, ear lobes (or not) size of nose, and body shape and size. Then we moved on to skills and talents that are inherited such as musical, mathematical and athletic ability.

We didn’t need to go very far before each child began to have a picture of one or both birth parents. Because we didn’t know which parent had which traits, the children could assign traits to birth mom or birth dad which made them feel powerful and silly at the same time. Then they drew a picture of one or both parents, including the traits they’d picked for each one.

Making Birth Parents Real

You don’t have to wait until your child has a full grasp of genetics to introduce birth parents as real people. Once a child is four or older and understand the concept of birth mother, you can begin including birth parents in a variety of comments beginning with appearance: “You’re hair is so silky and dark, I bet your birth mother had hair just like yours!” Skills and talents that are known to be genetic and are exceptional in the family offer us opportunities to draw a more detailed picture of birth parents: “You’re dancing ability must have come from your Chinese parents, you are so graceful and you couldn’t have learned that from me, I’m just a total klutz when it comes to dance!” Helping Children Have Their Own Feelings

I discovered how much even pre-teenagers need parents present to confront their complex life issues. I asked a group of nine year olds to write their Chinese names, (representing their past) on one side of a paper, and their English names or Chinese names in pinyin (representing their present) on the other side of the paper. Then I asked them to draw anything thing they wanted to connect their two names. Without their parents present, articulate, bright and confident nine year old children became mute, stymied, lost. But when their parents were rejoined them they were able to make careful, thoughtful and elaborate connections through drawing.

Although most people think of the teen years as being the period of intense identity formation, adoptees do a great deal of work on identity in the years between seven and eleven. During this time children are working out the mechanics and feelings of having two sets of parents, two families, two cultures, two countries to which they have some connection. There is so much to connect, to make sense of, that often there is not room for deep feelings.

More often the deep feelings bubble up as if from a hidden spring, suddenly and then subside as life sweep a child on to new events and activities. But this doesn’t mean a child has not worked on, dealt deeply with and integrated these feelings into her identity. The fact that these springs burst out is evidence of the work that is going on inside, much the way that the emergence of a spring reveals the flow of water underground.

Our children, who hear us mention birthparents more than one, are living in the present in which they process things in our presence because our words have given them permission to think about it. They may or may not choose to talk extensively about birth parents. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about them. We don’t have to be privy to all their thoughts any more than we should share all our thoughts about birthparents with our children.