What Your Child May Not Be Asking You – Patti Eddington

Adoption, Blog, Families

What your child may not be asking you

I was in my mid-thirties when a co-worker nervously approached me for some advice. She and her husband had just adopted two children and they wanted to do the best possible job of being parents.

“What one thing do you wish your parents would have done differently?” she asked.

It gave me pause because it certainly wasn’t the adoption question I was accustomed to answering. All my life, upon hearing my story, people would ask “Do you know who your real family is.” And I would raise a brow and simply say “Yes. I do,” maintaining eye contact until they realized their faux pas.

My real family were the father who tried to help me learn to do chin-ups to pass the Presidential Fitness Test — he failed, but not his fault — and the mother who stopped in at my apartment “just to visit,” bringing me my favorite candy when I broke up with my boyfriend in college. My real uncle taught me how to blow up a balloon and my real godmother once sent me footie pajamas when she heard I was so broke I couldn’t afford to turn the heat past 65.

People were always curious about what it was like to be adopted. Just a few years earlier a fellow journalist— she worked at United Press International and I was a reporter at a small daily newspaper in Michigan — interviewed me about my thoughts on my adoption. She was also an adoptee and her feelings on the topic were apparently much more strident than mine. When I told her I didn’t have any lingering anxiety, that I’d had an idyllic childhood, incredible parents and no curiosity about my origins she was befuddled.

“For every adopted kid, the first thing that ever happened to them is they were rejected. I can t’ believe you don’t have more questions about where you came from, she groused

Only recently, I’ve realized that perhaps that reporter was correct. The questions were always there. I was just afraid to ask them.

The process of my adoption began in late 1960 when I was just a little over a year old. A probate judge in Michigan rescinded my mother’s maternal rights over me and my four older siblings. There were three biological fathers involved in the huge mess and a hefty neglect file, as well. I was placed with my foster (later adoptive) parents in July 1961 but the adoption process dragged on until the autumn of 1963 for reasons so complicated and unsettling I’ve written a memoir about it.

I learned about my adoption when I was so little I don’t remember being told. I always felt fortunate to have parents who were so open. But what I didn’t know were there were many things they likely knew about my story but did not share because when my mother would hesitantly ask if I had questions I always quickly responded negatively. I was too young to express that of course I was curious but didn’t want to hurt her. And she wasn’t able to read the signs. Years later a cousin told me her mother once asked mine whether I’d expressed any curiosity.

“I’ve tried to talk to her but she says she doesn’t want to know,” my mother responded. “I don’t want to push her.”

Obviously, I only have an adoptee’s perspective on the curiosity kids naturally manifest but my friend Debra is the mother of two children adopted from China; an 18-year-old daughter and a 17- year-old son.

“When our daughter was around four-or five-years old, she asked about her birth mother. I knew this was something that she needed to question and to grieve the loss. She cried, and I knew this was healthy, to grieve such a loss,” Debra told me. “She was sad that she didn’t know what her mother looked like. I suggested that she should draw a picture of what she thought her birth mom might look like. So, she drew a picture of her birth mom with a baby (herself) in her tummy. I thought it was great and we hung it on her bedroom wall, right by her bed, for many years.”

To date, Debra’s son hasn’t asked specific questions about the circumstances of his adoption, though he knows he was surrendered as an infant because of medical conditions his birth parents might not have been able to address and that his first four years were spent with a loving foster family.

Debra realizes more questions may eventually arise, more curiosity surface. And if so she and her husband know how they will proceed.

“Throughout the years, I have periodically checked in with both of my children. I ask them if they think much about being adopted, or how they feel about being adopted, those sorts of questions,” she says. “Neither one of them, at this age, is interested in searching for their biological parents. However, they know we will help them do that if, or when, the time comes.”

By checking in at different stages of emotional growth and maturity I think Debra and her family have the perfect solution. A 9-year-old may not be emotionally ready to ask certain questions but a 19-year-old may

When that coworker asked about the one thing I wish my parents had done differently I was stumped. Even answering the question — and I was 30 at the time— seemed like a betrayal of my wonderful family. They gave me a comfortable home, an education, plenty of stories to tell, a future, and SO much love.

But then I thought maybe I could give another family something that might help them; something that maybe would have helped my own folks.

“I wish they would have told me it was always OK to ask,” I replied.

Patti Eddington is the author of  “The Girl with Three Birthdays — An Adopted Daughter’s Memoir of Tiaras, Tough Truths, and Tall Tales” which will be released by She Writes Press on May 7, 2024.

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