How do I tell my daughter she's adopted?

Can't we just forget about that little detail of her parentage?

Published October 31, 2011 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I am perhaps the happiest person who has ever written to you. My life is full and I am at peace and I have finally reached a balance that eluded me all my life. How did this happen? Well, at the age of 38 I adopted a baby. She was a day old when I held her and she came home with me when she was 3 days old. The paperwork took months but that's not important.  I have worked very hard all my life, forever chasing goals, climbing the corporate ladder, traveling and working internationally. But I was literally sick of it. Neither the money nor the travel meant much. I hated the constant politicking and the random viciousness of work life. I saw no escape. I couldn't imagine dropping out and then I went through a severe illness that left me unable to bear a child. I had a nervous breakdown. I am lucky enough to have a supportive husband, who while not acknowledging the possibility of a breakdown, did everything physically possible to make me better. I stopped working. I was completely washed out, I would be suicidal if that did not require an effort and the ability to feel. And then like a miracle I got my baby. I remember being quite ambivalent when I went to meet her. Yet, something clicked when I held her. I felt a sense of fierce belonging I have never felt before and I know my baby knew me too. She was and is amazing. She never cried as an infant. Except for food. She is very loving, brave, curious, smart, speaks two languages at 2 and a half. OK I am blabbing. I mean, now she is a handful. She is not perfect. She runs around in an airplane, gets hyper in malls, and goes crazy if she hears the sound of a packet of crisps, but I see an awesome person in the making. A kiss can still make my day. And we do believe in manners and discipline and naughty corners, so she is not spoiled or anything.  The past two and a half years have been blissful. My husband is a great daddy and I suspect my daughter's heart belongs to him, but that's cool. I am just incredibly lucky. My friends who knew me as the hard-driving MBA are amazed that I am happy as a stay-at-home mom, a choice my younger self would have derided. Actually my daughter goes to daycare twice a week and she would be happy there, so I can easily go back to work, this is no spiel for motherhood.

My circumstances were unique and who knows if I would have been this happy if I were a teenage mum with no support.

The only problem, Cary, is that despite being educated and well informed, I can not imagine telling my daughter that she is adopted. I thought adoption is so cool, I would be transparent.. Many times people talk of adoption as some altruistic act, but my lil monstah has given me more than what I could ever give her. It would be selfish to even want to be the center of her life, but she truly is the love of our lives. Seriously every parenthood cliche has come true for us.

I felt such a  possessive primal emotion from the first, which really surprised me. I don't think you can be a mum with all the sleepless nights and life changes, without this bonding; she is mine and I am hers. From the start I started getting irrationally offended when friends referred to it. I cut off someone because she said "oh, she has really taken to you." Like, why should she not, she is my daughter. I regret that this was shared with the whole family and I had a bit of a showdown where I made it clear that this is not something we discuss or even refer to whenever we meet or ever. Everything I read tells me that this information should be shared early. However, I also read that adopted children grapple with the issue, agonize over it. I mean, why should my lovely daughter have to deal with something her peers do not? Also, her birth mother cannot be traced. The information will really not help her get her genetic or medical information. If after a childhood of happy memories she does come to know, would it really shock her so much? Surely she would be strong enough to deal with it then. I had a tough childhood and teenage years. I was never close to my parents. Now I acknowledge that this could partly be my fault. All kids go through a rough teenage when they hate their moms, don't they? What if knowledge of adoption compounds this angst? Leads to greater estrangement? I am going crazy, Cary, I can't think straight. Isn't love enough? Have you seen how the press always refers to the Cruise kids or the Jolie-Pitt kids as "adopted kids"? It makes me so angry.   I just want to be her mother, not her adoptive mother. And I want to give her a perfect childhood, though I realize it's not wholly up to me. Already she has her own life and friends and soon she will go to school and my daughter can't help but be independent. I am happy except when this issue comes up. What's wrong with me? Am I turning into the crazy mom?

Can't We Just Forget About It?

Dear Can't We Just Forget About It,

What would you learn if you learned you were adopted?

You would learn that what you thought was true wasn't true. It would be more a kind of unlearning than learning. It would be an acquisition of not-knowledge.

Maybe it would be like learning that most of the universe is dark matter and dark energy. You would have to start over. That might not be a bad thing. You might  acquire a new, more flexible notion of selfhood.

For one thing, you would have to conclude that you are not your genetic origin, right? Ideally, you would learn that you are a unique being, much loved, who came to be in a particular family here through unique circumstances.

But it isn't as simple as that. We envision the unbroken line of success leading back to some early forms of human being and then back beyond them to advanced apes and less advanced apes and back and back and back to archaebacteria, the very earliest life forms. We see ourselves in a continuum, and we find comfort in imagining ourselves before we were born, and the lives of those who gave birth to us. We love deeply these images of those we take to be our parents. So it is a big disruption to what we thought was true, to what we thought we could depend on.

And it's not a simple thing, for we are not simple creatures and we are not computers; we do not just know things and move on. We are haunted.

Old lovers haunt us. Things that might have been haunt us. It's the season of haunting and we are haunted by ghosts.

It's how we handle the ghosts that counts. There are always going to be ghosts in our lives. You may be adopted or not; you don't really know where you come from. No one does. Your daughter, once she realizes she did not come out of your womb, might take some wise comfort in realizing that those who feel they know exactly who they are don't really know, either. It's much more complicated. Maybe this will be a gift to her; it will stretch her mind, her self-concept.

My best friend in junior high found out he was adopted and it bothered him. I don't think it was the fact that he was adopted. I think it was the way his parents handled it. The being-adopted part of it just stood in for a much larger grievance.

You are a good parent. You love this child and as far as you are concerned she's your daughter and that's that. That's pretty powerful. She belongs to you. She's yours.

If someone along the way should whisper to her this secret, and if she should become confused and ask you, then you can tell her that she's your daughter and you're her mom and you love her. There's no question of who's her mom. Who else would be her mom but you? You don't need to deny the truth but you can direct her to what is important and away from what is not important. You love her and she's your daughter. That is what's important.

And if at a certain more advanced point in her evolution you must discuss the biological details of whose womb she came out of, well, discuss. What's wrong with that? It would be disrespectful to lie to her, wouldn't it? Then you may get into the difficulties of the hard fact that her birth mother cannot be traced. Well, there is another mystery that if handled well could be a kind of enlightenment: For who among us can say with any certainty that our origin is not in some way a mystery to us?

Let's put it this way: What does it matter whose car we came in? We're at the party now.

We step out and there are glittering lights and a carpet and we walk up the steps to be greeted by old friends and new. Whose car did you come to the party in? What does that matter? We're here. Let's find the coat check.

Tricky moments will come to pass in time, or not. What else can you do but handle them with love?

Right now, you are happy, and she is loved, and you are loved in turn, and these other things, let them be. Let them be for now. Let time and circumstance decide. The basic truths are enough for now. You love her. She loves you. You're happy. She's your daughter. You're her mom.

By Cary Tennis

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