This core question is more common than one might expect among adoptive parents and it certainly deserves a solid answer. I, in no way, presume to tell you a simple, clear-cut answer. However, I’ll do my best to shed some insights for you to consider.
Deal with Fear
Your child needs to know the truth, at the appropriate age, but first as parents, you need to deal with your own fears first. Dr. Randolph W. Severson addresses parental fear in To Bless Him Unaware: The Adopted Child Conceived by Rape: “Fear and anxiety about what openness will ultimately mean in adoption is often like a young child’s anxiety about the water being cold. There really will be no getting over it until he takes a breath and steels himself and dives. And while the water will be cold at first, the momentary shock will soon seem worth it as the body adapts and the afternoon warms while the cool blue waters bear up the swimmer into a serene and tranquil bliss.”
Moms, on behalf of adoptees, I plead with you to deal with your own fears and then trust us to have the strength to grow from the pain. We adoptees aren’t whimps! We know how to survive and thrive through pain. Give us a chance! We want truth and this will help us learn to trust you more.
Believe that Good Can Come From Evil
At mid-age, when I was reunited with my birth mother via phone, she announced to me the negative circumstances of my conception. I vividly remember my emotional reaction—it was as if I had fallen on the ice and had the wind knocked out of me. I was speechless. It never entered my head that such a thing could be the reason for relinquishment.
For some reason, I felt compelled to repeat these words in my reunion story: “I was conceived in horrible circumstances.” Every time I spewed out the words, it was as if a black cloud enveloped me. A couple of years later, this thought came to mind: “It was your mother that had the experience—not you. You are not responsible and you are carrying her pain and shame. That’s why you feel so terrible whenever you share it with others.”
From that point forward, I simply would say, “My mother had a bad experience at my conception.” I take no ownership of it and carry the pain and shame no more.
Since my adoptive grandmother was the county worker on my case and worked with my birthmother prior to my adoption, I have no doubt that my adoptive parents knew the truth. As was typical in the closed adoption era, not much was shared about adoption, let alone negative birth family information.
The upshot for me from the ordeal of hearing the truth is that my love for my birth mother deepened. As I studied about maternity homes and the horrible shame that was cast on her, I have come to see the true gift she gave me in continuing the pregnancy and providing me with the gift of birth nine months later.
The truth DID set me free from misplaced pain and shame so that I could love and appreciate my birth mother on a deeper level.
Determine the Appropriate Time
If I had a child whose life leapt into being through negative circumstances, I would be very careful about the timing of disclosing such information. Dr. Severson says, “As soon as your child asks or becomes aware—and only your love and instinct will hint at it’s emergence—that it ‘takes two’ to make a baby, he or she should be told that his birth mother and birth father were not in love and perhaps did not know each other well, and that they did not ‘make love’ but rather ‘had sex’ even though the birth mother didn’t want to.” He believes the correct age is approximately 10 or 11 years old.
You know your child better than anyone, so I encourage parents to pray to know the right timing. I am reminded of a story about Corrie Ten Boon, a survivor of the Nazi Prisoner Camps. When she was a young girl, she was on the bus with her father and she asked him what the word “sex” meant. Mr. Ten Boon rose from his seat, pulled down a heavy suitcase, and placed it in front of Corrie. “Try to lift it,” he said. She tried, to no avail. He said, “Corrie, just like this suitcase is too heavy for you to carry right now, so is the subject of sex too difficult for you to understand. I will carry it for you until the time is right.” The Center for Adoption Support and Education has a great developmental chart. Here’s the link: http://tinyurl.com/l7qmfwy.
Moms, you can do the same with painful birth history. If your child asks before you believe she is ready to receive, use the story of Corrie’s dad and carry the information until the time is right.