My husband was putting “J” down to bed the other night. I had already said good night and hugged and kissed him and was downstairs folding laundry or putting away the dishes or performing some other evening chore, I’m not sure which and I lost track of how long the two of them had been upstairs when my husband called for me on the stairs. “Can you come help me with?” he asked.
Something must be wrong; I could hear the stress in my husband’s voice. I scurried to the stairs and asked, “What’s going on?” “ ‘J’ is asking all kind of questions about why he wasn’t in your tummy, whose tummy was he in, then he went on to questions about “Tammy” and I’m not doing a good job, he needs you.”
“J” is adopted, and he knows this. “J” was born into the foster care system. His birth mother was a habitual drug addict. “J” was her 4th child and her older three were all in the care of child welfare. “J” never lived with either of his biological parents, although the state did try twice to return him home unsuccessfully. Before being placed with us, Jay was placed in a series of foster homes including one failed pre-adoptive home. “Tammy” was “J’s” first foster mother. She is a wonderful woman who over the years has cared for more than 30 medically-complex foster babies. She is the one former foster parent we have a continuing relationship with. “J” knows he was with her as a baby and often gets confused thinking she was his biological mom.
“J” has been “ours” for almost 10 years now; our family anniversary is in March. He came to live with us on his fourth birthday. Since day one “J” has liked hearing the story of how we became a family, asking me early on “why I just wasn’t in your tummy?” Being an adoptive mom has forced me over and over to face all kinds of emotions and insecurities. Truth be told, every time “J” asks me that it feels like a kick to my gut. It forces me to face head on the fact that I never got to carry my babies inside of me, that I missed out on their first years and that they did come from someone else. What I’ve also had to do is put my feelings aside, to embrace the story of their early lives and share as much with “J” as I feel he can comprehend.
When I started telling him the story, I didn’t use her name. I kept it very general. “You were in some else’s tummy. The doctors took you out. You were very sick. She didn’t know how to be a mom to you. “Tammy” took care of you until “Sara” (his caseworker) found a Mommy and Daddy forever for you. The judge told us we were a forever family and Mommy and Daddy were so happy!” I would also tell him “I wish you had been in my tummy. That would have been so much fun. I would have loved that so much. I wish I had held you and rocked you and feed you when you were a baby, I would have loved doing that so much. I would have been so lucky to have been your mommy from the very beginning. I’m sorry I wasn’t, but I’m so happy that I am now and I get to be your mommy forever!”
I’ve never told “J” about the abuse, neglect or drug use. I’ve never told him how many foster homes he was placed in or why he was removed from some of them. I’ve never told him about the pre-adoptive home, who after the mom found out she was pregnant the parents decided “J” was just too much work and they just couldn’t do it anymore. They packed up all his belongings on a Sunday, paged his caseworker and dropped him off at the foster care agency despite the fact that the agency was closed and a new home hadn’t been identified for him. He had been told they were going to be his “forever family” and they dropped him off and walked away.
I had also never used the name of his biological mother. I knew too much about her, I view her as a threat to “J” and I was so nervous to not present her in a negative light to him, but also to not build her up to be someone that she is not. I didn’t know what “J” would be capable of knowing and understanding as he grew up and I didn’t want to put myself in a position where I would have to either perpetuate a lie or shatter an idealized version of a flawed person.
“J” is a teenager now and we have a much clearer understanding of his developmental level and what he is able to comprehend and what is too abstract or complex for him to process. I use her first name now when I tell the story. I tell him I don’t know her, I’ve never met her and she is not a part of our lives today. I tell him she wasn’t healthy. That she didn’t make good choices and she didn’t know how to keep herself or a baby safe. I tell him that because she wasn’t safe the judge decided “J” needed to have a Mommy and a Daddy who would keep him safe and love him forever. He never asks any questions about her. He just waits with baited breath for the part in the story where the judge tells the three of us we are a forever family. He squeals in delight and reaches out for hugs from both of us, grateful for a happy ending.