by Dr. Aimie Apigian, MD, MS, MPH
For those of us who have fostered, adopted, or loved a child who has been abandoned, our heart aches at what they have endured. It’s so tempting to make their experience more palatable, to gloss over the hard truths. In working with adoptive parents, there is one thing that they almost always tell their child that makes me cringe. “Your birth mom loved you” or “Your birth parents loved you so much that they wanted you to have a better life.” It sounds so innocuous. And it could be true, but it could also be a terrible lie.
And besides, isn’t it just a little bit weird and scary to tell a child, “She loved you so much she gave you away. And I love you too.”
Children have an amazing ability to know their history. In play therapy, sand tray and art therapy, they have an uncanny knack of playing out or recreating things from their first days, months and years that they don’t recall and their adoptive parents don’t know. A four year old rings a myriad of bells until he finds just the right one to ring when the orphanage door opens as he re-creates it in a sand tray. His adoptive/real mom listens in shock and remembers when she carried him out for the final time at nine months and they heard that exact tone. A toddler who has had a smooth transition home suddenly goes wild when leaving a doctor’s visit. Screaming and writhing then falling into a horrible despair unlike anything mom and dad have seen in two years. Beginning to breathe again when they leave the ugly reception room, mom realized that the only other time they’ve seen that color on the walls is in the orphanage. The little girl who disagreed when mom said that her birth mom loved her. She told her a sweet what-might-have-been and the little girl said no. Mom reasoned with her that every mother looks at their newborn with love, and she is so wonderful that this must have happened for her. Little girl bravely maintains her birth mother never looked. Mom wants so badly to believe it did that she lies over and over to her until she is encouraged for both of their sakes to find out the truth. She learns that her precious daughter’s birth mother never wanted to see her and closed her eyes so she wouldn’t. She also learns that her birth mother ignored the pregnancy, made a brief stop to give birth and never gave her child another thought. Mom is crushed. When she apologizes to her daughter, they draw closer as they go through the hard truth together. When she tries to comfort her daughter, her daughter comforts her because she has always known that truth in her heart. The daughter feels relief because now mom knows it, too. She trusts her more because mom can handle the truth.
Many children who have been traumatized, adopted or have attachment issues struggle with lying. We gently challenge by reflecting what is true. We consequence by helping them own up to their falsehoods and make reparation where required. We help them choose affirmations such as “I must tell the truth” or “I am honest.” We value honesty and know it paves the way for a brighter future for our children. This means that we need to set aside our discomfort and tell age appropriate truths.
When a child is ready, especially as they begin to question about specifics, we tell a little more of what we know. “Someone left you on a train.” “We don’t know exactly why a mom would do or allow this.” It’s OK to share guesses if we present them as mere possibilities: “Some moms leave their baby on trains because they are sure they will be found.” “Some moms leave their girl babies because they are afraid when they get old only a son can take care of them.” Or “some moms leave their baby because they are afraid they will get in trouble for having more than one child.” There are fine books for many different adoption situations, but we need to share that there are many possibilities.
We reflect possible feelings in the same tentative way: “That might have been scary for you.” “Some children would have felt alone and helpless but others might have been on the lookout for their real mom – their forever mom with love in her eyes.” We can make educated guesses, but we don’t really know. “When you first came to us, you didn’t cry and sometimes that means that a baby has cried and no one came. When you saw that we wanted to take care of you, you began to fuss when you needed something. We liked that you knew how to ask for what you needed.”
A great parent is wise, strong, brave, loving, and honest. Often times if it hurts too much to tell ourselves the truth about our own or our child’s history, it can be good therapy. When we err, we apologize: “I’m sorry. I wish that all moms loved all babies. It’s hard for me to understand that’s not always true. But here’s what I do know, I love you.”