Care and Feeding

My Adopted Daughter Gets Upset When I Say She Didn’t Grow Up “in My Tummy”

I want to be clear about her origins and how much I love her, but should I back off?

A mom hugging her daughter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I adopted my wonderful, bright, inquisitive daughter three years ago, just a few days after she turned 1. Unlike the poor parents in your recent column, I have resolved to always be open about her origins and to answer—as truthfully and age-appropriately as I can—any questions she has. The ideal, as I’m sure you know, is for her “always to have known.”

I have referred to me adopting her lots of times. When she asks where babies came from (another ongoing conversation!), I always talk about her “tummy-mummy” as I explain that babies grow in their mothers’ bellies. I talk about her “moving in” and “coming home” and use phrases like “when I adopted you.”

I have pointed out people in our lives (luckily we have several, both adults and children) who are also adopted “just like you.” I’ve tried to be open without ever giving more information than she has asked for.

But recently she will insist, sometimes casually but sometimes more forcefully, that “I grew in your tummy” or that I breastfed her when she was a baby, etc. When this happens I quite gently remind her that that isn’t true but say that I am her mother forever, no matter what. It doesn’t seem to be making much difference. I don’t feel that I can let the story stand without my correcting it, but I also don’t want to upset her, and sometimes she does seem quite upset. I usually end up changing the subject. I try to come back to it later when she is calmer to find out why she feels so strongly or whether she is feeling insecure, but it doesn’t seem to be making much difference. She can’t really explain what she’s feeling, and, being a 4-year-old, she sometimes seems to have forgotten what she said.

What should I do in this situation? Should I back off and let her say what she says without my correcting her and upsetting her? Continue to do what I’m doing and hope it eventually calms down? Something else?

—You Were Never in My Tummy, but I Love You the Most

Dear ILYtM,

I think you’re doing really well. I don’t know what that first year of her life was like. It’s an important time, and the lack of secure attachment in early childhood can pop up when you least expect it, even if she has precisely zero memories of a time before you were her mother. I think you have a little girl who loves you desperately and wants to have been in your tummy and been breastfed. The best path forward is to just keep loving on her and gently correcting her and, perhaps, telling her in those moments that sometimes you pretend she had been in your tummy too, but isn’t it wonderful we’re together now and will be forever?

Four-year-olds are great at announcing things they want to be true as Gospel Fact. “I own a chocolate factory.” “I am a robot scientist.” Etc. This one is harder for you because it pushes your own buttons, and you can tell that it’s closer to the bone for her as well. This particular phase will pass, more quickly than you think, but there will likely be future needs and pain around the situation to keep an eye out for.

She loves you so much. Keep it up.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a single woman planning to start a family within the next three to four years. I am, naturally, excited about this decision. Because I have a family history of debilitating mental illness, ranging from “high-functioning” to people who can’t live independently, I talked with a genetic counselor. I’ve concluded it makes more sense for me to build any future family through embryo or egg donation, as I cannot personally justify bringing a child who potentially couldn’t support themselves into the world.

What worries me is how to explain this to future children. Obviously I’m aware of the fact that no matter how much I plan, I may still have a disabled child, so when they ask why I used embryo donation, I want to frame it in such a way that they don’t feel pressured to be “compliant.” I also had some issues related to being the high-functioning one in the family, and I don’t want to pass that off to them. What should I say to them?

—My Choice Is Made, My Explanation Is Not

Dear Made Your Choice,

Happily, it’s a conversation that doesn’t need to start as early as the “you’re adopted” one, so you have plenty of time. Each year, assisted reproductive technology becomes something that more and more people are familiar and comfortable with. I have a friend who “adopted” triplet embryos, which was … very exciting … and her kids have been perfectly satisfied with “I didn’t have great eggs, and my reproductive endocrinologist felt this was my best chance to become a mother.”

I think that’s an answer you can borrow. I absolutely do not want you to have a conversation about “I was worried you would be disabled” or “My family is a mess of crazies, and I decided to draw a line under it.” That’s unnecessary, and also unkind to the many disabled or mentally ill people who, with the right support and commitment, become fabulous parents. It also, however gently brought up, does give your child the sense that being disabled makes one less-than. I am not interested in talking you down from your choice; I can tell you have put a great deal of thought into this and that it’s the right option for you. But this is one of those rare “lie a little” answers from me. The truth is you don’t think you have good eggs. Let them chalk it up to age or chance.

I also wish to say, as a person involved with disability activism, that a tremendous number of wonderful people require some form of daily support for their entire lives, and even though you are doing your best to sidestep that outcome (knowing, as you have stated, that there are no certainties), it’s good to remember that it does make disabled and mentally ill children and adults feel like burdens when they read or hear themselves discussed this way.

As you move forward, I suggest (as I suggest to anyone undergoing any form of ART) a dose of personal counseling to be ready for the reality of raising a child alone, and also all the memories from your own less-than-ideal childhood, which are sure to pop up like dandelions, however much you may believe you’ve put them to rest.

Best of luck to you in your journey toward motherhood.

• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m writing with one of those good problems. My mom is retired and volunteered to provide full-time child care for my 4-month-old daughter. She and my dad are relatively well off, and she refuses to accept any money. Fortunately, my daughter is a super easy kid, so this has been working out great for everyone.

My question is: How can I show my appreciation for this incredible gift she’s given our family? We live in a state where child care costs are prohibitive, and my mother is saving us at least $24,000 annually by doing this. That said, she’s doing this in large part to help us save money, and I know her well enough to know that she would push back on any material gifts.

I want to do something amazing for her, but I’m not sure what that looks like. She is religious (Catholic), loves to work out, is a great cook, and loves to travel. Any ideas?

—Thank You Thank You Thank You

Dear TY,

I am so thrilled that this is working so well for everyone (a casual glance at the archives bears witness to the numerous ways free grandparent child care can result in disaster). Of course you want to find a way to express your tremendous appreciation for this lovely gift.

I think having your partner take your child for a four-day weekend (if possible) and treating your mother to a little getaway would be ideal. Go to a spa two towns over, go to Mass with her on Sunday, have some lovely talks about what a wonderful mother and grandmother she is, and take lots of selfies together. Parents, as a group, love when their grown children make a fuss over them and genuinely wish to spend time with them, and I think you and your mother would have a lovely time. She can brag to her friends about it, too.

On an ongoing basis, why not take a little bit of that saved $24K a year and send her and your father off to travel? You don’t have to fund a trip every year, but it would be delightful to celebrate both their retirement and their generosity as caregivers.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I was the letter writer who asked for advice about being a nine-months-pregnant groomsperson in my friend’s wedding, and I thought you might appreciate an update!

I took your advice, bowed out of the wedding party, and attended as a guest. My friend was super understanding and was just happy I could attend. The wedding was outdoors on a 90-degree day, and there is no way in hell I would’ve lasted on my feet as part of the wedding party. I did make it through dinner at the reception and left shortly after, and I went into labor exactly one week later. You were not kidding about the last three to four weeks of pregnancy being a nightmare, so thank you for helping me set realistic expectations.

—You Will Remember Me as “Wedding or Not?”

Dear WoN,

We love updates, especially good ones! Thank you so much for checking back in. Everyone, please do not commit to anything in the final three to four weeks of pregnancy that involves standing or being outdoors, unless it’s the summer and you have committed to lowering yourself into a wading pool with a cooler of Otter Pops.

The other message here is that people are generally more reasonable than we fear. Your friends want to see you present for their special occasions, but they do not want you to be miserable while you do so. Be honest, be transparent, and tell them as early as possible, and no (reasonable) person can take offense.

Not everyone is reasonable, of course, but do you really want to be the groomsperson to a deeply unreasonable person? Probably not.

Congratulations on your baby! I hope you never need to ask me for advice.

—Nicole

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