Care and Feeding

Our Family Is About to Go Through a Very Confusing Change

How do we explain all this to the youngest child?

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I (F) have been dating my partner (M) for several years now. He has his four children full-time. My partner has three older children (ages 8 to 17) whose mother passed away. He also has a young 4-year-old son whose biological mother abandoned him due to her addiction. She has not seen him in more than two years and as of late, is serving a several-year prison sentence.

Given the dynamic of our family (single dad with four kids) and me (childless woman in my early forties), the topic of “moms” just doesn’t come up frequently. We’ve just sort of avoided the subject so far, but we know that there will likely be questions very shortly. He calls me by my first name (as do his older siblings), but frequently tells me that I’m his “best mommy.” He has asked about his mom only once since she’s abandoned him, when one of the older kids discussed their mom in heaven several months ago. He was shocked. “She has a mommy?” I explained that her mommy was in heaven because she died. He asked if his mommy was in heaven too, and I stumbled telling him that his mommy was sick and couldn’t take care of him. (My partner and I believe that there may be some memories of his bio mom, which were not good, but we haven’t directly asked.)

We DO NOT know how to discuss this with a preschooler who, thankfully, is able to navigate our unique family dynamics pretty well. We are not optimistic that his bio mom will make the effort necessary to see her young son, and regardless, will be in prison for some years to come. To complicate this situation, my desire is to adopt all four children, which the older kids are very excited about. However, it will be “all or nothing”—I will only adopt all four children so as not to divide the kids. Despite the bio mom’s absence, we do not anticipate she will voluntarily terminate her parental right, and we will likely have to terminate her rights involuntarily.
Our legal counsel has indicated that we have a very strong case to do so. But, we are uncertain as to how to even begin this discussion with him, as he is very well-adjusted and happy, with no behavioral issues. This is just his “normal.”

Can you please provide us with some insight on how to appropriately address this extremely sensitive topic? As of right now, we’ve tried to take his lead, and in the absence of him having much interest, we haven’t brought it up. We’re just not sure how to discuss this with such a young child.

— Mommy and Me

Dear Mommy and Me,

There’s no rush to discuss the details of your family dynamic with your partner’s youngest son. Four is still quite young for him to understand much of what’s happening, and it makes sense, at this point, to continue letting his curiosity guide your conversation. He seems to have some understanding that there is more than one mother figure in his life—or that there was, before he arrived in your partner’s home full-time—and I think it’s healthy to continue sharing with him as much as you think he can handle. Though you may have stumbled in your explanation, it was good that you explained that his mother has been sick and unable to care for him. As he grows older, he may want to know more, and it will be up to you to decide how much detail you’d like to provide. Honesty without insult is the best way forward. His mother is incarcerated and struggling with addiction; when he’s old enough to understand what that means, it’s okay to share that with him. Try to do so in a way that foregrounds the facts without passing judgment on his mother’s character.

As it pertains to custody and adoption, check your state’s criteria for petitioning involuntary termination of parental rights. If your partner’s co-parent meets enough of the criteria to make a strong case for termination, a judge’s ruling in your favor would, perhaps unfortunately, supersede her wishes or consent.

— Stacia