Dear Prudence: How do I tell my adopted daughter the truth?

Help! How Do I Tell My Adopted Daughter About the Tragic Deaths of Her Birth Parents?

Help! How Do I Tell My Adopted Daughter About the Tragic Deaths of Her Birth Parents?

Advice on manners and morals.
Nov. 21 2017 8:30 AM

Not Her Only Mom

Prudie advises a mother who wants her adopted daughter to learn the truth about the tragic deaths of her birth parents.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.

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Q. Not twins, not the truth: My daughter was born three days after my niece (husband’s sister). When my niece was 6 months old, her father was shot and killed. My sister-in-law overdosed on sleeping pills soon after; we don’t know whether it was a suicide or an accident. My husband and I adopted the baby and raised her with our own daughter. She has never known anyone but us. As far as anyone in our community knows, our girls are fraternal twins. We moved away to escape the fallout of the deaths, the trial, and everything.

Our girls will be turning 5 soon, and I am dreading it. My husband wants to bury the past, but I feel like we are sitting on Pandora’s box. The truth is going to come out someday, and I know it is fundamentally better to do it sooner than later, but I have no idea how. I don’t know how to tell a 5-year-old girl that Mommy is actually your Auntie, not really your Mommy, no matter how much she loves you. I don’t know what to do if the truth gets out. We were a local sideshow in our old town. Our family tragedy was the most fun gossip most of our “neighbors” had for years. These last two years have been the most peace we have had as a family, and I am terrified of ruining it.

A: I’m so sorry for your losses, and I’m so glad to hear that you’ve been able to find peace in a new place where your neighbors don’t entertain themselves by dishing about other people’s grief. I think you’re right that it’s better to start having age-appropriate conversations with your daughter now, rather than wait for her to find out in a more jarring way in the future, but I do not think you need to—or should!—say that you’re not “really” her mom. You are her mom. You’re just not her only mom.

Approaching these conversations in a spirit of dread, and as though you are revealing that you’re not your daughter’s “real” mother, will likely be traumatizing for both you and your children. I’ll put in my regular plug for therapy here—I think a few sessions focused on how to start talking to your kids about their origins and what makes you a family might prove enormously helpful. There’s no need to go into detail about how your in-laws died right now. It may help to remember that you are not the only adoptive parent of a sibling’s child, and that there are numerous couples like you and your husband who have had to figure out how to have this exact same conversation. Your goal should be to communicate to your daughter that she is loved, that you’re still her mother and father, that her origins aren’t shameful or a secret, and that you’re here to answer any questions she might have. If any readers have any books or resource materials they think might prove helpful, please feel free to share them in the comments. You’re not alone.

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Q. I left my daughter off of the Christmas card: I adore my oldest daughter, Sophia, but every once in a while she behaves like a total brat. Recently we had a terrible fight over the phone; after she hung up on me, I snapped. I ordered the family Christmas card (a project we’ve done together since Sophia was 8) and chose a family picture without her in it. I left her name off of the card, too. Almost immediately I came to my senses but wasn’t able to cancel the cards. I intended on tossing them when they arrived, but Sophia’s little sister Hannah opened them and sent a picture to Sophia. Sophia was humiliated, and says she feels sick at hurting me badly enough that I ordered the cards.

I’ve apologized, and she’s accepted, but this incident will weigh heavily during Sophia’s Thanksgiving break from college. I’m so sorry, and it pains me to know I’ve damaged my relationship with my daughter. If Sophia avoids me during her break, what are noninvasive ways I can demonstrate to her that I love her?

A: Oh, boy, this feels like the rough beginning to a particularly inspiring holiday movie. First the good news: You’re very aware that behaving like a brat toward your adult child is not a healthy or productive response to brattiness, and you’re ready and willing to continue making amends with her. These amends should also extend to your daughter Hannah: You should, if you haven’t already, apologize for putting her in the position of having to tell Sophia about what you had done, and make it clear that you won’t do something like that again. Visually erasing a child from your annual Christmas card as punishment for getting into a fight with you is not just petty, it’s cruel, and it communicates, “Your place in this family is conditional upon your good behavior.”

As for how to handle Thanksgiving break, I think your instincts here are good. You can say to Sophia, “I know you’ve already accepted my apology, but I also know that this isn’t something that’s easy to move past or get over in a matter of days. I love you, and I want this Thanksgiving break to be as low-pressure for you as possible. If you want some space, please let me know and I’ll be happy to take a step back. If you want to spend time together and talk some more about how we handle fights and disagreements, I’d love to do that too. Let me know what you need from me right now, and I’ll do it.”

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Q. Children and death: I’m a Girl Scout leader for a group of girls around 7 to 9 years old. We recently starting writing pen pal letters to a group in Canada. This week the leader of our pen pals informed me that one of her girls died (cancer, I didn’t know). This must be very difficult for her troop, but I want to know how to address it with my own troop. Do I tell the parents now that their children may be receiving letters that address the topic of death? Do I wait and see if the other girls actually write about their friend’s death? Do I intercept the letters and censor out anything about death? I don’t have a child of my own, so I’m really at a loss.

A: I don’t think you should censor any of the letters; I also don’t have children, so I’m equally at sea, but one doesn’t have to be a parent to know that pretending death doesn’t exist isn’t a good idea. I think your instinct to contact your group’s parents is probably a good one. You can simply say, “One of the girls in our new pen-pal circle recently died, and I wanted you to know in case your daughters had any questions.” If the topic comes up, or if some of the girls receive letters talking about their new friend’s death, you should acknowledge it and perhaps encourage them to send a note of condolence or some flowers to the funeral.

Q. Catfishing: A friend told me recently that she suspected her husband was cheating on her. To find out if she was correct, she created a fake dating profile on a site she believed her husband was using. A few weeks went by, and she received a message from a man using a fake name who she believed was her husband. She asked for his phone number to text him and confirmed that it was, in fact, her husband. When she confronted him, he denied the accusations. My friend is firm in her belief that he has been cheating for some time and now wants a divorce.

She’s my friend, and I’m trying to be supportive. However, I find myself kind of freaked out at how she went about investigating her suspicions. I understand that her method is called “catfishing”; she insists that this is common, even acceptable. It does seem as though, if she had outright asked her husband if he was cheating, he would have denied it, so I guess this method was more efficient at getting to the truth. Still—is this a normal thing? Do people catfish their partners on the regular, and is this just part of our culture now? I wonder if I’m just being judgmental.

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A: Trying to suss out whether your husband’s dating profile is connected to your actual husband isn’t necessarily a “normal” part of These Modern Times. It’s something a person might do if they no longer believe their partner will tell them the truth, and it’s a sign that there’s been a likely irreparable breakdown of trust in a marriage. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to do anything at all about it.

Q. Mother’s past a mystery: My mother’s upbringing is a mystery to me. She is adopted, so her biological family is out of the picture. But her adoptive family is just as fuzzy. She never talks about them, and we never visit each other—until recently, I didn’t even know my grandfather’s first name. My father has a giant, highly involved family, so hers has always faded into the background. I’m inclined to believe some kind of abuse may have taken place, as I don’t know why an otherwise loving woman wouldn’t discuss her family. I’m dying to know more about where she came from. How can I ask my mother about her family and childhood while being sensitive to what may have taken place?

A: “Mom, I know you don’t talk about your adoptive family often, and I don’t want to pry if discussing them is painful for you. But I’ve always been curious about what they’re like, and why we don’t visit them. Can you tell me a little more about them? If you don’t want to discuss them, I understand, and I won’t pry any further, but I’ve often wanted to know more about that side of the family.”

Q. Re: Not twins, not the truth: “Sometimes babies grow in a mom’s uterus, sometimes they grow in a mom’s heart. Lucy grew in my uterus. Sally grew in my heart. We’re so lucky to have found Sally to complete our family.” As Sally gets older, you can answer questions in age-appropriate ways. Answer questions they ask, but not more. There are plenty of adoption picture books for kids that you can purchase too. I’m partial to Todd Parr’s books because they talk about different types of families.

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A: Thanks for the recommendation, and the age-appropriate script for starting the conversation. I think it’s a good instinct to frame this not as a dangerous secret but as part of the story of how the letter writer’s family came to be. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been pain and heartache involved along the way, but a 5-year-old isn’t ready to deal with the complexity around her parents’ death just yet.

Q. Brother cut me out: Three years ago my brother got engaged to a woman with severe issues. She had spotty employment, serious debt, and three kids by three different fathers, but custody of only one. My brother thought she was Carol Brady. He asked me to be his best man. I agreed despite my better judgment. Before the wedding I sat my brother down and told him I thought this marriage was a mistake. I told him that I loved him and would say this now but support him no matter what. After the wedding he completely cut me out of his life. No visits and no phone calls. He blocked me on social media and threatened to do the same to my parents and sisters if they brought up the subject. My sister told me his wife got drunk and bragged about “how her man wouldn’t allow anyone to disrespect his wife—not even his brother.” I was basically exiled from all family gatherings if they were present.

Now it has come out that my sister-in-law has been cheating on my brother practically since the wedding, and they are getting a divorce. Everyone is celebrating but me. My brother has called a few times and left messages, acting like we just fell out of touch rather than him cutting his only brother out of his life. I know my parents want me to forgive and forget, but I can’t. I am very tempted to say I don’t want to see him, and that if he is there at Christmas I will not be attending—see how he likes it.

A: There’s nothing wrong with taking a break from family holidays if you don’t think you’ll be able to be polite and enjoy yourself. If you need the space, take it, and wait to have a conversation with your brother at a slightly less fraught occasion than the One Day a Year No One Is Allowed to Be Angry or Fight Because This Is a Day for Family. Christmas, for those who celebrate it, all too often gets wielded as a bludgeon.

Your brother has attempted to reconnect with you, and now you get to decide whether you want to have a conversation about how his behavior made you feel. I don’t think much productive will come out of returning his silent treatment with some of your own. At the very least, even if you decide not to reconcile with him, you should tell him how his behavior hurt you. If you do decide to reconcile, it won’t be after papering over your yearslong estrangement; it can only come after an honest, possibly painful, conversation about why you two stopped speaking in the first place.

Q. Re: Children and death: This is so sad and a difficult situation for you. I’m a great fan of Meghan Leahy, who has a parenting advice column in the Washington Post. She recently wrote a column about a child attending a funeral. It has some more general advice on children and death that I think will be helpful for you.

Children should be told about death. It’s difficult, but if you hide it from them, there are whispers and they feel they are not allowed to talk about death at all. Talk to the Canadian troop leader about their thoughts. I would let the parents know, and address this head on with your troop and suggest you all make a card to send to the whole Canadian troop. Then listen to their questions and follow their lead. Explain to the parents that approaching this as a group will be more beneficial than it becoming knowledge through whispers.

A: That’s great, and thank you so much for the Meghan Leahy plug!

Q. Mystery in-laws: My husband and I divorced very soon after the birth of our daughter, who is now 6. The divorce was not very amicable, and his family cut all contact with me and my child. My ex has supported her financially but has very limited contact. We are lucky to have a lot of love and support from my family and friends, and in general, my daughter is a happy, healthy, bright little girl who has never known a different family dynamic.

The problem is, she has now figured out that her father must have a family of his own. I have managed to explain to her, in age-appropriate terms, why she doesn’t see her dad much. But from his extended family, it is outright rejection. I don’t know how to tell her they just are not interested in knowing her, through no fault of her own. Any advice? Should I try reaching out to his family?

A: I’m of two minds here! On the one hand, it seems like your ex-husband and his family have been pretty clear that they’re not interested in being part of your daughter’s life, and I can’t imagine that reaching out to them and asking if they’d like to see her (meet her?) would invite anything other than further rejection or recrimination. On the other hand, it’s possible—not likely, but possible—that some of them may have feared they weren’t welcome to meet your daughter, given the absentee role her father has taken. If you’ve never had a conversation with her grandparents or aunts and uncles about her, you might consider sending a brief message letting them know a little bit about your daughter and telling them they’d be welcome to meet her, if they’d ever like to. I don’t think it’s necessary to share that with your daughter unless they seem interested in getting to know her.

Q. Re: Brother cut me out: I have a sister with whom I have no contact because it never ended well for me when we did. However, neither of us has ever played the if she comes, I won’t card. We can be civil around each other and just hang with other people—we never asked anyone to “choose.” One other sister has blocked her on all social media; my brother never did social media and kind of ignored her; and two of my sisters have maintained cordial relations. I am close to all of my other siblings and their relationships are their own.

A: I haven’t spent much time thinking about what a model of ideal estrangement might look like, but this sounds pretty close. Absent ongoing abuse, I think it’s wise for the letter writer not to demand any other family members choose between them and their brother, and to figure out how to be, at the very least civil when their brother is around.

Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week, and don’t forget the saltines

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