Guest Post: more on telling the truth in adoption.

Telling Your Other Children About The Surrendered Child

BY Mary Anne Cohen
From Origins NJ Newsletter,revised 2004. 2012

One of the hardest but most necessary tasks facing first mothers is telling their other children about the surrendered brother or sister.

The longer a mother has kept the secret, the harder it is. Some mothers want to search but feel unable to come out to their families. These women are not deliberately deceptive or cowardly. They have the best motives towards all their children, but are frightened and confused about the possible ill effect of revealing their secret. They fear that the knowledge will harm their children, and add more guilt and damage to their already fragile self-image as adequate mothers. This is even more common in mothers who are found, who thought that the surrendered child would be a secret forever. Some may have husbands who are opposed to telling the children, which adds an extra source of anxiety.

Most mothers who surrendered in the years after WWII have told their husband about the surrendered child, and perhaps one or two close friends, but beyond that, it usually has not been discussed or shared. A few have not even confided in their husband or another living soul.

As a mother who is searching, chances are your home is suddenly full of adoption-related material, that you are glued to the TV whenever the word “adoption” is mentioned; that you spend hours on the Internet seeking search assistance, and that you have long phone conversations with your new adoption search buddies.

Although physically you remain in your ordinary surroundings, your mind and heart are caught up in a quest as profound, challenging, and consuming as any mythical crusade. You are in a state of emotional turmoil, as you face the challenges posed by each phase of search, contact, and reunion. Life is not really proceeding as usual, much as you might try to separate your home life from your “adoption life”. How can your family not notice that something is going on?

If you have been contacted by your adult child, either directly or through an intermediary, and are secretly corresponding, or in the hard place of trying to decide how or if to respond to the initial contact, your inner state and outer demeanor are probably even more upsetting and puzzling to those you live with, if you have not shared with them what momentous occurrence has transpired.

A secret like this has to come out, and it will, in ways that you may not like unless you take the initiative and control how your family is informed. Even if the found adoptee is patient and sensitive to your need for privacy for many years, the secret can take a toll on both of you and your relationship, and be revealed by some happening beyond either's control.

Your family are already affected by your search, despite your efforts to protect them. Why not let them be equal partners, persons you respect enough to share truth with, rather than confused spectators of something they half comprehend or misinterpret?

Children can draw some surprising conclusions from your unexplained erratic behavior. They may fear that they themselves are adopted, or that they have done something to upset you that is so awful you cannot talk about it. Older kids may imagine you have a secret lover, or are about to be divorced. They may fear that someone in the family has a fatal illness that is being concealed. The imagination of children is unlimited—and so is the needless suffering it can cause. Kids who have imagined any of these scenarios will be relieved when you finally reveal the truth, which in many ways has little to do with them, or their day to day family life.

It is important to realize that while your children may be interested in their lost sibling, and ask many questions, they will never have the intensity of feelings, especially painful ones that you have. They did not experience what you did; the birth, surrender, and years of secret guilt. They do not bring any of the baggage that you do to the whole adoption/reunion scenario. Telling them does not lay an equal burden of suffering on them. They may or may not eventually form their own relationship with their sibling.

We need to keep our boundaries clear and not project our feelings onto our children when contemplating “the talk” about the surrendered child. While the adoption issue is central to us, to most of our children it will be peripheral at most until they actually meet their sibling. Rather than experiencing a loss, some children are overjoyed to learn that they have suddenly “gained” a new sibling, often the big brother or sister they have always wanted, and approach the news with curiosity and wonder rather than horror.

A common reaction is, “Where is she? When can we see her?” If you have been contacted by an intermediary, or by your searching child, how wonderful to be able to reply, “as soon as possible!”. Another common reaction of adult children is that knowing you surrendered a child explains a lot about aspects of your behavior and emotional state over the years that may have been puzzling to them.

There is no ideal age to wait for. Right now is always the right time. It does not get easier with the passage of time, and can get more difficult. Teenagers and young adults may resent the fact that you underestimated their capacity to deal with reality, and treated them like babies rather than as maturing young people. They may feel betrayed that you were not honest with them sooner. Often, the oldest feels slightly displaced, and some sibling rivalry issues can be evident even if there is no reunion as yet.

Older children may be angry at having been deceived, rather than grateful for being “protected” from the truth for years. But like all things, this too will pass; just as it is never too early, it is also never too late. Many mothers who are already grandmothers have told middle-aged adult children of their other sibling, with no ill effects. Much as many of us fear that our subsequent children will fear rejection after being told that their mother gave up a child, I have never heard of any who voiced that concern, or acted as if that were a possibility. Your children have the right to know they have a sibling, and it is best that they hear it first from you.

Young children are generally trusting, and accept whatever you do because you are their mother and they love you. Children who grow up knowing that you had another child and placed her for adoption accept this as part of history, just as they would deal with knowing about a previous marriage of either of their parents.

Some of you have long passed the stage of telling little children, and are faced with the task of telling teenagers. Many mothers of teens fear that their children will lose respect for them as people, and will flaunt their mother’s “immorality” when told by their parents to wait to have sex. “You did it at 16—why can’t I”? Some young people, mostly male, have reacted with anger, judgment, and disbelief, and have shown resentment at their mother’s supposed “double standard.” But they get over it.

You could use your unhappy experience as an example of the problems created by sex without adequate protection, commitment, or maturity. Teenagers respect honesty; they hate hypocrisy. They will ultimately respect you for admitting you were not perfect, and may become more open and honest with you in return. Once they know and have incorporated your story into theirs, your teenage and adult children can be your greatest source of comfort during search and reunion. Don’t shut them out of something that could bring you all closer together.

Present the subject in a way that is appropriate to the age, maturity, and temperament of your child. Each child is unique. Some mothers prefer to tell all their children at once, others take each aside and discuss it with each separately. You know your own children and family dynamic best.

Once your children know, don’t go on too much about the subject, but do involve them in all the important points of your search and reunion. Any picture you have of the lost child, either from infancy or any current one you have been sent is helpful in “making it real.” If your husband is against telling the children, try to educate him, and help him to see that honesty is best for your whole family, while secrecy is already doing harm. Go forwards towards reunion with courage, truth and love—and follow your own heart and sense of ethics. It may help to introduce the subject of medical information that could be vital to all your children, and how in reunion it can be exchanged both ways.

You may want to wait to tell the children about their sibling until after you have had some contact with the adoptee, and know that he wants you in his life. In this way, you feel you are protecting your children from disappointment and rejection. This is a very common assumption, but it is wrong. In fact, it is easier for all if your children know before any contact is made, no matter what the outcome. If the adoptee is delighted to be found, or finds you, he may want to meet his siblings right away, which means you will have to either put him off, or tell your other children in the midst of the turmoil of a new reunion, rather than letting them hear and absorb the news in a more relaxed fashion. It is not fair to the adoptee to contact them, and then insist on a covert relationship where they remain a “dirty little secret.” If you are found, in most cases your surrendered child will be understanding, but eventually you may want the secret to end and true openness to begin.

Wherever you are as you read this, if you have not yet told your family, the right moment is now. There will never be an easier or better time, no matter what your present situation might be. The past is gone, but you can take an active and honest role in the future.

In case of rejection, or finding something tragic or distressing, you will need the love and support of those in your family more than ever. You will not need the extra strain of grieving an additional loss or blow while continuing to hide your pain and secret. If you should die before being reunited, it would be best for your family to know of the other child, so that they could welcome her if she searched, or search for her themselves if they felt the need. Adoption and surrender are family matters for generations to come, not just your own sad secret.

The good news about telling your other kids is that so many of us who were just as scared as you are have done it, with no lasting ill effects, some of us many years ago. Many faced difficult situations, but all were relieved to have finally gotten rid of the burden of secrecy. The truth really will set you free.


  1. One of the saddest things I ever read was an adoptee finding her family after the birthmother had died. The Mom (birthmother) never told her husband or kids. The poor lady lived her whole life with the secret. Very sad. Good post.

  2. As frightened as I was to talk about my son lost to adoption with the children I raised, it was nothing compared to the freedom I felt from living in truth! It is true ~ the truth shall set you free!

  3. "Adoption and surrender are family matters for generations to come, not just your own sad secret."

    Beautiful post, Mary Anne. The line above is so so true and often forgotten.


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