Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: How do I tell my children I was adopted at birth?

Dear Virginia,

How do I tell my children I was adopted at birth? The answer is becoming quite urgent. The children are aged seven and five and I want to tell them myself but I don't know how to begin. I've tried to explain it to them a few times, but always bottle out at the last minute. I suppose I'm afraid it will upset them. I'm so afraid someone else will tell them first, because it's no secret in my circle that I'm adopted. Have you got any suggestions?

Yours sincerely, Jan

Sorry to sound like a Freudian analyst, but I think what's worrying you is not that your children will be upset. No, I think you're worrying that telling them will upset you. I may be wrong, but I have a feeling that you were told rather late in life – perhaps at the age your children are now – and that this news was, to you, a greater crisis than you may even have realised at the time. So the prospect of telling your children reminds you of your own trauma.

Your two children are, however, completely different beings. To be quite honest I shouldn't think they'll care one way or the other whether you were adopted or not. I imagine it will be all you can do to get them to sit down to tell them. Children of this age are not renowned for their ability to put themselves in others' positions, and I don't think you'll find them putting their hands on your knee and saying: "Well, how terrible for you!" or "But where does this leave us? We are missing a great raft of medical knowledge that may benefit us in future life."

You could easily start off the telling procedure by getting them involved in a family tree. And as you write in the names of your adoptive parents, you could simply say: "But they weren't my real mummy and daddy of course..." and then go into the story. If you really find that too difficult, then it might be easier to tell them with someone else present – their father, perhaps – to stop you ducking out when it comes to the crunch. You could get him to initiate the conversation about grandparents and then you could step in with the "real mummy and daddy" stuff.

What you must do, obviously, is reassure them, even if they don't ask, that they weren't adopted. That you and their father are their "real" mummy and daddy. That they came out of mummy's tummy – or however you describe the act of birth in your family. You must also reassure them that they will never ever be adopted themselves, because their mummy and daddy are with them always and forever. Say adoption only happens to babies whose mummies and daddies have died or who don't want them, and that's not going to happen to them.

Quite honestly, I suspect that after you've told them they'll forget all about it. You'll have to remind them, say, every year, just to keep the fact alive in their minds.

Whatever you do, do it soon. The best time to introduce this sort of information is when it's of no interest at all to your children. That way the knowledge simply drips its way into their systems without any drama.

Readers say...

Wait until they're older

As someone who is adopted myself, I can understand that it's a very important issue to you. However, I am wondering why you feel the need to tell your children when they're still at an age where they probably don't understand where babies come from. I feel that telling them this soon will open yourself to a lot more questions that you may have difficulty explaining.

I am unaware of what relationship you have with your adoptive and biological parents, your children's' grandparents, and whether this has an influence on your need to spill the beans. I am also wondering whether your relationship with your partner or husband of your children has any bearing on this issue and whether you have discussed what questions will need to be fielded as a result of your disclosure.

My son was 14 when I found out about my adoption when I was 38. It was, and still is, a massive shock to me. He was quite indifferent. Other people I have told seem embarrassed and don't know what to say, or ask questions out of awkwardness. I'm sure you wouldn't want that to happen with your children.

Do tell them by all means, it's an important factor in your life and who you are, but perhaps wait till they're old enough and you're ready for the birds and bees talk.


By email


Tell them bit by bit

Jan should drip-feed information to her kids in the mildest way. I was adopted at birth and have always known. I was 16 when I learnt the whole story, and this year I met my stepmother for the first time. She is 88, I am 65. I now have four half-siblings and loads of interesting cousins. My blood father never knew of my existence and my blood mother moved on with her husband while pregnant with me. I met her 15 years ago, and kept in touch.

Jan could start by explaining that their gran and grandpa aren't related to them. If she knows the circumstances, then Jan could introduce the facts gradually. Seven- and five-year-olds aren't going to absorb it all at once. Photos are helpful but not always to hand. (Both my lot were actors so there are heaps!) Every adoption is different and there are no hard and fast rules.

Get advice from the Post-Adoption Centre or one of the other societies. PAC were totally marvellous.

Robert Currey

Corsham, Wiltshire


Do it now

Just go ahead and do it. Children are like elastic. They accept all kinds of changes. Provided you do it positively and tell your adopted parents first that you are going to. Make a big thing about how much you love Grandma and Grandad and they you. After all, it's not only your story, it is their story, too. It might be a good idea to say something like, "It's not just whose tummy you came out of. It's who's loved you all your life."

Helen Rogers

London NW3


Be strong for your son

Children are bright, creative, curious, intelligent and full of love and understanding. I think telling them will be easier than you think. Why don't you read them a children's story like "Thumbelina". Reading the story to them will generate questions and you can then explain that once you had a loving mum and dad, but because of certain reason they could not share their love and care for you as they hoped to do. You can then tell them that there was another "mum" and "dad" that wanted to share their love with you and brought you up so that you could have two wonderful children to love and care for you.

Dennis Morton

Guildford, Surrey


Virginia Ironside is touring with her show, The Virginia Monologues: Why It's Great to be Sixty;