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The Heartbreak of a Child Realizing Her Family Is Different

Photograph by Twenty20

My daughter is adopted. Our family has only ever been the two of us. For the longest time, neither of those things seemed to really matter. We were happy. We love each other and have a great support system around us. I have always been her favorite person and she has always been mine.

But, lately, she’s starting to realize our family doesn’t look like everyone else’s.

A few months ago, my daughter’s biological father died. I went back and forth on what to tell her, or whether I should even tell her anything at all. While we have an open relationship with her siblings, her other mama and many of her extended family members, he had never been a part of her life. Neither of us had ever met him and he’d really never made any attempt to learn anything about her.

But then he was dead, and I knew that meant the option of ever getting to know the man who helped create her was officially gone for my little girl. In the end, I decided this was information that would be better for her to process now, instead of years from now when she might come to me with questions and the hope of meeting the father she never knew. The father she never had.

I thought that allowing her to process this information today, when she’s just 5 years old, would make it a part of her story that had simply always been. To an extent, I still think I was right about that. But the grief my daughter has expressed for this man she never knew has been so much greater than anything I even thought to prepare myself for.

She cries at night, telling me she misses her daddy. Again, the daddy she never knew. Sometimes the cries are quiet and quick to cease. But sometimes they are full-on sobs—a heartbreak that seems impossible to quench.

In my heart of hearts, I always knew this day would come. I always believed that I was prepared.

I’ve got to believe this is her grieving the absence of any father at all. It can’t really be about him, since he was such an abstract concept in her life. I just think his death coincided with her starting school and really beginning to recognize what other kids have that she does not.

And, as a mom, that breaks me.

A few weeks ago at school drop-off, a little girl ran up to my daughter and asked where her daddy was. This type of thing has happened before; I always launch into my practiced speech about how all families are different, and our family doesn’t have a daddy, and my daughter is adopted, and blah, blah, blah. My little girl usually stands there and beams as I share this information with a smile. But this time, her face dropped. I could tell immediately that she was embarrassed and sad, and I didn’t know how to respond.

This piece of our lives has always been so easy. Up until now, she’s just accepted what makes us different at face value. But now we’re at this place where my daughter is going to have to really decide how she feels about those differences—and there is part of me that is terrified she’ll decide she’s not OK with any of it.

She’s been pointing out the differences between the two of us lately, too. The fact that her skin is darker than mine, or that I have curly, light hair and she has straight, black hair.

“I want hair like yours, Mama,” she said. All I could think to do was praise her on how perfect her hair is. How perfect she is.

I know a lot of families deal with these difficult realizations. A child having to process what makes their family different certainly isn’t unique to families of adoption. In my heart of hearts, I always knew this day would come. I always believed that I was prepared.

The truth is, it’s hard to watch your child struggling. And even harder still to know they are struggling because of what you can’t give them, what you may never be able to provide.

We have a good life. We love each other dearly. We are surrounded by friends who have always treated us like family. But my little girl has some things to figure out right now. She has to process how she feels about the things that make our family different. I can’t dictate where she lands on that or try to rush the process along.

All I can do is be here, as her mom, willing to hold her and listen as she cries.

Which is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

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