"You know, you're not my real father."
When five-year-old Andrew uttered these words during a quiet stroll on the beach last summer, his adoptive father, Tony Kahn, was shocked.
"I felt like a hole opened up under my feet," recalls Kahn, a freelance television writer and producer whose credits include Here in My Arms, the story of Andrew's adoption. Regaining his composure, Kahn assured his son, "I'm your real father in every way that matters."
Andrew listened quietly, but did not respond to this remark. For Kahn, the silence spoke volumes. "I wanted to know where this came from. I don't know if what I said was reassuring to him or not."
Tony Kahn and his wife, Harriet Reisen, adopted Andrew from his native Mexico when he was eight days old. Following a month and a half of documentation, legalization, and immigration, the family finally brought him home to Massachusetts.
While they do not characterize themselves as different from biological families, Kahn and Reisen recognize that certain issues unique to adoptive families are sure to surface.
"We have never explicitly discussed the fact that Andrew is adopted," says Kahn. "We have made references to his birth mother and he has seen the video of his adoption. We want the subject to come up naturally, for Andrew to be the one to raise the questions."
In addition to more typical parenting situations, adapting to adoption, coping with feelings of abandonment, and searching for personal identity are some of the subjects adoptees and their families must deal with on a lifelong basis.
Richard A. Goodman, PhD, a licensed mental health counselor, former clinical fellow at the Boston Graduate School for Psychoanalysis, and adoptive father of a four-year old girl, contends that "adopted children know they are adopted. They sense a feeling of loss from the beginning. Even though they cannot verbalize it, they have been traumatized during their first few weeks or months of life." Fragility concerning future loss, heightened sensitivity, and vulnerability are established from the beginning.
"Even though at three months old our daughter appeared to be happy to see us when we picked her up at the airport, after two days at home difficulties set in," Goodman recalls. "There was increased crying and I believe she felt a sense of abandonment—the feeling that something terrible had happened."
This period of adjustments will have to be tolerated, but Jeffrey LaCure, MSW, founder and clinical director of the national organization Adoption Support and Enrichment Services in Framingham, Massachusetts, says, "Even in infancy the child should be told she is adopted."
LaCure, an adoptee himself, recommends, "Don't say, 'my beautiful adopted baby.' It is more productive to share the experience you went through to adopt the child and the excitement you felt when she was finally yours."