I like and admire this man, I know he has his daughter's best interest at heart, and I'll be the first to admit that I don't know all of the details of his daughter's situation. Also, on the surface, his statement seems perfectly reasonable, even child-centered. He is saying he will support his daughter in whatever decision she makes once she is old enough to make that decision. What could be wrong with that?
So why did his statement make me slightly uncomfortable?
One reason is that, somewhere along the line, I received the same message from my own adoptive parents, and it proved problematic for me in the long run. I don't have a clear memory of the exact conversations, but I know that I heard from them in some way that if I wanted to search for my biological family, I could do so when I was 18. What I didn't hear from them was that they understood the reasons why it might be important for me to do so. I also didn't hear that my decision to search or not had no bearing on their love for me, which was unconditional. Although they didn't add "but we kind of hope you won't" to "you can search when you are 18," it hung in the air between us nevertheless.
I didn't search until I was 30, and the main reason for the delay was that, on some level, I believed searching for my biological family would be a betrayal of my adoptive one. I thought my adoptive parents would not approve, not really, and the child in me equated disapproval with rejection and rejection with annihilation. Even as I grew to understand that I needed to reconnect to my biological roots to be whole, I could not take that chance. I chose security over wholeness.
In the end, I got them both. Ultimately, my adoptive parents were not only supportive, they were instrumental in my search. Their love for me is unconditional and they do understand my reasons for wanting a connection to the biological side of my family. So, why did it take me so long to come to this understanding?
Eighteen is the age at which the adopted person can technically search without the consent of his or her adoptive parents. And yet, I have often heard adoptive parents mention it as the age at which they will give consent and support, even in cases of semi-open adoptions like the one of my daughters' schoolmate. I have to admit, it's hard for me to interpret this message as anything but a stalling technique. An unspoken "but we kind of hope that won't be the case" still hangs in the air for me. If I'm hearing it, are their children hearing it too? And if so, what is the effect?
At what age is a child old enough to long for wholeness and to want the missing puzzle piece that biology can provide? At what age can they trust that their adoptive parents will hear them if they express such longings? Does something magical happen at age 18 in this regard?
If you've read my blog before you probably know how important I believe it is for adoptive parents to remain "emotionally open" to first families. I understand that actual contact with certain biological family members may be inadvisable in some cases. And I understand the reasons why some parents may wish to wait until their children are older, developmentally and emotionally, before bringing some relationships into their lives. But if you are an adoptive parent, please always remember that your child's biological family is a part of them. Biology isn't destiny, but it is a piece of the puzzle. Know that it is natural and normal for adopted children to long for a connection to their original family and an understanding of their genetic heritage. And most importantly, let them know, at every stage and every age, that you understand this. Sometimes adopted children will tell their adoptive parents that they don't have any desire to know their biological family; if this happens, I encourage you to take the child's word for it ... more or less. If that's where they are truly at, then fine. But I also encourage you to ask yourself one tough question: Is there any chance they are saying that because they believe it is what you want to hear? Regardless of what your adopted child chooses to express, you can let them know that your love is unconditional, and that if the desire to know the biological family should come up, at 18 or any other age, it will have no bearing on the strength of your attachment to them.