Sunday, May 27, 2012

Adoptees and their Parents: Some Thoughts

So, I've been speculating recently about what it would be like to be an adoptee today in a semi-open adoption. I know I'm adopted. I know a few things about my biological family. Maybe I've seen a picture, or several. Maybe I've received a handful of letters or cards over the years. But how much do I really understand about my original mother's restricted presence in my life? Do I understand that the limits of her involvement have been primarily established by the adoption agency and the adoptive parents? Do I know that she thinks of me and misses me every day? Maybe she has been given guidelines ... things she can and cannot say in her letters. But do I understand this? Or is there a part of me that experiences her distance as rejection?

This is all just speculation, of course, and may not apply to any individual situations (and yes, I do understand that in some cases the adoptive family is open to more contact whereas the biological family is not), but allow me to continue on this track for a bit. Let's imagine that I am the child as described above and someone comes to me and says, "Would you like to meet your birth mother?" How would I respond? What range of complex emotions might come up for me?

Now imagine that the question was put to me a different way. Imagine someone saying, "I have a message for you from your birth mother. She wants you to know that she loves you and misses you. She thinks of you every day and she would really love to meet you. She understands that you may or may not be ready for this, but she wants you to know that anytime you want to meet her, she's available." How might this land with the adoptee as compared with the previously mentioned approach?

Shifting back to my own closed-adoption story, why did it take me until age 30 to search? Would it have made a difference if I could have somehow known that my original mother had registered, years earlier, with our state's adoption reunion registry ... that she wanted to be found? Or what if I had found out earlier that there was a crack in the seal of my closed adoption and my adoptive mother actually had information that would make it possible to locate my biological one ... that she was simply waiting for me to ask the right question?

Maybe they really do exist -- those adoptees who have no desire to know their biological family because they truly are just fine without any contact. But for most adoptees, the emotional landscape is much more complicated. A desire to know and be known by the biological family may be present but overshadowed by other factors, including a deep-seated (even unconscious) fear of rejection by the birth family (and especially the birth mother) as well as fear of disapproval from the adoptive family. Even those of us who have been reassured our whole lives of the unconditional love of both families may not entirely trust that it is so.

There are some adoptive parents who breathe a sigh of relief when the adoptee expresses hesitation or ambivalence in relation to the biological family. But as tempting as it may be to view such ambivalence as a testimony to the strength of the bond with the adoptive family, that's probably not the right interpretation. The two things are, in fact, unrelated; an adoptee can love his or her adoptive family completely and still long for a connection to the biological one.

I'm not entirely sure where I'm going with all of this. There are some posts that just flow out of me and others in which I am struggling to grasp something elusive. This is one of those struggling posts. But I think the place I am trying to get to is this: it is important for adoptive parents to be aware that all adoptee expressions about the biological family occur in the context of the adoptive family and the specific adoptive situation that the adoptive parents helped to create. Adoptive parents are powerful players in this dynamic, and if their own ambivalence toward the biological family has been a driving force, they may have unintentionally created a situation that seems appealing at first glance but ultimately is not in the best interest of the adoptee.


13 comments:

  1. Just wanted you to know I'm following! I found you on twitter and am an adoptee as well

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  2. Thanks, Angie. Am I following you back on twitter? If not, what's your twitter name?

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  3. I think this is very true. My cousin was adopted as an infant and when, in his teens, his first mom contacted the agency to give them some pertinent health information about his bio father to pass on, my aunt spent a week crying after she received the message from the agency. THE AGENCY. The bio mom didn't even contact them directly and hadn't expressed any interest in meeting, just giving medical information. I have no doubt that my cousin internalized this and that's why he has no interest in meeting his bio parents. I also have two male friends who are adoptees and they have no interest in finding their bio parents. I have to wonder if it's a "guy" thing to a certain extent.

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  4. Thanks. I read once that most typical adoptee who searches is a female in her 20s or 30s. (I fit the profile exactly.) I think it has something to do with our ability to get pregnant, which makes it easier for us to imagine ourselves in the birth mother's position. I know that at a certain age I started to shift from looking at the whole thing solely from my own point of view to wondering what it might be like from hers.

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  5. Thanks Emilie. I agree -- there can be a huge amount of pressure, from both within and without the adoptive family, to be one of the "good adoptees" who doesn't search. This all kind of ties in with your recent post "Did I betray my adoptive parents ...," which I thought was excellent.

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  6. Oh, and I also agree with you that many adoptees are keenly alert to the subtle cues sent by adoptive parents, even if those parents aren't directly saying "Don't search."

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  7. Thanks, Kathy. I always especially appreciate comments from readers who don't have a direct connection to adoption. I often feel like such a niche blogger, but I think there _are_ some themes that extend to others: search for self, love and loss, etc. Appreciate your feedback and support as always!

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  8. DeclassifiedadopteeMay 28, 2012 at 3:49 PM

    You. totally. nailed it. Great post.

    When people tell me "I have adopted kids (or know adopted kids) and they have no desire to search" I always wonder......is it because that would have been their natural inclination and in their best interest OR because they learned, absorbed, and adapted to what was either overtly or covertly expected of them? It was my amom's discomfort around the biological topic, though she ferently professed to be open to talk about anything, that lead me to stuff any thoughts of reunion far out of my mind to where I myself could not recognise, feel, or see them. I identify with the being a time where biology did not matter to me. Looking back now, those were clearly not my true feelings.

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  9. Thanks, Amanda! My experience was similar to yours in this regard. It was a lot to climb over.

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  10. One of my adoptive brothers became angry at me for searching. He said I was insensitive to our adoptive mother's feelings. He hasn't searched, and claims he has no interest because his birth mother was "a vessel for me to be born and receive a body, and nothing more." I have tried to tell him that she probably feels differently, but he cuts me off.

    I wonder if the anger he has directed to me is really a form of frustration because he can't give himself permission to search for fear of betraying our adoptive parents.

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  11. Kim, I have several male friends that are this same way and I wonder how much of it was adoptive parents and how much it being a guy thing.

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  12. neversaidgoodbyeMay 29, 2012 at 6:22 PM

    Thank you. I am trying to get my thoughts together before posting... but if I waited till I had it write I would NEVER post lol.

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  13. I really resonated with your closing comment about adoptive parents having power in this dynamic...so true! Rebecca, it would be wonderful if you wrote a book for adoptive parents about how to stay emotionally open and in relationship with birth families! Adoption agencies need to expand their mission to support openness. All the info and training we received as potential adoptive parents was about attachment and bonding. There was also some training about being child-centered. All the focus is on getting that baby and not on the rest of it. On how birth families feel. On how adoptive parents may end up feeling. About how to functionally do openness, About how important it is to put aside fear and do that "sacred task" of maintaining a connection with birth families for the child's sake. We just spent two days with our 3 yo daughter's birth grandma and also saw her uncle. It was so worth it to spend the time, to share stories, to hear Grandma say how her daughter (our daugthter's mother) acted like our daughter. Grandma said "I couldn't have done adoption if it wasn't open." we feel the same way.

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