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Thinking About Searching for Your Child's Birthparents

By Pat Irwin Johnston, author of Adopting: Sound Choices, Strong Families

Have you considered searching for your child's birth parents? This thoughtful article examines the various aspects of search, including your child's age and participation.

We’ve now had an entire generation of U.S. children grow up in various forms of open adoption, and what we know is that they are doing just fine. They aren’t confused about who these two sets of mothers and fathers are to them. They know who their parents are. The longitudinal research that has been done with families across the open adoption spectrum (most of it by the University of Minnesota-University of Texas at Austin team run by Dr. Harold Grotevant and Dr. Ruth McRoy) confirms this. It also shows that, whatever the level of openness that has been negotiated between the families, most of them are satisfied with that level of communication, rather than wanting more or less. In other words, being given control of making a personal plan seems to create birth and adoptive families who are confident and content with their decisions.

Now, here’s where the myth comes in. Though kids in open adoptions are doing just fine and their two sets of parents - birth and adoptive - are feeling that openness has worked for them, we have absolutely no research comparing today’s families involved in open adoption with comparable families involved in confidential adoptions and therefore are unable to demonstrate in any way that open adoption is “better” for the children involved. There is still the assumption that it should be, but we have no proof one way or the other that either type of adoption in childhood results in healthier, more well-adjusted adults.

The trend, though, is going to continue to move in the direction of more and more openness, and communication between birth and adoptive families is likely to become an intercountry norm, as well as a domestic norm. It just seems to “make sense” to birthparents making an adoption plan, to adult adoptees who have grown up in confidential adoptions, to professionals who have worked in this field for a long time and are training new workers, to families now living in open adoptions, and to growing numbers of would-be adopting families.

Can you imagine, really, looking at your face in the mirror every day, watching your body develop, noticing the interests and tastes that seem so “foreign” to other members of your family and not even wondering? I didn’t think so. It is normal and natural for children who were adopted to fantasize liberally about their birthfamilies and to wonder how like or unlike them they are. The late psychiatrist and adoption researcher Dr. Marshall Shecter often said that every adoptee searches in some way, though that search may not be a concrete one that results in information about or contact with a family of origin.

Many adoptive parents whose domestic or intercountry adoptions begin confidentially decide, over time and often while their children are still quite young, that access to birthfamilies and the information they hold makes sense. When you think about this carefully, it makes sense, too. It’s an entitlement thing.

Having claimed their children, having built healthy attachments between them, having allowed their children to test the moving away from and coming back cycle throughout their childhoods, most adoptive parents do become confident in the realness and the permanence of their relationship with their children. They also become nearly as curious as their children. Where did that crooked smile come from? What kind of stomach can tolerate all that pepper sauce on scrambled eggs? What genes created the scrappy athlete who is this tiny girl? This intellectual dreamer planted in a family of active outdoors-people—who shares that philosophical bent?

Most professionals in the field of adoption, though not all, believe that while connecting with birthparents during early childhood can be a good idea, adolescence is not a good time to open an adoption that has been confidential to that point. Adolescence is a time of such overwhelming change with so many factors pulling at the need to detach from the security of family or to rush back to its shelter that most adolescents are not prepared for such a jolting new connection. While a full generation of open adoptions now has shown us that most adolescents cope quite well with an adoption that has been open from birth or at least since very early childhood, adolescence - despite the fact that this is the time when adoptees may begin to become insistent about it - is not a good time for making a first time connection with birthfamilies. A suggested alternative is that this is a time to reach out for more detailed information from the agency or the intermediary. With the visible and vocal support of their adoptive parents in this quest, young adoptees can be reassured that when they have reached adulthood, they may count on their parents to support their needs.

Statistically it remains true that the majority of adult adoptees do not make use of open records in places where they already exist, but the numbers are increasing. We don’t know specifically why these changes are taking place. Is it because adoptees are feeling less guilty about their interest, less constrained? Is it because they are being pressured by society when they aren’t really interested at all? Could it be that they search in order to take control—to protect themselves from a surprise contact from a birthparent? The why is not as important as is the fact. More and more adoptees raised in confidential adoptions are reaching a place in their lives when they search.

Not all comings together between birth relatives and the adults or nearly grown children for whom adoption plans were made years before are successful. Sometimes expectations are unrealistic. They are, after all, a large extent based on fantasy and conjecture. Birthparents for whom adoptees have remained frozen as infants may find that they don’t like the adults their children have become. They may hope for a parental connection and find instead arms-length resistance. Adoptees who have felt “different” from their adoptive families may find that the birthparent with whom they first connect is not like them either. They may be surprised by the differences in values and interests that may well have come as a result of their taking on more of their adopters’ cultural heritage than they realized. New relationships are always awkward. The genetic connection between social strangers often results in ambivalence.

Most connections, however, are successful to the extent that both families are comfortable with them. And we do know this: that in spite of the horror stories that circulate and feed fantasy, in the overwhelming majority of cases once a birthfamily and an adoptee have made contact the adoptee does not abandon his psychological and cultural family. Once curiosity has been satisfied, most adoptees find that indeed their closest connections are not with the people who look like them and share their genes, but with the people who raised them and provided the secure base from which they move out into the world—their parents. Eventually most “reunions” result in a pleasant, though not intense, ongoing relationship. For most adoptive parents who choose an entirely confidential adoption, then, there is nothing to fear in the search that may come. In fact, there is much to be said for supporting your children’s possible interest in searching so openly that you will be automatically included in the process.

Social worker and adoption educator Sharon Kaplan Roszia (co-author with Lois Melina of The Open Adoption Experience) offers important advice. The decision to search from the base of a confidential adoption can and should only be the child’s. It is tempting for parents who consider themselves liberated and progressive to consider doing a search on their own and presenting the information tied in a large bow as a gift to their children on some significant birthday or other special event. Don't, advises Roszia. Adoptees are the people least in control in an adoption plan. If adoptive parents thought they were out of control, if birthparents believed that they weren't given supported choices, adoptees had no say in the matter at all. It is important, then, that adoptees be given the opportunity to make their own decisions about whether or not to make a contact with birthfamily and when. Your role, Mom or Dad, is to be supportive of that decision.


Pat Johnston is a well regarded publisher, prolific author, and adoption advocate. This article is excerpted with permission from her book, Adopting: Sound Choices, Strong Families, an exceptional guide to adopting and raising your family.


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