What Adoptees Must Consider Before Searching for Birth Family

Two roads diverged in a wood. And I took the one less traveled. And that has made all the difference—Robert Frost

We’re at a fork in the road now and there’s a sign pointing in two directions. One part says “Familiar” and the other, “Unknown.” 

The path called “Familiar” looks appealing because it’s broad, smooth, and well-traveled. The other road, “Unknown,” is narrow, infested with crabgrass and dandelions, and appears long unused. Ahead is a forest of trees that looks impenetrable. 

The road called “Familiar” represents the opinions and feelings of others about what we should say or do in regard to the option of searching for and reuniting with our birth families. “Unknown” is the path that leads straight into our hearts and speaks to us with a still, small voice. 

What road will each one of us take? Will we take the familiar road by listening only to the voices of others, possibly ending up with a heart full of bitterness and what-might-have-beens? Or will we take the road of Robert Frost, the narrow one, and be true to that still, small voice that says, “This is the way; walk in it”?1 

I am a strong advocate for searching, for I believe that through the searching, we will grow, no matter the outcome. Some of us might not be able to make a literal search, but we can search in other ways in order to connect with our past. For instance, Susan was left on the steps of an orphanage in Romania with only a diaper to her name. She can’t obtain any history, but she could still do some searching by visiting her birth land and seeing the orphanage she lived in. Or she could make a “life book,” filled with images of her native land. 

There comes a time for many when we know we want to search. Every time we dream about the possibility, we are pumped! We have gone too far down the adoption road to turn back. What is the driving force behind all that adrenaline? 

Our Quest for Truth

  • Truth about what is written on our sealed adoption certificates and hospital records.
  • Truth about how adoption has impacted our lives.
  • Truth about our “other” parents and family out there somewhere.
  • Truth about how our adoptive parents really feel about a possible reunion.
  • Truth about what life is all about.
  • Truth about what Truth really is. 

Bob Blanchard says, “It really doesn’t matter if the outcome of your search is good or not—it’s just important to know the truth.” We have this burning desire to know because truth brings freedom. 

  • Freedom from the adoption baggage we have carried around for years.
  •  Freedom from the paralysis of not being able to be ourselves and know it’s okay.
  • Freedom from shallow living and compromise. 

Even though we have this wonderful promise of growth and freedom that results from discovering truth, it’s scary to embark on the narrow road and, as a result, our search may wax and wane as the years go by. But that’s okay. 

Laurie says that her search flickered on and off like a light bulb, but beneath the flickering was a steady desire to know truth. “It took me a long time to decide to go ahead and begin searching,” says Ron Hilliard. “I had actually begun the process about five years earlier only to decide not to proceed. At that point I think I was mostly afraid of what I would find, and especially afraid that if I did find my birth mother, she would not want to have anything to do with me.” 

Paula Oliver remembers being excited, scared, hopeful, and wary all at the same time. “Mostly I felt like I was on a treasure hunt.” 

The Risks of Searching 

Why does the narrow path often feel so scary? Because those ominous woods that lay ahead on our path may be filled with either life-giving redemption or heart-wrenching rejection. Therefore, we must count the cost before we begin to determine if we are willing to expose ourselves to such risk. 

DISILLUSIONMENT 

The illusion of many is that if we search and find the long-lost relative and ultimately have a glorious reunion, all adoption-related issues will disappear.

Oops… there’s that adoptee fantasy again! Many adoptees in support groups chuckle when another member returns fresh from reunion. 

“Do you still feel adopted?” we all ask. 

The answer is always yes, accompanied by a red face! 

Feelings of being adopted don’t go away! Nor should they! Adoption doesn’t define us, but it is an event that has impacted us greatly.  We were wired for adoption.

REJECTION FROM A BIRTH PARENT 

Another risk of reuniting is rejection from a birth parent., which is common.

“Fear? You betcha!” says Connie Dawson. “When adoptees consider searching (getting what they need), they are faced with huge risks.” 

Connie’s fear was that if her birth family (her birth mother was dead) “rejected” her, and by contacting them she might put her relationship with her adoptive parents at risk, then she would have no one to belong to. She would be nowhere. “I would have seen to my own exile. This is the same fearful space I faced when my birth mother ‘sent me away’ and felt that every connection I had was severed. I was like any animal who is s born, who is helpless, and whose mother walks off.” 

Lorraine says that her birth father refuses all responsibility and that opening herself up to a reunion with him would be a crisis waiting to happen. She wouldn’t be able to withstand the heartache and rejection. 

FEAR OF NOT BEING ABLE TO HANDLE THE EMOTIONS. 

Another risk we must face is that overwhelming emotion may occur. 

Penny Callan Partridge says, “Many of us don’t want to risk having strong feelings, or particular feelings, stirred up. Ultimately, we are probably choosing between one set of feelings and another: the feelings that go along with not knowing versus the feelings that may be stirred up if we choose to try to learn more. But none of these fears is enough to stop the majority of us. The need to know about ourselves, to know our own stories, is just too great.” 

ADOPTIVE PARENTS MAY FEEL HURT. 

The most pressing concern for Jody Moreen when she contemplated searching was that she would alienate her adoptive parents. Though she had an open, honest, and loving relationship with her adoptive mother, the whole story of her birth and adoption was not a topic ever brought up for discussion. She had always been a very pleasing and compliant child and desired her parents’ approval. Therefore, it was difficult for her to give herself permission as an adult in her thirties to search for the missing pieces of her past. She didn’t know how her adoptive parents would interpret her search and was concerned about hurting them in any way. 

It took Renee Mills nine months to finally tell her adoptive mother that she had been matched with her birth mom through the International Soundex Reunion Registry. She was terrified of hurting her. She was flying to Florida to meet her birth mom and didn’t want to lie to her adoptive mom about her destination.

Renee asked her adoptive mother to sit down because she had something very important to tell her. It was then that she began showing pictures of her birth family sent to her by her birth mother. Tears flowed, but at last it was all out in the open.

Sometimes she senses her mom getting defensive when she talks about her birth mother, but her mom has encouraged their relationship. Renee’s birth mother and adoptive mom have now met each other and both express appreciation for the role the other plays in Renee’s life. 

The Rewards of Searching 

Obviously, searching entails some significant risks, and each of us must make our own decision. It’s our choice to make, no one else’s. 

But now on to the good part of searching —the rewards! 

FEELING OF COMPLETENESS. 

“I am complete,” says Kasey Hamner. “I know who I am and what I want in life. No more secrets and lies. No more wondering where I got my funny-looking knees or if depression is part of my family history. Knowledge is power, in my opinion.” 

Phyllis-Anne Munro has gained a much greater sense of wholeness. For years she never believed she could be or deserved to be a mother. After meeting her birth father, for the first time she felt she could parent. “I feel a much greater sense of who I am. What a gift!” 

Richard Curtis says that if growth is accomplished through truth and knowledge, then since beginning his search and reunion process, eight years of healing have occurred in his life. The results, he says, are a sense of peace, serenity, and an understanding of where he fits in the universe. 

“Understanding my adoption experience,” Richard says, “has allowed me to bring authenticity to my relationships with family, friends, and others in my life. I no longer hide my thoughts and feelings—the veil of secrecy has been lifted. People now get the real Richard since I’ve uncovered my past, understand how precious the present is, and perhaps have an idea of where I’m going and who’s going with me in the future. Perhaps these are the blessings I can also offer to others.” 

SELF-CONFIDENCE. 

“I think that searching was more about finding myself than it was about finding my birth family,” says Ron Hilliard. “The process of finding my birth family led to the realization that ‘this is who I am.’ A whole part of me was discovered, and I have found that the process of finding my true identity is still going on. I ‘found my voice’—I now speak out of a real authenticity because I have a clearer sense of who I am.” 

For Kenny Tucker, meeting both his birth parents was life changing. “I am more secure in who I am. I feel I can accomplish anything since I waded through the fears of rejection to the other side. I am humbled by the magnitude of it all.” 

Laurie’s search has helped her to accept her beginnings. Before searching she had so much anger about not knowing her past. She found a tombstone at the end of her search for her birth mother but has been able to glean information about her from relatives. As a result, she is better able to accept herself. 

A PAINFUL PAST FADES. 

Issie came to the conclusion that she couldn’t help the circumstances of her childhood, but that she could still create her own life. She was placed with parents who were dirt poor and tried to poison her mind about her birth parents from day one. “White trash,” they called them. 

Mentally ill. No morals when it came to sex. Issie doesn’t know who her father is even though her adoptive parents know and could tell her if they were the least bit loving. 

Issie used to be terrified of rejection, but no longer. Why? Because she made a life-transforming choice to say good-bye to the lies and abuse of the past and determine instead to be all God created her to be. She is a beautiful woman of faith who loves God and doesn’t have one ounce of bitterness in her heart. She believes that those who are rejected not only by birth parents but by adoptive parents are very special to God—the object of his tender love and care. She is a blessing to others who read her writing on various websites.  

INCREASED ABILITY TO LOVE AND BE LOVED 

After Frieda Moore talked with her birth mother, she finally felt like she belonged in her adoptive family. She says the love and acceptance were there all along, but she couldn’t receive or give love the way she longed to until she completed her search and reunion. She was finally able to be vulnerable enough to love and let others love her. 

DEEPENED LOVE FOR ADOPTIVE PARENTS 

When Jody Moreen found her birth family, both parents were deceased, but she had three living sisters. Not long after a successful reunion with the sisters, her adoptive parents met them and everyone was warm and welcoming. 

Jody says, “The most precious gift my adoptive mother has ever given me was when, unbeknown to me, she bought a bouquet of flowers and suggested we drive to the cemetery to visit my birth mother’s grave. We walked silently to the unmarked grave and I wept as my mother gently laid the flowers down at the site. Never in this world have I felt closer to my mother. To think that she would honor my birth mother like this has forever deepened my love for her.” 

HOW TO BEGIN

What is needed is an objective look at the whole idea of search and reunion, and a list such as this will help accomplish that purpose. 

  • Define in your own words what it means to be true to yourself. Then go back as far in life as you can remember and list the major decisions you have made. Put a “T” after the ones in which you were true to yourself and your own growth process; put an “X” after the ones in which you weren’t true to yourself. Perhaps you were being a compliant adoptee? Or, perhaps you were scared?

Whatever the case, fellow adoptee, I hope this post helps you consider your next steps, both emotionally and physically, about whether or not to pursue searching.

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Should Adoptive Parents Share Painful Pre-Adoption History with Kids?

“I Need to Know the Truth About  My Conception, Birth, and Family History, No Matter How Painful the Details May Be.”

Betty Jean Lifton, author of Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience, describes the adoptee’s growing awareness of his desire to know more about his biological family as an awakening: “The act of adoption puts us under a spell that numbs our consciousness. When we awaken it startles us to realize we might have slept our lives away, floating and uprooted…The adoptee awakens when he or she realizes that not to know (who gave them birth) would be to live life without meaning. The curiosity has always been there, waiting to be released.”

Awakenings happen at various times for adoptees, sometimes and to some degree during childhood, often to a greater degree as the adoptee grows older. My greatest awakening was at mid-life, when I enrolled in a college writing class and was assigned to take a few facts, weave them together with historical data, and create a story. Since I only knew a few details about my birth family, I chose that as my topic.

I remember sitting for hours in the library,  my head buried in the study cubicle, pouring over tattered, musty books describing maternity homes in the 1940’s. I learned of the awful stigma and shame society laid upon women experiencing untimely pregnancies. I learned about the vulnerability of married women whose husbands were off at war. Dark thoughts and emotions stirred in me and my heart began to weep for the birth mother I never knew. 

For many adoptees, the need to find the birth family becomes all-consuming and an actual search begins. I grew relentless in my search for more information. I interviewed elderly nurses and found out what procedures were used during births. “What was my birth like for my mother…and for me?” “Was anyone there for my birth mother?” “Did she ever get to see me or hold me?”

I thought for the first time of the excruciating pain of having to give up a child, leave the hospital with empty arms, and go on with life as if nothing had happened. I longed to tell my birth mother that she had done the right thing. I wanted to let her know that I was all right.

Little by little, my birth family was coming to life in my psyche. Finally I realized what I had been searching for all my life: a connection to my “real” life–the real me–before I was adopted, and the whole truth about my past that would enable me to live my present more honestly and fully.

Going Through Home Again

As a parent you may be wondering, Why is it so important that our adopted child know the truth about her origins? What good will that do? Why put her through all that?

Author Carlye Marney, in Achieving Family Togetherness, once suggested that there are at least 80,000 generations behind each one of us, and that we are incapable of blessing ourselves or giving blessing to others until we are first able to bless our origins. Marney terms this process of blessing one’s origins “going through home again.”

Going through home again is no easy process for an adoptee, for her origins are often shrouded in secrecy. Secrecy about her conception, secrecy about her birth, and secrecy about her family history. How can she bless her origins if she doesn’t know what they are? 

Webster’s says to bless means:

  • to bestow good of any kind
  • to honor, to beautify
  • to be in favor of
  • to endorse
  • to smile upon
  • to pardon.

Think about these words in regard to your child. I know you would agree on every point that this is what you want for her. You want her to be able to smile upon herself…to be in favor of herself…and ultimately to pardon others who may have given her a painful beginning. In other words, you want to implant in her a healthy self-esteem, regardless of her past history.

The saying, “When you know the truth, the truth will set you free,” is applicable here. I am reminded of a poster with the above verse and picture of  a rag doll being pushed through an old-fashioned wringer. A good reminder that the truth is often painful.

For example, when Cathy found out that she had been conceived in rape, her heart sunk at the sound of the words. She was one who therapist Dr. Randolph Severson, in To Bless Him Unaware, described as a “child whose life leapt into being through a degrading, terrifying act of sexual violation.” Cathy never imagined in her darkest fantasies that this could be a possibility. Yet it was her truth, and it led her to a greater truth: that something good came out of that terrible violation of her birth mother. That good thing was her. It also helped her learn about her birth mother and all that she had been through in order to give her life.

There may be many truths that will be difficult to tell your adopted child. Perhaps the birth mother was a crack addict. Perhaps there is a history of mental illness, neglect, or sexual abuse in the family.

 Jeanine Jones, MSW, CCSW, and adoptive mother of seven said in an article appearing in Jewel Among Jewels Adoption News: “No, it is not a joyous time when your child wants to see all his information and you’re concerned that what he reads will hurt him. This is a time for honesty, compassion, and relationship building.”

Your child, at the appropriate age, can actually benefit from hearing painful information about his past because he will know that finally you are telling him the honest, gut-level truth. Kids are geniuses at detecting untruths. This giving of information doesn’t have so much to do with the truth about his past as it does with his relationship with you and with himself. He is learning to trust you at a deeper level and he is also developing self-esteem. He is possibly having some of the ugliest and most painful information about his past revealed by you, yet at the same time you are demonstrating that you love him just as he is. 

As this relationship of trust and love deepens, he can decide what he wants to do about the option of searching for more facts or for birth family members. Whether or not he goes ahead with an actual search, the relationship between you and him will have grown tremendously.

How to Know When Your Child Is Searching

Now I am beginning to see the necessity of the adoptee going through home again, as well as the challenge, you may be thinking. Are there any  behaviors I can look for in my child to know if he is wanting to go through home again?

Yes, there will be behaviors that will help you know if your child is inwardly heading in that direction. Learn to listen, as you have been, with your heart. Keep in mind the wise words of Drs. Brodzinsky and Schecter from their book Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self. These doctors have thirty years combined experience in dealing with adopted children. When asked what percent of adoptees search for their birth parents, their answer was one hundred percent. “In our experience,” they said, “all adoptees engage in a search process. It may not be a literal search, but it is a meaningful search nonetheless.”

Sometimes the adoptee’s desire to go through home again is subtle or masked. Following are some ways adoptees may express their unspoken need.

For children:

  • The search begins in their imagination, through the telling of fairy tales and stories.
  • Can show up as early as three years old through play. (Look particularly for themes of loss and rescue–lost animals, lost children, etc.)
  • After you tell her about her adoption, she asks, “Why did it happen?”
  • She may wonder where her birth parents are now. “Where are they?” “Will she come and see me someday?”

For adults:

  • “You can take a dog to a vet and find out what kind he is, but I can’t even find out what my heritage is.”
  • “I wish I could tell her (birth mother) how much I love her for bringing me into the world.”
  • “Meeting my birth father was validating for who I am.”
  • “Now that I have met her (birth mother), I know how to be.”
  • “Knowing your birth family gives you a point of reference.”

The truth can and probably will be painful for the adoptee, but most of us want it all. We want truth on every level–physical, emotional, and spiritual.

What Parents Can Do

At the earliest age possible, introduce information about the birth family. The words “birth mother” and “birth family” shouldn’t be some strange term imposed on the child later in life. Instead, the child’s history should be presented in terms which even the pre-schooler can understand. I am so glad your birth mommy gave you to us to love. Maybe it was your birth mommy who gave you that beautiful curly hair!

Vicky remembers her mother’s anxiety about the subject of her birth mother. On the night before she was married, her mother nervously revealed her birth mother’s name and the few facts she knew about the birth family’s history. “Not only did it seem awkward and out of place, but it felt like a betrayal,” Vicky said. “Why didn’t she tell me earlier? Why did she withhold something so vital to my well-being? It also created feelings of shame. Was there something awful about my past or  me that made her so nervous?”

It wasn’t until many years later that Vicky learned that her birth mother had been raped.  She was confident am sure her adoptive mother was aware of this because her grandmother was the social worker who handled her private adoption.

“If my mother had shared that information with me earlier in life, I am sure I could have handled it,” Vicky said. “Yes, it would have been painful. Yes, it probably would have created more questions about my history, but it would have empowered me to be able to trust and love my adoptive mother more.”

Vicky realizes the toll it took on her. “Because I was not given the painful details of my conception until I was forty-three years old, it took me a lot of time and energy to be able to separate the circumstances of my conception from who I am as a person. For years after finding out the circumstances, I said that ‘I was conceived in rape.’ Whenever I said those words, my soul flooded with shame and sadness. One day I realized that I was carrying the pain and shame of my birthmother. After that I learned to simply say ‘my mother was raped.’ That removed the incessant shame from me and enabled me to love my birth mother more.”

What a gift you would be giving to your child by sharing all of his history with him as the time arises. You would be able to help him work through the complex task of separating the painful circumstances from his who he is as a person.

I am not advocating that you sit down with your four-year-old child and share the negative aspects of his conception and birth, but I am advocating answering his questions honestly whenever the opportunity arises.

 Let the child lead. You will know when the time is right because he will begin to ask questions. Expect questions about his birth mother as early as age three. Adoption may seem like a wonderful thing to your pre-school child, but when he reaches school age, he will begin to realize that to be chosen means that he was first rejected by someone. Why didn’t my birthmother want me? Where is my birthmother now? Did you ever meet her? Do you think that she would like me if she knew me now? 

I cringe when saying the word “rejection” because it sheds an unfavorable light on the birthmother and her decision to relinquish. This is not my intent. However, it is important to realize that relinquishment translates to the adoptee as rejection no matter how much the birth mother loved him. This is the adoptee’s emotional reality and probably the point at which his  questioning will occur.

Think through possible scenarios of how you will answer your child’s questions before he becomes curious. When the time comes, your confidence and serenity will let him know that it is okay to ask questions and express his true feelings. 

 You probably will not have all the answers to his questions, especially if you adopted internationally. Nevertheless, he can learn to have a settled peace about his origins knowing that in this life there will always be unanswered questions. 

Learn to listen to your child’s spoken and unspoken messages. This will clue you in to what part of the information upsets him. “You’ve got to be kidding?” “Oh, no way.” “That is horrible.” “I don’t want to hear any more.” These are indications that he has digested all the information he can at this particular time. What are the non-verbals? Remember that this is your first avenue of communication before words. Does he throw up his hands in utter disbelief? Does he get a far-away look in his eyes or drift off into a catatonic stare? Does he swallow hard? Does his body stiffen? If so, pay close attention. If he stares, he is likely frozen in fear. If he is swallowing hard, he may be overwhelmed. If his body stiffens, he may be communicating that he just can’t tolerate any more.

Remember that adoption is a life-long journey. Questions about his birth and birth family will surface at each developmental stage of life. Times of change–going to high school, leaving home for college, getting married and having children of his own, mid-life, old age–will often be the precursor to history issues resurfacing. However, the information you have already given him will not be a millstone around his neck; rather, it will provide him with a context to learn deeper lessons about what it means to be adopted. Ultimately, growth will occur.

You probably would agree that “going through home again” by learning birth history is not an easy task for most adoptees. Some adoptees have no desire to learn anything beyond the adoption story. However, when your child expresses his need to go through home and learn what he can about his past, no matter how painful the details, trust his instincts.  The end result may well be that he will finally be able to look back on his past with pardon and upon himself with favor.  

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Please Bring Up My Birth Family for Me?

You Mean I Can Talk About my Birth Family?

Imagine a tortoise–the kind you see in the zoo. With a huge, rough shell for a home and a head that rarely sees the full light of day, he waddles a few steps closer to his desired destination.

With all due respect, many of us adoptees are a lot like the tortoise. Our heads pop out only occasionally to see if it’s okay to assert ourselves, to ask questions and express feelings about our past. Is it okay to ask the hospital where I was born for my medical records? Is it okay to ask for non-identifying information about my birth mother and birth father? Is it okay to say that I’m curious about them and might like to meet them some day? Is it okay to be angry about my birth mother’s decision to relinquish? Is it okay to search for my birth family? Is it okay to seek out other birth relatives if my birth mother rejects me at our reunion?

These are a few of the questions that haunt many adoptees. Remember the story in chapter one about the young adoptee, who after hearing her mother make a casual reference to her birth mother, sheepishly asked, “Is it all right to talk about that?” That’s a good example of a tortoise-like remark! In spite of all the advantages this young adoptee had, her hesitancy and fear remained.

Why is that? you may be wondering. Why is it so difficult for most adoptees to believe that it is permissible to talk about the birth family? Why is it that they hold back, frozen in fear, curious, yet ambivalent at the same time about knowing more?

I believe the main reason many adoptees hold back is that they perceive themselves as victims, unable to assert themselves effectively. Consider these comments and behaviors from Talking with Young Children About Adoption by Drs. Susan Fisher and Mary Watkins:

  • A three-year-old pretends that she is a nursing baby piglet. She has her adoptive mother ask pig-mother if piglet can live at her house. Pig-mother says yes. When at adoptive mother’s pretend house, child has adoptive mother “squish” her. Child runs back to pig-mother, who protects her.
  • A six-year-old asks, “What did she (the birth mother) say when she saw me? Did she kiss me? Only you should have kissed me because you’re my parents.”

It’s important for parents to be aware of the adoptee’s unconscious tendency toward this victimy mindset, but also her need for compassion, for the adopted child literally was a victim. 

Nancy Verrier, in The Primal Wound, says, “The feeling of being a victim is not just a fantasy, but a reality. Being abandoned often leaves one with a permanent feeling of being at the mercy of others.”

Understanding a Victim’s Mindset

There are three aspects to a victim’s mindset: innocence, defenselessness, and helplessness. They are evident in the adoptee’s perceptions after birth and onward, before healing has occurred.

Innocence 

It wasn’t the adoptee’s fault that her birth mother got pregnant. It wasn’t her fault that the birth mother, for whatever reason, didn’t parent. The child didn’t deserve losing a family at birth. She was the innocent party in it all. 

In spite of their innocence, however, many adoptees carry a false burden of guilt, much like children of divorce. They may silently wonder:

  • Did I do something to make my other mommy mad at me and give me away?  
  • I think she (the birth mother) didn’t like me.
  • Was there something bad about my birth daddy?

Defenselessness 

The adoptee was powerless at relinquishment. She had no way of protecting herself from further wounding. She may reenact those feelings of defenselessness through play from a young age. Fishers and Wakins, in Talking with Young Children About Adoption observed:

  • A three-year-old enacts someone trying to take a baby kitten away from its mother and the mother objects.
  • A little girl plays out a scene in which a wicked woman takes a child away from her good mother. She has the girl say to the wicked lady, whom she has her mother play, “If it hadn’t been for you, I would be with my real mother.” The child then confides to her adoptive mother, “Yeah, if it hadn’t been for you, I would still be with her. You came and took me away.”
  • A child asks, “Where is my real dad? Why don’t you know where he is? I don’t want him to find me…he’d take me away…I’d get kidnapped by him.”

Helplessness 

Even though there were probably people there to tend to your child when she was born, even though you may have been in the delivery room to welcome her, the transfer away from the birth mother and into your arms was traumatic for her to some degree.

In order to get some idea of the helplessness your child may experience, imagine yourself boarding a plane for Europe. When  you finally arrive, your excitement level is at an all-time high. How wonderful it is going to be! As the days pass by, it is wonderful…just about every aspect of it.  The food. The hotels. The dusty country backroads.

But in the midst of it all,  there is something wrenching in your gut. You can’t really describe it except to say that the very things that are so wonderful are producing a peculiar sense of helplessness within you. Everything around you is so different. The people. The food. The language. Your body is beginning to feel the effects of the time change. The people speak another language. You struggle to connect…to speak with the foreigners, to read the menus, but you can’t.  What is so wonderful is producing feelings of helplessness.

This subconscious sense of helplessness may continue for many adoptees throughout life.

I am aware of the fact that these are pretty hard words to digest, but if you are to be in tune with the unspoken needs of your child to talk about his birth family, then you must be aware of some of the complex and even scary thoughts and feelings he may keep hidden.

You see, there is a mixture of feelings about the birth mother in your adoptee’s heart. Fantasy. Anger. Victimization. Love. You can be a powerful resource in helping him identify and process these conflicting feelings–or you can be a major obstacle. What determines your role as a facilitator or a hurdle is your willingness and skill in drawing your child into productive conversation about her birth family and her complex feelings about them. Let’s take a look at how you can equip yourself for this crucial task.

Getting Ready to Talk

What comes to mind when you think about initiating a conversation with your child about his birth family? Do you feel defensive, like the birth family is the enemy to be avoided at all  costs? Do you feel sad, and does your lip begin to quiver at the thought of their possible presence in your child’s life? Do you fear your child will love them more than he loves you?

If so, this section is especially for you.Kids are experts at reading body language. You can’t pull the wool over their eyes. If you are upset about something and trying to hide it, they will sense it.

In order to converse with your child productively about the issues closest to his heart, you must first develop a healthy attitude about the impact of adoption on the family system. Sociologist and author H. David Kirk, in Shared Fate,  suggests five common attitudes adoptive parents tend to hold about how adoption impacts the family:

1) Insistence: All problems are due to adoption. There is a great deal of emphasis between biological and adopted children: the “bad seed.”

2) Assumption: Parents have a romanticized view of adoption and expect the adoptee to have only positive feelings about adoption.

3) Acknowledgment: Adoption is seen as one of the factors in family problems. Family members have special sensitivities about adoption.

4) Rejection: Parents admit, “Yes, there’s a difference, but…” (want to forget it). They forget that the child feels the difference and needs permission to voice his feelings.

5) Denial: Parents have not told children about adoption. There is a big secret in the family.

Of course, acknowledgment is the most healthy attitude. We can’t blame all family problems on adoption, but it is important to help the adoptee see what part adoption plays in the fabric of his life.  

There are certain things you can do to prepare yourself for drawing your child into a productive conversation about his birth family.

Face Your Greatest Fear

The first thing you as an adoptive parent must do is face your greatest fear, which is being rejected by your child. You may envision your child reuniting with his birth parents someday and then wanting nothing more to do with you. If so, you would return to that lonely place of barrenness once again. 

The truth is, what is likely to happen at reunion is just the opposite of what you fear. (We will discuss this in detail in the last chapter of the book.) Nevertheless, you may feel flooded with a torrent of emotions you never knew existed. Jealously and envy.  Anger…even rage.  A sense of betrayal by the one you held closest to your heart over the years. 

The empathetic ear of a friend, professional counselor, or an adoption support group can help you through these tough times. That person should be someone who has already faced and worked through her own pain and is not afraid of yours. When you have come through to the other side, you will be able to be truly in tune emotionally with your child.

Give Permission for Open Dialogue

Parents must remember that adoptees need permission repeatedly to talk about the birth family. It is like their “permission button” is broken; your words can go in one ear and out the other.

Adoptive mom Kathy Giles believes that this continual permission-giving is a signal to the adoptee that her myriad questions and feelings are okay. She says, “I find adoptees sense the ‘okay-ness’ of wanting to know about their birth parents from their adoptive parents. The parents must signal that they understand, empathize, and will, in fact, help make it possible for their children to connect with their first set of parents. To adoptive parents, I say, don’t kid yourself, saying ‘I wouldn’t want to know.’ Ask instead, ‘What would/will my child want and need?'”

Foster a Non-Competitive Spirit

The third pre-requisite is that there be a non-competitive spirit between the adoptive and birth parents. This may be the most difficult task for adoptive parents, for they must accept without reservation that they are not the child’s only parents. 

I know these are painful words. Many adoptive parents would like a clean slate…a new beginning. However, your child does have two sets of parents–biological and adoptive. This is her reality, whether you choose to accept or acknowledge it. There is a special place within the adoptee’s heart reserved just for the birth mother and birth father. If adoptive parents try to fill both roles, the adoptee may erect a tall barrier of resentment to keep her fantasies and thoughts of them alive.

Let your child know that you think about his or her birth parents also. This brings her out of her secret fantasy world into reality: She does have birth parents, and you acknowledge that fact. Allow the birth family, if they desire, to send gifts to the child, and keep them updated on the child’s progress. 

Be Confident in Your Role

One of the most important things you as adoptive parents can do for your child is to be comfortable and non-defensive when he talks about his birth family. Your child needs a settled confidence emanating from you when the topic of the birth family is brought up. 

Step into your role with confidence, knowing that you have a unique and vital position and influence in this child’s life. No, you didn’t give him birth. You don’t share the same blood. But you are giving him something that no one else can. You are a gift to your child, just as he is a gift to you.

I expressed my gratitude for my adoptive parents in a letter I imagined God writing to them. 

Dear Retha and Mike,

One of my children needs a home–a mother and father who will love her and provide for her. I know how much you wanted to have children. I know the tears and anguish you have experienced. But the only way I could make a place for this child in your home was through the open door of your infertility. I am loaning her to you for while to take care of. Do the best you know how to do, for she is precious to me. Someday, when you are gone, I will be her mother and father. She will  learn to trust me and depend on me as she did on you Thank you for being willing to love my daughter and give her a home on earth.

Love, God

Fisher and Watkins describe how a four-year-old child verbalized his feelings about both sets of parents: He said to a friend, “The way I see adoption is like this. Somebody has the baby but can’t keep the baby and goes ‘Wah, wah, wah, good-bye, baby,’ and somebody who can’t get a baby in her tummy says, ‘Goody goody…hello, baby.”

I would challenge you to help your child find a way to express her feelings for both her birth and adoptive parents. Perhaps she could draw a picture or compose a poem. Or she could write a play about adoption and then perform it for you. If she has access to a photograph of her birth parents, consider buying her a photo frame with two openings–one for the adoptive family and one for the birth family. Encourage your child to take on one of these projects and set aside special time when she can share it with you.

In open adoptions, the birth parents are graciously invited by the adoptive parents to share in this nurturing role, thus, the support and love base for the child is doubled. This is ideal. Adoptive mother Kathy Giles, experiencing an open adoption, said, “As their mother, why would I ever want to keep ‘good things’ from their lives? Why would I want to ‘protect’ them from people who had selflessly planned a life for them in another family and relinquished the right to parent them? I wouldn’t! Who among us says, ‘Sorry, I don’t need any additional people in my life who love me.” Or, ‘No more love needed here.’ 

“Furthermore, the golden rule applies. If I were the one adopted, how would I feel? Would I want to know my first mother and father? Would I want to know who I look like? Would I want to know where my talents, gifts, and inclinations came from? Would I want to know why they relinquished me? Would I want to understand that relinquishment of ‘parental rights’ was not the relinquishment of love, concern and interest. YES! All of that would be important to me if I were the adopted child.”

What Parents Can Do

When you understand the fears and ambivalence your child may have when it comes to discussing his birth family, you will be much more effective in drawing out his hidden thoughts at strategic times.I believe that conversations about the birth family should be initiated at times of pleasure and celebration and at times of stress or vulnerability. 

Positive times for initiating might include the following.

  • The child’s birthday. “I wonder if your birth mom/dad are thinking about you.”
  • Mothers’ Day/Fathers’ Day. “I wonder what your birth mom/dad is doing today.”
  • Nighttime prayers. “Let’s remember your birth family in our prayers.”
  • Child’s accomplishments. “Your birth parents would be proud of you just like we are.”
  • Physical features. “I wonder if your birth mom has curly hair like you.”
  • Spontaneously. Whenever your heart wells with gratitude to the birth family. “I’m so glad they gave you to us!”

Conversations about the birth family might also be initiated during vulnerable times like these.

  • Physical exam. “It must be a bummer not knowing your full birth history.”
  • Beginning college. “I’ll bet your adoption issues make saying good-bye extra difficult.”
  • After an acting-out episode. “Have you been thinking about your birth family lately?”
  • Family tree assignments in school. (The adoptee’s family tree is very complex and will not conform to the usual configuration.) You might say to the child, “With your permission and approval, I will talk to your teacher and ask if you (or we) can make a special family tree that will include both sides of your family.”
  • After the child has been teased by a peer because he’s adopted. “I know it’s hard to be singled out because of your adoption, but remember we love you and so does your birth family.”

Part of the reason that your child wants you to take the initiative in opening conversations about the birth family is that he has a need to know the truth about his conception, birth and family history, no matter how painful the details may be. 

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Excerpt from TWENTY THINGS ADOPTED KIDS WISH THEIR ADOPTIVE PARENTS KNEW (Copyright, Random House, 1999.)