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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The Special Needs of Adopted Children

What Are The Special Needs of Adopted Kids?

Adopted children have special needs that adoptive, first, and foster parents must learn  in order to become their child’s #1 cheerleader.

Use this list as needed and as age-appropriate for discussing special needs with your child. You might say, “An adopted person wrote a list of her special needs. Would you be interested in seeing it? I’m curious if you identify with any of the needs that are mentioned.”

Remember, with young children, keep it simple-rephrase into kid speak, and stick with the words: SAD, MAD, GLAD ANGRY.

Scripture verses are included for those who want them.

EMOTIONAL NEEDS:

  • I need help in recognizing my adoption loss and grieving it. (Ecclesiastes 1:18)
  • I need to be assured that my birth parents’ decision not to parent me had nothing to do with anything defective in me. (Proverbs 34:5)
  • I need help in learning to deal with my fears of rejection–to learn that absence doesn’t mean abandonment, nor a closed door that I have done something wrong. (Genesis 50:20)
  • I need permission to express all my adoption feelings and fantasies. (Psalm 62.8)

EDUCATIONAL NEEDS:

  • I need to be taught that adoption is both wonderful and painful, presenting lifelong challenges for everyone involved. (Ezekiel 17:10a, Romans 11:24)
  • I need to know my adoption story first, then my birth story and birth family. (Isaiah 43:26)
  • I need to be taught healthy ways for getting my special needs met. (Philippians 4:12)
  • I need to be prepared for hurtful things others may say about adoption and about me as an adoptee. (John 1:11)

VALIDATION NEEDS:

  • I need validation of my dual-heritage (biological and adoptive). (Psalm 139:16b)
  • I need to be assured often that I am welcome and worthy. (Isaiah 43:4, Zephaniah 3:17)
  • I need to be reminded often by my adoptive parents that they delight in my biological differences and appreciate my birth family’s unique contribution to our family through me. (Proverbs 23:10)

PARENTAL NEEDS:

  • I need parents who are skillful at meeting their own emotional needs so that I can grow up with healthy role models and be free to focus on my development, rather than taking care of them. (II Corinthians 12:15)
  • I need parents who are willing to put aside preconceived notions about adoption and be educated about the realities of adoption and the special needs adoptive families face. (Proverbs 23:12, Proverbs 3: 13-14, Proverbs 3:5-6)
  • I need my adoptive and birth parents to have a non-competitive attitude. Without this, I will struggle with loyalty issues. (Psalm 127:3)

RELATIONAL NEEDS:

  • I need friendships with other adoptees. (Ecclesiastes 4:12)
  • I need to taught that there is a time to consider searching for my birth family, and a time to give up searching. (Ecclesiastes 3:4)
  • I need to be reminded that if I am rejected by my birth family, the rejection is symptomatic of their dysfunction, not mine. (John 1:11)

SPIRITUAL NEEDS:

  • I need to be taught that my life narrative began before I was born and that my life is not a mistake. (Jeremiah 1:5a, Ephesians 1:11)
  • I need to be taught in this broken, hurting world, loving families are formed through adoption as well as birth. (Psalm 68:6)
  • I need to be taught that I have intrinsic, immutable value as a human being.
  • I need to be taught that any two people can make love but only God can create life. He created my life and I’m not a mistake.  (John 1:3)

Your greatest challenge as a parent is to first identify the special need that has arisen and then to help your child verbalize it. This gives him some sense of mastery and control over something that feels out of his control. Helping your child heal is largely centered on honest, productive dialogue between you and your child.

Once you as a parent gain such a depth of understanding of your child’s special needs, you will be able to give him the support he needs not only now but throughout all of life. His special needs, in turn, will become deep wells of personal strength and empathy within him as he grows older.

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This list may be reproduced, only when credit is given to the author and the book: Copyright, 1999, Sherrie Eldridge, Random House Publishers-TWENTY THINGS ADOPTED KIDS WISH THEIR ADOPTIVE PARENTS KNEW.

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