Michael Grand, PhD, C.Psych
Professor Emeritus, Dept of Psychology, University of Guelph
National Director, Parent Finders Canada
For more than 30 years, the two of us have helped to facilitate a myriad of reunions and reconnections between adoptees and their birth families. During this time, we have learned many things that adoptive parents must consider when their adult child begins the journey to discover the first chapter of life that took the adoptee from one family and led to the formation of a second family. We offer these lessons in the spirit of fostering closer ties between adoptees, and their birth and adoptive families.
For most adoptees, search is experienced as an expansion of a sense of self and not as a rejection of the adoptive family.
The first rule of search and reunion is that search is rarely about dissatisfaction with the adoptive family. The need to know about oneself and one’s roots is primal. In order to have a place in the world, we need to know, first of all, who we are. And if we are ‘shadowed’ by an unknown history, by a set of truths that we know little if anything about, then we may not develop to our full potential. If the adoptive family understands the importance of search for an adoptee’s sense of self, they will not fall victim to the myth that the adoptee is substituting one family for another. In most cases, search draws adoptees closer to the family that raised them and with whom they have had many years of shared experience.
Adoptive parents should support but not direct a search.
There is always a huge temptation for adoptive parents to move from showing support to taking control of a search. Searching can be challenging and will certainly bring out the detective in members of the family, but the fact remains, this is the adoptee’s search and must follow the adoptee’s pace. Adoptive parents may assist by providing information such as the Adoption Order, the social history of the birth family, papers from the agency, and communications from social workers, lawyers and doctors involved in the placement. In addition to sharing facts, adoptive parents are encouraged to support the adoptee through the emotional highs and lows of this process. We also strongly recommend the use of search and reunion support groups whose leaders are well versed in the dynamics of this process. Their skills and experience are invaluable.
When adoptive parents withhold information from an adoptee, this is rarely a sign of love and protection. Rather, it is a sign of two things: the adoptive parents’ lack of trust that the adoptee can make adult decisions; and their own fear that reunion will lead to loss of the adoptee to the birth family. Openness, on the other hand, is the foundation of a secure and loving adoptive relationship that will endure across reunion and reconnection.
There are too many examples of adoptees who learn late in life that they were adopted. Perhaps their parents withheld the truth out of kindness, perhaps out of fear of rejection, perhaps out of fear of public scrutiny. Whatever the reason, this is a very difficult thing for an adult adoptee to discover and to come to terms with. Sometimes they find out at the death of their parents and are completely devastated, believing that their whole life has been a lie. All their medical history is incorrect, all their family history has been fabricated. They truly feel as though the rug has been pulled out from under them. Remember, in the end, openness trumps secrecy every time, no matter what the adoption story.
Speaking ill of the birth family does not discourage adoptees from searching. In fact, the more an adoptive parent disparages the character or actions of the birth parent, the more adoptees desire to make contact with birth parents.
Some adoptive parents speak of birth family in negative terms in an attempt to bring the adoptee closer to the adoptive family. However, adoptees hear a different message: “the source of your DNA is bad and thus, so are you.” If adoptive parents wish to keep their children close, respectful conversation about origins is absolutely necessary.
In search and reunion, “no” often means “not yet” or “I can’t tell you.”
The dynamics of search and reunion are very complex. Sometimes adoptees publicly reject a search for fear of hurting their parents. For some, this means searching out of view of the adoptive parents. For others, it means delaying the search, even though the adoptee has a pressing need to discover more about origins. In neither case does this serve the best interests of either the adoptee or adoptive parents. To delay search or to engage in a clandestine search denies the adoptee the opportunity to receive the emotional support from adoptive parents that will help to mediate the stress of coming to terms with one’s history. Search is a normal developmental part of the adoption. Adoptive parents abrogate their responsibilities as parents if they are not available to assist their adult adopted children in this task.
Immediately following reunion, adoptees may become emotionally over-involved with the birth family, to the exclusion of the adoptive family. They may just as quickly retreat to the adoptive family for support and reassurance. They may have major changes in mood, particularly depression or anger which may be directed to anyone in the inner rings of the constellation. In response to these possibilities, adoptive parents may play many important roles.
This is where the adoptive family can really be helpful and supportive, not by being directive or analytical, but by being comforting and present. Sometimes the adoptee just needs time to assimilate new information or deal with a birth family far different than the one they fantasized about. There may be feelings of being let down. Alternatively, they may wish to spend every waking moment with their newly found relatives. If adoptive parents recognize these responses as an attempt to normalize what is so unique, and they can be emotionally available for their children, they will do much to cement their relationship.
If adoptees desire, adoptive parents may join adoptees in reconnecting with the birth family. Successful integration of the two families requires stepping carefully through several minefields.
Adoptive and birth families may differ in social class, ethnicity and life experiences, resulting in awkwardness in reading social cues. In some cases, adoptive and birth mothers make a quick and strong connection, leaving the adoptee to the side as the two mothers pursue their relationship. In the end, successful integration of the two families requires that each family recognize that search and reunion is about the adoptee feeling connected to the two families. Cognizance of this will help lead all to find a way to live together at an agreed upon pace.
All parties to the adoption must face and respond to loss across time. For birth parents, there is loss of the child they did not get to raise. For adoptive parents, there is the loss of the child that they never had. For adoptees, there is the loss of the self they might have been if circumstances had been different. Without search and reunion, adoptees also lose a full social, medical and genetic history that links them to their origins.
All participants in an adoption must face issues of loss that are accompanied by disenfranchised grief, the grief that is neither socially recognized nor whose amelioration is socially supported. For reunion and reconnection to work, there must be mutual recognition of such losses and support for each other while grieving. At this pivotal point of transition in the two families, competition over who has experienced the greatest loss will not serve anyone well. However, expressions of empathy will go a long way to achieving improved relationships.
A vast majority of adoptees, adoptive parents and birth parents, rate search and reconnection as successful.
One of the most common questions asked of search and reunion specialists is “How many reunions are successful?” And the answer is “All of them”. That is, they are all successful because the initial effort was to find and know the missing family of origin. Whether the reunion develops into a reconnection that is marked by positive relationships is another matter and depends on many things: the willingness of the participants to work at it; their patience; and their willingness to accept difference and change. How could an adoptive parent, with the best interests of their child at heart, not wish for such potential riches?
A reunionwith your birth family can be a wonderful thing but when I searched for my mother, I really had no idea about who or what I would find. I remember being fully prepared for being rejected, to be honest I was expecting it but I hoped at least I would know what she looked like and maybe she’d tell me about her life. I had spent years feeling abandoned by a person I had never met so I had built up some serious walls of defence around me. It had taken me years to build up the courage to find her, I was looking for something but I wasn’t quite sure what it was at that point. I think my natural mother dealt with it really well, she let me lead the way in our newly forming relationship but let me feel safe and secure to do so. She never rushed me and it began to feel natural to open up to her.
I feel like I was never told the information I was needed when I was growing up. Everything was pretty vague, I mean I knew I was adopted but I never knew why or who were these mysterious people that gave me away. How could I know about my story if I didn’t know theirs and why could I not know? Did my adoptive parents know more than they would tell me? So many questions and no answers! I could sense it upset them and quickly it became a taboo subject like the elephant in the room, always there but never mentioned. I really appreciated my natural mother being completely honest about everything that happened, It allowed me to make sense of not only my story but hers too which to be honest I had never considered before. I never realised that she suffered, I always imagined it was an easy decision for her and I was just an inconvenience so you see how hiding the truth can be damaging. She told me the truth about my adoption and even wrote it out in story form which she’d read would be a good way for us both to make sense of what happened. She did so even though it was painful for her and I loved and respected her all the more for it.
When people hear about reunion stories they instantly think of tears of joy and a happy ever-after story. I doubt they could ever imagine that we would need to grieve, I mean why would we need to do that? We should be so happy! When I began chatting to my birth mother more and more it became apparent to me that not only was she was someone who I was becoming close to, she was a part of me that I had always felt was missing but lacked the language and understanding to know and express it before. Mixed in with the highest of highs and pure feelings of love and happiness at finding this most wonderful person who had created me was ever increasing feelings of despair and sadness for the time we had lost together. All the parts of my childhood I could have shared with her were gone forever, all the shared experiences that bonded her to her other children were elusive to me, eternally beyond my grasp. I also grieved for the way the adoption had effected me growing up, I wondered if I wouldn’t have felt so lonely and out of place if I had stayed with her, my rightful mother. I cried a lot on my own but I felt that maybe we needed to cry together as a way of bonding with her or maybe for the support and acknowledgement of the loss I had experienced, something which I never had growing up. I remember being upset that I couldn’t cry with her the first time we met and only did when I was on my own the next morning, maybe I was still as guarded as I had been all my life and unwilling yet to share my emotions. The next time we met we spent some time alone and chatted about the adoption and were able to speak more openly. All of a sudden I felt my walls crumble and my tears flowed, my mother gripped my hand and cried too and I feel like we connected at that moment and I realised to my surprise that we both grieved for the same loss. It was painful but healing to share that feeling of grieving together. Both adoptees and birth mothers had their grieving denied to them, it is disenfranchised grief, a delay to an inevitable and natural process that is cruel and damaging to deny. Sharing that with her made me feel even closer to her and her to me.
Feelings can easily consume you if they are kept locked up inside. When I was growing up I didn’t have the understanding or knowledge to know that my feelings of sadness, loneliness and not fitting in were to do with being adopted and neither did my adoptive parents. In the closed adoption era adoptive parents believed they were receiving the gift of a baby with with a blank slate, they wouldn’t remember or care about about losing their natural mother, why would they? They’re just a baby. Maybe it’s what they needed to believe in order to truly feel like it was their child and they wouldn’t want to feel like their child was in pain either so just hope for the best! Well it seems that babies do remember, they spend 9 months growing inside and listening to their mothers heartbeat. The mother might speak to them as mine did, they are ready to hear her familiar voice and to be soothed by the only person who can, they lack the ability to self soothe. I was a baby waiting to meet my mother and she wasn’t there, instead I was taken away and handed to strangers. My adoptive parents often told me how quiet I was as a baby and rarely cried even if I was hungry. They thought it was great, I was easy but I guess crying for my mother didn’t work so why bother? Instead I went into shut down mode and I think that must have continued throughout my life because I often was very quiet and withdrawn. Adoptees seem to become very observant and can be hyper vigilant looking for signs that we might be abandoned although this is usually subconsciously. Some adoptees like to test their parents but others like me don’t want to upset them so we keep our feelings to ourselves, locked down deep inside where they fester and do their damage. The first time I ever spoke about my adoption, what it meant to me and my feelings about it was with my natural mother. If I ever try talking about it to others I am either shut down with comments like yeah but you had a good family etc. Society doesn’t validate the feelings of birth mothers or adoptees. My natural mother made me feel like I could open up about it and she truly wanted to understand me, talking helped us both understand each other and ourselves better.
5. WE OFTEN FEEL OVERWHELMED.
Reunion is full of highs and lows and you never know what intense feelings are going to come next. We may have feelings of intense love for a person you barely know or feelings of deep grief and sadness for the loss of that same person. We may even feel like we have regressed in age and not fully understand why this has happened. I honestly believe these feelings are natural and important, it’s the situation that is unnatural so it can be frightening and confusing unless you have researched and read about the effects of adoption. Talk to your child about how they are feeling and maybe recommend books or video, my birth mother and I are always swapping articles and book ideas! Either party may however deny that it has affected them so it may be frustrating if they don’t open up at first but with time I’m sure they will. It really helps to understand that these feelings are normal and they can be worked through together. There are so many facets of reunion that can be overwhelming especially if there’s a whole new family dynamic to fit into and adoptees are especially sensitive to the potential of being abandoned, we subconsciously look for signs! A lot of patience and understanding is needed on both sides and I truly believe all reunions have the potential of being successful if both parties want that.
This is something only someone who has been taken from their natural family will ever truly understand. We grew up with no reflection of ourselves in our adoptive family with constant reminders that we didn’t have what others did. In my extended adoptive family there was always talk of who looked like who and took after certain traits of their blood relatives and it was the same at my friends houses. I often wondered if there was anyone who looked like me but it was strange because I still couldn’t picture my natural parents, they remained ghosts to me. I wondered if my artist talents were inherited because no-one in my adoptive family had any kind of creative flair, my adoptive father was very serious and practical and did not get me in he slightest. I often think he would have loved a son that was an echo of his own genetics and there are losses unresolved with adoptive parents too. Meeting my natural parents and siblings was equal parts wonderful and surreal, I could finally see myself in someone. I felt giddy scanning for physical resemblance’s and traits and it was wonderful to hear about the music, art and quirky sense of humour in my birth family that I had inherited. We are so starved of this that we crave it, we want to hear about how we look and act like members of our natural family because it validates us a person and makes us feel less alone in the world.
7. WE FEEL SPLIT.
There are many ways in which adoptees feel split. We often have the feeling that we don’t fit in or truly belong in our adoptive family but then we find our natural family and find we don’t truly fit in there either. With one we share experiences with no blood and shared genetics and the other we share blood and genetics with no experiences. We often feel like the baby that was relinquished died and we became a separate person to that child. I never really felt like I had been born until reunion which is probably hard to understand. It was like I was dropped off by aliens or just found somewhere. This makes sense because our connection to those who created us had been cut off and that which most take for granted was never there for us. We feel the need for connection, the true connection we were denied but we also reject it because we expect to be abandoned. Our brains weren’t shaped by the loving bond with our mothers but by the need to survive in a world that seemed alien and avoiding abandonment seems key to that survival even though that doesn’t really help at all.
Our lives didn’t begin when we were born, we spent 9 months connected with and protected by our mothers. Our whole world was literally our mother and the sounds surrounding her. Her world was ours. We were preparing for life outside of mother but it was ok because we would still be protected by her world and our bonding would continue. Likewise the mother’s body has prepared itself physically and spiritually to care for and protect her child. They know each other and are connected. We lost that connection to our universe and were suddenly surrounded by genetic strangers. Instead of being full of the love hormone oxytocin our bodies were full of stress and adrenaline in order to survive. It’s the premature development of the ego. All my life I felt like I couldn’t rely on anyone because they would just let me down. I apparently became a “stiff arm baby” and maybe I instinctively knew that spiritually I was on my own but physically needed these strangers to survive. The baby who was supposed to continue the natural bonding process with mother was frozen in time and in reunion is woken ready to continue what was broken. We don’t know how to do that as an adult, gazing into our mothers eyes and constantly being held by her is no longer appropriate so we don’t know how to bond or even if it’s possible.
9. WE DON’T KNOW WHAT TO CALL YOU.
In reunion you are familiar but you are still a stranger. In our adoptive families we develop roles and grow up with a mother and and a father and we are taught to call them mum and dad or mom and pop. Then you come along, our real parents but we already had parents who felt real and who have already filled those roles. So who are you to us? Maybe we want you to fill those roles or maybe we don’t or at least no longer need that, that time and that need has passed. But calling you by your name can also feel wrong, you gave birth to us, you are the reason we are here and our connection to creation. That is everything, you are more than just a friend. Much of our looks and personality is genetic and because of the two strangers who created us. I often want to call my natural mother “mum”, it feels right but it also feels wrong when I see it written it down or after I’ve said it. It wasn’t her fault but she wasn’t there in my developmental years when these roles are being formed. We may start calling you something and then stop and then begin again. Recently I’ve started calling my natural mother “mama” and it feels right or at least more right than “mum” or her name.
10. WE DON’T KNOW WHERE WE FIT.
We lived a life and grew up in our adoptive family and developed family roles whether that felt natural or not, likewise our birth families often went on to start or continue families without us. All of a sudden in reunion I found I had siblings, cousins etc that had spent their childhoods developing their family relationships with shared experiences. My mother wants to bring me into her family which is wonderful but I also don’t know what that means or how it works. All of a sudden I have a new world full of blood relations and extended family and I don’t know my place in their world or if I have the right to be there. My mother wants to bring me into her world and part of me wants to be there but part of me doesn’t trust this new world because it once rejected me.
So you know you are adopted and want to find your bio-parents. Here are the steps I took to find my wife’s bio-parents. While there are a lot of DNA testing companies, I did all of my research using AncestryDNA even though I had 23andMe and had exported her DNA results to Family Tree DNA (FtDNA) and GEDmatch. To find your bio-parents using Ancestry you will eventually need a subscription. This runs about $200 per year but you can drop it once you locate your bio-parents. If you have the money you can also do 23andMe, but it isn’t necessary.
I’m in California and each state has different laws regarding accessing adoption records, so you will find discrepancies in what I’m writing based on which state you live in. Also, depending on your competency on the Ancestry site, you may find this too confusing and may need to involve someone to help you.
Don’t delay as the kit takes about a week to get to you, then the results don’t come in for around 8 weeks after you mail it in. It is just a simple saliva test, just follow their directions. For elderly, have them scrape their tongue with their teeth before spitting as there isn’t a lot of DNA in saliva and there is less in the elderly. The kit cost around $100. There are adoption groups which donate kits if you can’t afford one. If you can’t afford one, then you may not be able to afford the Ancestry subscription, which is required to be able to do research. DNA testing of deceased people for Ancestry is not possible.
Step 2 – Send away for your non-identifying adoption paperwork from you birth state
In California it takes a long time to get the results, so you need to get this going. In California, it is CDSS Form AD904 from the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) Don’t forget to check the box on the back stating that you want this information. I found my wife’s bio-parents before the adoption information came in, but you may need it in order to narrow the results down based on the age of the potential bio-parents.
In California, if a licensed California adoption agency maintains your adoption file, the CDSS will return your notarized form along with the address of the agency, so that you may mail the notarized form directly to them (and wait again).
Step 3 – Join the Closed Facebook Group DNA Detectives
To join the group you will need to fill out a short questionnaire. Also, closed means that any communication you have within this group won’t be visible to your Facebook friends. This group is run by a group of people who volunteer their time and they do not take donations, so be nice to them. If you need help they will assign you a free ‘search angel’ (one of their members) based on your birth state. For us in California, this was Heather MacPherson (https://www.facebook.com/heather.macpherson.12). She has access to the microfiche birth files and can look up the last name of your bio-mom against your sealed birth records.
On birth certificates, there is the original sealed birth certificate, which can’t be obtained without legal intervention (in most states) and your amended birth certificate, which you should have. At the top of your amended birth certificate are some numbers, a State File Number and a Certificate Number. With these numbers Heather can look at her files and find the last name of your bio-mom.
We made the bio-mom match based on finding a family name on the California Birth Index of someone in my tree. I just looked up on the California Birth Index for girls born on my wife’s birthday in our county. There were about 260 of them, but only 7 had the mother’s last name and no first name for the child. Assuming that these were adoptees, I just happened to recognize one of them based on the tree I had already started (which was based on an earlier 23andMe DNA test). Here is the link to the California Birth Index: http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=5247
Here are some other notes and adoption sites on the internet and Facebook:
NPE stands for a non-paternity event, meaning an individual is not the child of the father shown in the family’s “paper” genealogy. An adoption which was kept secret is considered a NPE.
Search Squad works for free and helps you determine who on your ancestry tree you are related to. DNA Detectives recommends them all of the time.
Step 4 – After Getting AncestryDNA Results
At this point you will need to get a subscription to Ancestry if you haven’t done so already. You should link your DNA to yourself.
So now let’s go over what you see on your AncestryDNA results. Under ‘DNA Matches’ you will see three classifications:
Shared Ancestor Hints
4th cousins or closer
In order to see any ‘Shared Ancestor Hints’ you will need a tree which is the main purpose of this paper. The Ancestry program will mine (extract from) your tree and the trees of other members, make connections and then show you how you are connected. This is what you are looking for. Without ‘Shared Ancestor Hints’ you won’t find your bio-parents.
‘Starred matches’ just lets you mark people. I used this to separate the paternal from the maternal sides as that became apparent, by consistently marking one or the other. You can also add notes to everyone. My notes are “Name. Relationship.” So for example “Jane A Smith. Maternal 2nd cousin 1x removed.”
The last segment doesn’t do you much good. So you are related, unless you know how it doesn’t do you any good. I never used this group for research except for getting your first ‘Mirror Trees’ going which we will discuss later.
Below ‘DNA Matches’ you will see ‘DNA Circles’. It will say that you currently don’t have any. There is nothing you can do to get them aside from building your tree. This is an automated feature of Ancestry and divides your relatives up between paternal and maternal. These results rely on your ‘Shared Ancestor Hints’, so it probably won’t come in until after you have found your bio-parents.
There are two main ways to work on your tree, one is on a computer using the internet and the other is via your smart phone using an app. For the app us the Ancestry one and not the AncestryDNA one. The app image should be the brown background with the green leaves. Both the computer and the app have advantages. On the hint leaves only the computer lets you see Ancestry Hints of other people’s trees.
Step 5 – Export your DNA
These are all free sites and it doesn’t hurt getting your DNA out there. Family Tree DNA (FtDNA) will say you need to pay but look hard and you will see that you don’t. FtDNA has some good trees which you can use for building yours.
Start a tree. Pick a simple name for your tree such as YourLastName Family Tree. Make it private and non-searchable. You want to do this while you are doing research so you don’t confuse others. Once you have found your bio-parents then you should make your tree public and searchable. As a security feature of Ancestry, even though your tree is public no one from the outside can see living people unless you share your tree and give them permission.
By mirror tree, that means just copying (actually re-building) other people’s trees that you are related to. Most people say to have separate research mirror trees, but I don’t agree. The reason being is that you can’t combine them later. So only have one tree and build separate mirror trees on your single tree, what I call floating trees. To do this I created a relative then broke that relationship so that person was floating (in my tree but not tied to me) then build a tree off of that person. The only way to break a person off of a tree is to establish a fake relative off of you, such as a sibling, then go to “Family” then click “Edit” then click the red “X” then “Delete Relationship Only”. Then that person you just created won’t be tied to you and will be “floating” in space so to speak. You have to remember the name of a key person in each floating tree because the only way to find the floating trees is through the search function. I had a few of these floating trees going and as you figure things out you start connecting them.
So how do you find other people’s trees? Use your ‘4th cousins or closer’ and/or FtDNA. Relatives with no family tree or a locked tree (there is an image of a lock after the tree) don’t do you any good. Try to find a close relative with a big tree, but try to not go above a 3rd cousin. If you find someone with a big locked tree you can try writing them, asking them to share it with you, preferable with the setting so you can see living people. I did a lot of work on my small iPhone but for building a tree I used multiple devices so I could have someone else’s tree up on one and inputting to my tree on another. There is no easy way to cut and paste, I found manually input the easiest.
What you are looking for is common ancestry that you share with others. The more floating trees you have (each one being based off of another relative’s tree) the more changes you will have of accomplishing this. You are looking for two different people (dad and mom) and when you start you won’t know which one is in which floating tree. You could potentially have a bunch of floating trees and have them all be for the same parent, you just don’t know when you start. When you get into it you can go to the DNA tab, select a person, go to ‘Matches’ and see who else they are related to in order to start determining which side they are related to, paternal or maternal.
One you get a floating tree established you can plug your DNA into relatives as this sometimes helps Ancestry make connections. You need to leave your DNA plugging into someone else for a few days for Ancestry to do its thing, but I would never leave it plugged into someone else for more than a week. If you find this confusing I don’t feel that it is necessary so you can skip this. If you elect to try this, go to the DNA tab, then ‘Settings’, then under ‘Family Tree Linking’ and select a relative.
As connections start becoming apparent, you can figure out your great great (Ancestry calls it 2nd great) grandparents. I connected my wife to her 2nd great grandparent by making dummy relatives, “Father”, “Grandparent”, etc. As I got closer to finding her father, I would eliminate the dummy relatives and when I got down to grandparent then I just started connecting her to prospective fathers looking for a connection on the mother’s side.
Remember that when you build trees you have to develop the spouse’s side too so you can triangulate on the current “target” whether it be a parent or grandparent. Bigger families obviously slow you down, specifically once you have the grandparent because then you have nothing left to triangulate on. I built my tree with help from other relatives (one actually gave me handwritten trees), obituaries (just from searching the internet), Find A Grave, Facebook & Quanki and I didn’t use any paid services other than Ancestry and 23andMe. Obituaries are wonderful as you not only get to learn about the person but they also usually list the family members.
So to sum up, you can do it, it just takes a lot of effort. It took me 4 months of hard work every evening to find my wife’s bio-dad. During this process I added around 4,000 people to my tree.
After you find your bio-parents you can set up two sets of parents on Ancestry (once you start getting closer), biological and adopted, but you have to make one primary, which for research purposes, is your bio-parents. You can only do this on your computer, not on your smart phone app. To do this open up your profile and click on ‘Edit’ on the upper right then ‘Edit Relationships’, then click on ‘Add Alternate Father’ and ‘Add Alternate Mother’.
For me, becoming and being a parent in an open adoption is like a kaleidoscope:
Intricate and multifaceted
Dynamic and ever-changing
It can be beautiful, perplexing, or revealing, and, sometimes, allude to things just outside of view or bring my attention to the empty spaces.
The construction of a kaleidoscope reflects the evolving discourse in the adoption community. For example, most toy kaleidoscopes use a three-sided reflective surface inside, which reminds me of how adoptive family systems used to be rendered as a triangle or triad, interrelating three core positions of birth/first parents, child, and adoptive parents. But today, we speak of adoption constellations to better evoke the complex, dynamic, intergenerational relationships created through adoption, like the infinite facets and unique, intricate patterns seen through a kaleidoscope. Openness in adoption is like trying to see and appreciate the multiplicity of perspectives and experiences.
If you look into my kaleidoscope of open adoption experience, you might get a sense of the relationships between myself, my wife, our daughter, her birth mother, and other family members. You might catch glimpses of the times I informed people that I’m a parent by adoption when they said, “Oh, she looks just like you!,” or notice the photo of my daughter with her birth mother on the family photo wall in the living room. You could see my daughter and I role-playing and narrating the imagined reunions between Disney princesses with their birth parents who’ve been left out of the story. You might see me text my daughter’s birth mother each Father’s Day to thank her for choosing me to parent her baby or notice the cards we exchange on other holidays and birthdays. You might hear my daughter and birth mother talking during their annual face-to-face visits. You’ll be dazzled by flashes of joyful laughter and also moved by moments of sorrow, grieving, and tears. In the corner of your eye, you might also sense the doubt or anxiety I harbor about the responsibility of being an adoptive parent, committed to fostering a life-long connection between my daughter and her birth mother, as well as other members of her birth family.
My daughter is now almost seven-and-a-half, a first-grader who’s been mostly at home with myself or my wife for more than a year now due to the pandemic. Often, I wish I had a telescope, crystal ball, or magic wand to help me see what’s ahead and how to navigate it all. In lieu of such magical tools, I rely on the community, especially folks with adoption experience.
Over the past year, to continue learning and to grow my peer support network, I’ve also been meeting and interviewing fathers of adopted children, both birth/first fathers and adoptive fathers, which, combined with an abundance of adoption-related books, articles, webinars, blogs, and podcasts, has dramatically broadened and deepened my awareness and appreciation of the diversity of family systems created by adoption, especially the wide-ranging experiences of openness in public and private domestic adoptions.
Peering inside this larger kaleidoscope of fathers’ experiences of open adoption reveals many facets. Some reflect my own experience. Mostly, these conversations have widened my perspective. One dimension that really catches my eye is transgenerational influences.
While each adoption story centers upon each man’s relationship with a particular child, I’ve been equally curious about how men navigate relationships with other family members in open adoptions. The narratives I’ve heard usually span three or four generations. Men begin by reflecting upon their own experiences being parented. Fathers have shared stories of their own birth or adoptive parents, single parents, step-parents, in-laws, and grandparents. Based on my own experience, I feel a special camaraderie and compassion with the many men whose fathers, for various reasons, were absent for all or part of their childhoods. Some men have parents who were adopted themselves, typically in the era of closed adoptions, and they’ve participated in searches and reunions with newly discovered grandparents. The men I’ve met with have also shared how they navigate relationships with their child’s other parents over the years, and most have spoken about building relationships with those folks’ other children, and relatives, such as cousins, aunts/uncles, grandparents, etc. Visits, holidays, weddings, as well as the use of texts, phone/video calls, social media, and ancestry websites, all offer opportunities to interrelate, practice naming and narrating their relationships, and to ‘do family.’
About the author:
Phil Weglarz is an adoptive father in an open adoption, a marriage and family therapist, an associate professor of counseling psychology, and a Ph.D. candidate at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. In 2021, Phil is completing narrative research with birth/first fathers and adoptive fathers about their experiences of open adoption. https://tinyurl.com/fatherstoriesofadoption
Establishing and maintaining a relationship with birth parents during the process of adopting can be an intimidating, sometimes frustrating experience. It can also become one of the most enriching and rewarding experiences you will ever have. These hints may help you keep perspective and stay less anxious as you meet and get to know your future child’s birth parents. While many of these suggestions seem impossible to you now, they are quite feasible, albeit challenging. And while we rarely achieve any ideal relationship with anyone, keeping in mind some of these thoughts may help shift your thinking to allow you to create a mutually respectful, gratifying adoption experience.
Be yourself. Really yourself. There is a birth family and a child out there for everyone. No matter what your age, religion, ability, economic status, or profession, birth parents will choose you for a variety of reasons. If you pretend now to be other than who you are, your adoption will be based on a falsehood and can eventually have negative ramifications for you and the family you are trying to create.
Birth parents are at least as frightened as you are. They are afraid of being rejected, afraid they will end up giving birth to a child who has no parents to care for it, afraid they will have to choose to parent when they are unable to. Birth mothers have often been abandoned by their child’s father and have little emotional support from family and friends. Even if they do have partners and family support, this is a very frightening and extremely emotionally demanding time in their lives. In this way, there are many parallels between the adopting and birth parents’ experiences.
Find the birth parents’ strengths and focus on them. These are the attributes you will eventually share with your child about their origins. Children usually care less about eye and hair color than “am I like my birth family?” Reframe potentially negative attributes in the positive. Most birth parents are quite resourceful, even if they have not made great decisions in the past. Who among us hasn’t made mistakes? Adoption is a great decision and so was following through with action that eventually led them to you.
Resist the temptation to convince a birth parent what a great parent you will be. Birth parents see adopting parents as having everything they don’t have. These usually include maturity, stability, often a good marriage, financial stability (not wealth), and of course the desire, willingness, and ability to parent. The aspects of your life that you would like to improve are probably invisible to a woman who sees you as someone who can and will provide for her child everything she cannot provide at this time in her life.
You probably have major issues of control after infertility. Adoption, like infertility, can make us feel “out of control.” Someone else is carrying your child. Be aware of these issues in yourself and try not to exert control where it is inappropriate.
Get support anywhere and everywhere except from birth parents.
Keep in mind that adoption is a lifelong process. It began with your infertility and never ends. It continues through to your child’s children and on…. We are leaving something behind, just as genetic parents do. The seeds you plant now will grow throughout the life cycle of the family you create.
Enjoy this time as much as you can. You’ve earned it.
Carole Lieber-Wilkins is Carole is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in West Los Angeles (CA 18998), also licensed in Idaho (ID 5979), providing individual and couples counseling, as well as psychoeducational consultations for those moving in to alternative paths to parenthood. A specialist in the field of reproductive medicine, adoption, and family building options since 1986, she became a founding member of Resolve of Greater Los Angeles in 1987 and served on the Board of Directors in various positions for many years. In addition, her own experience creating a family through adoption and egg donation deepens her understanding of the challenges others face when exploring these complex family-building options. Please visit her website here: www.LAfamilybuilding.com