Dear Adoptive Parents: Don’t Rewrite Your Child’s Story
I spent 26 years searching for my biological family. When I found them, I found relief from longing and a sense of belonging that had eluded me for my entire life. In finding my birth family, I discovered my authentic self — which was, I now know, always the goal. I discovered the origin of my blue eyes, brown hair, and fair skin, but I also found validation for every choice I’d ever made, good and bad.
I look exactly like one sister, and the other has a master’s degree in social work and a husband named Nick — just like me. My birth mother, Gloria, and I both majored in art history and chose France for our junior year abroad. She loved fashion and martinis and thought every guy she dated was “the one” — just like me. My birth mother was the life of the party, an adventure seeker, and hid her depression, anxiety, and shame like a pro — just like me. There is a picture of Gloria I thought was me: same hairstyle, smile, and eyes. Even the same way of crossing our arms. My birth father, Hal, loves to cook, his favorite pot is his blue Le Creuset Dutch oven, he eats too much sugar, he’s an idealist, a devout leftie and political junkie who studied in France his junior year abroad, and he loves to drink wine and talk — just like me. I was dating a guy from the Ivory Coast while Hal was living in the Ivory Coast; I have the same birthday as his first wife, and my husband has the same birthday as his second wife. His father was a writer. Just. Like. Me.
I love my adoptive parents. Nothing stated above negates or diminishes that. My adoptive parents gave me my strong moral compass; they taught me the value of family and community and respect for the institution of marriage; and they demonstrated love, loyalty, and commitment every day of my life. But I do not look at all like my adoptive mother or father. We have little inherently in common, and much of who I am is puzzling to them. In fact, as I was growing up, they viewed much of me as a rejection of them. My parents labeled me rebellious (true) rather than adventurous (also true). My mom is fond of saying my move to California was as far away on the continent as I could get. Which it was. But I was also a spirited young woman with a thirst for travel and self-exploration who romanticized the lure of Los Angeles. I would have ended up there, or somewhere far away and idealized, no matter which mother raised me.
Starting at age 13, I was open about my desire to find my biological family, and my adoptive parents supported me. In fact, although I was a legal adult, New York state required they submit signed and notarized permission forms for me to obtain identifying and nonidentifying information. In 1992, I received nonidentifying information (my birth parents’ hair color, eye color, height, weight), but I did not begin actively searching for my birth mother until 1999. By then, my beloved adoptive father had died, and I had given birth to my daughter. Those events deepened my need for answers and gave urgency to my pursuit. Thanks to the internet, once I had their names, I was able to find them.
My birth mother, Gloria, died four years before I found her of colon cancer at the age of 50. When I learned this, I was devastated. But her death made things easier for my adoptive mom and I. When I showed my adoptive mother a photograph of Gloria — the photo I thought was me — she dismissively said, “You’re prettier,” and walked away. The similarity was a threatening, painful reminder of what she and I would never share.
By 2018, when I found my biological father and two half-sisters, my adoptive father had already been dead for over 20 years. That made things easier, too.
Still, I have pangs of guilt for wanting to be with my biological family, as if that desire makes me disloyal to my adoptive family. And while I love being with my biological family, they are not the people I share a lifetime of experiences with. With them, I am both an insider and an outsider. Sometimes I just want to pull away from everyone.
I wrote the following letter to adoptive parents everywhere because I wish my adoptive mom and I had been better prepared for the complexities of reunion. Hopefully, it helps you and your adopted child walk this road together, hand in hand, with love, honesty, and compassion, united in the goal of your child having the best life you can provide.
Dear Adoptive Parent,
An adoptee who searches for their biological roots is not disloyal or ungrateful or maladjusted. An adoptee’s quest for wholeness is not a rejection of the family they were raised in. They’re simply seeking something their adoptive family cannot provide.
As adoptee and author Claire McAlpine writes this:
“Learning who we are ‘born to’ is necessary if we wish to learn more about who we were ‘born to be,’ something which is neither about the family we are raised by, nor the one we are biologically related to, but that in-between place, where we carry influence from each, which once unravelled, allows us the space to detach from them both, to pursue a life we can truly claim as our own.”
Adoption is an act, an adoptee is forever
If you are an adoptive parent or considering adoption, it behooves you to understand what this means. Adoptees are not a monolith, but we share well-documented similarities. Read Nancy Verrier’s book The Primal Wound and her essay The Three Faces of Adoptees. Read Betty Jean Lifton’s seminal book Journey of The Adopted Self.
People can become adoptive parents through infertility, choice, and altruism — but no matter how you arrived here, your child came to you via a river of loss. That loss pervades their experience. Accept that it has nothing to do with you.
As Nancy Verrier writes in The Primal Wound:
“An adoptive mother may be at a disadvantage in coping with the affective behavior of her child, for she doesn’t understand the form or depth of his grief or the limitations placed upon her as his mother. The infant has missed something which cannot be replaced even by the most motivated of adoptive mothers.”
Learn about the preverbal trauma and encoded grief that occurs when a baby separates from her mother. Understand the effects of a broken narrative on the formation of self. From the outset, educate yourself on the way trauma affects adoptees. Speak to lots of adoptees, not just those who confirm your perspective.
Fear and denial are not your friends
My 21-year-old daughter has depression and anxiety. Over the years, I’ve made many mistakes in how I responded to her, too often allowing fear of losing her — and of other people’s judgment — to dictate my parenting. It took a lot of therapy (for me) to learn how to cope with what her symptoms evoked in me. I had to educate myself about her experience — what was unique to her and what was universal to depression and anxiety — so I could be a more present and effective parent. I thought her illness was my fault, so I tried to “fix” her. But her illness is her illness and has nothing to do with me.
And so it is for adoptive parents.
Be present to your child’s experience. Do not fix them or rewrite their story. Work through your fear to not just accept but celebrate the things about them that differ from you. Your child has another family. Learn to like that fact.
Intimacy with your child depends in part upon your ability to accept them for who they are. If you diminish the role of nature or downplay the significance of their biology (or first family), you are denying their authentic self. In doing so, you send the message that something is wrong with who they are.
It is akin to the parent of the gay child who claims to accept them but doesn’t invite their partner to holidays, never asks who they are dating, or in various ways implies they love them, but…
There can be no conditions. You signed up for this; your child did not.
Who is the real family?
If your child wants to search for their birth family, support them. If they don’t, support them. Honor your child’s desires around the particulars of open adoptions. Follow our lead.
These feelings ebb and flow over a lifetime. Searching (and reunion) is a terrifying, all-encompassing journey. The best gift you can give your child is your unwavering support as they navigate those waters. Let them talk to you. Be flexible. Do not turn away because what they want is not what you planned for.
We are entangled in this reality and unreality; we are stuck in the in-between.
One adoptive mom told me how painful it was that she could never compete with the idealized, fairy-tale birth mother. Correct — you can’t. So don’t. You are the other mother (and father), and that’s okay. It’s not a competition; there’s room for everyone. And don’t ask us — implicitly or explicitly — to choose. Don’t split us further than adoption already has.
As Betty Jean Lifton writes in Journey of The Adopted Self:
“The adoptive mother feels that she is the real mother because she is the one who got up in the middle of the night and was there for the child in sickness and health. The birth mother feels that she is the real mother because she went through nine months of sculpting the child within her body and labored to bring it forth into the world.”
Both the adoptive mother and the birth mother are your child’s “real mothers.”
Adoptees have two real families, yet we are often asked — by society, friends, and family — to choose one. The act of choosing one means denying the other. How do we decide who is “real”? We are entangled in this reality and unreality; we are stuck in the in-between. Give your child permission to call both families “real,” even if you are the only one she ever knows.
Do not ask your child to deny any part of herself.
My mom and I talk about how reunion feels for her. I ask for what I need in a direct and honest way. She tells me her fears in a direct and honest way. Our love is never in question, but we are working through what reunion has stirred up.
I can’t help but think, if someone told her all this 52 years ago, perhaps my journey, and reunion, would be easier for us both.
So I’m telling you. Because if I’ve learned anything, it’s that secrets, lies, and unrealistic expectations destroy adoption’s very goal. Go forward with open hearts and open minds. Your child deserves no less.