Last week, I spoke to not one, but two adoptees who have been kept from seeking out their biological parents. They reached out to me after seeing one of my articles in an adoption forum. What started off as a few email exchanges turned into hours of conversation. We connected over the camaraderie of being adopted as infants in the early 80s, but our stories veered down different paths.
I was adopted from India as an infant by an American couple with Indian heritage on my father’s side. I was four when I learned about my adoption, and from that point on, I longed to know my birth mother. Unlike me, the two domestic adoptees blended into their newfound families without question from outsiders since they shared some physical resemblance. Nonetheless before entering kindergarten, they were made aware of the distinct way they became part of the family. From the initial exchanges with both adoptees, I detected no hint of desire to trace their roots. It baffled me how they either didn’t feel a void or somehow managed not to let those feelings of loss redirect their lives like the way they did to mine. Or at least, that was my assumption. I was no stranger to understanding the uniqueness of each adoptee’s experience; yet, my time in adoption support groups highlighted the one thread that tends to bind us: the persistent sense of loss. Even though both adoptees have close, warm, and loving relationships with their adoptive parents, studies have shown this will not decrease the yearning to connect with birth parents. So what made these two peoples’ relationships with adoption different?
After digging into this question, the reticent answer—buried deep under layers of guilt and anxiety—revealed itself. At least one adoptive parent of each adoptee had ordered their child not to look for his or her birth parents. And it wasn’t in the reluctant, “I don’t want you to do this, but I understand why you want to” sort of way. Instead, it was laden with overtones of, “If you do this, the relationship with me will change forever and may end.” How can you possibly argue with that ultimatum?
Both had vocalized their desires, their needs, and those words fell on deaf ears. Instead of hearing what their child needed, the adoptive parents turned the tables to explain that they would feel inadequate, like they weren’t enough if their child looked. And that was not what they signed up for. Despite this being the view of only one parent, the adoptees found themselves caught in a not-so-loving triangle. The adoptees believed they could only rock the boat so much before it would capsize without a lifesaver in sight. They let decades pass, appeasing their adoptive parents’ wish, not only out of a mixture of love and fear of betrayal, but perhaps out of distress of inflicting another loss on themselves.
The strong, unbothered face they showed their adoptive families and the world masked the limbo they felt caught in. Was it worth putting the only reality they knew in jeopardy for an unknown and potentially unattainable one? Did they want to be the root of tension between their adoptive parents’ opposing views? Why risk losing another parent especially if their current overall experience was good?
I grew up in a household where the topic of adoption was taboo, particularly with my adoptive mother. I never understood whether her attitude towards adoption displayed itself as a symptom or cause of our strained relationship. The uncomfortable shifting or avoidance in answering my adoption-related questions made it clear where she stood despite the absence of an explicit request. This left me no choice but to tiptoe around her any time curiosity about my origins reared its head. I feared digging into my past would further damage an already shaky relationship. But once it became clear that the relationship with my adoptive mom could not be healed, I gained the emotional freedom to seek out my biological mother. I had nothing to lose. For the two previously mentioned adoptees, the stakes were much higher. They had everything to lose: an otherwise healthy, loving, and comfortable relationship with the only person that played a parental role in their life. What choice did they have?
They didn’t have one.
So they waited, or are waiting, for someone else to make the choice for them. For one adoptee, that choice was made when death called. The adoptive dad, knowing that he was close to passing, at last gave his child (a married, grown woman) permission to look for her biological parents. Both grief and relief overwhelmed her as she dealt with the loss of one parent and the newfound possibility of her biological parent. Nonetheless, she had been given a gift, a burden lifted, that no one other than her adoptive parent could grant her. Years after her adoptive mom passed, she didn’t want to squander her opportunity and managed to track down her biological parents. Despite the absence of a storybook ending post-reunion, she quelled a gnawing restless of not knowing her history.
The other adoptee, the parent of a high school footballer, still waits. He waits for his adoptive mom to come around and see that it is no longer just her son who wants to meet his biological mother but her grandson, who questions his origins and medical history. His own wish to connect to his past is compounded by his sense of obligation to his son to know his history. While he openly talks to his son about the predicament, the burden still weighs on him. A decision made years ago transcends generations, but should it?
What should he do? Continue waiting? Or should he resign himself to the idea that seeking out his birth parents may never happen?
Adoptive parents, you have the power—whether you realize it or not—to free your child from the limbo that too many adoptees fall into. Don’t keep them waiting. You will not be replaced as parents. You will always be your child’s mother or father. But adoptees need to be able to find their roots. Help them find not only a piece of themselves, but a peace within.