Once upon a time, a birthmother crossed an imaginary bridge with her child in her arms and placed the child in our waiting arms. She entrusted us to be loving parents and to honor and cherish this child whom she could not keep. When our children became adults, it was our turn to walk back across that imaginary bridge with our son or daughter to the other side, where their life began. It was our turn to trust the birthmother and birth family to be there for our adult son or daughter when they reached out to connect both of their families, adoptive and biological, through them.
I always cringe when I hear an adoptive parent describe their adopted son or daughter as a “gift” from the birthmother. A “gift” usually means something given freely and without reservation. The majority of adopted babies were “entrusted” to us– they were not a gift! We, the adopted parents, were entrusted to care for and love this child that the birthmother was not able to keep because of family and social pressure and the stigma of a child born out of wedlock. The birthmother also loved this child that she relinquished to us. She was usually told that she was doing “the best thing” for her child.
“Search” and “reunion” are words that you probably never thought about as an adoptive parent when your adopted baby was placed in your arms for the first time. As your son or daughter grew and matured, did you ever think about the possibility of search and reunion then? I know I didn’t … until my daughter brought up the subject of looking for her birth family when she was 18 years old. I never thought about asking her if she ever considered searching for her birth family.
I was the average adoptive parent … ignorant of research by people like Nancy Verrier (as documented years later in her book The Primal Wound); ignorant of an adoptee’s need to claim their biological heritage; ignorant of what it felt like to be relinquished, or what it felt like to relinquish a child. I only knew the joy of adoption. I knew none of the pain of relinquishment.
I always thought about my daughter’s birthmother throughout her growing up years. At her first birthday party, she was dressed in her lacy pink dress with matching ruffled panties and white socks and Mary Jane shoes, and I vividly remember wishing that her birthmother could be there to share in the joy of this celebration. With each succeeding birthday, Christmas, dance recital, first day of kindergarten, first day of college, and graduation, I regretted that her birthmom could not be there to experience the accomplishments and celebrations of this beautiful, lovable daughter. Throughout those years I always thought to myself, “She would be so proud of her.”
As “good” adoptive parents, we told our daughter from an early age that she was adopted. We explained that while she was not born “in my tummy” like her older brother, she was born “in my heart.” Since she didn’t really question our explanation, we didn’t ask her how she felt about that difference. In our ignorance we didn’t take the conversation any further by providing a safe forum for her to discuss the “how comes” of a tummy versus heart birth. In retrospect, I can see that we emphasized the heart experience and didn’t elaborate on the tummy experience, even though both experiences belonged to her. This was probably because we didn’t know much about her birthmother, except what the social workers told us at the time– that she was 19, unmarried, a college student, and felt that the adoption was the best option under the circumstances. Only one paragraph to share with our daughter when she asked for information about her birth family.
At 18, when our daughter did question us in depth about her birthmother and any information we might have, we offered to help her get information from the adoption agency. With a payment to the adoption agency for “non-identifying information” and a few months’ wait, the information arrived in the mail. We all read it over and discussed it, but since there weren’t any names or addresses, it didn’t seem that we were any more knowledgeable about her biological heritage than we were 18 years earlier. The non-identifying information was put away, but went with our daughter when she left to go to college and grad school. Eight years later, with her diplomas in hand and a new job secured in city of her birth, the discussion about her birth family became a priority. Within a few months we were able to find out her birthmother’s maiden surname. We spent days in the library going through old city directories and phone books and compared the names to the current phone books. There was only one last name that matched the name we had in our daughter’s city of birth. Our daughter called the number one evening and her birthmother answered. That was many years ago and now my long-standing wish for her mother to be able to share in the joys and celebrations of our daughter has finally come true.
Being there to support my daughter in her search and reunion has brought us even closer as an adoptive family. When I hear that other adoptive parents are afraid of search and reunion because they fear losing their son or daughter, I am surprised that they don’t realize that it actually strengthens their relationship. I cannot imagine not supporting your son or daughter in their search and reunion journey anymore than I can imagine not allowing them to get their driver’s license or go on that first date or leave home to attend the college of their choice. Why be afraid of more people that will love your son or daughter? Adoptive parents have one more parenting task to do for their adopted son or daughter than biological parents. That additional parenting task is to support them in their search for their birth family as a part of the process of their growing up adopted and feeling good about who they are and where they came from.
Search and reunion is probably one of the most emotional experiences that adoptees will ever undertake. An adopted person usually wants the support and approval of their adoptive family. They need to share the experience with the only family that they have known. It’s important to provide a forum for that discussion. Bring it up in conversation. Don’t wait for them to talk to you about it, for they may feel that it only hurts you to acknowledge that they have “another family.” Being supportive of their search and reunion can be as simple as asking them to tell you about what is currently happening in the search process and showing your continued love for them and interest in their search journey.
Adoptees often have abandonment issues from their original relinquishment. To feel abandoned a second time by their adoptive family just when they are trying to resolve these issues through search and reunion is an emotional hardship. To ignore or discount the importance of their biological family feels like genealogical genocide to some adoptees. If blended families are possible in families that divorce and marry new partners, then blended families are also possible in adopted families. Searching is not about adoption and it has nothing to do with the quality of adoptive family parenting. Searching is about relinquishment and the search for who they are as a physical person.