The adoption triad, which consists of the adoptive parents, the biological parents, and the adoptee, is pictured as a triangle with a heart around them. It is meant to symbolize the interconnectedness of all three members of the triad; after all, without one, there would be no triad. Although the triad is often referred to as a unit, they are consistently thought of as separate entities. The immense divide between all those involved with the adoption triad has become more apparent as stigmas have become more integrated into the adoption community. Birth mothers are often forgotten, left out of the adoption narrative, or even considered bad people; adoptive parents are simply proud parents who want to share with the world the love they have for their child; adoptees are the children that everyone seems to forget that grow up.
This separation comes from expectations that are placed on each part of the triad involved in an adoption. Individuals are expected to fulfill the stereotypes laid out for them, whether that be that they never contact the children they gave birth to again, or that they view their children as a “blank slate,” or that they should be grateful that they were given a chance at life. We have become pitted against one another to try and combat the unfair animosity that has been created from unfortunate historical practices. However, what good does this do? What purpose does it solve, especially for the child?
Adoption has the potential to be a beautiful process and opportunity to create an endless family tree for a child, and for some, this is indeed the case. However, for many triads, especially those who went through the adoption process a decade or more ago, families likely have no contact. Once the adoption was finalized, the child was whisked away to a new life and a new adoptive family, with little inclination of the family she or he shares DNA with. Oftentimes, there was no animosity in this process—only what was considered standard procedure.
In short, the triad can be a pretty isolating place for pretty much everyone. There are not clear, unskewed definitions for what it means to be an adoptee, a biological parent, or an adoptive parent. Each family affected by adoption handles it differently, just like the psychological effects of adoption vary from person-to-person. It is important that we explore each role in depth and hear from those who wear these hats every day.
Where Do Adoptees Fit In?
Adult adoptees hold a particularly unique position in the triad. For the majority of our childhood, we grow up with challenges that we are not able to verbalize. When we become adults, we no longer carry the label that we were adopted (which is obvious for some, others not). We are expected to assimilate into society as adults, just like every other child.
Until recently, there were virtually no resources or opportunities for adult adoptees to connect outside of potentially toxic Internet groups. There are limited support groups for all members of the triad, which prove to be virtually ineffective for everyone due to the nuanced nature of each person’s experience with adoption. Adoptees often deal with their issues in private, while other members of the triad might be more open about their struggles.
Laureen Pittman, an adoptee and author, reflects on her experience in an adoptive triad: “As an adoptee, I have learned to be self-reliant and independent. In the past, however, I thought feeling isolated and ‘different’ was a necessary part of being adopted; we are not ‘special’ or ‘chosen.’ Over the years, dealing with my ever-changing emotions (and mental health) that go along with being adopted, as well as doing the searches and navigating reunion, seemed to set me apart from the norm even more. I became comfortable on the outside.
“However, I’ve been fortunate in recent years to have cultivated a group of friends who are also adoptees or part of the adoption triad. Talking, sharing, and interacting with other adoptees and others in the triad has helped me to realize that isolation is not necessarily a part of being adopted. My experience as an adoptee has been one of tremendous growth, and I am quite comfortable with my state of ‘adoptee-ness.’ I even wrote a book about my own journey in hopes that I might inspire other adoptees who yearn to learn their own truths, and also for families touched by adoption who want to understand and value the heart and soul of an adoptee.”
In addition to having relationships with other adoptees, having healthy, functioning relationships with both the adoptive and biological family are crucial to maintaining an adoptee’s mental health. Particularly in adolescence, a challenging time in life as it is, research by Walkner and Rueter (2014) has shown that other psychological challenges related to adoption can have a confounding effect on the well-being of individuals, which further impedes their ability to have a relationship with their adoptive family. Such challenges can be inquiring more about one’s adoption, trying to develop a relationship with biological parents, or communicating more about one’s adoption journey (Walker & Reuter, 2014).
What Can Adoptive Parents Do?
Adoptive parents perhaps have the most involved role in the triad. For the most part, the focus of the adoption community focuses on their perspective, their needs, and their situations. Adopting a child can be a lengthy, expensive, and exhausting task, leaving parents feeling overwhelmed and overjoyed at the same time. There is pressure to give the child the best possible home as one can as well as to try to integrate the child into the family; an added layer of complexity is present in transracial adoptions.
Charlene Boggess, an adoptive mother, refers to the adoption process as “one of the best and most stressful experiences” of her life. After over 14 failed attempts at adopting a child, she and her husband, John, had all but given up. However, in 1996, they adopted a child domestically (that child was me!). She reflects on her role in the triad: “As a parent, you automatically want to give your child the best of everything. However, as an adoptive parent, it becomes more complicated. While we were told that our daughter was ours ‘as if by blood,’ there was still another family out there that shared her biology. We tried to be as open as possible with her about everything, but we were given little guidance on this process. While we knew there was no ‘right way’ to be an adoptive parent, hearing other members of the triad’s perspectives would have helped immensely.”
Unfortunately, because such a negative stereotype has been placed on biological mothers and the ignored perspective of adoptees, many adoptive parents have been led to believe that their children are “blank slates” and that they must start completely over. In the triad, this has led to little to no communication with the biological family. Most importantly, this was not—for the majority of families—done out of menace. It was done out of a miseducation provided by people in the adoption community because of unfair historical practices. Now that more adoptive parents are breaking these stereotypes, things are starting to improve overall. However, more education for adoptive parents on the truth behind adoption is still necessary to enhance their role in the triad.
As a Biological Parent, What Is My Role?
Unfortunately, biological parents, specifically biological mothers, have not held a prominent role in the triad until recently. While this sometimes was by choice, sometimes it was not. Historically, birth mothers have not had a major role in the triad due to the request for privacy. During the early and mid-twentieth century, birth mothers were promised privacy, even when there was no legal guarantee of sorts (Samuels, 2013). For a number of reasons, no matter how innocent or sinister, many mothers were forced into the adoption process; this led to a convoluted perception of ‘privacy’ for all those involved.
In short, birth mothers have always had a unique perspective in adoption as they are there for the beginning of the process but are virtually absent from the rest. Because there are such negative stereotypes around biological mothers, they have been shrouded in shame and secrecy for years. Many biological parents have taken the stance of being “family preservationists,” meaning that if it is safe and reasonable, a child should remain with her or his biological family rather than be placed for adoption.
Marcie Keithly, a biological mother, author, and Vice President of the Indiana Adoptee Network, has had a tumultuous journey through the adoption process. Having experienced the trauma of losing a child to adoption shortly after the Baby Scoop Era (a period of mass newborn adoptions, many of which were highly unethical), Keithly reflects on her perspective on how she feels the triad and adoption ought to be viewed: “Based on personal experience and from listening to the hearts of many adoptees, I believe family preservation should always be the first priority and adoption as the last resort. The preferred method should be legal guardianship allowing the infant or child to be cared for by the adoptive family, while allowing their identity and their first family to remain a part of their life. No falsified birth record should replace the truth.”
Marcie Keithly summarizes where the focus of future adoptions should go: “Adoption should be ethical, void of any effort to coerce or persuade a young mother to relinquish her child due to lack of resources. That being said, adoption is not a one size fits all. There will always be a child in need, but it must be done honorably and without any kind of misrepresentation, persuasive tactics, or pressuring.”
Why Is This Important?
Integrating the adoption triad is extremely pertinent and relevant in today’s environment. As adoption becomes a more open and fluid process, the separateness of each role in the triad serves little purpose. Without rebuilding bridges that have been torn down by ignorance and stereotypes throughout history, the same recurring cycle of intergenerational trauma will continue. This trauma has taken a psychological toll on families for too long and can be easily stopped. It has a tendency to permeate into every aspect of adoption, especially reunion. Adoptive parents may have a hard time handling when an adoptee wants to search for her biological family; the adoptee, who may have lived with lifelong abandonment issues and anxiety around his adoption, is terrified of being rejected by his biological family; the biological family, who may have been negatively portrayed to the adoptee and the adoptive family, are anxious as well. In fact, research by Ge et al. (2008) indicates that the more open the adoptive and biological families are post-adoption, the better that both families adjust.
Keith Sciarillo, an adoptee, believes that integrating the triad is extremely important. He says, “To me, the adoptee’s role in the adoption triad is a unifier or a bridge. We start out like most people who are born into our family of origin. Then, we join another family. Yet even though families get to know each other, the adopted person is what connects the two even if there is resistance from either the adoptive or biological side. Our very existence means that they too are, in a sense, a part of the greater whole of our entire family. This is why it is important for everyone to know their stories, especially adoptees, and to share them with others. The adoptee is the one piece of the puzzle that allows everyone to see the whole picture.”
From personal experience, I can testify that wonderful things happen when the triad is integrated and more communication is facilitated between all parties involved. Having a triad relationship, however, is even more special. By the time I was 20, I had connected with most of my birth family (while, as is quite frequent in reunion, not all connections were positive). However, one special relationship that I developed was with my aunt (biological mother’s sister). Surprisingly, as we got to know each other better, we had a lot of things in common; we both love true crime, cooking, and Def Leppard. Having this connection with her turned my experience in the triad from one of confusion to one of absolute joy.
Where Do We Go from Here?
As wonderful as it sounds, integrating the triad into your life is not something that can happen instantly. It will take efforts from the entire triad and their support systems. As Mary E. Pearson said, “Change doesn’t happen overnight—it’s molded by people who don’t give up.”
If you are unsure of how you might do this, here are some suggestions:
Consider an open adoption.
Be open with children about their biological family. In this, consider their age and the background of the biological family.
Do not let secrecy be a part of the adoption experience in any part of the triad.
Respect all roles in the triad, keeping an open mind to an adoptee, a biological parent, and adoptive parent’s perspective.
In conclusion, we are all a part of a flawed system. We are a product of a system that was created with secrecy in mind that took priority over good intent. We have perpetuated the stereotypes of our ancestors, allowing trauma to be passed down generationally rather than embracing the flaws of the past and using them to change the present. I challenge you, reader, to break the cycle. Whether you are an adoptive parent, biological parent, or an adoptee, you have the power to help integrate the triad. Together, we can make life a little better for everyone in the triad, creating a more diverse and unified adoption community.
Are you ready to join me in making a change?
Ge, X., Natsuaki, M. N., Martin, D. M., Leve, L. D., Neiderhiser, J. M., Shaw, D. S., … & Reiss, D. (2008). Bridging the divide: openness in adoption and postadoption psychosocial adjustment among birth and adoptive parents. Journal of Family Psychology, 22(4), 529.
Samuels, E. J. (2013). Surrender and subordination: Birth mothers and adoption law reform. Mich. J. Gender & L., 20, 33.
Walkner, A. J., & Rueter, M. A. (2014). Adoption status and family relationships during the transition to young adulthood. Journal of Family Psychology, 28(6), 877.