Earlier this month, the Huffington Post ran a piece entitled "The 'Real Parents' Question to Stop Asking Adopted Kids." Written by a young adoptee named Marianna, the article expresses the author's frustration at being asked who her "real parents" are. She touchingly relays how much she loves her adoptive family and how little interest she has in the circumstances of her birth. The article has generated a great deal of interest and spawned over 100 on-line comments, some praising her view that her adoptive family is all she needs, and some challenging her assumptions.
Marianna has stirred up some debate with these assertions. "I don’t think adopted kids should seek out their birth parents. It’s selfish. It’s rude. You’re gonna break her heart just because you are curious? It would not only break my REAL parents’ hearts, but who knows what kind of life she has gone on to lead?" And then later, Marianna says this: ..."there’s my birthmom, but I don’t ever care or think about her. She did a very selfless thing to give me up, so why would I want to bug her? That’s incredibly selfish of me."
As an older adoptee, I have compassion and understanding for Marianna's views. As one adoptee said in the on-line comments: "The author of this article sounds very much like me, and many other adoptees at that age. We are very concerned about loyalty to our adoptive parents, even at the expense of our own feelings, which we have buried so deeply. I said the very same things at that age...but at 44...I now know my natural family."
I too was most concerned about the feelings of my adoptive parents at Marianna's age. That's not to say that Marianna will surely change her thinking at some point. Many, many grown adoptees search for their origins -- a quick internet search will attest to that fact. Other adoptees have no interest in searching out their roots, and that too is fine. It is extremely divisive, however, to pit one group of adoptees against another, and to suggest that one approach is wrong, and one is right. In adoption, no one approach is right for everybody, and such disagreements detract from the very real and important work that needs to be done to reform adoption practice so that it truly serves the best interests of children.
The view of adoptees about adoption often changes over time. The young adoptee who says she has no interest in her original mother and father today often changes her mind when she has children of her own. Genetic connections do matter for many people, and the world of adoption is not exempt from this basic truth.
Some adoptees are still conditioned by the culture in which they live to accept the thinking that their roots are none of their business. They have been told that searching for their original parents is intrusive and unnecessary. The sealed record system reinforces such thinking, and some adoptive parents, who want to believe with all their hearts that they are the only mother and father, welcome such thinking.
Therefore, for some, it is hard to accept the fact that our original identity is a basic human right. While original parents have a right to privacy from friends and neighbors, they do not have the legal right to lifetime anonymity from the child upon whom they have imprinted their DNA, particularly when that child becomes an adult capable of independent thought and critical analysis.
The issue of adult adoptee rights is not about whether adoptees should search or not or who the "real parents" are: it is about treating an entire class of people as adults differently than we treat everyone else. While every other citizen can apply for and secure her original birth certificate for a nominal fee, adult adoptees in most states are unable to secure theirs because the documents have been "sealed" -- that is placed in a government file -- when adoptions have been finalized.
Some adoptees, like Marianna and my adoptive brother, have no desire to search. Some want their original birth certificate simply because it belongs to them and was sealed from them by other parties without their input and for their own interests. That certificate that I cannot access records my birth and is a glimpse into my personal history. My original mother doesn't own me, nor does my adoptive mother own me. I am my own person, and shouldn't I be, at the age of 62?
Some people very effectively use denial to cope with their life experience; others do not and are compelled to confront their life stories for their own well-being. The sealed record system is unjust because it forces everyone impacted to use the coping mechanism of denial, and for many people, denial techniques just don't work.
The fact is that every adoptee has two sets of parents, the original set who gave her life and her genetic traits, and the nurturing set, who are hopefully raising her to become an autonomous and free-thinking adult. As Lesli Johnson, an adoptee and marriage and family therapist specializing in adoption-related issues, states: "The adoptee's desire to search is not a rejection of the adoptive parents. Part of knowing who you are is knowing where you came from. Search is about the adoptee's history and histories have a beginning. For adoptees, their beginning started before they joined their adoptive family."
Several grown adoptees echo Johnson's words in their responses to Marianna's article: "Perhaps it is my age ('somewhere between 40 and death'), or that I had the 'real' mother / 'real' family question longer than I have had speech, but the decision to seek one's genetic relatives is not only an adopted person's desire. Relatedness and connectivity is human. People spend decades making family trees to pass along through generations. ... Adoption is not about ownership; it is to shepherd and coach, to love, nurture and guide, and support and eventually, release - major ingredients for any good parenting effort."
Then there is this thoughtful response: "I'll never tell another adoptee she's wrong for feeling the way she feels about her life and experience, but I expect the same from her. There's nothing selfish or rude about wanting to know who you are. Ancestry.com is a multi-billion dollar business for a reason. People spend decades tracing their bloodlines back centuries, building family trees, etc. Genealogy is the most popular hobby on the planet. No one ever asks non-adoptees why they consider their heritage worth documenting. When it's adoptees, though, it's, "Why do you need to know about your family history?"
As this commenter goes on to explain: "Every adopted child has two families: A biological family and an adoptive family. That anyone ever questions whether or not both families should be important to us is perplexing to me. Should we pretend that the people who made us don't exist?"
Not only adoptees reacted to Marianna's article. Original mothers also responded to her feeling that adoptees who search are causing unnecessary trouble. Marianna says of her birth mother, "She did a very selfless thing to give me up, so why would I want to bug her? That's incredibly selfish of me."
Here's one response: "As a birth mother I find this sentence a little annoying. ...I am interested in my son's happiness, and I wouldn't think it selfish for him to seek me out. ... I did give my son up for adoption because I love him and my circumstances were dire at the time of his birth. I don't regret my choice, but I'm deeply interested in his well being."
This viewpoint is not an aberration. The data from the countries and the states that have restored adult adoptee access to original birth certificates supports the fact that the vast majority of relinquishing mothers want to know how their offspring are faring or have fared. Marianna's assumption that she would be journeying into territory where she is not wanted is not necessarily true.
In reality, the searching adoptee has no idea of what she might find, and again that's not the point. Some adoptees wish to search; some don't. In adoption, as in life, there is no "right" path to peace for all. That is why we must respect the rights of grown adoptees to direct their own journeys, and not assume that their intent or the results will be harmful. The door to love, understanding and closure is a door that should always be left open.
Adult adoptee rights is about giving full-grown human beings the right to their own birth records and the right to pursue their peace on their own terms. Not every story has a happy ending, but everyone should have the right to secure the truth about her ancestry and her own life story if she so desires. As an older adoptee, I long for the day when we will no longer have debates about who the "real" parents are. Both sets of parents are very real, and arguments about which is more important are counter-productive. The relationship between a relinquishing parent and her child, now grown, is intensely personal, and the two parties should be free to handle that intensely personal business on their own, without agency or government interference.
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