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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Can we please stop the "real parents" adoption debates?

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. 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.

You might also like:

Are Adult Adoptees Worthy of Respect?

What drives the myth of confidentiality in adoption?

Adoption and Magical Thinking

Why do State Bar Associations Oppose Adoptee Rights?


  1. I think many people at that age do not understand the full scope of what adoption means in their lives. Growing up adopted, the loss of genetic connections is the norm. Many don't quite understand that they carry the genes of people who came before them in history and how important ancestry and especially (as you found out) one's medical history is.

    I think they should also do a counterpoint with someone older who holds an an opposing view. Also, because of sealed records, searching seems like it is illegal or at least immoral when it is the LAW telling you that you cannot have this information. When you combine that with what you are told by your APs (we're your 'REAL' parents), it can be very hard to get out from under that mindset.

    I also hear fear in Marianna's words. Not just fear of hurting her APs but fear of abandonment by them and/or rejection from her first parents.

    It wouldn't surprise me in the least if one day she eats her words.

    Great post as always, Susan.

    1. The counterpoint is a great idea! And this sentence is so great, Robin. "Also, because of sealed records, searching seems like it is illegal or at least immoral when it is the LAW telling you that you cannot have this information. When you combine that with what you are told by your APs (we're your REAL parents), it can be very hard to get out from under that mindset." Isn't that the truth? That's why we have to change the archaic law. Always appreciate your comments.

  2. I can't tell you how hurtful, now disheartening and numb it makes one feel to hear people say they think so little of the woman and family who lose and have suffered so while others gain from that suffering and loss. This has happened to me personally; being treated as nothing more than a broodmare, incubator for my son's "perfect wonderful" adopters. They are far from perfect. Selfish liars are more like it. I am no incubator. I am a mother who made a detrimental mistake that altered the course of my life.

    Before the adoption, women are so wonderful, so selfless and worthy of so much respect and admiration. After the adoption, she is demonized and degraded to the point where she is not even spoken of as a human being. Some of those comments I have read on Yahoo in regards to mothers and their children being reunited are absolutely astounding. The coldness, the hatefulness and entitlement is just sickening.

    1. it sounds like we had similar experiences.. hang in there. <3

      I hate reading posts that imply we are unworthy too. it cuts me so deeply..

  3. There is still so much ignorance about the complexities of adoption, the real human beings involved, and the way that some adoption facilitators mislead people -- I am so sorry you have been treated this way. Sealed records have caused so much damage and continue to do so. I'm just glad that more and more people are speaking out and that the internet is amplifying their voices.

  4. Whose to say if this girl Marianna is even real. That series was started by an adoptive mother and I find it bias. But if she is a real adoptee, who knows what she was told about her real mother by the adoptive parents. I think there are many out there that tell adoptees outright lies to scare them into never wanting to search or to make them like them better. I also think it is up to the adoptee TO DECIDE who are the real parents. Me, personally, I always knew that the people who conceived me ARE my real parents. Because what IS a parent? What has a parent been since the beginning of time? A parent is someone who lets you know who else you are related to along with being responsible for your birth. And adoptive parents can DO NEITHER.

  5. I didn't post this on the article itself because so many HuffPo commenters are completely and utterly psycho, but I hear more than fear in Marianna's voice. I hear racism and self-loathing. I think she's really, REALLY invested in being a little suburban white girl (this piece ran in a Chicago paper back in November, and I was shocked to learn that Marianna, who goes to great effort to come across like a 14 year old Valley Girl, is actually a 20-something adult)--and I doubt she can even stand to think about her original family in Chile. I think the idea of coming face to face with who she really is is more than she can take.

  6. Yes, and what is sad is that what Marianna says is what many adoptive parents want to hear. There is still so much denial at work in so many aspects of adoption.

  7. To my son's adoptive family I ceased to exist the day he was adopted and they have punished him for his relationship with me.

    I have a wonderful relationship with him, his wife and kids much to the chagrin of his adoptive family! We talk almost ever day. He "found" me when he was 23 but deferred because of his adoptive father. When his father passed, my son pursued finding me and we connected 17 years later.

    I know we are one of the lucky reunions. Of course, there have been ups and downs but let me be clear the issues have been ONLY because of his adoptive family. I am sorely disappointed in them as human beings. They are the losers as I came into this with an open mind and heart.

    1. I think part of the trouble is that some adoptive parents have been prepared so poorly for the lifetime realities of adoption. From what I have seen, the attorneys who facilitate adoptions go out of their way to assure adoptive parents that the original parents won't be a "problem." The whole mindset needs to change, and I think in many circles it is changing. But it is an uphill battle because there is money in adoption, and the enterprise is very loosely regulated. Glad you have reconnected with your son, and sorry that his adoptive family can't see that as an asset rather than a threat.

  8. Thanks for commenting, freeborn! I hope that more and more people affected by adoption will join the on-line chorus, and that we can get these archaic laws changed during my lifetime!

  9. Thanks for writing this, Susan P!

    I am very concerned about the sheer ignorance of the general public. It is as if we - the adoption reform movement - have not been heard - ever! All the hard work since the 70s and before that, Jean Paton and Orphan Voyage since 1953. Why are not the major books of the movement made mandatory reading by people who want to adopt?

    The same arguments over and over again. "Who are your real parents?"

    "Well, I'm sorry that YOU are confused! I'm not! I have two mothers and two fathers and YOU can't accept the facts. Your lack of understanding adoption is not my problem. Just don't let your uniformed opinions prevent me from: having a relationship with my natural mother and father if we agree to it, and, obtaining a certified copy of my true birth certificate. Since my sealed birth certificate states the facts of my birth, perhaps that is the key for YOU to understand: one sperm meets one egg and the MOTHER gestates the pregnancy leading to the birth of HER baby. What grade did we learn basic biology? 3rd grade? What part of reality do you not understand?"

    Sorry Susan. Obviously I'm talking to the people who dictate over our rights.

  10. As the adoptive mother of five now-adult daughters, I think the most important part of what you have to say is that things change. Opinions change. Life changes. And in adoption, that cuts in every direction. My daughter's bio parents had their rights terminated, all for very good reasons. But by age 21, every one of the kids were in contact with their bio-natural-real-call it what you will families. None of the reunions were static and my daughters' opinions have shifted from "Get out of my Life" to sympathy to anger to "I don't care to be around you" to empathy. I wouldn't hold Marianna to how she feels today. As has already been pointed out, having children may change her feelings. Just getting older may change her feelings--it's shocking to me that I am just now (I'm in my sixties) getting into that "old lady" hobby of geneology.

    The real point, of course, is that as our feelings change, we need to have the freedom to find out our relationships, something closed adoption records impede without good cause.

  11. Thanks for commenting, Julie. I hope that as an adoptive mother, you will share your eloquent voice with the power brokers in adoption who work so hard to keep adoptees' birth records sealed. Adults must be free to navigate their own relationships. Such a simple concept, yet fighting for adult adoptee access on the legislative level is like fighting World War III.

  12. Great post, because it touches upon the issue that keeps original birth records sealed: the sense that adopted cannot search without hurting their other parents, the ones who raised them. If there was a way to stamp out this idea in our culture I would do it! But because adoptees feel--I don't know what word to use here, the one that comes to mind is "squashed" mentally when they think about their natural parents--er, intimidated for lots of reasons, our push for reform to give all people the right to know who they are remains stymied. Articles such as the one that Marianna wrote keep the adopted in the mental chains of adoption.

    Keep on truckin', lady, you've got a lot to say that needs to be heard.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Lorraine! I would feel better if I could get more of my writing into the mainstream press, but as you know, placing stories about the complexities of adoption is extremely difficult. Thank goodness for blogging!

  13. Wonderful, valuable post. Thank you. The link reached me (an adoptive parent) via Adopted and Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora, Harlow's Monkey, Lisa Marie Rollins, and the Minnesota Adoption Resource Network. I of course shared the link on my FB page and a dear friend (and grandma like me) in North Dakota shared the link as well. Just wanted to let you know word is getting out lol. Again, thank you.

    1. Maureen, thanks for commenting -- and I'm so glad this post is making the rounds! I do what I can to get my posts out there, but I'm not very technologically proficient! The internet is a wonderful thing for the adoption reform movement.

  14. That article made me very sad for Marianne and for any other adoptee who is expected to rank their sets of (very real) parents. The split that the "who is real" question causes is tragic in its effect and in the fact that it's just plain unnecessary to ask.

    I guest posted an article around this topic a couple of months ago.

    "Neither answer is right or wrong. What’s wrong is asking the question in the first place. (Often, it’s not the parents asking; rather it’s society-at-large wanting a definitive answer to the age-old question of Nature vs Nurture)."

  15. Lori, thanks for commenting and for linking to your article. Loved what you said there, and hope many are open to hearing it.


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