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Monday, June 3, 2013

The Right to Know -- Perspectives of an Adult Adoptee

                          The impact of genes -- my grandson looks just like his dad!

Recently, Deanna Shrodes on her website Adoptee Restoration interviewed therapist Karen Caffrey, LPC, JD, about the inner struggles many adopted adults have experienced. Caffrey specializes in working with adopted people, and her insights certainly resonate with me, an older adoptee who was relinquished over 60 years ago.

Caffrey says: "The longer ago the adoption took place the more likely the adoption was closed ..., and taking place in a culture when harmful adoption myths were even more prevalent than they are today. Thus most adult adoptees have grown up in a situation where one of their most important human needs, that being the need to know their origins, has been unmet. Basic, factual information is typically missing. (viz. - What is my nationality? What do my blood relatives look like? Where are they? Why am I not being raised by them? ) Even more damaging is that an adoptee’s natural need to ask questions about herself was often responded to by her adoptive parents (and others) with shaming, fear, hurt, judgment or unreality."

My personal experience reflects Caffrey's thoughts. I must have been about seven or eight years old when I asked my adoptive mother where "my real mother was."

Obviously, I didn't have the sophistication then to ask my questions in a politically sensitive tone! I just wanted to know where my first mother was and why she felt unable to keep me. My mother in her response was uncomfortable and evasive, and later that night my father came to me and said, "You know -- that really hurts your mother when you ask where your other mother is. She thinks of herself as "your real mother."

I must have internalized that lesson in a powerful way, because I never asked my adoptive parents -- who did love me, I know -- about my original family again. I didn't know exactly why, but that territory, evidently, was a place where I wasn't supposed to go.

Caffrey says that "adopted children tend to draw all sorts of mistaken conclusions" from such exchanges, such as:

“I am bad.”
“I shouldn’t ask questions.”
“I make people sad or angry when I ask questions.”
“There’s something wrong with me.”
“What I think I need isn’t important.”
“What I need is wrong.”
“My feelings don’t make sense.”

I don't blame my adoptive parents for their inability to delve deeper into adoption issues, because the "professionals" of their era counseled them that an adoptive family is just like any other, and that infants come to the parents as "blank slates."

But what I learned from the closed adoption system is just what Caffrey articulated. I learned that I shouldn't ask questions because I make people uncomfortable and sad when I do. I learned that what I think I need is apparently unimportant and upsetting to others, so there must be something wrong with me. And probably most important, I learned that my innermost feelings don't make sense in this world of adoption, so I better keep them to myself.

Unfortunately, it took me years and several bouts of depression to recognize that there was nothing wrong with my questions or my feelings -- the problem, rather, lies in the adoption system itself, a system that is still predicated. unbelievably, on amended and legally sealed birth records.

As Caffrey relates, it takes many adopted people a long time to recognize that their struggles may be adoption-related, because "simply put, they've been explicitly or implicitly told that being adopted did not impact them."

When I was growing up, no one ever talked about adoption at all. It wasn't supposed to be an issue, so it wasn't. I was always encouraged to "look forwards, not backwards." When I became a teenager, I started to experience periods of unexplained sadness, but I didn't attribute them to adoption -- I just concluded that I must be hyper-sensitive and not quite normal.

I "succeeded" in spite of these feelings. I married a man who I treasure just as much today as I did on our wedding day in 1971. We have two wonderful daughters -- they, their husbands, and their children are the light of our lives. I have had meaningful employment in the teaching and writing fields, and today, I enjoy watching three of my grandchildren two days a week.

     Genetic links -- this granddaughter looks like her paternal Lithuanian grandmother

But the fact that I am a content person today, blessed in many ways, does not mean that the institution of adoption is wonderful just the way it is. It took me far too long to become comfortable with myself and my own feelings because of a closed adoption system that denied the importance of genetic links.

I didn't reach out to my first mother until I was 52 years old and had already experienced a serious and life-threatening medical problem. Searching presented so many obstacles, and I was discouraged by legal and cultural barriers at every turn.  I would not have had the confidence to do it when I was younger.

I find it beyond belief that even today, people feel compelled to comment in response to adoption articles that "genes don't matter -- your 'real family' are the people who raise you.

Of course genes matter! If they don't, why does every physician I see ask me for a detailed family health history? Why does my younger daughter have the same skeletal and muscular structure as I do and unfortunately have a tendency, like me, to experience chronic back pain?

My younger daughter looks a lot like me; my older daughter resembles my husband and shares many of his character traits. Three of my grandchildren look just like their fathers; one looks like her paternal grandmother, and two look like their mothers. Only in the world of adoption, apparently, do "genes not matter."

    Genevieve, the granddaughter standing in front of me on the right, looks a lot like me!

I always feel compelled to add the information here -- since many people, unfortunately, equate criticism of adoption with an unhappy adoptive family -- that my adoptive parents were loving and responsible people.  No one during the era in which I was relinquished was well equipped to deal with adoption realities because the "professionals" then were simply misguided or just didn't know any better.

But today, there is no excuse for continuing the practice of amended and sealed birth certificates, and for denying full-grown adults access to their original birth certificates.  It is such an archaic and unjust system that it is amazing it continues to have its proponents.  Any institution that is predicated upon secrets and lies is not a healthy institution.  Some will argue that most adoptions are open today, so the problem has been solved.  But adult adoptees' original birth certificates remain sealed in state vaults throughout most of the United States.  Adopted adults continue to have to take all kinds of circuitous routes to obtain even the most basic information about themselves.

There are many reasons why more people don't speak out about the need for equal treatment under the law for adult adoptees.  As I explained, it took me over 50 years to develop the confidence to seek what I wanted, because of the cultural and legal barriers that remain a part of adoption in the United States today.   The laws that govern adoption need a major overhaul, and truth and justice are always values worth fighting for, especially in the complex and emotional world of adoption.

You might also like:

Ask A Therapist: What Are the Greatest Struggles of Adoptees?

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

An adoptee's perspective on love and why truth matters

Sealed Records are Wrong.  Period


  1. DNA matters. Genetic connections matter. Our stories, our truth, our heritage--it all matters. is a multi billion dollar business for a reason.

    I like to imagine those who claim blood doesn't matter giving birth--and then when leaving the maternity ward to go home, being handed some random baby. And being told by hospital staff, "Oh, we don't keep track of what baby goes with what mother. Remember what you told that adoptee? Genetics don't count--this baby will do just fine. Look, it kinda looks like you if you squint a little!"

    Claiming there's nothing special or vital about biology is ridiculous. Not to mention rude and dismissive.

  2. DNA is THE basis for life on earth. THE. basis.

    People who deny this unconditional scientific fact are profoundly disturbed, or profoundly ignorant, in that part of their life.

    If someone wants to live like that, fine by me. But they need to understand that they have no right to attempt to make other people live in their alternative reality.

    Another individual's intellectual and emotional constructs have no place in MY life.

  3. What a wonderfully crafted post...thank you so much for writing it. I found my first mother at 28 and kept my relationship with her a secret for years. What I had anticipated came to aparents found out. My afather screamed and badgered my husband about it for years, never speaking directly to me. After a few years the stress became to great for me and I abandoned the relationship with my first mother and have lived with that shame ever's a battle sometimes we adopted people just have not chance of winning.

    But this year something changed in me...I contacted my father...had known is name for 20 years but was too afraid to repeat what happened. My dad is one of the greatest people I know and he and his family have accepted me 100 percent as a part of that family. After a year and a lot of therapy I have reached out to my mother again...I am not sure what will happen.

    As for my adoptive parents, I would be lying if I said I don't carry resentment. They were not horrible parents but not good ones either. I always felt like a stranger in their house. It is a relief to meet my dad and his family...I look like my dad and have so many physical and personality traits he is the best feeling in the world, but I remain adopted and have to accept that NEVER ends.

  4. I would have abandoned the abusive one, and not the object of her hate.

  5. Great post. I relate so much to your experience of growing up feeling stifled and unable to ask your parents about your origins, but as you wrote, they were just doing what they were told was best:

    I don't blame my adoptive parents for their inability to delve deeper into adoption issues, because the "professionals" of their era counseled them that an adoptive family is just like any other, and that infants come to the parents as "blank slates."

  6. I have a 6x8 photograph of my daughter as a 16-year-old underneath an 8x10 photograph of my mother as a woman in her 20s. A friend glanced at them quickly and for a second thought--why does Jane (my daughter) have her hair fixed like that?

    DNA will out. Its the only that about adoption that we can be absolutely sure of.

  7. Great post, mom! I remember you once saying the thing you were proudest of as a mother was that you "always told us (Kate and me) the truth." You did, and it has made a big difference! You were also a wonderful mom in lots of other ways. -Jenn (Grace would like you to know that she is here reading/looking at pictures too)

  8. Well done, Susan, as always. Who can argue with your logic and just common sense! If only everyone agreed with us...ha!
    The time for change has arrived and it will happen. Keep writing!

  9. Great post, Susan! I'm glad my words spoke to you. "Looking forward" because so many adoptions have openness in them today is fine, but that does nothing for the millions of adoptees(literally) who have been deprived of a part of their history. Kudos to you for speaking out!

  10. great post and even though there are open adoptions doesn't help things my adoption was closed I was an adoptee with a closed adoption people want to forget about the suffering of what I had to go through living a life of a closed adoption so people say who care there was closed adoption now there open so that makes it better I don't think so to me adoption closed or open is bad for kids I lived a life of lonlessness isolation nobdy to talk to or relate to and I didn't even know why I was treated so badly and nobdy cared and no support from anybody while all the nona doptee had people to realte to and talk to adoption is not a good thing for adoptees why do non adoptee get treated better than adoptees why

  11. Good Evening,

    I just published a book, Searching for the Castle: Backtrail of An Adoption, that is a short and suspenseful narrative about my adoption search. The basic message is that adoptees have the right to know their roots, and I hope by telling my story to support other adult adoptees who search and to inspire legal changes to protect the rights of adoptees.

    The book is on Amazon and on in kindle and hard copy. Please help me get the word out!


    Barbara Ohrstrom


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