Facing Our Fears
in Search and Reunion

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC

     In spite of all the information and media attention given in recent years to adoption search and reunion, to opening records and growing acceptance of open adoptions, the general public and even adoption triad members often express great anxiety and resistance toward searching and toward reunion.
     Sometimes the media helps reinforce this fear and anxiety, through presentations of reunions gone wrong, through interviews with a few birth mothers, carefully selected by a particular lobbying group opposed to open records, who express their terror of being “found,” through statements by well-known adoptive parents about being their sons’ and daughters’ “real” parents and how upset they would be if those sons and daughters sought reunion with birth parents, and through (again, carefully selected) reports of birth parents who are immature, irresponsible, and/or chemically addicted. These various negative portrayals are far more apt to be remembered by the public than stories of healthy open adoptions, of positive reunions, and of adoptive parents who support and encourage reunion.
     There are certain anxieties and fears that are probably normal and to be expected in a cultural setting where closed adoptions and closed records have been the norm for a few generations. The most commonly expressed fear of adoptive parents is, “If he/she finds the birth parents, we will no longer be close—he/she will prefer the birth parents, after all we’ve done to raise him/her.” The fear of losing the “close” relationship with the adoptee may mean they are afraid they’re not genuinely close, that the adoptee is only seeming to be close because they have no alternative, and given a choice, would prefer the birth parent(s) to the exclusion of the adoptive parents. Further underneath that fear is a fear that the adoptive parents are not the “real” parents, but are imposters or that they have not done “a good enough job” as adoptive parents. Many were told at the time of the adoption that they could act as if they were the same as biological parents and all would be well, that they would have complete control over how the child turned out, that no one in the form of biological parents would ever show up to question them, and that if, indeed, they were good enough, the child would never want to search, even as an adult.
     If a parent is told that for twenty or thirty years, it’s a difficult adjustment to face the prospect of birth parents coming back into everyone’s lives. Further, adoptive parents, in the past, usually had either no information about birth parents, or negative information, which may or may not have been accurate. In the case of no information, fears and imagination frequently combined to produce a fantasy of the dreadful birth parents who might snatch the child (anytime from birth to age 50), who were possibly either criminals, prostitutes, physically or mentally defective, or entirely uncaring. Presumably, these uncaring people would snatch the child in order to do harm to the adoptee and/or the adoptive parents. Given such negative information and fantasies, it would be easy for adoptive parents to see themselves as the rescuers of this child. To have to confront a very different reality, that the birth parents are respectable, educated, normal, loving, caring, probably middle-aged people by the time the adoptee searches, is not easy if one has spent all those years living with a belief that they and only they love this adoptee. Adoptive parents’ fears are normal, even if not based on truth!
     Adoptees may have been given this same scenario of the “terrible” birth parents, or told that their birth parents did not want them, or that they died. All of these possibilities would contribute to feelings of abandonment and fears that they themselves are somehow defective, and “owe” their loyalty to the adoptive parents who rescued them from a terrible life. It also fosters fears that if they (adoptees) are not perfect, they will be abandoned by the adoptive parents and possibly by society as well. All of these fears will contribute to adoptees’ hesitation to search, or if found by birth parents, to enter into a reunion relationship with them.
     As for birth parents, the much-touted fears of being “found out” are generally much less than the fear that the adoptee and/or the adoptive parents will disapprove of them, that the adoptee is forever enraged at them for the relinquishment (or possibly the conception!), and that they will never be considered “good enough” to be acknowledged as parents. In some cases, a birth mother may not have ever told her spouse or other offspring about the relinquished one, and fears their disapproval and anger, either for relinquishing or for conceiving a child in the first place. Birth fathers, although frequently regarded as uncaring, may not have even known about the child, or if they did, may not have been allowed any further information or contact. Many have carried the same fears and grief as birth mothers for years. Both birth mothers and birth fathers may have continued to experience active disapproval from their own parents. In more than a few cases, a birth parent’s reluctance to fully engage in a reunion is based on the continued fear of parental disapproval, and some are even taking care of those now elderly birth grandparents at the time of search and possible reunion. This adds fear, guilt, and shame about upsetting them.
     In the past, adoption agencies held a lot of power, deciding who could adopt and who couldn’t, who placed and when, and what information was given to all parties concerned. Such power led some agencies and some individuals to think they had the permanent right to withhold information and deny access to contact, even between adults who wanted to find each other. It also led to lots of half-truths, untruths, and all kinds of deception. Many adoptive parents were given false information, some of it positive, some of it negative, most of it irrelevant but still false. Originally, agencies convinced themselves they were doing this to protect the child, who would be given a new start, with the prevailing theory being that babies were blank slates and could develop whatever personalities and abilities the adoptive parents chose for them. This was thought to be in the child’s best interests, since it would protect them from the bad life they were certain to have had with their birth parents. The fact that many of these same agencies also refused to place babies until they were several months old, pending “testing,” would seem to contradict that idea, since they were acquiring habits and knowledge during those early months. We knew little about bonding and attachment in those days, to be fair. Also, many children were removed from their birth homes and placed at age two or three years of age or more, and the adoptive parents were still encouraged to change the child’s given name, and behave as if the child had no prior history. The only other cultural incidence on a large scale of changing names and identities and denying people their history and connections is slavery.
     Agencies also convinced themselves they were protecting the birth mothers, who they were sure would want no one ever to find out they had relinquished a child, and so birth mothers were told to use false names while at “homes for unwed mothers,” to have no further contact with anyone they met there, and they were given general anesthetics during labor, often not told even the sex of their babies, let alone allowed to see them, and even told they would forget any of it ever happened, yet also told they were forever marked by this terrible thing they had done (getting pregnant). In some cases, they were given false information about their children, or about the adoptive parents, but in more cases, they just weren’t given any information at all. Some were told the baby died. It’s hard to believe that agencies really thought this kind of treatment was in the birth mothers’ best interests, but some would defend those policies even now.
     One must remember, to put these policies in perspective, that, until thirty years ago, it was against the law for a pharmacist to give a patient the information flyer that went with their prescription drug, and the name of the drug was not supposed to be on the label. Many doctors opposed changing these laws, stating that, if the patient knew about side effects, they would just get them, and if they knew the name of the drug, or even their exact diagnosis, it would be dangerous for them. It was this kind of paternalistic mind-set that had prevailed for a long time.
     While times have changed, there are still agencies which would prefer to do closed adoptions, and many which have changed policies only to stay in business. Some now purport to do open adoptions, but still want to be power brokers. To do this, they may still prey on the fears of adoptive parents, particularly, by insisting that birth parents know only first names, no addresses or telephone numbers, that birth parents and prospective adoptive parents should never meet in person, or that all contact takes place at and through the agency, even years down the road. This reinforces the adoptive parents’ fears that the birth parents are dangerous, will snatch the child, rob the adoptive parents or do harm to them, or at the least are such a bad influence on the child that access must be restricted or denied. They may be told to change to an unlisted telephone number as soon as they get the child, lest a birth parent find out where they are. These fears are necessarily transmitted to the child. “What is so wrong with my birth parents that I can’t see them? Is something wrong with me, too, since I came from them?” are frequent thoughts of young adoptees, whether they express those thoughts or not. These are not open adoptions; they are just not entirely closed. Such policies assume that neither birth parents nor adoptive parents are capable of developing healthy relationships among themselves as extended family and therefore they must be protected from each other by the all-knowing agency.
     While we cannot change what agencies or individuals did in the past, we can acknowledge that such policies were wrong. Agencies can confront their own fears by giving requested information to searching triad members; by encouraging truly open, fully disclosed adoptions; and by being in the forefront to open adoption records. Agencies ought to be the most outspoken advocates of open records, because they would no longer have to worry about whether to disclose information or not. If they had been giving out correct information all along, they’d have nothing to hide from adoptive parents, birth parents, or adoptees. While we cannot hold agencies responsible for past policies, we can certainly expect them to change those policies. If any agency is still giving out false information, or withholding information, we can certainly hold them responsible for that. This is not to say that every adoption must always be completely open, or that no one ever needs protection from some parent or other person; there will always be circumstances where discretion and protection are necessary. But we must be clear about the reasons for that, and agencies must not be allowed to lie.
     When adoptive parents find themselves fearful of a reunion, they must ask themselves what their real fears are, and if they are rational. Are they afraid of the adoptees’ rejection, of bodily or psychological harm to themselves or to the adoptees on the part of birth parents, or are they fearful of giving up a fantasy of being the only parents, or of incapable, uncaring or defective birth parents? How much anger is mixed in with the fears, how much feeling that the child was some kind of “investment” for which they are entitled to the return of constant and eternal gratitude? When adoptive parents face these fears, it becomes easier to welcome the opportunity for a wonderful relationship with birth parents and a more open, unconditional relationship with their son or daughter.
     When birth parents face their own fears about reunion, they are also freed to enter into a healthier relationship with themselves as well as with their relinquished offspring, the adoptive parents, and other family members. Even if the birth parent is the one searching, rather than the one found, there are fears of disapproval and rejection, fears of not being able to accept or love the offspring they find, and fears that something is wrong with their child or that he/she may be deceased. It takes a certain amount of self-esteem and self-acceptance to search. While birth mothers have at least known of the child’s existence all those years (some birth fathers have not), they still have many unknowns to confront. They, too, must give up whatever fantasies they have had about both the son or daughter and about the adoptive parents. They may have to tell a spouse, other offspring, and other family members and friends about the relinquishment. In most cases, this will result in more support than they expected, and less disapproval, but the risk is there, and exactly who is supportive or who is not is unpredictable. They have to own their past decisions, even if they were coerced into them, but then they can stop hiding and worrying about who knows or doesn’t.
     The adoptee must also face his/her fears about reunion. Some of the fears may be based on information they’ve been given or attitudes conveyed by others, but there are also fears about being accepted, about finding a birth parent deceased, about adoptive parents’ disapproval or jealousy, and about giving up their own fantasies about birth-parents. If the birth parent searches for them, they may not have allowed themselves to even think about these fears previously. Some adoptive parents encourage their sons and daughters to search, or to respond if a birth parent searches, but adoptees don’t always allow themselves to be open to those possibilities. It isn’t just adoptive parents that may convey a message of “Meeting birth parents means disloyalty to adoptive parents”; society conveys that message. Adoptees will need to face their fears of disapproval and disappointment in order to be free to have their own truly honest relationships with both adoptive and birth families. Of the many possible rewards of reunion for adoptees, the most important may be the satisfaction of knowing, at last, who they really are, and who all of their parents are.

Excerpted from the July 2006 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2006 Operation Identity