Family Trees:
Where Do Adoptees Fit?

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC, LADAC

     Over the past year, I have been reading a lot about Scotland, the land where many of my ancestors lived. I have also read about England, Wales, Ireland, and Cornwall, where other ancestors came from, but it is the history of Scotland that has really fascinated me. I wonder, what were their stories, exactly where did they live? My eldest son, the one I relinquished at birth and with whom I am reunited, has also found Scotland to be the country to which he feels the strongest connection. I have given him some books and information. I remember that he once told me that when he was taking art courses in college, an instructor looked at a picture he had made, depicting a Celtic tribal connection, and said “But you should make something about your own tribe.”
     ”I don’t know my background,” he told her. “I’m adopted. I believe this is my background, though.”
     He was right, as it turns out, but as he told me, his face showed his pain at not knowing exactly who he was, where he came from, or who his real ancestors were. He rarely shows those feelings, but I am sad for him every time I think about it. It really is not sufficient for an adoptee simply to assume the adoptive family’s ancestry as his or her own, because it is not. To an adoptee, it feels counterfeit, because it is.
     In adoption circles, the issue of children being assigned the task of compiling family trees is often discussed. Adoptive parents are frustrated that teachers do not seem to understand that this is a difficult issue for adoptees, and they hurt for their adopted children in trying to complete such an assignment. Some teachers say, “Just do your adoptive family tree. It doesn’t matter.”
     Of course, it does matter. Some adoptees have information, sometimes even a lot of information, about their birth families, especially if they happen to be in an open, or even semi-closed, adoption. Sometimes they have information only on their birth mother’s side. Even if they have information, however, how do they integrate that, on paper, with their adoptive family’s information? They are, after all, also members of their adoptive family. There are some suggested formats for doing this, but schools rarely have access to such “unorthodox” formulas. Having “extra” families doesn’t seem to fit the mathematics of 1, 2, 4, 8, etc.
     Recently, I have been studying family trees on several branches of my own family. In addition to trying to fit together the stories I’ve been told, some letters I’ve been able to find, and the facts (and some errors) in print, I keep thinking, “Where are the rest of the stories? How many second marriages are simply not listed because it ’doesn’t look as tidy on the chart’ and how many children, relinquished and adopted, never get listed on anybody’s family tree?”
     I find it impossible to believe that, out of hundreds of relatives’ names I see written on these sheets of paper, I am the only one who ever relinquished a child. I do know of instances where someone adopted a child, and that child is not listed.
     ”Well, after all, he wasn’t a genetic relative,” is the answer I’ve received.
     That is as painful to me as the fact that my own eldest son is not listed on my family tree (which is going to be corrected soon). It is also painful that some people think that it looks better to have me listed as still married to my first husband, with no mention of his own previous marriage, let alone our divorce and my remarriage. If it were not for some of my ancestors’ listings of second marriages, I would be missing a great deal of my heritage. In some cases, people were named for step-grandparents.
     Sometimes, the missing information is important. For instance, the female ancestor whose last name I chose to take legally some 20 years ago, either had children at nine years of age, or there was a previous wife not mentioned. Are the grandsons who were named after her really hers biologically, or did people give that name out of love and a desire to be inclusive? I may never know.
     Adoption was not common, not even a legal situation in many colonies at that time. Further information states that one of my ancestors died and some of his children (including my next ancestor) were “bound out.” This was a common solution, economically and socially. As far removed as this is from me, it still hurts to think of that young boy, removed from his family.
     Then I thought, “but at least he still knew who his family was. He kept in contact. He kept his name.” In our closed adoption system, that has not been possible. My son grew up without this information, and only by someone’s oversight did he and his adoptive family know my last name at the time of his birth.
     I can only imagine what this was like for him at a deep, unconscious level. He states he had not had a desire to search up to the time I searched for and found him, but that he is glad I did find him, and he is happy to receive any information I have given him.
     I still keep thinking of the void that existed in his childhood, and continues to exist for many adoptees. It also exists for birth parents, who don’t know their children’s names or whereabouts. When I see that birth children are not listed on their birth families’ family trees, and adoptees (the same people!) may not be listed on their adoptive families’ family trees, I think, “So, it’s as if they don’t exist at all? How must that feel?”
     Once again, whom are we protecting by failing to record this information? In this day and age, so many people are doing family research on the Internet and in many other ways, and even going so far as to undergo DNA tests to determine their genetic backgrounds. Are adoptees not entitled to have the same interests and pursue them openly? Are birth parents still somehow expected to forget? Are adoptive families supposed to pretend that they gave birth, or that their adopted children somehow didn’t exist or don’t really count?
     Several years ago, I read (and reviewed for this newsletter) Jean Strauss’s book Beneath a Tall Tree, the story of her search for her birth family and her birth mother’s birth family, in which she suggests ways of incorporating all the information in written form, but more importantly, of incorporating all the knowledge into one’s full identity. In re-reading it now, I found the book still riveting, but it still makes me sad to think of all that was lost for so long, and joyous to read of her finding her birth mother, and even her birth grandmother, her birth mother’s birth mother.
     As I have been copying lists of ancestors, aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as letters back to 1858, property deeds, wills, and other written evidence, I am eager to share with all my offspring, and step-family, too. I want those connections. I want whatever stories I can find, and some that I can imagine from the clues I find. Some will be interested in this information, some will not, although their descendants might be. It is a privilege to have access to all of this, and itt is unconscionable to me that, just because a person is adopted, they might not have access to their own information.
     I note that previous to the earliest ancestor in each line, it may state “unknown.” I know that somebody knew, at the time that person was living. I don’t want to be listed as “unknown,” and I don’t want others listed as “unknown” if there is any way to find out. It is human nature to deplore “unknown ” about anything in life, and to seek to find.

Excerpted from the October 2008 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2008 Operation Identity