Making Sense of Our Information

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

     When adoptees and birth parents are searching for their families, they are often given “non-identifying information,” such as a birth parent’s ethnic background, profession, or age at the time of relinquishment, or the adoptee’s current occupation, color of eyes and hair, or adoptive parents’ occupations. While at first such information seems helpful as compared to having had absolutely no information for many years, it soon begins to seem like a cruel way to tantalize the searcher, because someone (the intermediary, the adoption agency, the clerk in the state office of vital statistics) has not only that information, but all the rest of the information the searcher wants. They have access to the identifying information and more, even though they are not personally involved, and the person searching for family does not have this access. For many, this is frustrating beyond description. Adoptees may begin to believe that the birth parents themselves have withheld information, when that is probably not the case. Birth parents may feel that the adoptive parents, or the adoptee, or the agency, are deliberately withholding information out of anger or blame. Again, that is not often the case, although a combination of state laws and agency policies may dictate withholding information. As some of us have found, even after reunion, some state offices and adoption agencies are still trying to withhold information or documents, even though the birth parent and relinquished offspring have discussed all the facts.
     In addition to having to process the “non-identifying information,” or non-information, one often does receive information that is either in conflict with what they had been told for many years, or information that is difficult to accept. If for all of your life you were told you were born in Ireland, for example, and then you learn you were born in Santa Fe, or you were told you were French and then you learn you are Native American, or African American and Asian, one’s self-concept and self-identity must necessarily change, and that takes time. Some adoptees simply go into some denial and refuse to accept the new information. Some who have not previously even known they were adopted may have a very difficult time absorbing the information that they are adopted, that they are not descended from whoever their adoptive parents are descended from, and that there is another family (or two) out there to which they are related.
     Birth parents, similarly, may have been told their child was adopted by married parents who were well-off, well-educated, or of a particular ethnic or religious background, only to find out upon searching that all or some of what they had been told was not true. Birth parents always hope their child has been well-treated and has been happy. To learn that their offspring has been abused is devastating. Many birth parents are outraged to learn that the adoptive parents later divorced, and their child has been raised by a single parent after all. Some of these things, of course, could not have been predicted or prevented, such as divorce, but other facts were deliberately misconstrued, withheld, or just plain lied about. Learning that an offspring has died, been injured, or is disabled may be almost more than a birth parent can absorb.
     Sometimes adoptees find that the birth parents subsequently married each other and had more children, meaning they have full siblings. This is upsetting to many adoptees, who have trouble making sense of why the parents relinquished one and not others, or why they did not marry prior to the adoptee’s birth and keep him/her. Sometimes those same birth parents who married each other later divorced, and the adoptee may believe it is either his/her fault they divorced (being unable to work through the relinquishment issue), or his/her fault they married in the first place, when they didn’t really belong together. In any case, this information usually is a great surprise to the adoptee, and takes a great deal of help to work through.
     In other instances, an adoptee learns (or supposes, in some cases) that their conception was not really the result of mutual love and compassion on the part of both parents. There are certainly conceptions resulting from stranger rape, from incest, and more often from what is now called date rape or acquaintance rape. It is difficult for many to go back in time and realize that this concept, or the concept of rape within marriage, is relatively recent. A hard-fought court case in Oregon in the 1970s finally established the legal reality of rape in marriage. Until then, the legal situation in many states was that a husband could demand any kind of sex any time under any circumstances and a wife had no recourse. Many people came into being in this manner, and most mothers never told the offspring, not wanting them to be upset. Many others were conceived through date rape, and the couple married and the woman never told anyone. Others did not marry and relinquished the child. In earlier times, and even until very recently, date rape was not thought of as rape, but as seduction or simply that a guy had the right to force a young woman to have sex if he did not injure her. “Conquest” was considered a necessary right of passage for many young men. It is difficult to remember this, or even to realize it, for many today. When an adoptee learns this about their birthparents’ relationship, they may wonder if they should feel shame about it, or if they are “the product of rape,” as some have said. Given that the concept of date rape was not around in the ’50s, ’60s, or even ’70s, it may not be fair to either birth parent to put that label on them. In any case, the behavior, the conception, was not about the person who was conceived. While it may help an adoptee feel compassion toward a birth mother, to see oneself as “the product of rape” is probably not at all helpful and is more probably a source of pain and shame, lowered self-esteem, and a barrier to any healthy reunion relationship with either birth mother or birth father.
     Some adoptees discover that their birth father was charged with statutory rape, in cases where the birth mother was quite young. This is a legal term, meaning that the birth mother was under that state’s minimum age for assumed consensual sex (15 or 16 in most states) and the birth father was over that age (usually 18). It does not usually mean that there was, in fact, a forcible rape. It usually means, particularly in past generations, that the two young people were engaged in an on-going relationship, of which the girl’s parents did not approve, and when she became pregnant, her parents sued the birth father, as much out of their own anger at both of them as out of any real sense that the daughter herself had been wronged. Again, it had nothing to do with the person who was conceived and subsequently relinquished. However, absorbing these facts and deciding how much of the information to internalize takes time and help. A support group and/or a competent therapist who understands adoption issues can be of enormous help.
     Adoptive parents have not been mentioned in this article up to now. They, too, have to make sense of the information they have been given. In many cases, especially in the past, this information was scant and possibly inaccurate. They may have been told outright lies about where their child was born, what his/her ethnic and cultural background was, or any number of other things. Sometimes the intent was to protect the adoptive parents and supposedly the adoptee from hurtful information, but more often it was intended to thwart any efforts at search and reunion by giving false information so that a future search would hit a dead end. To adoptive parents, finding out twenty or more years later that their daughter or son was not willingly relinquished by a happy young girl eager for her child to be adopted by “better” parents, but instead was reluctantly given up by a young woman who had no choice, or even that the birth grandparents forged her name, is a real blow. Most adoptive parents do not like to think that their joy came at the expense of someone else’s sorrow, and they certainly would not have wished to be taking part in something illegal, such as forging the birth parents’ signatures. There are exceptions, of course, but most adoptive parents wish the birth parents no harm. Many agencies and society in general has taught them to be fearful of birth parents, to guard their secrecy and identity lest these people “interfere.” Learning the truth and meeting birth parents, who turn out to be fine people, takes some effort to turn around the past fantasy of who the birth parents were or what their intentions toward the adoptee might be. They, too, can benefit from adoption support groups, opportunities to meet many birth parents, and from competent counseling.
     When a searcher, whether birth parent, adoptee, or adoptive parent, finds resistance to meeting them, for whatever reason, this information is also difficult to accept. It is not easy to keep alive sane hope of later reunion, or of finding other relatives who are open to meeting. It is even more difficult to accept that no face-to-face reunion is going to happen. Finding that the person searched for is already deceased is devastating to many, even when they have tried to prepare themselves for that possibility. For a birth parent, learning that their daughter or son has died is perhaps worse than for an adoptee to find that an elderly birth parent is deceased, but the loss is there, no matter what the circumstances. Adoptive parents may have anticipated feeling some relief if the birth parents are dead, as they had often been told at the outset by an adoption agency, but the reality is that is their loss, too, never to be able to meet the people who produced the child they have raised, never to see people their child resembles. Reunion may seem like a threat to adoptive parents, but for those who do not have that chance, it is a loss.
     Sometimes adoptees are dismayed to learn that their adoption was not through an agency, but through a doctor and/or attorney. In some states, this is not legal, but in others, including New Mexico, non-agency adoptions are perfectly legal, ethical, and normal. It would be wrong to assume that just because there ewas not an agency involved in placement, it was necessarily a “black market” or “grey market” adoption, or that it was not legal or sanctioned by the state. In most cases, the state requires a home study and follow-up. If there is no court record at all, that may a different matter. Some intra-family adoptions are never made legal through the court. While there are certainly instances of black market or illegal adoptions, stolen babies and coercion of impoverished birth mothers in numerous countries, most non-agency adoptions involve none of that. Before jumping to conclusions about oneself, one’s adoptive or birth parents, and internalizing some form of “I was the object of shame and criminal activity,” one should check all the facts.
     Whatever information is learned by searching and by reunion is ultimately helpful, whether it is congruent with what had previously been thought, and whether it seems positive or not when first learned. The truth is always more helpful than secrets and lies. Who one’s birth parents were or what they did is not the sum total of an adoptee’s identity, any more than the adoptive parents1 background or behavior. Yet all of those things play a part and must be assimilated to some degree. What happened to one’s relinquished offspring is not the sum total of a birth parent’s life, but again is part of what one lives with. Adoptive parents are not responsible for everything about the adoptee, but they definitely influence his/her identity and self-concept. Being adopted is not all there is to an adoptee’s self, but it is a very important part. Those who say it is not, or who would tell adoptive parents that their parenting experience is no different from those who gave birth to the children they raised, have not been there. Those who would tell birth parents to forget the experience of relinquishment and act as if it never happened, have not been there. All people with adoption experiences must deal with their reality, and must make sense of the best information they can obtain. No one has the right to withhold or distort that information, whether it is an agency, a state, a doctor or attorney, or a family member. They may have a legal right, even obligation, to withhold information, but they do not really have the moral right. In future years, society at large will be horrified to think that closed adoptions and closed records were once the norm and considered “in the best interests of all involved.”

Excerpted from the January 2007 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2007 Operation Identity