Nobody Really Forgets

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

     In my research study, Relationships in Reunion, in which 125 respondents so far have written about their adoption reunion relationships, several important things stand out. Birth mothers, even those who had never attempted to search for their relinquished offspring, had never forgotten that child, no matter how traumatic the relinquishment had been. Some had repressed the memory of the exact date of birth, or had been so medicated for so long during and after labor and birth (or even during the pregnancy) that they really were unsure of the date. Some had not even been told the sex of their child, let alone been allowed to see, hear, feel or touch their newborn infant. Many had been told they must never even consider searching, that it was illegal, immoral, and impossible. Yet, not a one of the women who participated in this research survey said they never had the desire to search! Every single woman had wanted to find her son or daughter, or to be found, even those who feared being found and at first hesitated to respond to the searcher. This included women who had become pregnant as the result of rape. They never forgot they had given birth and relinquished, and they never forgot the trauma and sadness of it.
     Adoptees, even those who grew up not consciously knowing they were adopted, also did not forget. They did not have conscious memories of their birth mothers (unless the adoption took place after infancy), but they knew at a deep level they were missing someone or something. This is not to say they necessarily felt deprived of love and attention by adoptive parents. In some cases that was true, but in most cases, adoptive parents loved them very much and were good parents. Those who reported they “always knew” or were told “at a very early age” reported more positive feelings about themselves and about being adopted, but that did not mean they never thought about birth parents, or never wanted to search or to be found. They never really forgot that they had once had other parents.
     Adoptive parents also never forget. We hear of those who say, “Oh, I forget he is adopted most of the time,” or, “Some of our children we gave birth to, and others we adopted, and we don’t remember which is which.” Some comments are well-meant, but not really true. As much as parents talk about the details of their pregnancies and birth experiences, and as much as adoptive parents recall waiting to receive a child, and the details of how that child came into their lives, it should be obvious that parents do not really forget, nor should they. It is part of each individual’s story. Children growing up in open, or semi-open adoptions, relish hearing their stories from both sets of parents, and perhaps from other family members as well. Far from confusing them, it helps the clarify their unique identity. For those who grew up in closed adoptions, and later searched for birth family or were found, it is important for them to incorporate the new details of their early life into their identities. Those who don’t know the details make them up, and some of those fantasies are what sometimes create a barrier in reunion, when the reality does not match the fantasies, and the adoptee, no matter what his/her age, finds it more difficult to let go of the fantasies than to embrace reality. In most cases, however, the joy of knowing the real truth at last becomes more powerful than any continued fantasy. The truth is, these families were forever joined when the adoption took place, whether they acknowledged that or not.
     Another important facet of relationships in reunion is that the adoptive parents’ attitudes about search and reunion, and about the birth family in general, are absolutely important in the developing relationship between adoptee and birth family as well as their own continued relationships within the adoptive family. When the adoptive family supports the adoptee’s search, or supports the adoptee’s response to a birth parent’s search, the relationships tend to develop in positive ways, even if there is some hesitancy or slowness in acceptance. Even when the adoptive parents are fearful of “losing” the adoptee, if they encourage their adoptee to meet birth family, it is a help to all involved. No one in my study reported being sorry the search had taken place, and nearly all adoptive parents responding said they felt the relationship with the adoptee was better in the long run for having everyone know each other. In some cases, adoptees or birth parents reported that adoptive parents still refused to be part of the reunion, or that a birth mother was still afraid to meet the adoptive parents, but when the adoptive parents did participate in the ongoing reunion, everyone seemed to benefit. In a few cases, the two sets of parents became quite close and had to mutually set limits with a son or daughter in active addiction.
     It also seems important that the adoptive parents do not actually conduct the search for birth family (if the adoptee is an adult), even though their emotional support is essential. In some cases, adoptive parents helped financially, or found out how to begin the search, but the adoptee nearly always wants to take charge of the actual search, whether on their own or through an intermediary. In some cases, the adoptive parents had the information, or knew how to get it, making a legal search unnecessary. In those cases, it was important that they gave the information to the adoptee, and let them proceed from there as they wished, at their own pace, even when the adoptive parents were eager for the reunion to proceed. In any case, parents must not just sit on the information and wait for the adoptee to ask, because the adoptee may be assuming the parents have no information or won’t give it to them. In the past, many adoptees did not find the information—which did exist—until the adoptive parents were deceased, precluding any chance for the two sets of parents to know each other. Life is short, and withholding information is not helpful!
     If this research, then, shows that nobody really forgets they were adopted, nobody really forgets they relinquished, and nobody really forgets they adopted their son or daughter, why have we all been told we’d forget, or that we should? For many years, this was the official stance of doctors, adoption agencies, and society, including families of the birth parents. Some thought it made the legal details of adoption simpler, especially if the birth father was never even informed of the pregnancy. Indeed, many really were not ever told, and so they are apt to be stunned when contacted by a son or daughter they had no idea existed. The birth mothers, of course, did know, although in not a few cases, they were told the child had died at birth, and they have grieved for years, not knowing the child was actually alive. Adoption agencies felt more comfortable having the power to deny access to information to birth parents or to adoptive parents and adoptees. If no one had the information it would lessen the chances of the agency’s decisions being questioned. In today’s adoption scene, since both birth parents and adoptive parents have insisted upon more information and more openness, agencies still sometimes try to restrict information, allowing contact only through the agency of disclosing only first names, so that they still retain the balance of power, as if adoptive parents and birth parents are not quite adults. If the parents are not quite adults, then the adoptee will never be considered an adult, entitled to all the information about him/herself and about both families.
     The result of withholding information, as well as the reason for it, is fear. The birth parents are feared and regarded as undesirable and irresponsible, and even predatory should they find out the adoptee’s name or whereabouts. The adoptive parents may also fear that they are not doing a “good enough job” and will be rejected if the adoptee has access to birth family. Birth parents fear they will be rejected by both adoptee and adoptive family as inferior, especially since they have been told, both overtly and covertly, that they are not as good as adoptive parents. Adoptees have taken the message that they were somehow rejected by birth parents, even if those birth parents never even got to see them, and so they see the possibility of being “rejected again.” This universal fear of rejection, in some instances, continues to outweigh the possibilities of healthy relationships in reunion. Society, in the form of written articles, television programs, movies, and verbal gossip and anecdotes, continues to play into this fear, and reinforces it, with statements that searching will hurt the adoptive parents’ feelings, that adoptees must always be grateful to adoptive parents and even to adoption agencies and therefore must never question or search for birth family. There is also the myth that birth parents have “forgotten” (being uncaring and irresponsible to begin with), and that birth parents, if they actually have consciences, will still be feeling a great deal of shame and will not want to be found. If the birth parent searches, the fear is that “they want something,” the implication being that they may try to extort money from the adoptee or adoptive parents. Birth parents hear, and read, generalities about themselves, such as “most birth parents are mentally unstable, immature, or drug-addicted,” therefore should be in hiding, and certainly should not initiate a search for their offspring, especially since those happy adoptive parents and adoptees have forgotten all about the adoption, if the adoptee ever knew. Society seems to have a great stake in making sure no one “interferes” in someone’s life by searching, yet has no problem interfering by encouraging relinquishment, closed adoption, withholding information, and continuing negative stereotypes of birth parents, adoptees, and adoptive parents.
     One other pertinent pattern that has emerged from my research is that, when someone withdraws form a relationship in reunion, or even breaks off all contact, it is more apt to be the adoptee, no matter who did the search. Sometimes this is due to continued opposition of the adoptive parents to the reunion, putting the adoptee in the middle, but sometimes it is due to the adoptee’s difficulty accepting the birth parent, or birth family, as they are, rather than as the adoptee had wished they would be. Sometimes the adoptee is at an age where they are trying to assert their independence from all parents, and so they don’t want to enter into a close relationship with what, to them, is a new set of parents. This is especially hard for a birth parent who has not raised other offspring to understand and accept, and she or he might conclude that it’s about them, when, in fact, it’s a normal developmental stage for the offspring. Time and patience, and leaving the door open for more contact later on, is especially important for all those persons. Some birth mothers reported that the reunion initially made them fee pulled back to the age they were at the time of the relinquishment and they needed time and even professional help to work through those feelings.     As an illustration of how nobody really forgets, I was struck by the following lines in a book recently published that tells the story of Colorado Christian Home/Tennyson Center for Families, which started 100 years ago as an orphanage and children’s care home, and which changed to a residential treatment center for abused, neglected, and abandoned children. The author, Don Brewer, states:

Termination of parental rights by the court does not squelch the deep longing within the child to return to his/her parents. One girl of six announced to her cottage that she was going to visit her mother, saying, “Tomorrow my mother’s eternal rights will be taken away and I won’t get to see her again until I am 18 years old plus one day.” Even though she didn’t get the difference between parental rights and eternal rights, she understood the concept and was already planning for the reunion with her mother.

Perhaps that little girl understood that “eternal rights” really was the right term. Over and over, the respondents to our research said they searched “to find the truth,” and that they were glad to have found and to have been found “to learn the truth, no matter what.” Not a one said, “I wish I had never known, and I want to forget.” Nobody really forgets, nor should they.

Excerpted from the January 2005 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2005 Operation Identity