Birth Parents in One-Down Position

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

     Birth parents, as much as all of us may wish to deny it, are still and always in a one-down position with regard to adoptive parents and adoptees. The assumption of society, as well as agencies, adoptive parents, and, consequently, adoptees, is that the birth parents are not as good as others in far too many ways. Either the birth parents were quite young at the time of the birth (therefore assumed to be inexperienced and without good judgment), and/or did not have the financial resources to raise a child, and/or did not have the emotional and social resources to raise a child, and were not married, therefore did not have society’s permission to have sex, much less take care of a child.
     For all of society’s hand-wringing about unmarried mothers being “too” accepted these days, the truth is, a married mother is still considered to be intrinsically better than an unmarried one. Fathers do not seem to be in this equation at all. We still see the adoptive parents as rescuing the child from the inferior situation of being with an unmarried parent. We still use the term “illegitimate,” for heaven’s sake! This term implies the child is not real or has no right to exist. The message the child gets, day after day, even if not spoken, is that he/she is better than the birth parents, but only because of the adoption. If a single person chooses to adopt, they are expected to adopt an older child, a disabled child, or a child of some ethnic background other than white, northern European middle-class. This is a bit of a contradiction in terms, since these children may need extra help, therefore better or more skilled parents. It implies that single parents are less desirable than married ones and therefore are only entitled to adopt what society considers less desirable children. We may vehemently deny all of this, but underneath the veneer of acceptance of diversity, these attitudes still hold. Check the adoption laws in various states, and current controversies over who may or may not adopt or even have custody of their birth children! A single parent’s motive for adopting is supposed to be to rescue a child, to become a parent without being overtly sexual. We like to pretend that single parents do not engage in sexual activity. The Victorian age is still not really over!
     Birth parents never have the same rights as adult adoptees or adoptive parents, even in states that have open access to original birth certificates for adult adoptees. There is still the attitude, legally enforced, that birth parents do not have the right to know the name or whereabouts of their relinquished offspring, because they might be dangerous. A birth parent does not have access to the adoptee’s amended birth certificate, which would give them the adoptee’s name. They do not even have access to the original birth certificate, for which they supplied the information, unless they obtained a copy at birth. Even in open adoptions, the assumption is that birth parents should not have full information about their child, even when that person becomes an adult. Whatever information is given or whatever contact is granted, even in states such as New Mexico where an open adoption agreement is legally enforceable, adoptive parents can move out of state and break off all communication, and the birth parents do not really have legal recourse. The reason is that birth parents are still seen as unworthy of trust, respect, or equal treatment under the law. When a birth parent searches for an adult son or daughter, he/she is in a one-down position, not only because the adoptee has the right to refuse contact, but also because, even after an initial reunion, the adoptee is in charge of how much contact there will be or the degree of closeness. This is not a legal issue, but an emotional issue. The birth parent wonders what the offspring has been told about the birth parents, and is expected to be grateful to the adoptee and to the adoptive parents for whatever time and feelings they wish to grant, and especially thankful if the adoptive parents did not say horrible things about the birth parents! Birth parents have been told they have no right to search, yet may be blamed for not searching and told that if they cared, they would have searched, or that if they cared, they would not have interfered by searching! Can’t have it both ways, folks!
     Although there are cases where a birth parent has repressed the traumatic memories of even having given birth, and certainly there are cases where the birth parent was told the infant died, and there are cases where a birth parent is still too terrified to meet the offspring, let alone the adoptive parents, in most cases, the birth parent wants desperately to find or be found, and may desire more contact and more closeness than do the adoptee or the adoptive parents. They do not always express this, not wanting to jeopardize whatever contact they have. Most will do whatever it takes to have any kind of relationship they can.
     If a birth parent relinquishes and then goes on to have a successful life, some will say that parent sacrificed the child in order to go on with their own life, and will resent that. If a birth parent relinquishes and does not have as successful a life as the adoptive parents, for whatever reason, that is reinforcement for the notion that the birth parent was inferior to the adoptive parents, and the adoptee was infinitely better off having been raised by the adoptive parents. If the adoptive parents were abusive, however, the adoptee may act as if the birth parent should have foreseen that (even in a closed adoption where birth parents had no information at all), and should not have relinquished. On the other hand, some birth parents are very angry when they learn that the adoptive parents divorced subsequent to the adoption, and they somehow believe the child should have been returned to the birth parent at that point, or that the agency should have foreseen the divorce and not placed the child with those people, or that the couple should have stayed together no matter what because of the adoption. The truth is, no agency, no doctor, no lawyer, no therapist, no birth parent or adoptive parent, can accurately predict the future, and people really do, in general, try to do the best they can at any given time, but there are no guarantees in relationships. Birth parents, of all people, should know that.
     If we are to start being truly honest in adoptions, and treat all parties as equally entitled to the truth, we will not only have to have open adoptions in the fullest sense, with everyone involved having everyone else’s names, addresses, and telephone numbers, and having in-person visits, not just pictures and letters. Granted, there are circumstances where this may not be safe or practical, but those cases ought to be the rare exception, and even then subject to change as people change. We will have to treat birth parents with respect, regard them as equals rather than objects of either scorn or pity, and quit being afraid of them. We will have to give up the ideas that adoptive parents are superior to birth parents, that adoptees must be grateful to adoptive parents in ways that are not expected of those raised by biological parents, that adoptees have a particular right, or even an emotional obligation to be angry with birth parents in order to prove their loyalty to adoptive parents, and the idea that birth parents should be grateful for whatever information or contact or consideration is granted them. Such changes would have to be initiated by agencies, attorneys, and doctors, and reinforced by legal changes concerning relinquishment, open adoption, searching, and access to records. The changes in attitude on the part of adoption triad persons and society at large would eventually follow, but the reality is, human nature is such that it may take a long time before birth parents are not seen as innately inferior to others, and as long as people believe they are, everyone suffers, including adoptees and adoptive parents as well as birth parents. Whenever people are expected to be forever grateful, forever sorry, or forever anything, no one is really able to be completely honest, or completely free to love all of the members of their families, both birth family and adoptive family. When adoption has taken place, both families are joined, whether they acknowledge it or not. Acknowledgment allows everyone to develop healthy and appropriate relationships, free of fantasies, fears, and resentments.

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