I have been interviewed by ten different radio stations and almost all of them have asked this question: “What advice do you have for adoptees who are considering a search for their biological family?” Believe it or not, this question is not terribly easy to answer.
As an adoptee with a thirty-six year history of knowing my identity and having a relationship with my biological family, I am speaking not only from experience but from a literal lifetime of knowledge of emotions that have included acceptance, identity, abuse, rejection, dismissiveness, jealousy, hatred and validation. And this is just the tip of the iceberg!
Each adoption is different. Yet each adoption does have one commonality–a woman became pregnant and decided to give up her child. Beyond that, it’s a crapshoot. Differences present themselves in a variety of issues–the reasons behind the birth mother’s decision, the intent of the adoptive parents, the environment in which the adoptee is raised, the birth mother’s eventual life decisions, etc. The reasons are legion. I will try to give advice based on my experience. I will also try to provide advice that most adoptees can understand and apply. I think this posting should be read not only by adoptees, but birth families and adoptive families, too. As such, I will write this in second person to provide continuity. Note that I am NOT using the qualifier “adoptive” to describe the adoptee’s family.
As an adoptee, you should try hard not to elevate the birth family’s status in your life or in your mind. By that I mean do not fantasize about your family. It is very easy to dream of your birth family as having everything your adoptive family might not have such as wealth or beauty or a fancy home. No matter what your birth family looks like or what life they live, you will soon find out that these issues do not matter. Remember, your family is your family. Your parents cared for you when you were sick, taught you how to ride a bike, celebrated when you graduated from high school, provided values and morals. Do not forget that.
And be aware of the impact on your family as you search. If you should be fortunate enough to find your birth family and actually meet them, remember the family that raised you is watching you take off on a new and emotional adventure. They’re waving goodbye as you drive away or step onto that plane. They might be happy for you, but believe me, there is a clutch in their heart as they wonder what awaits you. And what awaits them. Will you be devastated by this experience? Disappointed? Exhilarated? Will they be shunted aside? Will they be compared by you to the birth family and come up wanting in your eyes? These are very plausible thoughts that could run through their minds.
It will be important for you to discuss this journey with your parents. What are their fears for themselves? What are their fears for you? These are issues that should be considered. Your family most likely will be concerned for the your welfare and might bring up potential issues. Don’t become defensive. Accept their concerns as just that. As your parents, they will have a perspective outside yours. As an aside, will you refer to your parents as your “adoptive” parents or will you make it clear to people that they are your parents, period? Will a qualifier be used be for the birth parents? Or will you call them your parents, too? Little things like that can create problems for all involved, including YOU.
Regarding your birth family remember to accept them for who and what they are. This goes hand in hand with what I wrote above, but it bears emphasizing. Your birth family might not turn out to be what you dream, but that does not mean they are lesser beings because of it. They might have ideas and opinions that are diametrically opposed to yours. They might have different religious or political beliefs. They might have different opinions on social issues. Still, you must accept them, especially if you want them to accept you. Granted, if their opinions are racist or if their behaviors are abhorrent such as drug-taking, you will have to determine if you want to continue association.
If you find substantive differences between you and the birth family, do not whore yourself to curry their favor. They must accept you for who you are. Neither side should feel that they are lesser entities in the relationship because of negative or devastating issues from the adoption. There is no law saying that conversations must turn to your differences. Focus on the wonderful similarities which will definitely be there. The nurture side oftentimes provides the differences while the nature side oftentimes provides the similarities.
Do not blame anyone in your birth family for your adoption, especially your birth mother, should you meet her. Unless you are ever in her shoes (this will NEVER happen to a man), you cannot begin to judge her or her mindset when she made this very difficult decision. Neither should you blame the birth father. Sometimes the reasons behind the adoption have to do with abuse or abandonment on the part of the birth father. By the time you meet your birth father, he will most likely be middle-aged and, hopefully, a respectable member of society, having put behind him the behaviors of the past. Remember, no one is perfect, including you. And the decision to place you with another family was done out of concern for you.
When you enter the lives of your birth family, remember that there will be a honeymoon period. Depending on how far away you live, this honeymoon period can plausibly last up to two years. Both sides will be enthusiastic, fascinated and ecstatic. However, eventually the bloom falls from the rose and things enter a level of “normality”. You will no longer be a curiosity. You are no longer “special”. In my estimation, this is a good thing because it shows that you are being somewhat accepted. Perhaps not as an actual member of the family, but as a member of the extended family.
Communicate with your birth family, too. Don’t automatically assume that you can jump into their lives and be accepted. Don’t place unnecessary expectations on them. Talk about where they want the relationship to go. Be honest with them about your expectations. I would even suggest finding support groups online where you can chat with (or meet) adult adoptees who have traveled this path. You will find myriad opinions that will reflect much of what I’ve said and even embellish a bit more. Yet others will have completely different viewpoints.
I have not mentioned the impact on your siblings in your birth family. Your appearance will upend the family unit of this family, obviously. Your siblings will most likely feel a considerable level of envy as the focus shifts to you. Whether the reunion is good or bad, the fact is that things will revolve around YOU. Your siblings could end up resentful of this new person who has barged into their home. You will need to be aware of this.
Whenever I’m asked to give advice to adoptees or families regarding a search I always say, “Expect the unexpected. But don’t be surprised when the unexpected is not what you expect.” What I’m saying is that, no matter how hard you try, you cannot begin to prepare yourself for this journey. You will find yourself experiencing feelings, thoughts, emotions and desires in dimensions you cannot conceive. You will find yourself in situations that will seem to defy resolution. Nothing you’ve ever experienced in your life will be comparable, in my opinion. But I believe it’s worth it.
I guess what I’m saying is to go into your journey with your eyes open. Lead with your heart but think with your head. If you are looking for something in particular, remain aware because chances are it will arrive in a differently wrapped package than what you are expecting.