Saturday, October 29, 2011

Adoption Reunions and the Magical Number 18

The other night at a school-sponsored Halloween party, I had a conversation with the adoptive father of one the schoolmates of my daughters. I had shared a bit of the story of my open adoption, and he responded by sharing that the biological parents of his daughter had recently sent a letter and photos. His daughter hadn't seen the letter or the photos yet, but he and the adoptive mother were planning to show them to her soon. He seemed pleased about the letter but went on to say that he didn't think his daughter would meet her biological family at any point -- well, not until she was 18, at least. When she was 18, if she wanted to make contact, they would support her.

I like and admire this man, I know he has his daughter's best interest at heart, and I'll be the first to admit that I don't know all of the details of his daughter's situation. Also, on the surface, his statement seems perfectly reasonable, even child-centered. He is saying he will support his daughter in whatever decision she makes once she is old enough to make that decision. What could be wrong with that?

So why did his statement make me slightly uncomfortable?

One reason is that, somewhere along the line, I received the same message from my own adoptive parents, and it proved problematic for me in the long run. I don't have a clear memory of the exact conversations, but I know that I heard from them in some way that if I wanted to search for my biological family, I could do so when I was 18. What I didn't hear from them was that they understood the reasons why it might be important for me to do so. I also didn't hear that my decision to search or not had no bearing on their love for me, which was unconditional. Although they didn't add "but we kind of hope you won't" to "you can search when you are 18," it hung in the air between us nevertheless.

I didn't search until I was 30, and the main reason for the delay was that, on some level, I believed searching for my biological family would be a betrayal of my adoptive one. I thought my adoptive parents would not approve, not really, and the child in me equated disapproval with  rejection and rejection with annihilation. Even as I grew to understand that I needed to reconnect to my biological roots to be whole, I could not take that chance. I chose security over wholeness.

In the end, I got them both. Ultimately, my adoptive parents were not only supportive, they were instrumental in my search. Their love for me is unconditional and they do understand my reasons for wanting a connection to the biological side of my family. So, why did it take me so long to come to this understanding?

Eighteen is the age at which the adopted person can technically search without the consent of his or her adoptive parents. And yet, I have often heard adoptive parents mention it as the age at which they will give consent and support, even in cases of semi-open adoptions like the one of my daughters' schoolmate. I have to admit, it's hard for me to interpret this message as anything but a stalling technique. An unspoken "but we kind of hope that won't be the case" still hangs in the air for me. If I'm hearing it, are their children hearing it too? And if so, what is the effect?

At what age is a child old enough to long for wholeness and to want the missing puzzle piece that biology can provide? At what age can they trust that their adoptive parents will hear them if they express such longings? Does something magical happen at age 18 in this regard?

If you've read my blog before you probably know how important I believe it is for adoptive parents to remain "emotionally open" to first families. I understand that actual contact with certain biological family members may be inadvisable in some cases. And I understand the reasons why some parents may wish to wait until their children are older, developmentally and emotionally, before bringing some relationships into their lives. But if you are an adoptive parent, please always remember that your child's biological family is a part of them. Biology isn't destiny, but it is a piece of the puzzle. Know that it is natural and normal for adopted children to long for a connection to their original family and an understanding of their genetic heritage. And most importantly, let them know, at every stage and every age, that you understand this. Sometimes adopted children will tell their adoptive parents that they don't have any desire to know their biological family; if this happens, I encourage you to take the child's word for it ... more or less. If that's where they are truly at, then fine. But I also encourage you to ask yourself one tough question: Is there any chance they are saying that because they believe it is what you want to hear?  Regardless of what your adopted child chooses to express, you can let them know that your love is unconditional, and that if the desire to know the biological family should come up, at 18 or any other age, it will have no bearing on the strength of your attachment to them.


  1. Great thoughts! My adoptive parents always new I would search and said I could when I turned 18. I knew the lawyer that had the name and called him to set up an appointment. He called my dad and told him! I was 18 and it was my information... anyhow my dad went with me to get the name. The whole story changed once I actually found my first mom.and began to get to know her... they through a fit my adoptive mom went a little off the wall and forbid me to see her or talk to her cause I was hurting her. I adhered to my mom's request mostly for 6 years and it ate me up inside. For 6 years. After wanting to know this woman for my whole life I tried to not hurt my a mom so I rejected my birth mother in favor of my adoptive mothers feelings. PAIN. Finally at age 26 I had had enough and I went ahead and built the relationship. My amom asks about it from time to time. I think she has realized I did not leave her or disown her once this happened she was a little better with it. My first mom even sent a xmas card to my parents last year and they sent one to her in return.
    Oh these topics are so complicated.

  2. I always love to read your pieces. I am not adopted or an adoptive parent but I always get something out of them. It must be so hard, yet I believe you are right, being mindful of our children's feelings and longings are so important for all parents to do. Thank you.

  3. Thanks, Emilie and Kathy.
    BTW, Kathy, I just gave your site a "boost." :-)

  4. Awesome post! I too grew up with that unspoken "IF" about trying to find my parents. It's a hard one to overcome.

  5. And what is the reason for witholding the received information from the mother from the adoptee? Surely not a power game??

  6. This is a great post. My a-mom's tactic was, "You can search if you want to, but she might not want to see you. She's probably put it behind her. She's probably married with other children and doesn't want to be reminded of you." When my search didn't lead me directly to my birthmother, I interpreted that as meaning that what my parents had told me about searching was true. I can't describe all of the heartache my parents' attitudes caused me.

  7. And from my side, as your biological mother, it never dawned on me that it was even possible for you to try to find me until you were an adult, and I remember thinking when you were 21, I might hear from you. I was pretty much told that I could never see see you, that the decision I had made was "irrevocable" and just forget about it. The idea that there was another way to do is is still just seeping in

  8. @BJW You're welcome. And thanks for being you. :) In a way I'm glad to hear that 18 wasn't any significant number for you. I've read blogs by first moms who started hoping/waiting/expecting to be found after the adoptee turned 18 and that sounds agonizing. By the way, do you like my new comments feature? I picked Disqus because Channing said it was the best option.

  9. Barbara Jean WalshNovember 1, 2011 at 2:46 PM

    Discus surprised me by not letting me assume my Mab Widdershins persona. I thought when I predded on "Post as Barbara Jean Walsh" it was going to give me other options, but instead it actually posted as Barbara Jean Walsh. So, I guess I'm done lurking here!

  10. You're right. It does seem a little strange that it doesn't let you choose. There may be something I need to change in the settings.