Important information for Adoptive Parents, Adoptive Siblings and other Adoptive Relatives.
A History of Birth Family Search -
It is difficult to imagine a world without adoption. Human cultures have been adopting babies and children for many thousands of years. In the modern world, we are all somehow connected to adoption either by direct first hand experience or only separated from it by a few degrees at most.
Following the rise of legal domestic adoption in the 20th century, it has become increasingly common for grown adoptees to eventually meet up with their birth families. In the world of international Chinese adoption however, the notion of adoptees reconnecting with their birth family is nearly unheard of due to many obvious barriers. And while some adoptive parents may initially find the concept of Chinese birth family search to be an unexpected and maybe even threatening idea, we can learn a lot about this topic from the extensive experience of birth family search in the world of domestic adoption.
Domestic adoption in the U.S. reached its peak around the year 1970 but the laws governing the process of adoption at that time mandated a high degree of confidentiality to prevent any future contact between adoptee and birth parents. Adult adoptees were not even allowed to see their own original birth certificates. Gradually, through much debate, the state laws that prevented adult adoptees from researching their own birth history have given way to allowing adoptees open access to their birth records. While there was initial resistance to this evolution in thinking, such changes are now widely considered to be a positive and long overdue reformation of the original adoption laws which ignored the basic rights of adoptees to know their own story.
The American Adoption Congress has described the many disproven and fearful myths that preceded the historical move to grant U.S. adoptees access to their birth certificate information.1
And organizations devoted to the welfare of adopted children strongly advocate for their right to search for birth family based on many years of experience. For example, the Donaldson Adoption Institute has published multiple studies of the issue and has concluded that if state law restricts adoptees’ access to their original birth certificates, then it “wrongly denies them a right enjoyed by all others in our country, and is not in their best interests for personal and medical reasons.”2
These changes in adoption law have brought about many documented benefits for domestic adoptees. The process of reconnecting with birth parents has often provided a degree of healing for adoptees and paradoxically strengthened their relationship with their true adoptive family. But while these complex changes in the world of domestic adoption were many years in the making, the difficulty of these changes may prove to be minor relative to the intricacies which await those who pursue birth family search among international Chinese adoptees. Cultural divides and questions of international law raise many daunting challenges to birth family search for Chinese adoptees despite the well established gains among domestic adoptees in this area. The world of domestic adoption is decades ahead of Chinese international adoption in offering adoptees viable options to reconnect with birth parents.
What We Can Do as Adoptive Parents and Adoptive Relatives to Support our Chinese Adoptees
Forgetting for a moment the inherent obstacles to birth family search for Chinese adoptees, it is important for adoptive parents and adoptive relatives to recognize and understand that Chinese adoptees will all naturally wonder about their family of origin. For some adoptees this may honestly be no more than occasional, mild curiosity, and some adoptees may honestly have no interest at all in pursuing information about their birth family. But for many others, the interest in where they came from is far more than a passing curiosity. For those of us who were raised in our birth families, it can be difficult to imagine having no information about how we started life, who brought us into this world, or what our parents thought of us when we were born. But for Chinese adoptees, it is typical to have essentially no reliable information about their background beyond the name and province of the orphanage from which they were adopted. Many will have a “finding date” and a “finding location” but even these bits of crucial information are prone to some degree of uncertainty for various reasons.
In adoption literature there is a fair amount of controversy about how much trauma a child sustains through the adoptive process. Obviously there are countless factors influencing the adopted child’s early life experience, not the least of which include the circumstances under which the child was relinquished and then the degree of loving support given to the child in the orphanage/foster system and finally in their adoptive home. Some experts assert that adoptees carry with them a deep and lasting wound from missing the opportunity to bond with their birth parents and grow up in their birth family. The miracle of adoption paradoxically begins with a profound primal loss that a newborn feels when permanently separated from her or his parents.
But where does that leave us as adoptive parents and adoptive family members doing our best to support the adoptees we love?
The wound our adoptees may carry with them is not our fault. We did not create it. But we must respond to it just like we would any physical wound. Think of how we rushed to patch up skinned knees and cut fingers when our kids were young. And what if we discovered that a bad injury had become infected, lingering as a painful wound? Would we spare any effort to heal it? We would consult with doctors and investigate which medicine or which therapy might best address it. If our child suffered from a serious physical wound that was not getting better, we’d become increasingly focused on the healing process moving forward. And questioning whether the wound was real or debating whether talking about the wound would “make it worse” would seem pointless and counterproductive.
Still, not all adoptees are going to feel as “wounded” as others. And figuring out how affected our adoptive children are by their adoption is an important and delicate part of being the best adoptive parents we can be. It is a hard thing to sort out as committed members of a forever family.
The well loved NPR host Scott Simon and his wife successfully adopted 2 daughters from China and he joyfully writes about it in his book Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other: In Praise of Adoption. Mr. Simon describes dutifully reading through the work of different experts providing guidance for adoptive parents and feeling distressed at the description of the lasting trauma many adopted children carry with them. In particular, upon reading psychotherapist Nancy Verrier’s 1993 book The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child3, Mr. Scott expresses a feeling most all of us adopted parents would feel:
“This is rough stuff for parents to read. It suggests that, love notwithstanding, nothing we have done or can do can spare our children persisting pain. Our pride in the difference that our own care may make can prevent us from seeing this wound. It is hard for parents to hear her analysis and not think we have been accused of ignoring some great brutality toward the persons we love most.”4
After wrestling with this hard concept and interviewing a broad range of folks with competing beliefs on the “wound”concept, Mr. Simon eventually arrives at a couple conclusions. First, he comes to see that the family he has in his wife and daughters is exactly the one that was meant to be. (“We were a family, and our daughters knew it. They felt it. It was a fact of life as obvious and enduring in their drawings as the sun and the stars.”) But secondly, he also concludes:
“Yet I don’t want mere hopefulness to let me neglect our daughters’ need for identity. My wife and I know that we have responsibilities… and as they grow older, and scientific advances might make it possible, we will move heaven and earth to find the mothers who gave them life. We want to know and thank their birth mothers too, for giving us our lives.”
We are indeed traversing admittedly uncharted waters in this coming age of large scale Chinese birth family search, but we are not at a loss for good information on how to support our Chinese adoptees. The following ideas are basic recommendations for the adoptive parents, siblings, and other relatives of Chinese adoptees.
3. Verrier, Nancy. The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child. BAAF, 2009.
4. Simon, Scott. Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other: in Praise of Adoption. Random House, 2010.
5. Eldridge, Sherrie. Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew. Random House, 1999.
6. Betty Jean Lifton. Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness. Basic Books, 1995.