by Katie Wynen
Adoption literature is dominated by the voices of adoptive parents, with a sprinkling of adoptee voices and even fewer birth parent voices. The book Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew by Sherrie Eldridge was published in 1999. But what do adoptees want their birth parents to know? Even more specifically, what do adoptees need from their birth parents?
Pact hosts a peer-led support group for adult adoptees of color. Participants are all over the age of 21, and our experiences include domestic adoption, international adoption, transracial adoption, same-race adoption, open adoption, closed adoption, reunification with birth family, children of single adoptive parents and LGBTQ adoptive parents. In a recent meeting, participants were asked, “What do you want your birth parents to know?” The discussion that followed was emotional, inspiring, and revealing.
I wish I could tell you…
Here is a sample of some of the powerful comments that adoptees wished they could share with their birth parents:
You owe me something: my story.
Please don’t guilt me about whatever privileges I may have gotten from my adoptive family.
Keep your stuff to yourself and don’t put it on me.
Don’t get offended if I don’t call you Mom or Dad.
Respect my needs and where I am in my adoption journey.
I’m afraid you will get mad if I say something, and then not want me again.
It’s not always about you.
It’s difficult for me to bring up difficult things with you.
We can’t pick up in our lives like nothing happened.
Part of me wants to let you know that I’m fine, I have a good life. But there’s something about that that feels a little off for me. Like it’s possible you could interpret that, as “I don’t need you.”
Keeping me a secret from your family even after we have begun a reunion amounts to secondary trauma and hurts almost more than the initial pain of relinquishment because unlike when I was born, this secret and rejection really is about me as a person.
Adoption loyalty exists with you, too. As much as I am afraid of hurting my adoptive parents by talking about you, I am afraid to hurt you by talking about my adoptive parents. It is tiring taking care of all of these parent figures.
Most of the time I have great empathy for what you must have gone through when you were pregnant with me, but sometimes I am so mad at you for making the decisions that resulted in me being put up for adoption.
While each adult adoptee has their own unique experience and their own personal response to it, some common themes emerged:
I want to know why I was placed.
The infamous why question! Even in an open adoption, birth parents should not assume that their child knows why they were placed for adoption. Many birth parents rely on adoptive parents to share the story, but adoptees want to hear the story directly from the source.
On the flip side, several adoptees said, “I don’t want you to feel obligated to be a parent to me. I don’t want to know why I was placed.” For some, the why is not what they yearn for. It could be too hard for them to hear and know their story; some simply do not want to know.
I want to know my family medical history. Am I predisposed to cancer? Alzheimer’s? Do mental health struggles run in my family?
The desire to know medical history was a very common response in our group. Most non-adoptees don’t realize that many of us despise going to medical appointments and completing the inevitable family history section. Having to answer, “don’t know, I’m adopted,” almost always leads to insensitive comments from health care providers like, “Adopted? That must be cool,” or “Wow, do you know your real family?” (“Obviously not, because I listed that I don’t know my health history!”), and a smattering of other responses involving a blank stare, a sympathetic look, or a few words about how lucky we are.
Some of us have access to the self-reported medical histories our birth parents submitted to their agencies at placement, but we don’t know how honest or accurate that information is. Those of us in open adoptions want our birth parents to be honest about family health history so we can be prepared and educated about what we might face with our physical and mental health.
I want to know traits/characteristics of my birth family. Who do I look like?
One of the most complex pieces of adoption for many transracial adoptees is not looking like anyone in their family. Some are fortunate to have an adopted sibling of the same race. But many are the only person of color in their family. Having pictures of birth family members and knowing traits, behaviors, habits, likes and dislikes that run in the family can help adoptees with their identities and self-confidence, and it can mitigate the differences between them and their peers.
What are the traditions that run in my birth family? How do you celebrate the holidays? What family recipes and dishes will be on the table?
For adoptees, a sense of family connection can be about much more than just physical traits. We want to know everything we possibly can about our birth families and how they live, celebrate, laugh, and cry. If we know our birth family traditions, we can celebrate, honor and incorporate them with our adoptive family traditions and pass them along to the next generation.
Am I a result of nature or nurture?
Many adoptees wonder about which of their personal traits are learned and which are inherent. One adoptee captured this universal desire to know in the following remarks:
I wish my birth family knew that listening to certain kinds of music always makes me think of them. When I hear certain songs—pretty much anything by Marvin Gay, Earth, Wind & Fire, or the Commodores—I have to dance. I physically have to move my body and whenever possible I need to turn up the volume. My connection to 70’s funk, soul, and R&B is deeply rooted in my soul and it always triggers thoughts about my birth family. I wonder if they experience that same excitement and unrelenting need to boogie down as much as I do. I always question whether my love for that specific kind of music is a connection that we share.
What type of environment was I born into? What were your surroundings and what was going on for you?
Non-adopted people have the honor and privilege of hearing intricate and intimate details about their mother’s pregnancy and birth; their stories start at the exact second they are born. Now that open adoption is the norm and adoptive parents are sometimes given the privilege to be with a birth mother during or immediately after the birth of her baby, some adoptees have more pieces to their story than previous generations. Unfortunately though, for most adult adoptees, the bits and pieces itemized in adoption paperwork is all they have to fill in the unknown pieces of their birth story.
Did you name me at birth? If so, what is the meaning of my birth name? If you did not name me at birth, why not? Did you have any sort of idea of the name you wanted for me?
A name is a very powerful part of identity. Adoptees who know their birth names sometimes begin using their birth name (first, last or both) when they turn 18 or are in college. Sometimes a name is the only information an adoptee has that connects them to their birth family, and they cherish this part of themselves. Unless an adoptee is also a birth parent, they will never understand the difficulty of the decision their birth parents faced. For many birth parents, naming their child was too hard emotionally. While adoptees want to honor the feelings of their birth parents, they also want them to know how much it can hurt to know that they were not given a name. It adds fuel to the common adoptee struggle with feeling, “I was not wanted, they didn’t even name me.”
Birthdays can be difficult for me. How do you handle my birthday? If you are with me on my birthday, how do you handle it? How often do you think about me?
Birthdays can be a loaded topic for adoptees; some hate their birthdays, others love it. We want to celebrate, but we also want to mourn. We want to be present with our parents, but we are often thinking of our birth parents. The most common thought for an adoptee on their birthday is, “Is my birth mother thinking about me today? Does she know what today is? Does she remember today? Is she doing okay today?” Birthdays can be hard.
Adoptees want birth parents to know that the more information we have and can obtain, the better. Having facts, histories, stories, and truth helps adoptees fill in the blanks and questions we have about who we are and where we come from.
The bottom line is that adoptees hope our birth parents will encourage us to ask and get answers to any and all of our questions. Birth parents hold the key to an important part of who we are and we benefit when we are told the truth and supported in our identity and adoption journey.
Katie Wynen, MSW, is a transracial, international Colombian adoptee. Katie has worked with members of the adoption triad since 2006; she studied under Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao in Boston before moving to Oakland and joining the Pact staff in 2012. Katie works in adoption placement, leads the adult adoptee support groups, and provides adoption education nationwide. Katie is an Angels in Adoption 2019 Recipient from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.