“How did your adoptive parents feel about it?” And other annoying questions about reunion

“How did your adoptive parents feel about it?” And other annoying questions about reunion

I grew up with articles like this, packed with not-so-subtle shaming of adoptees.

I recently discovered this article, which I ripped from Just17 magazine in the 1990s and kept between the pages of my teenage diary. Adoption was not talked about much at home or school and I’d only seen a few over-dramatic storylines on Home & Away and Eastenders (adoptee usually looking for revenge/money/etc) so this would have been like gold dust to me. Although I read it now with a heavy dose of scepticism, there’s no doubt that at the time I would have I clung on to every word. The overall message and tone would have affected me and coloured my own reunion. I wish I could say things have significantly moved on. They have, but not as much as I would like.

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Here are my thoughts on this article with the benefit of two decades of hindsight, a double reunion and being ‘out of the fog’.

1.   The adoptive parents’ feelings are paramount

The interviewer spends a lot of time talking about his adoptive parents’ feelings with phrases like “Don’t exclude your adoptive parents”. 

This is not acceptable. It’s up to the adoptee whether they involve their family in their search and reunion. I said in a previous blog that I would have liked more involvement, but many adoptees have told me they prefer to search/meet alone initially, or sometimes not tell their adoptive parents at all. 

The question“How did your adoptive parents feel about it?” is a stab in the heart for adoptees. We are sick and tired of answering this question. As Laura on Twitter said” this question “makes my teeth and my arse clench”.

2.   The birth parent’s feelings come next in the hierarchy 

Adoptees are encouraged to tiptoe around their birth parents, with phrases like “Give your natural parents space”.

As there is so much shame surrounding adoption, many adopted people spend their lives tiptoeing around. This tiptoeing can increase around reunion, as Caitriona Palmer outlined in her memoir An Affair With My Mother. Whilst I don’t argue that birth/first families may need space and time to process everything, the adopted person does too and they should be the priority. The birth parents feelings are not their responsibility. This doesn’t come across in the article, and teenage-me would have read this vey literally and inferred that my feelings were secondary.  

3.   The tone is negative and scaremongering

The interviewer is not adoption-sensitive and the tone is negative and, at times, patronising. 

Here’s a sample of the lexicon used in this article:

·     Ridden with 

·     Regret

·     Difficult

·     Pitfalls

·     Problem

·     Fell out

·     Strained

·     Cried for a week

·     Must wait

·     Upset them

·     Exclude

·     Traumatic

Although subtle, there is no doubt that a negative lexicon (collection of words and phrases) has an impact on the reader.

It annoys me that this interviewer had the chance to ask an adopted person about their reunion and they chose questions like “Do you regret searching for your birth family?”Think about the inference here. In a courtroom, this would be classed as a ‘leading question.’ An assumption is placed in the jury’s minds: this is something he probably does and should regret. At this point I am banging the table and shouting, “Objection your honour!”

4. It’s an example of being ‘in the fog’

In my opinion, this is an example of being in the fog. At the same age, I have no doubt I would have given pretty much the same interview. In fact I did (blog post on that coming soon). 

A classic sign of being in the fog is using phrases like, “I’ve got my “real” parents at home; they’re the ones who brought me up.”This is something that society expects us to say, so we trot out these stock phrases. It’s designed to reassure our parents that we are not going to ‘run off’ with our birth parents, and to reassure society that adoption works. 

Whenever someone asked me “Are you going to try and find your real parents one day?” I would defensively respond: “I don’t need to try and find them, they live in the house I grew up and in and I’m seeing them for a roast dinner this weekend.” BOOM.

Now I know the answer is more complicated. I no longer feel the need to anxiously defend my parents’ right to the title of ‘real’. I can acknowledge I have four parents. The notion that I should deny my biology to protect my adoptive parents is damaging and reinforces the idea that I “owe” my parents for bringing me up “ as their own”. For more on this 70s/80s narrative read Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson.

I am not criticising the adoptee for being in the fog. I was too. It took me years to come out of the fog and you cannot force anyone else ‘out’. It happens when it happens. However, I do wonder how this adopted person feels now.

4.   It reinforces the grateful adoptee narrative

As outlined above, the adopted person is not allowed to feel angry. This can be incredibly damaging, as feelings have to go somewhere. If we aren’t allowed to express them, we often turn them inwards. 

 In case you haven’t seen it, here are 10 reasons adoptees are angry 

5. It’s an interesting snapshot of how things were 

The main change from then to now is the background to why children are adopted. When this was written many adoptees were born to unmarried mothers. The narrative was that our birth parents loved us so much they gave us to a solvent two-parent family who were preferably Christian. An example of this is the interviewer saying his birth parents “had his interests at heart”. Ignoring the fact that this is a massive presumption, as she knows nothing of their individual circumstances (!), this is another stock phrase we adoptees of the 70s and 80s grew up with. All these decisions were made on our behalf, according to what grown-ups thought was ‘best’ and we should be grateful and not rock the boat.

By writing this blog I hope to give a virtual hug of support to all my fellow adoptees that grew up with these insidious messages, and to try to change things so younger adoptees have a slightly easier ride. 

 My fellow adoptees, let’s keep rocking the boat. As Anne Heffron says, we no longer have a choice.

NB I have reached out to Cal to ask permission to repost this but I haven’t heard back from him yet.

Small photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

An open letter to Long Lost Family from an adoptee

An open letter to Long Lost Family from an adoptee