I thought I’d try something different this week and provide some insight into the personal experiences and thoughts of one of the many adoptive parents I have worked with over the past 8 years.
I reached out to a mom (I'll call her "G") who recently completed a successful search. I’ve done this in an interview format, so let me know what you think.
How old are your children?
We have three biological children (25, 21, 19) and one adopted daughter (B) who is now 17.
How old was your daughter when you did your search?
She was 17. I started researching searchers years earlier in anticipation of the day we would actually began a real search.
What made you decide to search at the time you did?
When B. was around 8 she would ask a few basic questions. She feared she would never know what her mother looked like. She never voiced curiosity about her father or possible siblings. She just really wanted to know what her mother looked like. We empathized with her, but we didn’t have any answers.
When she was about 13, I sat with her and showed her the Guatemalan birth certificate we had for her. She was thrilled to have her birth last name and immediately updated her Facebook name to include her Guatemalan last names, leaving our family name as the last listed name. After that the questions tapered off.
She is now 17 and a few months ago her flood gates opened and she sobbed heavy, heartfelt tears about not knowing the conditions surrounding her adoption, not knowing who her family was, not knowing if they loved her, if they remembered her, if they cared about her, if they thought of her.
Because she was now older and because she finally shared her deep pain we felt it was critical that we search to find her some answers. She was open to the search process so we started our search in early December 2015.
What was your biggest fear before searching?
Since there was no mention of the birth mother having been located and tested for a DNA match, I feared that B. had been taken from her family without their consent. She had been declared legally abandoned, but I feared she might have been “stolen.” I was terrified of having someone’s child that had not been willingly surrendered by them. That was a huge fear. Thanks to our search we learned those fears were unfounded. That was a huge relief.
What was your objective for searching?
To find answers to B.’s questions. To help her piece together her full identity.
What surprised you about the outcome of your search?
How quickly her birth mother was found (it only took a few weeks). We were shocked to find out her birth parents were married at the time of her birth and remained together. We were also shocked to find out she has two siblings living with the parents.
I am also surprised that B. has not shared this news with her two sisters. Her brother accidently found out (not because of anything we did/said as parents) so she shared with him and he was genuinely happy for her. B. said she fears her sisters will make a big deal about it (and they will because it’s exciting happy news) and she doesn’t want that. I wish she would be more comfortable with the outcome, but she isn’t and this is her life so we are honoring how she chooses to handle it.
How did you share the news with your child?
We told her we had found someone to perform the search. We asked her if she wanted us to let her know when we heard any news and she did.
Within a couple of weeks we received news that our search was successful and we were provided with photos and a full report. We walked around stunned for a few days and then I let B. know that there was news from the searcher and did she want to hear the news? I assumed I would get a hearty “YES.” What I got was a lackluster, “I’m watching a movie right now. You can tell me in the morning.” I was stunned again.
I assumed in the morning, during our 20 minute car ride to school, she would ask for the news. Nope. She never mentioned it again. We knew how important this information was to her. We had to assume that it was just too “big” for her to deal with.
A week or two after that it was Christmas. We decided to frame a picture of her birth mom and wrap it up. When Christmas morning excitement wore down and she was alone in her room we gave her the box and told her, “The searcher found your mom. She is very happy to have been found. She loves you very much. We are also so happy to have found her. We have a picture of her for you in this box. You can open it if you’d like to see her picture. You can leave it unopened if you aren’t ready. We also have a full report and you can have the information if you want it. Just let us know.”
She asked us to leave the box so we did. The door shut no more than a few seconds when I heard the paper being ripped off. She wanted to see it despite being very “cool” about the search being successful. I later found the photo removed from the frame and braced for the worst. I feared she might have torn up the picture out of frustration, anger, hurt, etc. It turns out she removed the photo to examine it more closely. That touched me. That told me that she had yearned for a connection no matter how ambivalent she presented. The first thing she did was send a copy of the picture to her best friend who cried when she saw it because B. looks so much like her birth mother. And her friend was so happy for her.
For Valentine’s Day we printed up the message her birth mother and aunt had given the searcher for B. and put it in a card. She opened the card in private and has never said a word about it. They were very loving sweet notes. I know she read them.
How did your child react to the news?
She was very ambivalent and still is three months post-search. She was standing next to me at the computer one day and I casually asked, “Would you like to see a picture of your aunt?” She replied, “No, I’m good.”
Just months earlier she had sobbed heavy tears wanting this information. Now we have it and she can’t face it. We have assured her that her birth mother and aunt are thrilled we found them and that they have never stopped loving her. We have assured her that we want her to connect with her birth family and not fear loyalties. We have assured her we will take her to meet them as soon as she is ready. We have said everything we can think of to assure her that we love her forever and know she loves us as much. We have told her everything we can think of to welcome her family into our family. Wide open arms. All positives.
She just has very little emotion about it. It’s a lot to take in for sure. We have not shared with her anything that is in the report because she has not asked for it. At a minimum we wanted her to have a picture of her birth mom and to have the message her birth mom and aunt sent to her. Beyond that we won’t push anything on her until she is ready and comfortable asking. I do check-ins every few weeks though to make sure she knows all she has to do is let us know what she wants. She can ask specific questions or she can ask for the report. It’s her life and we won’t keep it from her.
What we have noticed is that since getting the news of her family being found she seems much happier, much lighter. Her school performance has improved, her school behaviors have improved (she was very chatty/disruptive, slacked on homework for some classes, etc.). She has become more affectionate, but she is an affectionate person to begin with. She just seems genuinely happier and more carefree. Perhaps, for now, just having a picture of her birth mother and the loving words from her birth mother and aunt are enough to soothe her.
How have you approached a relationship with the birth family?
The birth mother and aunt are illiterate so writing letters is out. They don’t speak English and we don’t speak Spanish so independent phone calls are out. Extended family does not know of B.’s live birth so we need to maintain privacy or the mother’s safety is at risk.
The aunt asked that we use her phone number so we have. We have a friend who is a native Spanish speaker and she has been wonderful to make the calls with us and interpret between us. So far we have called three times. All three calls have been very positive. The aunt unexpectedly called once and B. happened to be present. The aunt asked to be able to speak to her and B. agreed to listen. In Spanish the aunt told her they loved her very much and thought of her all the time over the years. B. was able to say, “Gracias, Tia” to her which I’m sure meant a lot. But B. was very uncomfortable with the exchange. She is just not ready so we aren’t pushing it.
What is your biggest challenge in maintaining a relationship with the birth family?
Besides the language issues, maintaining the mom’s safety is the biggest concern.
What do you see as the biggest benefit to your child and family for having searched?
I feel like our family just got bigger. I immediately embraced the birth mom and aunt. My husband is on board as well, but being a bit more cerebral about it than me.
The benefits have nothing to do with my husband and me though, obviously. It’s all about B. She now has the answers she has longed for. She has pictures. She has medical information. She has family history. She has a phone number, an address. She found her birth family. Her puzzle pieces fit together now. We are so happy for her.
I am also very relieved that she was not surrendered unwillingly as I had feared from the spotty history we were given at the time of her adoption.
What advice do you have for other adoptive families who are thinking about searching?
Search. Search even if your child is young and even if your child is not asking about birth family. The more time that goes by the harder it may be. Search even if your child doesn’t want to search. They will want this information some day and it’s important to piece together their story for them. B. is not ready for a relationship with her birth family, but we, her parents, are carving out a relationship for many reasons. Some reasons are to satisfy ourselves, but most are for B.
Anything else you would like to add?
I struggle with how to share the harder truths about her birth story and family. I know to soften the edges to be age appropriate in terms of what is shared and how, but she is soon going to be an adult. There will come a day when she simply has to know the more painful pieces of her history. I worry for her self-image and how she will process and interpret that information. I hope that once she understands the reasons why her mother could not provide her with a safe loving home that she will better understand the love it took to let her leave her side. All that being said…it’s still going to hurt. Searching heals more than it hurts, but there is still pain to be felt and dealt with. We can never make this adoption story perfect for everyone involved.
Thanks so much to the awesome G, who so generously and openly shared her story. If you'd like to share your story please let me know in the comments or on email.
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