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who owns the adoption story

Whose Story Is It?

Question: I am adoptive mom of two adorable kids  and I attend a monthly support group for mothers like me in my country.

We have been discussing the importance of telling the child they are adopted. Not everyone thinks it needs to be told, since in our culture (which is fairly homogeneous) you can’t always tell someone is adopted just by looking. In fact, one of our members has a certain pride that her child that looks like a carbon copy her.  In this case, the child will never guess he’s adopted, so why tell?

I understand where that idea comes from, but I fear it will eventually harm the child. In attempting to help this mom see another way of thinking, I have quoted books, research and studies. I gave a lot of examples from my experience with my kids. But I am still looking for what could be an  AHA Moment for her.

Can you help? — Zilla in the eastern hemisphere.

who owns the adoption story

The Fundamental Question About the Adoption Story

Identity and trust are big issues for adoptees, and you’re wise to help parents do well by adopted children early on, while there’s still time to re-evaluate one’s methods.

The fundamental question adoptive parents must consider is this:

Who owns the adopted person’s story?

I’ll get to that in a moment, but ask your group to consider three main reasons to share information with the adoptee early and often.

1. A sense of Otherness involves more than just appearance. Adoptive parents must realize is that identity comes from so much more than just looks. Just because we CAN pretend that someone is biologically connected to us doesn’t mean we should.

2. The issue of trust. Time and again we hear from late discovery adoptees (LDAs) that they always felt different, even if they didn’t look different. What happens when they inevitably find out is that the trust they had with their adoptive parents gets ripped from under them. If they couldn’t trust their parents to share with them such a primal piece of their life story, then maybe there was never a true relationship to begin with.

Repair from such a breach becomes enormously difficult.

3. Truth comes out anyway. Especially these days when social media connects us in ways we’d never imagined, adoptees grow up and can dig around and find their stories on their own. They may be prompted by that inner feeling of Otherness (#1 above) and then the adoptive parents will have to deal with the big — HUGE — issue of trust (#2 above).

Plus, if anyone knows (or suspects) the true story — doctor, mother-in-law, cousin, neighbor, friend, clergyman, dry cleaner — the potential exists for beans to be spilled in the messiest way imaginable.

And even if social media or blurted news don’t lead someone to their own story, advances in DNA testing make it quite possible that such revelatory information will eventually come out. And then what happens to the parents’ relationship with their now-grown child?

We must remember also that secrecy is different from privacy. Privacy is when the person knows his story and decides who else gets to know it. Secrecy is when the person himself doesn’t know his story.

Listen to Adult Adoptees

It may be that “no one can tell” at first glance but there may be all kinds of dissimilarities beneath the surface. — Jodi Haywood, adoptee and author

You don’t need to show your fellow adoptive moms scholarly studies or research. Just point them toward the words of grown adoptees, stand-ins for their own children in a few years. Wouldn’t they rather know NOW while they can prevent problems of identity and trust? Have your friends read the comments on this post. Or this post from an LDA.

Or better yet, turn your group into a book club for the purpose of reading the invaluable adoptee perspectives in the book Adoptee Survival Guide and Adoption Reunion in the Social Media Age. You’ll discover the fallout resulting from keeping secrets from the person they’re about.

Maybe it’s More About the Parent than the Child

Is it possible to have an open unguarded conversation about WHY some mothers want to keep adoption a secret? In other words, get to the root reason why one might prefer untruth to truth.

  • Is it from a sense of insecurity that they want to claim their child as biological?                But see? That claim is not true. In making the claim, they are denying the truth.
  • Is it from shame?  Do they feel there is something shameful about being adopted? If so, if they DO feel that there is something shameful about their child, they would be doing everyone a favor by dealing with that feeling openly and resolving it. There is nothing shameful about a child.
  • Is it from wanting to protect the child from confusion? Jim Gritter, an author and social worker who has listened to hundreds of adoptees, says: Is it your experience that to be fully informed is to be confused?
  • Does the secret result from an Either/Or mindset? In the west, we are coming out of the age in which a child could have only one legitimate set of parents. Any extra parent had to be negated, denied. Doing so negates either the child’s biology or his biography — a part of the child. A BothAnd heartset is one solution, and it’s not that difficult to make the switch.
  • Is it from fear, from not knowing the words to say, how to help the child process this news? Parents need to get over that, perhaps with professional assistance. The best delivery comes when we’ve resolved our own triggers in telling the story (regarding shame, insecurity, confusion, either/or). As time goes on, the news gets harder and harder to deliver — and to receive.

So Whose Story Is It?

I believe, and so do many others, that the adopted person owns her story. I as a parent am merely caretaker of it, gradually handing over the parts of it to her as she is cognitively ready to process and incorporate it.

It is NOT my story to give or not give at my discretion. Indeed, it is not mine at all.

See also:

Dear Readers, what say you? Please share links to posts and articles that explain why adoptive parents should tell about adoption, even if one believes nobody  would ever guess.


About this Open Adoption Advice Column

  • I may occasionally call on others to help with answers, to tap into group wisdom.
  • I am not trained as a therapist. Please do not rely on words in this space to make your own major or minor decisions.
  • Readers are encouraged to weigh in thoughtfully and respectfully. I ask everyone to remember that this is a teaching endeavor rather than a shaming endeavor, and that we aim to bring light rather than heat. It’s my belief that people do the best they can with what they have to work with, and our goal is to give folks more to work with.

Send in your own open adoption question. I’ll either offer an answer or find someone who can address your issue.

Image from The New York Public Library via Martha Swope Photographs

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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14 Responses

  1. Such secrecy wreaks havoc with an adoptee’s intuitive knowing and causes them to doubt their internal voice. This injures something deep within their spirit leaving them doubly traumatized, first by living the lie and how it challenged their intuitive knowing as well as the excruciating trauma of realizing their parents withheld such important information. It destroyed their trust, damaged the relationship and called into question their entire lifetime of relationship as a family! Adoptees were devastated to learn they were surrounded by people who knew this fact all of whom colluded to hide it from the adoptee. Even if well intentioned, such deceit does not benefit adoptees or their families

  2. Lori, you make some wonderful points about why this form of dishonesty on the part of a parent is so harmful to their child and the parent/child relationship. I hope your wise, compassionate words are taken as a call for this mother to deepen her understanding of her actions, and perhaps look more clearly at her own motives and feelings. I would add two additional points:

    1. It is not only trust in the adoptive parents that gets harmed when the adoptee eventually learns the truth. It is trust in their entire community and family who also knew the truth and withheld it. Imagine learning that your counsins, aunts, the neighbors, the support group members, etc. knew this about you and hid it from you? How long would it take to repair that sense of betrayal?

    2. The adoptee is in actual, physical danger by virtue of providing inaccurate medical history to his or her physicians. The adoptee will fill out family medical history forms based on the adoptive family history, which is wrongly believed to be his or her own. “Sure, dad had a heart attack.” “Nope, no history of melanoma in my family.” Preventative medical steps that are needed would not be taken, and unnecessary testing could be done or fears raised based on this incorrect medical history. This false/absent information could seriously harm or even kill an adoptee. Here’s a recent story from the New York Times Magazine about an adoptee who almost died from lack of correct medical history.

    Thanks for this great post.

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head with advising to stop with throwing research and data at this mother and instead exploring why she is reluctant to share her child’s story with them. There’s clearly so relief that is coming through with being able to pass this child off as her own biological offspring. Is there sigma she’ll face if the child’s true origins are revealed? Is there shame associated with unresolved trauma from infertility? Of choosing to adopt to expand her family? What is the motives for promoting lies and secrecy?

    1. You hit on something that I also thought of while pondering this question. I realized I come at this from a position of privilege. In my culture, the shame of infertility is lessening. I know there are other places in the world in which infertility is not talked about, accepted, or something that garners compassion.

      I think to deal with one’s own sense of shame in such a culture would be very, very difficult. Not only to the parents pay the price, but the child does, too.

  4. I am a person who suffered the secrecy of my ‘family’. That secrecy harmed me and through me harmed others. I am no longer open to contact with those of my ‘family’ who are alive.

    Lying is toxic behaviour. In my case it completely devalued my understanding of family. It was their intent that I would never know. Having a child and discovering what it is to really know and be like a person (despite the fact that he looks only slightly like me and more like his mother) set me on a path of discovery.

    They did not accept or address the person I am, preferring instead to service their own needs or fears. In the end, they sowed hurt, anger and rejection.

    I belong to a group of late discovery adoptees. Not all have taken the same path as I have but it is not uncommon either. All are hurt the majority are angry.

    Is that really the direction this person wants to head in?

  5. Excellent post. I thought this kind of chicanery had at least been scrubbed from the public consciousness. Most of the late discovery adoptees I hear from are horrified that Mom and Dad lied to them for so many years, and they now are truly conflicted over how to react to them.

    In today’s world, if parents want to keep an adoption secret, the child in question needs to have no cousins, and the people need to move to a different country where no one knows them.

  6. How can you teach your child not to lie, and, keep a straight face knowing that you have lied to them their entire life.

    How can you teach your child to have a strong moral code, and, betray that code by keeping the truth about their origins from them.

    Secrets always come out. Always. Secrets also create an unseen, but felt, barrier that lessens the relationship.

    Parents always say they would lay down their life for their child, if that is true, being truthful should be easy…especially seeing as family health history is a necessary tool the doctor will ask for, even if there is none, it’s better than giving someone else’s, has the potential for great harm.

    I’m still not understanding why anyone wants to not tell. Is being adopted – shameful? Is being adopted – bad? Hiding it, sure makes it seem like it is…

    Don’t ruin your relationship…deal with whatever fears you have, angst, envy…you’re a mom now, be a mom…

  7. Thanks for your posts Lori… I wish I had time to read them all. My birthparent search blew up last year in mostly frustrating ways. My story in brief – similar i’m sure to many you know :
    Born in ’66 adopted at a month old into a family with two older (also adopted) sisters. ALWAYS knew i was adopted because mom & dad made a point to emphasize how special we were. Ours was a quite stoic family in a very stoic Dutch Reformed subculture, which places a heavy emphasis on the power (sovereignty) of God over all things and places the yoke of gratitude as the only thing we “owe to God”. ie… God did all the heavy lifting of getting us into His Family by adopting us through the work of Jesus.
    The result in my case… a nurture-starved boy with a strong preponderance for theology and a suppressed desire for PLAY and AFFECTION. Any sparks of curiosity about who my birthparents were or what MY story really is all about, were quickly smothered under the heavy wet blanket of gratitude… “I SHOULD JUST be grateful that …”

    The fact is I WAS grateful. But I was a lot more….
    Now, finally at nearly 50 years old I’ve begun to search.
    Only to find a birth-mom who has stopped responding out of fear because (i think) nobody else yet knows her secret “situation” including her other four grown children.
    AND to find a birth-dad who IS communicating with me by email but who’s current wife is threatening to expose his “situation” to HIS two grown children.

    So, I have yet to take ownership of MY STORY as it is still THEIR SECRET. I really want some medical answers, but more than anything I really want to look them in the eye, hear their story, hug them, and tell them of my journey so far.

    ….maybe this year.

  8. By hiding the truth, the APs make known their belief and demonstrate through years of follow-up action, their clear (but unspoken) philosophy that adoption is so embarrassing and so shameful that it is worthy of being hidden. Is that really what the APs want to communicate to their adopted children?
    If your entire relationship is based on the “lie of paternity”, how can you ever hope to have a real, true relationship? I know that I would have a very difficult time dealing with such a lie and who ever told it to me–no matter when I found out. And, truth has a way of outing itself over time.

  9. I think this is a wonderful break down of the question, getting to the heart of the matter. And you’re right, this is a matter of trust. You’re holding your child’s story for him/her until he/she is old enough to understand it. But it’s never yours to keep for your own. That is true for all parents.

  10. I love the idea of a “caretaker” of a story … and in fact, I think there are lots of places where if we applied this same approach, we’d probably be a lot more gentle and open with each other. Thanks for this, Lori.

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