A quest that can taste of betrayal

Adoptive parents can feel crushed when children decide to seek their natural parents, says Kate Hilpern. But the experience can be positive for everyone
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Richard Palmer believed his relationship with his 25-year-old adopted daughter could withstand anything. But when she announced that she wanted to find her roots, he discovered a kind of resentment he didn't know he was capable of. "I felt totally betrayed," he says. "It was my wife and I who had nurtured her through all the good and bad times since she was a few weeks old. Yet it was as if she was ready to call a complete stranger her parent. I didn't know how to deal with it because I wasn't used to discussing, or even thinking about, the fact that she is adopted."

Until recently, secrecy in adoption was considered an essential way of sweeping under the carpet the shame attached to illegitimacy and infertility. Before the mid-Seventies, adopters were usually led to believe that having told their children they were adopted, it was in everyone's interests to pass them off as their own flesh and blood. After all, the existence of birth parents was ignored by society, professionals and families alike, leaving no fear of a reunion. Some couples even concealed the fact that their child was adopted by leaving their community for a few months and returning with a new baby.

But the 1975 Children's Act gave adult adoptees access to their original birth certificate which has enabled many of them to trace their families of origin. With more adoptees searching than ever before, many adoptive parents, like Richard, are left feeling extremely confused and unprepared.

It is not just people who adopted over two decades ago that are prone to those feelings. While those adopting after the 1975 Act were warned of a possibility of a reunion, it remained a closed subject in many families. Very often, children were told they were "chosen" and "special" at a very young age only to find that parents were emotionally unprepared to deal with any questions they had as the grew older, particularly if they had never come to terms with their infertility.

Even the vast number of adopters who fully understand their children's need for find their true identity are not immune from jealousy and fears of rejection. Lesley Kirk's 19-year-old son, James, who suffered behavioural problems in the past, had always expressed a strong interest in finding his birth mother. "When he was 15, his problems were so bad, that I, without telling anyone, traced his birth mother and telephoned her," she explains. "I was very concerned how James, and we, would cope if she did not want to see him later on. When I spoke to her, she agreed she would be happy to meet James. At that time she was just a voice.

"But a year later, when it was agreed they would meet, James asked if I wanted to see a photo of her, and that's when everything changed. She suddenly became a real person and my reaction astounded me. Having cheerfully accepted that this was going to happen, I could not believe how upset and threatened I felt. We had struggled through all James's difficulties throughout his life and all of a sudden there was this other woman laying claim to our son. But James's meeting with her was very successful. His aggressive behaviour has gone and I feel relaxed again. His feelings for us didn't change. We are still his Mum and Dad."

The most common fear for adoptive parents is that they will be replaced or that they will no longer be valued. That can be particularly intense when their children reach their teens. Ian Tomkins of After Adoption explains: "It's very easy for adoptees to fantasise about perfect birth parents, especially during adolescence when they are trying to mark out an identity that is separate from their adoptive parents. A lot of adoptive parents worry that they are going to lose their child, especially when they say things like `You're not my real mum anyway'. But it's not an uncommon way for adolescents to deal with particularly complex concerns about identity."

For other people to be referred to as their child's "real" parents can be extremely distressing. But research overwhelmingly shows that most adoptees who trace are not unhappy in their adoptive families and that their reasons are connected with identity formation or genetic information.

Dr David Brodzinsky, associate professor of developmental psychology at Rutgers University in the US, believes that all adoptees engage in a search process. Although it may not be literal, he says it begins when the child first asks "Why did it happen?", "Who are they?" and "Where are they now?" - whether out loud or in solitude. "Adoption undoubtedly has an emotional impact because an entire family has been lost," he says. "So it's not surprising when people want to find that family to enable them to find out who they really are."

Around half of all adopted people trace their birth parents, the majority consisting of women in their late twenties, who often decide to do so as a result of getting married or giving birth. The reunion can generate euphoria or immense disappointment and the adoptee sometimes withdraws from the adoptive family for a time to come to terms with it. In fact, the anxiety of adopters that their children may experience a rejection is often mixed up with fears of their own rejection. But almost all adoptees break out of that withdrawal and are glad they searched, irrespective of the outcome because, if nothing else, it leaves them feeling complete.

Pat Pearce, who adopted four children, has found that the one who had the most knowledge of her past during her childhood has the most self- esteem. But she also discovered that the decision for adoptees to actively search is entirely individual. "I brought all my children up with the same values and adoption has always been talked about a lot," she says. "Despite that, each of them has had a very different attitude to tracing birth parents." Pat's open and positive attitude to adoption is typical of adopters who consider their circumstances as a alternative type of family rather than second best. "Looking back, I think that the day we collected our different babies, it established my very keen and increasing awareness that without the birth parents, there wouldn't be that particular child. So I felt that they, and my children's feelings about them, should be constantly acknowledged. One of my daughters comes from a foreign background, for instance, and so I make a point of trying to buy her gifts made in that country at Christmas."

Philippa Morrall of Parent to Parent Information on Adoption Services (PPIAS), and an adoptive mother, says openness about feelings is essential for a positive adoption experience. She believes all adoptive parents whose children are searching should have access to support so that they can address their very real fears. However, many are simply unaware of such specialised services, especially as the emphasis on a search excludes the adoptive parents. How many articles about Clare Short's reunion with her natural son last year mentioned his adoptive parents?

"I think adopters are marginalised because it is felt they have done their bit," she says. "So there is a tendency for professionals to be unsympathetic towards them. Social workers are inclined to say, `well, they knew this might happen so they should be able to handle it', which is not at all helpful. Even though the parents that brought you up cannot be replaced, their concerns about that are understandable."

PPIAS get numerous calls from adopters who simply do not know how to broach the subject with their child. "It's one of those situations like people's capacity to discuss sex or death," Philippa says. "They can become taboo over years and increasingly difficult to talk about and children pick up on that. They will either ask you why somebody's boobs are so big in the supermarket or else they won't because they know that's the sort of thing Mummy gets cross about. But the onus is always on the adopters to bring the matter up because no child chooses to be adopted."

Most children are very aware of their parents' vulnerabilities and do not want to upset them, accounting for why they often wait until one or both of them die, or alternatively go ahead and search in secret. While those options may seem the kindest and easiest for adoptive parents and their children, all professionals agree that honesty is the best policy for everyone involved in the adoption triangle in most instances. Although it is a traumatic time, almost all adoptive families survive it and many, like Richard Palmer and his daughter, become closer as a result of becoming involved in one of the biggest journeys an adopter's child will ever take.