' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Is Wanting to Know your Original Identity--Before Adoption--Natural?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Is Wanting to Know your Original Identity--Before Adoption--Natural?

Is it natural to want to know your heritage? is the question du jour to judge from comments about yesterday's blog. "It is the most natural and desirable aspect of an adolescent or young adult to have curiosity about his forebears, about his biological heritage and the sequence of his generational connectedness," Robert Jay Lifton, respected psychiatrist, thinker, author (and husband of adoptee and author Betty Jean Lifton) has said. We were both testifying in a trial in New York City for a woman who wanted to unseal her records in approximately 1977. "Incidentally," he added, "that curiosity is immediately stimulated by the very announcement that he or she is adopted. It is inevitable."*

My daughter (whom I relinquished to adoption) had an older brother, also adopted. He professed not to be interested in his natural parents or heritage, and turned down my offer of help after I found my daughter, Jane. He was in high school at the time.

Jane was always curious, and had told her parents she wanted to search as soon as she could; in fact, because of her epilepsy, her parents had tried to find out more about me, with possible contact in mind though ours was a closed adoption from the dark ages of 1966 in upstate New York. But they had no luck; I hired a searcher, found her, we met when she was fifteen.

Years pass. I was interviewing Jane for a book I would eventually write about our reunion and relationship, and she casually commented that her brother's not searching "was a gift he gave their parents."

Now, why is a lack of curiosity about one's forebears a "gift," if not a concept implanted by the culture?

More time goes by. Her brother marries, wants to have children. He now searches, hits a wall, and as far as I know, was unable to find out anything--another New York sealed-birth-records story. We all do things on our own timetable.

Adopted people who do not search are not deranged, as some of your seem to think I believe, but to not know one's heritage, and to insist there is no need to know, is surely a sign of cultural influence that is peculiarly American. We are one of the only countries in the world--if not the only country--where this attitude has taken such a firm hold. I am not saying that all adoptees or birth parents want to or will have a relationship, or should; that is for them to decide.

But as for the urge to know the truth of one's origins? Innate. Essential. Inborn. --lorraine
*Quoted from Birthmark. Because I had also testified in that trial, I was able to receive a transcript of it from the attorney for the adoptee, the wonderful and generous late Gertrude Mainzer.

PS: One last thought: if you have not yet written to Joe Roberts (see sidebar) in an effort to get the adoptee rights bill to the floor of the Assembly in New Jersey, please do so TODAY. If you are from New Jersey, were adopted in New Jersey, relinquished in New Jersey, so much the better; but if not, please still take the time to send a snail mail letter to him. We have been working to give adopted people their original birth certificates for more than two decades here, and we believe we have the votes--but the we can't get the bill to the floor for a vote. We want to inundate Roberts' office with letters. Without action, NOTHING HAPPENS. Now is the time to make it happen. Now is not the time to do nothing. Your letter might be the one that makes this happen. Tomorrow I will post the letter I sent.


  1. I think it's natural -- maybe not a compulsion for all adoptees -- don't most people at some point in their life, adopted or not, want to know a little more about how they ended up where they are? Sadly, a lot of adoptees are told that this questioning is unnatural and ungrateful to the people who raised them -- as if nothing mattered because most were pre-verbal when they were adopted.

    P.S. I sent my handwritten note to Roberts!

  2. Of course it's natural :-)

    To force someone to be otherwise is indeed implanted in culture and even religion--not religion as it was meant to be in its purest form, but some of the shame and guilt-filled portions that have been ingrained by the misguided aspects of Fundamentalism. Spare the rod, spoil the child. Children are to be seen and not heard. Children are there for the parent's enjoyment and fulfillment. Raise up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it. The misinterpreted quiverful concept of the Bible where one is only blessed by God if they have oodles of children (adoption and amended birth certificates and forcing a child to feel he/she "MUST" fit in and have no feelings otherwise is a "solution" to that problem). I could go on...and on...and on. There's too much of this in the entities providing adoptions and they're wrong, IMHO, so so wrong.

    I was to be a Tabula Rasa, a child like any other that could be molded and shaped and become a part of my family. "She might have curiosity" the agency told my parents. That was the extent of it. I was God's gift to them. Saying such a thing to a child, especially a religious child, makes that child feel that it is there obligation to be a gift, to be who their parents want them to be and to ignore any feelings otherwise. My adoptive parents are supportive and can tell me 100 times in a day that I am not betraying them by seeking to reunite. But the lack of understanding in their eyes and the crack of worry in their voices, coupled with the expectations that closed adoption has set up for me just makes me feel otherwise. We were not given the tools to deal with my thoughts and feelings about my natural mother; that is an injustice and that is just one of the sour tastes in my mouth from my adoption agency.

  3. I think it's natural, and agree with Robert Lifton. However I don't think searching should be regarded as a 'sine qua non' for being normal (as opposed to "the norm", that is).
    Besides, not searching doesn't necessarily = being incurious. It may mean a whole host of things, many not even related to adoption itself.

    I think timing is important. Some people have a lot of stuff going on in their lives at the same time (work, study, illness, moving, relationships, etc. I could go on), and they may not feel ready to search at such a time. They may simply prefer to wait until they have the emotional energy to engage with the experience in the most constructive way.
    Everyone with 1/2 a brain understands that searching and making contact is going to involve a significant amount of emotional upheaval. So, IMO, people need to be as prepared *in themselves* as possible under their particular circumstances, and not feel harassed by others into thinking there's something wrong with them if they don't search on cue.

    Little Snowdrop

  4. This blog seems in general to be preoccupied with defining different aspects of adoption as "natural" or "unnatural", without defining with precision what the terms mean. This particular blog post conflates "normative" with "natural". This is a very reactionary argument, for instance if heterosexuality is normative, is then homosexuality "unnatural"? Monogamy is normative in marriage, but is it "natural"?

    I wonder just how helpful it is to define adoption in terms of "natural" or "unnatural", since these terms are weighted in value. An adoptee's desire to know may well exist on a continuum; if an adoptee has no desire at 13 to search but decides at 33 to do so, were they unnatural as a teen?

    I find this effort to quantify desire as an attempt to deny adoptees autonomy.

  5. I don't think "natural" or its opposite "unnatural" are necessarily the right categories.
    I believe we have been over this territory before with "is adoption unnatural"? Both adoption and searching are going to keep happening whether some judge either activity "natural" or not.
    That really is not the point.

    Yes, most people would want to know, some would not care one way or the other. Both attitudes are natural depending on the person and their temperament and circumstances. One person's "natural" is another person's "wrong" or "unnatural", as seen from the discussion over whether adoption is natural or not. It is too fuzzy a category, too open to polarization and personalization.

    Nobody who wants to know about their natural heritage, adopted or not, should be prevented by law from doing so, nor should they be shamed or dissuaded by insecure adoptive parents or others from finding out as much as they need to know, and meeting and forming relationships with whomever they choose.

    Whether searching for one's ancestors or one's original parents is "natural" or not seems irrelevant. The fact is many do it and all who want to should have that right.

  6. Yes, on another blog we ground up the question, "Is adoption natural?" I agree with BB Church. The "natural" question is also loaded because it tends to moralize something for an agenda but natural and unatural just are. Gay. Plastics. Left-handed. Surgery. H1N1. You could go on.

    Having said that it seems totally reasonable to say that most kids are going to be curious and their curiosity could be better validated if openness were more the "norm".

  7. "I was God's gift to them. Saying such a thing to a child, especially a religious child, makes that child feel that it is there obligation to be a gift, to be who their parents want them to be and to ignore any feelings otherwise."

    I like this expressed sentiment.

  8. "Whether searching for one's ancestors or one's original parents is "natural" or not seems irrelevant. The fact is many do it and all who want to should have that right."

    Well said, Maryanne. I had the same experience as Amanda in that I was supposed to be my adoptive parents' tabula rasa. Even if they had been supportive (they were not), as Amanda said we were not given the tools to deal with our thoughts and feelings.

    Regardless of whether "natural" is the right term, non-adopted people are encouraged and even praised for exploring their heredity while adoptees are discouraged or condemned. I also think there is a difference between exploring heredity and making contact. For example, my birth mother has denied contact with me. But, if I had access to my origins, I could still explore my roots, find out where "my people" came from, etc. -- all without contacting her or her immediate family. I don't see why I should be denied that oppportunity just because I happen to be adopted.

  9. "The fact is many do it and all who want to should have that right."
    And not just those who want to, either.
    The prerogative applies to all. Whether they choose to exercise it or not is their business.

    Little Snowdrop

  10. Some light (?) relief, "Goodbye to the Normals":

    Little Snowdrop

  11. I think normalcy is easily defined in regards to adoptees who search as compared to the opposite sentiment adoptees who do search often receive. We are told "can't you just be grateful?" I've seen non-searching adoptees in online forums often scramble to show the rest of the world "not all of us feel that way! Not all of us search! I'm HAPPY the way things are!"--As if we searchers do so because we are sour, emotional wrecks. We are made to feel like traitors, betrayers to those who raised us, disgruntled, degenerate, odd, unhappy, ungrateful and "seekers of a new family because we don't like the one we already have." When someone says "searching is natural" it is not to say that not-searching is unnatural but rather that society ought not to label those of us who do search as degenerate weirdos who are betraying the "nice life that's been made for us." That we're not bizarre for not being able to "leave well enough alone."

    As an adoptee what would it feel like not to feel weird for once? Oh...just to know what what is like. *sigh*

  12. "For example, my birth mother has denied contact with me. But, if I had access to my origins, I could still explore my roots, find out where "my people" came from, etc. -- all without contacting her or her immediate family. I don't see why I should be denied that oppportunity just because I happen to be adopted"

    Triona, a HUGE point. Wow, the way you put that, it put the whole right to the OBC in context for me. Absolutely! Why the heck should you be denied a whole chain of ancestors just because one link doesn't want to know you (which I find totally insane and stupid but that's another story). Thanks for putting it that way. You are entitled to this knowledge. No one member of this clan can say you can't know, because you all belong.

  13. See new last line of post, not the PS.

  14. Of course it's natural.
    In those who are not adopted the desire is strong - we want to know more, dig deeper into our ancestry in an effort to take a better measure of ourselves.

    In someone adopted?
    It must be confusing and overwhelming.
    Am I the product of Nature or Nurture...or both?
    To what extent is each an influence?
    Am I like my mom or my mom?

    An adoptee that refuses contact, shuns it - either anger or fear is driving that decision.
    Once those emotions cool, I would bet most want to know of their past as anyone else would.

  15. "But as for the urge to know the truth of one's origins? Innate. Essential. Inborn."

    I wonder if that's true. I think it may be true that people seek a coherent narrative of themselves. As-if adoption produces a version of a coherent narrative, but only if you believe the central fiction that adoptees had no identity before they were adopted, or, that that identity holds no meaning. Adoptees who become dissatisfied with the narrative they're handed go in search of one that coheres more with their reality.

    I think what makes our society remarkable is not the ideal that blood-ties and origins are meaningless but that we also place a premium on blood-ties. I believe one of the top five uses of the Internet is for personal genealogical inquiry. Another top use is for porn. We do the same with sex, although we eroticize nearly every aspect of our culture we remain a deeply Puritanical and pleasure-averse society.

    So I don't think it's abnormal under the circumstances that adoptees feel bizarre, whether they decide to search or not. Our society zings them coming and going.

  16. To know ones ancestors is to know yourself. Curiosity and the need to search is as natural now as it was when the words below were written, so long ago.

    "I saw behind me those who had gone, and before me those who are to come.

    I looked back and saw my father and his father and all our fathers, and in front to see my son and his son, and the sons upon sons beyond. And their eyes were my eyes.

    As I felt so they had felt, and were to feel, as then, so now, as tomorrow and forever.

    Then I was not afraid for I was in a long line that had no beginning and no end.

    And the hand of his father grasped my father's hand and his hand was in mine, and my unborn son took my right hand and all, up and down the line that stretched from Time That Was to Time That is Not Yet, raised their hands to show the link.

    And we found that we were one......"

    - Richard Llewellyn

    "People will not look forward to posterity, who never looked backward to their ancestors"

    Edmund Burke [1729-97]

  17. I am going to leave this subject for now, but if the urge to learn the truth of one's origins was not an intellectual and emotional imperative for homo sapiens--well, then there would be no burning need of adopted people to have their original birth certificates. What would it matter?

    The other day I was in touch with someone who does searches in Michigan, and she told about being asked by her grandmother, who was in her eighties, to see what she could learn about her own background. Of course, her parents would be dead, but still she wanted to know.

    Is she unusual? Or representative of the need to know?

  18. I just watched a DVD called Voyages -three stories of Holocaust survivors looking for family members 60 years later. One man was practically 100 yrs-old and thought he'd found his daughter, another 90-something woman tracked down her cousin in Tel Aviv. The need to know what happened, feel connected, piece together a past--why wold anybody question it?

    How a family separation happens (adoption, war, floods) is different from one's need to know and and how they feel about not knowing and searching or not searching.



COMMENTS ARE MODERATED. Our blog, our decision whether to publish.

We cannot edit or change the comment in any way. Entire comment published is in full as written. If you wish to change a comment afterward, you must rewrite the entire comment.

We DO NOT post comments that consist of nothing more than a link and the admonition to go there.