The purpose of this project was to design and administer a survey to measure how satisfying reunions are to adult adoptees and birthparents of adult adoptees that have met after years of separation by a stranger adoption.
Adoption is taking a child from its birthfamily, then placing him or her with another family to be raised until an adult. Adoption in this sense has been happening since the beginning of time. The difference is in how adoption has been practiced this century.Late in the 19th century, enactment of adoptions laws gave adopted persons the same legal rights as children born into a family. Social services agencies felt this was necessary because some people adopting children did so to be a source of inexpensive labor. With statutory adoption came the practice of issuing an amended birth certificate showing the adoptee being born to the adoptive parents. In the middle of this century, laws were enacted to seal adoption records from public view to protect the adoptee from the stigma of illegitimacy.
Reunions are a natural part of family separations. The process and outcome of reunions is what needs study. Are reunions satisfying to the reunitees? If not, why not? Can something be done to have them be more satisfying?
Searching is what adoptees and birthparents do to resolve their issues of loss surrounding adoption. Sorosky, et al., and Lifton, found in their studies of reunited adoptees that, searching was not an indication of psychological maladjustment, pathology, or a poor relationship with the adoptive family. They feel that search is a healthy response to wanting to know about their past (Sorosky, Panor, Baron, 1978, p. 197; Lifton 1979, p. 74).Research shows that adoptees often feel compelled to deny their need for a reunion, postponing searching for years. They cloak their needs in terms of wanting medical history, or to know siblings. Society makes them feel guilty for wanting to know their birthmothers; they fear appearing like a disloyal-ungrateful adoptee. An adoptee does not begin searching on impulse (McColm, 1993, p. 101; March, 1995, p. 48; Verrier, 1993, p. 154; Giddens, 1983, p. 37; Waner, 1988, p. 119). “Burying and denying their needs for information about their origins have by now become second nature” (McColm, 1993, p. 108).The search itself is a part of the healing. It is not just adoptees searching for birthmothers. Birthmothers search for their child lost to adoption. “Many [birthmothers] begin to search, realizing in retrospect their inviolable right to the child they bore, and overturning the expectations of both the law and the society that imposed a closed adoption upon them” (McColm, 1993, p. 41). In adoption reform groups, it is believed that birthmothers have as much right to search as an adoptee does. These groups acknowledge how deeply birthmothers have been affected by the loss of their child (Aigner, 1986, p. 65).Searching can become an obsession, with little else able to get the searcher’s focus, until the person of the search is found. Searching has a tremendous emotional impact, and “reunions are almost uniformly described as emotionally draining” (Gonyo, Watson, 1988, p. 20).Nevertheless, Geddiman and Brown (1989) found that those who search are the most reunion ready (p. 68).
Secrecy has been the practice in adoption for about the last fifty years. Adoption professionals promoted it as being necessary to protect the parties involved from intrusion from their counterparts. “These claims are refuted by this study, which demonstrates that secrecy in adoption hardly serves the interest of the participants in adoption; instead, it promotes fears and misconceptions about each others’ motives” (Sachdev, 1992, p. 66).
Another study finds this secrecy to be “a sadistic violation of their [adoptees] physical and emotional intactness” (Bertocci, Schecter, 1991, p. 192). “Research studies, including this one, consistently report that current adoptive arrangements based on secrecy cause needless grief, pain, and fears among members of the adoption triangle” (Sachdev, 1992, p. 66). Sachdev says the secrecy is contrary to the goal of adoption of serving the best interests of the child. He feels that secrecy is futile in light of the benefits coming from reunions (1992). Birthmothers are not seeking secrecy from their child; they want to know what happened to their child. They welcome the opportunity to talk about the experience after years of living in the closet. They found it therapeutic (Geddiman, Brown, 1989, p. xviii; Giddens, 1983, p. 37).
Effects of Reunion
Reunions are a way for healing through reconciliation. Still though, they can be very difficult. What rights and responsibilities does one have in a reunion? What does one do with intimate strangers? It can take years after a reunion to surface all the repressed emotions. The reunitees must come to the acknowledgment that they can never regain what was lost. It takes years to undo all of conditioning for what each one’s expected role in adoption was (McColm, 1993, pp. 209-210). Before reunion, “Women who still lacked any information about their relinquished child showed significantly more negative affect and poorer psychological well-being than those who had at least obtained some non-identifying information” (Field, 1992, p. 233).
Adoptees and birthmothers develop a phenomenon known as a sub-self. This can begin to set up a pattern of expectations within the adoptee and they may have to take onsub-self’ in order to accommodate what is expected of them.” “The ‘False Self’ [for the birthmother] was created by many birth mothers to accommodate the pain. She needed a new part that could pretend that she was doing fine, when she really wasn’t (Carlini, 1992, p. 18, 94).Reunion for adoptees accomplishes many things. Many adoptees go into search to gain a more cohesive identity. Because they have been cut-off from their past there is a void, a missing piece. Reunion helps adoptees with this. To know someone they look like, have similar personality characteristics, talents, intellect, and are related to genetically (Sachdev, 1992; Waner, 1988, pp. 197-199). “All of the adoptees in the study were able to recognize some aspects of themselves in members of their birthfamilies” (Waner, 1988, pp. 196-197). Similarities found in reunion are intriguing.
Success and Satisfaction of Reunion
There are no bad reunions, because knowing is better than not knowing (Rillera, 1991 p. ii; Geddiman, Brown, 1989, p. 60). Searchers and reunitees have few regrets.The relationships do not necessarily become mother-child relationships, but there is involvement in each others’ lives (March, 1995, p. 110). Other members of the birthfamily are an important part of the reunion process. Seventy-eight percent of Sachdev’s participants had a joyful and rewarding experience with other members of the birthfamily (1992). Birth-siblings are an important part of the reunion satisfaction. Many adoptees developed stronger relationships with birth-siblings than they did with their birthmothers or birthfathers (Sachdev, 1992; Humphrey, Humphrey, 1989; Geddiman, Brown, 1989, p. 195; Waner, 1988, p. 228; Verrier, 1993, p. 178).