The "Secret" of Adoption
by Lisa Ritter Starr
There are thousands of adult adoptees today, most of whom have in some way
voiced a desire sooner or later to find their birthfamilies. Whether it is
the sixth grader trying to complete a "family tree" assignment for school, an
eight-year-old being told who she most resembles (or doesn't resemble), or
the forty-something patient filling out a family medical background, people
who were adopted have emotional and physical needs to uncover the fact of
their adoption and have access to their biological background.
It is no wonder adoptions have often been secret if you consider that most of
them originate with a disappointing and emotionally difficult problem. At
first, both sets of parents may think the fact of their choosing adoption is
a sign of weakness or irresponsibility. On one hand, you may have a couple
who tried first to have children (the "old-fashioned way") and found out
later that this would not be possible. On the other, you have a birthmother
or couple with an unplanned pregnancy, and to make it worse they are probably
either young, poor, relatively uneducated, or a combination of the above.
And so, adoptions often begin with this "rock" and that "hard place," so to
speak, and a considerable effort is made to keep the child from getting
caught in the middle. Keeping it a secret is one way. Usually this is done by
excluding the child from information about the adoption. Some parents and
educators reason that children don't want to know they were adopted - they
might feel sad, abandoned, disconnected, or afraid of being whisked away by
The fact is, a few birthmothers have tried to whisk their children away later
on, and at times have even succeeded. Children have also been abandoned by
their birthmothers - in cars, alleyways, shopping malls, gas stations, you
name it. And yes, children have felt disconnected from their adoptive
families once they found out about their adoption. They have rebelled, run
away, and otherwise tormented themselves and their families with troubled
Perhaps this has perpetuated closed adoptions, tainting them further with
shame and fear. We decided that, when the child was born, it was best that
the birthmother not even see or hold the baby, that she simply forget the
whole ordeal as soon as possible. The birthmother and adoptive family did not
meet. That would be too awkward, and the birthmother might "erroneously"
conclude that she should keep the baby. The baby was then adopted, and this
may have been kept secret until the child accidentally discovered the legal
documents or was told about it much later in life.
There must have been a time when we really thought this would erase the
negativity, shame, and pain with which some adoptions begin. Yet today we
have more options - counseling, better parenting techniques - and more
information in studies of past, closed adoptions in which the secret was much
more harmful than beneficial for the adopted person. Most importantly, the
overwhelming majority of birthmothers do not try to reverse the adoption.
Knowing what we know now, can we still conclude that closed adoptions are the
way to go?
Children are watching their parents all the time. They are listening. They
notice how their parents act and feel, and they try to emulate it. Therefore
parents must be very careful to model behavior and control their emotions.
This is especially true with adoption. Adoptions often have negative emotions
like shame and fear attached to them from their inception. This must be
acknowledged and changed. If adoptive parents want healthy children, it helps
to start by being healthy. If they want loving, kind children, it is good to
show loving kindness to them and to others. This includes the birth family.
Children are not known to distinguish between "good" and "bad" unless others
teach them the difference. Therefore, we have got to get our own ideas of
good and bad straight.
Closing off all access to the birthfamily at the child's birth is a divisive
action that perpetuates the already negative origin of many adoptions. It is
done out of fear that problems will occur, not a fact-based knowledge of the
future. No one can predict the future. But we can give it shape by what we
do, think, and believe in each moment.
Parenting is the process of guiding and helping a child that needs full-time
loving kindness from healthy, whole adults. Adoption is no different, except
for the fact that there are two sets of parents. What is truly good for the
children is to have access to medical and personal information about
themselves, through both sets of families. Open adoption serves that purpose.
It is the only way to change adoption the problem into adoption the solution.
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