When should my child meet her birth parents?
My 8-year-old adopted daughter has been asking to meet her birth parents for the past few months. We haven't had any contact with them, but it's possible that we could find them. On the one hand, I want to help my daughter find her family if that is what she truly wants. On the other hand, I worry that she is too young to process all the feelings that may arise from meeting them. I also want to protect her from a possible negative outcome (rejection by her family, death of a parent or a failed search) at such a young age. Other adoptive parents tell me how healing it has been for their children to meet their families of origin, yet my daughter's therapist is not sure it's a good idea to do this just yet. I'm torn.
Your question touches on many deep and important feelings in you, your spouse, your child, and others who care about you, as well as your daughter’s biological parents and relatives. With so many people as part of the situation, and all the meanings that reside for everyone in parenthood, family and children, there is no simple answer to the dilemma you face.
You have already begun to think about the various issues involved. That is the greatest gift you bring to your daughter - your love, care and concern for her happiness. And it is clear that you have found resources to support and advise you as you consider options. Perhaps it will also help you think if we put your questions into a broader context.
Almost all young schoolchildren, no matter what their family constellation or origin, enjoy imagining alternative families. In fact, this is so widespread that there is a technical name for it - it’s called the “family romance,” and that’s just what it is. Children construct a story that offers various solutions to whatever they face in ordinary life.
Many classic and modern books and films play upon this theme and rely for their appeal on the normal interest children have. Think of The Prince and the Pauper, Cinderella, Harry Potter and so forth. All these stories include dramatic elements of abandonment, loss, even mistreatment, along with rescue, excitement and happy-ever-after endings. It is attractive to children to imagine being able to avoid doing their chores by imagining they truly belong somewhere else. It’s more glamorous to be the long-lost princess than have to walk the dog, and questing for a far-off exotic family sure beats taking out the trash!
Another element in forming the family romance is that schoolchildren are just moving independently out into the world. They usually spend time in other kids’ houses and get to know other parents. Comparisons are inevitable and lead to those conversations about how “Johnny gets to do that at his house” or “everyone else can skateboard after supper.” Schoolchildren can see their own parents’ shortcomings more clearly than when they were younger.
But, even if they grumble, children in biological families know that their wishes and stories of being a changeling or the lost heir are just imaginary; they have the security of the reality of their unbroken family history and structure.
For adoptive children, it’s not that straightforward, since their own life histories contain many elements of those stories, making them seem potentially real. It can be hard sometimes for adoptive children to come to terms with their current parents, since the reality of the past biological family always presents an alternative.
So your 8-year-old’s wishes to meet her birth parents might stem in part from her ordinary developmental pattern of trying out alternative family scenarios. If that’s the case, taking more time to see if her wishes persist or get stronger may help you decide what to do.
At the same time, all children are fascinated with their own histories and that of their families. Most children, from preschool on, want to hear stories about when they were little and when their parents were little. For many centuries, adoption was common, and was usually not hidden.
Then, in the twentieth century, there was a time when many parents and agencies decided to keep the fact of adoption hidden from children. In reaction to the demonstrably negative effects of that secrecy, practices changed. Now most adoptive parents are counseled to include adoption naturally in family stories and histories, so that adopted children grow up always knowing.
Well-intentioned and positive though that practice is, it doesn’t stop children from generating their own theories and fantasies about why their birth parents didn’t keep them, what those people were like, wondering if they are nicer or worse than their adoptive parents, and so forth. Adopted children generate different ideas at each phase of their development, which match the relevant preoccupations. They need help from understanding adults, particularly their parents, to deal with each new level of questions and theories about their origins and outcomes.
Then we have to add the meanings of adoption for adoptive parents into the mix. For far too long, many people described biological parents as “real” parents, as if conception and birth were the defining characteristics, while the year-in, year-out work and devotion of doing the job of parenting is somehow less important or valid.
Sadly, this attitude can sometimes reflect a lingering doubt in the minds of adoptive parents, who may feel somehow less legitimate or authentic than they are. It seems that adoptive parents, each with their own reasons for making the noble choice to care for a child they haven’t borne, often carry an extra burden of worry that they will be found wanting. It’s hard enough to be a parent without additional concerns!
In one sense these issues are private ones for each adoptive parent. But parents’ feelings aren’t invisible to children. Adopted children pick up on insecurity and doubt in the parenting role. When you feel secure that you are your child’s “forever parent” you can confidently and sincerely say that you are grateful to the biological parents who made it possible for you to parent your child. When your child is older, she can decide if her questions demand that she actually seek out her birth parents.
In the meantime, your welcoming attitude to thoughts, feelings and fantasies about birth parents can reassure your child that you won’t be hurt by her curiosity. When she is more consolidated in her identity as her own person, then she will be able to explore other aspects of her history, including finding out more about her birth parents, maybe even trying to make contact with them. Instead of worrying about how stressful this could be, you might suggest to her that this will be a growth and enrichment opportunity she will be ready for when she is older.
Kerry Kelly Novick is a local psychoanalyst, affiliated with the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute and the Michigan Psychoanalytic Council, and a family consultant at Allen Creek Preschool. You can reach her through AllenCreek.org, or you can e-mail her your comments and questions for future columns. The ideas and opinions in this column are Kerry Kelly Novick’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Allen Creek Preschool, MPI or MPC.