You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Tue, Apr 6, 2010 : 7:30 a.m.

When should my child meet her birth parents?

By Kerry Novick

Dear Kerry,
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.
A.M., Michigan

Dear A.M.,
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, 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.



Sun, May 30, 2010 : 12:47 a.m.

As an adoptive parent of two now grown daughters, I have to disagree with Top Cat. Lying (telling my child that I tried to find them when I did not) undermines my parenting of my children. I told both of my girls that when they were of legal age to search, I would help them to find their birth parents, if they wanted to find them, and I did so. Ours were 'open-closed' adoptions, meaning that the birth parents agreed that we could have ALL of the identifying information prior to finalization (at placement) so that the girls could find them when they were adults if they wanted/needed to. I never lied to my daughters about anything. I answered their questions as much as I was able to. At 8, a child is not ready for two families, unless it is unavoidable, as in divorce. Believe me, THAT is hard enough on kids. To add 'real' vs 'unreal' to the mix -- as so many seem to imply that birth vs adoptive is -- complicates the formative yrs in many ways. IF the adoption is 'open', depending on the maturity of all involved, there can be good, but there can also be conflict and undermining on both sides. And the kids are in the middle, always. Never lie to kids. Honesty is always best. Look to the future with them, and be there to aid in any way, NEVER fearing being replaced or losing the love of the child. If a parent can love more than one child... a child can love more than one parent.

Jo Anne Swanson

Wed, Apr 7, 2010 : 9:49 a.m.

As a court-appointed Confidential Intermediary (CI) here in Michigan, I can tell you that you have an option the mother from Wisconsin perhaps doesn't have. Adoptive parents of minors can petition the court of finalization for CI services, a valuable go-between in a case like this. Such a contact would not directly involve the minor child, but give the parents an opportunity to 'test the waters' about potential contact, indirectly through the CI. It's important to remember two things: In today's adoption environment, the majority of children are placed in open adoptions. Kids in school discuss these things, as you might imagine. A child who has no knowledge of/contact with her birthmother may feel disenfranchised when her peers talk about their own birth families. This adoption construct changes the experience of today's adoptees from that of previous-era adoptees who today feel they "couldn't possibly have handled" contact with a birthmother. It gives adopted children an appreciation for, and acquaintance with, both sets of "real" parents: real birthparents and real adoptive parents. Second, if an eight year old has expressed intense interest in her birthmother, it may be at the expense of other facets of her life - like her school studies, her sleep, her feelings of self-worth (compared to her peers who know their birthmothers) and more. Even though many adult adoptees report not having felt, or perhaps suppressing, interest in their birthparents in childhood, a great many others have reported spending inordinate amounts of time, bordering on obsession, pondering their origins. Some dealt with it through fantasy, others through acting out, still others through clandestine (if futile) searching. (One boy spent as much time as possible at a friend's house, believing the friend's mother to be his own birthmother.) Marcia's suggestion to check with your adoption agency may be the best place to start. They may be doing predominantly open adoptions now and may have some excellent suggestions for opening - or partially opening - your adoption to a level that is comfortable for everyone.


Wed, Apr 7, 2010 : 12:17 a.m.

If she does not already have the information as to where the birth parents are, and who they are (in other words, is in a closed adoption)...then the laws of the State of birth apply, and there is a definite age that one can begin to search, usually 21, sometimes 18. One was even older. I told my own kids that I could give them all of the information when they were adults, as per the agreement with the adoption agency, and that I would help to find them after they were 21 (WI legal age) IF they wanted to. My oldest did not want to until she was 26, and it took us 3 weeks to find her bmother. My second didn't want the information until later, and then took over a year to finally contact her, and she waited nearly 8 yrs to hear from her. THAT only came about when we 'stumbled' on other family members that my son worked with, and they chose to tell her bmother about it. A short, not so nice letter came. However, the other family members wanted to meet, and this finally took place this past weekend.... See More My oldest had a not so nice experience with her bfather's family, and she would NOT have been able to process it as an 8 or even a 18 yr old!! She has a f good relationship with her bmother and bsiblings on that side of her birth family. An 8 yr old who has had no contact with bfamily is not ready, and it is very easy to tell her as I did, we must follow the law, but I will help you search when it is ok if you still want to meet. My second had many fantasies of being rescued by a rich bmother.... and I knew in my heart that this was not what was going to happen. It didn't... and she has been hurt, but is ok. A teenager has even more difficulties at times, in the process of becoming adult, and that also would be a hard time to begin contact, but may be MUCH better than for an 8 yr old. I still don't think it is a good idea. Contacting the adoption agency may give some update, but if closed, there will be no identifying information, and they cannot help to search until that legal age takes place. If this is an OPEN adoption where there has been some contact, it isn't so much of a drastic change.


Tue, Apr 6, 2010 : 10:38 a.m.

And also, I would like to suggest a website to you Fabulous support group for anybody touched by adoption.


Tue, Apr 6, 2010 : 10:35 a.m.

I was adopted during the closed records era. I had to pay to find my birth family. I have been reunited almost 2 years now, and my birth family has become "bonus" family. No they did not raise me, and my Mom and Dad that did are my parents. However, my reunion with them has been wonderful, and they share in all of our family tragedies and triumphs. I made the decision to search as an adult. Had I been a child, I would not have been ready to face the feelings and fears. Searching was a true roller coaster ride. May I suggest that you find her birth family, contact them, and then allow her to have more information. She may not need to meet them, but you can get information for her that gives her her heritage and the circumstances that facilitated her adoption.

Top Cat

Tue, Apr 6, 2010 : 8:10 a.m.

Let me weigh in as an adopted child. There is nothing to be gained by your daughter meeting her birth "parents". If fact, they are not her parents at all. Being a parent is showing up every day and you are her parents. If she raised the issue again, simply tell her you tried to find them and could not. If she wants to find them when she becomes an adult, she can do so.