"How Our Family Approached Our Birth Parent Search"

Three families describe their relationships with their children's birth parents — deciding to keep in touch, searching for birth parents, and managing an already open adoption.

An illustration of a family

Russian Roots

by Denise Flagg

My husband and I adopted three siblings from Russia. The children were nine, seven, and four at the time, so they all had memories of their Russian parents. Three years after bringing them home, I decided to start searching, because I knew that they all had unresolved questions. I waited to discuss my searching, however, because I knew they needed more time in our home before they would be ready for that life-changing process.

I began my search by sending a letter to one of the people who had testified at the adoption hearings. That person did, indeed, know my children’s birth parents. After receiving my letter, she arranged a meeting with their father. She said he sat down, looked at the pictures I’d sent, and cried. He sent us a letter immediately, writing: “I am so happy to hear from you.” We eventually heard from their birth mother, as well.

Our correspondence was sketchy at first. (With a house full of children, the years flew by.) From the beginning, I sent stories about each child. But when one of them began having severe problems, I wondered whether to disclose this. I didn’t want to worry their parents. Finally, I decided that they had a right to know about their children, no matter how painful the details. Their birth father shared information about the children’s early years, and told us about his current family situation.

Last year, we felt our kids were mature enough, and secure enough in their new home, to handle contact with the birth parents they remembered. The three have handled this in different, somewhat unexpected, ways. Our oldest child has spoken with her first mother, but has little interest in rebuilding a relationship. “Mom, I hardly know these people,” she tells me.

The middle child corresponds with her father but has no interest in talking with her mother. “She abandoned me. I can’t forgive her for that.”

Interestingly, the youngest child, who never really knew his first parents, is the keenest on corresponding. His reason is simple: “These are my biological parents, and I love them.”

Denise Flagg lives in Austin, Texas. She is the mother of seven children, three of whom were adopted from Russia.

Respecting Their Right to Choose

by Kyle Messner

My children, both adopted from China, have different opinions about search. Twelve-year-old Mei Ling wants nothing to do with looking for her birth parents. When I ask her how frequently she thinks of them, she replies, “Only when you bring them up.”

My eight-year-old son, Kevin, believes he’d like to find his birth parents someday, “as long as I come home with you.” They have three cousins who were adopted from Eastern Europe. Two of them remember their birth parents, and do not want to search for them at all. In the case of the third, we have reason to believe that his birth mother would not want to be found.

I think searching for birth families is a very personal decision, so I’m resolved to follow my children’s leads. Barring a medical emergency, I feel it is not my place to initiate a search on my own. If they ask for my help, I will do all I can. If they one day wish to search on their own, I will give them that space. At this point, it’s impossible to know what they’ll eventually choose to do. My son may change his mind, and Mei Ling may decide to look for her birth parents. But I do feel they need the freedom to make those decisions on their own.

Kyle Messner is a mother of two children, ages 12 and eight, both adopted from China. She lives with her family in Phoenix, Arizona.

Across the Gulf

by Jane Doe*

Our Guatemalan adoption has always been open. We chose our agency and lawyer based on their willingness to mediate contact, and we have been in touch with our child’s first mother, Maria*, on and off since our adoption trip. From the start, we were prepared to help her family. It seemed natural—we had so much, they needed so much. Perhaps we could help our daughter’s older siblings go to school, we thought, or help her mother receive some job training.

Four months after the adoption was completed, our liaison accompanied Maria and her children to a local school, to pay their tuitions with money we’d sent. She e-mailed us later in the day, to say how happy the children were to sign up for school. The following week, our liaison would go with Maria to enroll her in nursing training.

But, that evening, the school director called the liaison to alert her that Maria had returned to the school, saying she’d changed her mind; the school director felt she had no choice but to give the tuition fees back.

We decided to wait and see what happened next. Several days later, Maria called the liaison and asked if she could have the money that we’d offered for her job training, to use for other expenses. The liaison said she would ask us, but that she also had to explain to us what had happened to the children’s tuition money. At first, Maria denied that she had re-claimed the money, then came up with contradictory stories, and finally became defensive. “Well, if you and they don’t trust me, perhaps we should not be in contact,” she said, before slamming down the phone.

We were heartsick. In our minds, Maria had swung from a struggling mother who would now be able to provide her children with schooling to a manipulative, impulsive person. And we realized that our own good intentions—combined with our assumptions about how the money ought to be used—had brought only trouble.

Months later, we finally wrote a letter that felt right, but when our liaison tried to deliver it, she found that Maria had moved. It was three years before we found her again. At that point, we cautiously began to build a relationship.

Now we e-mail about once a month. We send small gifts, and they send us drawings and precious photos. We also help financially, no strings attached. We wrote to Maria to say that she is the head of her family, and we do not want to control how she uses the money we send. We told her that we all know how money can cause problems, and that our relationship is important. That we are, in some way, family.

About a year into the new relationship, Maria wrote that she felt bad about what had happened, that she had not “known our hearts” then. She felt she had squandered an opportunity, and hoped we would forgive her. We replied that, of course, we forgave her. We understood that our offering money for schooling, rather than asking her about her family’s needs, put her in a difficult position.

Relations between adoptive parents and birth parents almost always straddle gaps of power, class, and, often, race. And those things matter, deeply, despite the fact that our society tells us they shouldn’t. Its natural for people who are impoverished and powerless to be and act needy. I’ve noticed that Maria writes more often when she needs money, or when it’s time for our liaison to transfer funds. And even though it’s uncomfortable to be asked—or begged—for more than you are ready to give, that doesn’t make the asking wrong or the asker unreasonable.

I’m continually wondering how close we can be, how much help it is healthy to send. In the end, we just muddle through as best we can. And it’s worth it. Whatever the influence of needs, hopes, and wants, despite the treacherous effects of her poverty and our wealth, we are coming to share our hearts and our love for the child who connects us. No question: It is worth it!

*names have been changed to preserve privacy.


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