Editor’s Note: This reader’s question generated strong reactions both from those in favor of the writer initiating contact with her son’s birth mother and those who were opposed. We’ve presented responses from both.
Dear Adoptive Families:
Our one-year-old son, whom we adopted this past December, is the joy of our lives. As we watch his personality, natural abilities, and talents begin to unfold, however, we are filled with wonder about his genetic heritage. Were his birth parents musical? Strong and athletic?
Recently, while I was looking at our son’s adoption records, I noticed there was a “last known address” listed for his birth mother. I’d like to send her a letter and photo of him to this address to let his birth mother know that her son is loved and healthy. I’d also like to give his birth mother the opportunity to share information with us. I figure if she still lives at the address listed, now is the time to try to learn more. In 17 years, when our son is old enough to search on his own, she probably will no longer reside at this address and the search will be much more difficult.
My husband thinks that I’m opening a can of worms, that initiating contact may lead to ongoing contact that we do not want. He doesn’t want me to send the letter and photo. Should I leave well enough alone, or should I try to find out what I can for my own curiosity and for my son who one day will want to know as much as possible about his birth parents?
–From a subscriber in California
Yes, Initiate Contact With Your Child’s Birth Mother
Contact Can Increase Parents’ Security
A comment from Joyce Maguire Pavao, Ph.D., adult adoptee, founder and director of Center for Family Connections, Cambridge and New York and author of The Family of Adoption.
Before contacting anyone, you and your husband need to be on the same page (or at least in the same book) concerning what to do. His concerns are valid, but your inclination for connection is also valid. It has been my experience in nearly thirty years of post-adoption work that parents feel more secure and less anxious if they have contact with their children’s birth parents.
At the time of an adoption, many adoptive parents simply want their baby and pay little or no attention to advice or suggestions regarding contact with birth family. After they have the child and feel totally his or her parents, they begin, as you did, to appreciate where he comes from and what he comes with, and they start to wish that they had some contact with the birth family. This is normal and fine.
Many adopted people wish to search and believe that they must wait until they are 18 or 21 and away from their adoptive family before starting to search. Thus search becomes an endeavor that is part of their separation from their family into adulthood. But in many ways it is better for the family to be connected to the search and reunion. If parents establish a relationship with their child’s birth family at an earlier point in their child’s life, they can better determine what contact is in their child’s best interest.
An ongoing and growing relationship that you might create with your son’s birth mom and other birth family members will make it much easier at a later time when you or your son may choose to increase contact.
If you decide to make contact, remember that boundaries are important — especially before a real relationship with mutual trust is established. Your husband’s concerns must be taken into account. It might be best to get a P.O. box to use for correspondence until you feel comfortable about your growing relationship.
The birth parents — the birth mother in particular — may have a hard time during and immediately after the birth and may think that not having contact will help ease the pain of loss. What most birth mothers learn is that although they don’t change their decision about parenting, they also do not lose the love and emotional connection to their child. I would think that, now that a year has passed, your son’s birth mother would feel validated and happy to know that he is well and that you respect her.
The better the relationship between a birth family and an adoptive family, the greater sense of extended family the child has. The roles change, but the adoptive parents are always the parents. Pictures from the adoptive family to the birth family and from the birth family to the adoptive family can help to normalize and explain things to small children. Letters to update each other can be helpful and can eventually provide important information to impart to the child.
I wish you well in your endeavor to acknowledge a connection that is already established. You are all family now. You are all related to the lovely little boy to whom you are parents forever and ever.
Birth Mothers Benefit From Knowing Their Children are Healthy and Happy
A comment from Leceta Chisholm Guibault, an adoptive mother from Montreal and a board member of the Adoption Council of Canada.
I am the mother of two children adopted as infants from Latin America. They are now 9 and 6 years old. When I first adopted them, I was aware only that they closed a hole in my heart and filled my need to be a mother. Then I attended a conference with a triad theme, where I was drawn to the birth mothers and adult adoptees present. I asked birth mothers what would have made their lives easier after placement and each one said, “a photo, a letter, to know that my child was alive, loved, happy.” Adult adoptees shared that they wished that their adoptive parents had been more open, not so scared that they would not be loved if their child had contact with birth family members.
I left the conference determined to find my children’s birth families and foster mothers. Nine months later I heard from my daughter’s foster mother. She was thrilled to hear from us. She said she had kept my daughter’s baby fingernails, and she sent us photos of our daughter that we had never seen. A week later I heard from my son’s grandmother. She thanked me for letting her and her family know that he was alive. She said they would always love him and hoped some day they would know him.
When I posted a letter to birth mothers and adoptees on the Internet, telling them about my experience and asking them to help me be the best mother I could be, I was overwhelmed by the confirmation that I had done the right thing in contacting my children’s birth parents. I am not scared to have more family in my children’s lives to love them. Who has too much love?
No, Do Not Initiate Contact with Birth Mother: Decision to Search Belongs to Adoptees
An Adoptee’s Perspective
A comment from Susan Soon-Keum Cox, Vice President for Public Policy for Holt International Children’s Services, adopted from Korea at age 4.
That adoptive parents wonder about the birth family of their adopted child and the circumstances that led to the need for adoption is natural. Adopted individuals experience these same wonderings. The intensity and urgency that adoptees feel in terms of accessing information about themselves is highly individual. Some feel a need to know from a young age. For others, a major life event, such as getting married or having a child, prompts thoughts of search. Whichever the case, the desire for information may emerge or recede throughout an adoptee’s life.
No doubt your enchantment and absolute delight in your son is what prompts you to speculate about his musical or athletic aptitude. I encourage you, however, to consider the possible effects of information you may learn. If you learn that his birth parents measure low on the Richter scale of ability and talent, will that influence your expectations of your son’s potential? Might such information influence you or your son’s attitude toward his birth parents?
Furthermore, for adoptees, the most fundamental decisions that define us were made outside our control, determined by others’ actions. For this reason, I hold strongly to the view that the choice of search and exploration of identity belongs to the adoptee — not to the adoptive parents. They should not initiate a search.
An Adoptive Mother’s Perspective
A comment from Deborah J. Fredericks, an adoptive mother (domestic) from Spokane, Washington:
When I read your letter about whether to contact your son’s birth mom, I experienced déja vu. I, too, have enough information to find my son’s birth family. The question I asked myself was whether my son would benefit by contact. I concluded that I would be the primary beneficiary in satisfying my own curiosity. I’m not afraid of my son’s birth mother, and I don’t think my son would be confused by contact. Still, making contact could not be undone once started. I’ve come to feel that it’s my son’s right to decide when and how to make contact. It’s his life, not mine. As parents, my husband and I make lots of choices for our son, but this is one we need to leave to him.
My advice to you would be to save every scrap of information you have in case your son needs it someday, but don’t use it yourself.