10.24.2013

Advice Needed: How to Tell a Young Adult They're Adopted

Yesterday my birth son's family contacted me and confirmed that he doesn't know he is adopted. They really don't want to tell him. The reasons are long, complicated -- and private.

And wrong no matter what, in my opinion. He deserves to know who he is. And I do not, as a friend of mine wrote, want to be complicit in his being lied to about his identity. As I told his family, genetic tests are getting cheaper all the time, and cataloguing one's own genetic makeup is very popular with college students. What if he orders one on his own, finds out on his own that his family kept his truth from him? I'm certain that would be far more devastating than learning of his adoption from his family.

They need to tell him. I'm not going to do it. I have no interest in being the person who leaks his secret identity. That responsibility lies with his family, the people who did the work of raising him, the people who have been loving him in person for 20+ years. I have no, never had any intention of, trying to make them look bad, taking their place, or trying to insinuate myself, because any of those actions are gross as well as ethically messed up.

But this was also never a closed adoption. The fact that I have been respectful and kept my distance does not mean I don't care, don't want him to know he has a whole other story that he can access any time he likes, plus a motherlode of geeks just across the Bay who would welcome him with open arms if he chose to expand (not replace, expand) his family. He deserves the option to make the choice to know us -- or not. If he just wants info, just wants to know more about his native French speaking great-grandfather or talk about the genetics of autism, I'm OK with that.

I'm worried that his parents think adoption is shameful, that knowing he is adopted would make him think they love him less in some way, that there's something wrong with him. But how could he think that, when they've been loving and supporting him his entire life, as much as any child has ever been loved and supported? He is a wanted, cherished son who was born when I was an immature young woman who knew that the best thing for him would be to live with parents who were ready and able to be his family in a way I absolutely was not. He needs to be told. And soon, before he finds out on his own.

Thing is, next steps are unclear -- which is why I'm asking you for advice, dear Interwebs. What resources should I send to his family, to help them understand why their denying his being adopted is a really, really bad idea that will ultimately cause more harm than good?

What would you do?

Six months pregnant and wearing a hat I'd
made myself. Go 1990 go.

37 comments:

  1. Wondering if these articles would help: http://www.adoptionlcsw.com/2012/10/open-discussion-about-openness-in.html

    http://www.americanhistoryusa.com/adoptions-in-america-open-or-closed/

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  2. He's an adult. A grown man. He is not a forever child. I don't understand why so many people feel so comfortable treating adoptees as if we're infants all our lives.

    He's been deceived for 20 years. By the people who claim to love him--by the people he's told he can trust above all others. I don't understand that. Deception--lies--secrecy aren't healthy for anyone, not are they in any way loving. Reality is healthy. Honesty is healthy. Truth and transparency is healthy.

    Every adoptee has two families: Our original biological family AND our adoptive family. That is a basic fact of life. Pretending otherwise doesn't actually modify reality.

    No matter who raised me, I was created from my mother's egg and my father's sperm. Each contained thousands of years of ancestry, identity, heritage. That belongs not only to me, but to my children and their children, etc.

    Everyone is entitled to his or her medical and social history, ethnicity, ancestry.

    And no one is entitled to lie to us about who we are.

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    1. I appreciate hearing the perspective of an adoptee. And agree about being entitled to one's own history.

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  3. Also, there are resources for adoptees like your son. He is (or will soon be) what's known as a Late Discovery Adoptee. Search for helpful books and other resources with that query.

    There is, of course, a Facebook group, as well. https://www.facebook.com/LateDiscoveryAdoptees

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    1. That looks like an excellent resource. One thing I worry about is not knowing where to point people for advice, so this really helps.

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  4. Dawn Friedman, who use to blog as "This Woman's Work", about her open adoption and about adoptions in general is now a counselor who specializes in adoption.

    http://www.columbusfamilycounseling.com/

    She might be able to provide advice, or refer you to a counselor.

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    1. I used to read Dawn back in the day, didn't know she'd started a new career. That's great news. Thanks.

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  5. Oh, and I see you asked "what would you do"? I'm not a member of an adoption triad, and so for me the decision is ideological and not personal (which adds biases in all sorts of dirrections). My ideological point of view is the same as Renee's, ". . . thousands of years of ancestry, identity, heritage. That belongs not only to me, but to my children and their children, etc." My view extends to the absolute right of an adoptee to know their biological parents, including in cases of gamete donation. I do not believe the state should enable secrecy.

    If I were to imagine myself in your shoes (and since I'm not, and can't be, my opinion is only worth a grain of salt), I might wait until he was 21, but then I would reach out to him. At that point, it would be up to him whether he wanted to avail himself of the information. I personally would also contact Dawn about how to best manage this interaction (or another counselor with specialization in adoption).

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    1. He's 23. And I don't want to barge into his life, much as I would love to get to know him. What I'd like is for him to know how to contact me if he wants to. But more than that, I want him to know he's adopted, because lies suck. Especially when the people around you all know the truth.

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  6. Bastard Nation. Look for articles here. http://www.bastards.org/

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    1. Whoa. That is tremendous. Thanks, Paula.

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  7. Do they know you are a writer? How about asking your adopted readers to share their opinions and compile the answers into a post and send it to them? Maybe that's intrusive, idk. But something in that spirit? I hope they choose honesty, Shannon. Regardless of what he ultimately chose in terms of a relationship, I know it would be a relief for you to know he has access to answers. I have two friends who always knew they were adopted. One met his biological mother -- and was disappointed. His adoption was truly an escape from hell. The other has never found her biological mother - but would love to. She has the most detailed information left for her by the mother who obviously loved her enough to give her a better life. She knows her mother was a ballerina who once danced on television. She knows her father shipped out to Vietnam a month before she was born. She knows she was loved by both families and just wants a chance to say thank you. But her adoption was through a different agency who won't reveal her birth information, and she doesn't have the means to hire a private search. I know what she would say to your son's family. Everyone deserves to know where they came from. I hope this happens for you. And I hope you one day get an opportunity to say the things you've probably envisioned thousands of times. :)

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    1. Thank you for your kindness and stories, Leigh. I don't know if they know about my writing. But they're of a different generation and might not be partially Internet-based life forms like you and I -- as soon as I have anyone's name, I'm on it BAM, at least a cursory search.

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  8. I love the fact that most people these days are easily reachable through facebook. In that situation, I would take the time to write out your story very carefully, and send it to him via fb. This plants a seed, which then the young man at this point has the option to look into further if he so desires. Obviously this may come as a shock, especially because it had never been mentioned before. But the feeling you get deep down in your heart that tells you to reach out in the first place is something not to be ignored. The world works in patterns of energy, and feeling this now may be a sign that he is ready to know about you, and mature enough to handle it as an adult. Listen to your inner joo joo, and you will be alright. Best of wishes to you through this journey.

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    1. I think he has his suspicions, actually, from what I've been able to glean. Mostly I'm just so sad he doesn't know already, hearing now is going to be so hard. I just hope he hasn't found out definitively on his own.

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  9. I would write him a physical letter and include photos of you all, would keep it as short as possible and ask for the outcome you want .

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    1. I'd keep it even shorter than that, if I go that path. I wish his dad would tell him. He's going to know eventually on his own.

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  10. Or a nice email with photos if you don't have his address; maybe that would be less weird. I would keep it off FB if you have his email.

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    1. I'm of two minds on this. Email affords an immediacy that might lead to impulsive responses. But I know his email address. I don't have a direct mailing address.

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  11. Here are some resources on Late Discovery: http://latediscovery.org/?page_id=23

    I'm a Late Discovery Adoptee, I found out when I was 36.
    I began an email list for LDAs in 1999, and have several first mothers who have subscribed because they searched and found that their relinquished children had not been told of their adoption. It's a terrible position to be put in, so I'm not going to give you advice. But I will say, someone has to tell this man his truth.

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    1. Thank you for the excellent resource, and for being so generous with your own experience. And I agree he needs to know his truth. I hope his parents will tell him.

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    2. Ron is definitely the go-to guy on this subject. I found out at age 31 and my aparents NEVER acknowledged that I was adopted - even after I found out. So we just didn't discuss it and I went about my search without consulting them.

      Adoptees find out in various ways - their aparents eventually sit them down and tell them (best), a close friend or family member tells them (good), they find out accidentally (not so good as they have to decide whether to confront or not) or someone throws it at them in an angry moment ("You're not really family anyway!")

      Ron will tell you about the disproportionate number of adoptees who find out at an aparent's funeral.

      One totally objective reason to tell has to do with knowledge of family medical history. Your (collective) son is using his aparents' family medical history. That can be very dangerous. Medical history is not just what one might be susceptible to but also what drugs/treatments are more likely to work. If someone is adamant that "it doesn't matter" if an adoptee knows or doesn't know - I bring up the medical history angle. There is no way to sidestep or gloss over that - although some people still try.

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    3. The medical/genetic history issue is a factor in my distress, for certain. And I am hoping for that (best) scenario.

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  12. Shannon, it was not a closed adoption. You're soon going to have results of your 23andme testing. I would enclose that data in the card that you write to him. And BTW, "don't ask permission; ask forgiveness" is once again, oh, so useful. You seem to have a "mommy clock" that has gone off and is saying "OK, time to make contact." Listen to it. Do whatever you want. We all know you're a smart lady. Might take a decade for the chips to fall, but this is a step that your inner self has decided has to be taken. And inner mommy selves are often pretty hard to ignore! I would take the mental idea that you're throwing something backwards over your shoulder into his back yard and -- poof! That's it. If he then decides to contact you, then good. (Although if he doesn't know he's adopted, it will take time.) But better now than in ten years.

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    1. The reason I contacted his parents in the first place was because he just moved to this area in August, and any time I'm in public I can't stop scanning for him. So I passed on my info in case he wanted to contact us. If they have no intention of passing it on, I will have to contact him myself. But that's a rotten position to be in because messengers bearing unwelcome news are usually shot.

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  13. Hmm. I'm an AP, and my mom has told me stories over her decades of practice in family therapy about APs who think they need support to tell their child that s/he was adopted. So, having revealed my biases, I'll address my comment to the APs:

    WHAT?!?!?! I thought no one did this anymore. Because openness in adoption, the prevalence of cross-racial adoptions, Facebook, and cheap DNA testing all make it impossible to keep this level of secret forever. It sounds like you made some choices before those trends came together, and looking back, you might make different choices. That's my suggested script to start the conversation, but get help because you have a lot of apologizing to do. You're going to need information and support as you struggle through this crisis as a family.

    One book that isn't threatening to APs but is honest: Sherrie Eldrige, 20 Things Adopted People etc. Another book that is low-threat, high-value is Lois Melina's Raising Adopted Children. If you like personal stories, you'd get a lot of value from 'Ithaka' by Sarah Saffian.

    Now is the time. As they say, You're only as sick as your secrets. But you can manage the crisis you've created for your son and yourselves.

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    1. Thank you for addressing his parents, and giving advice for them. This is where I struggle. I know they love him so much and have done a wonderful job of raising him -- but the decision to keep him in the dark is just wrong, and it won't keep, as you noted.

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  14. When I started reviewing profiles of potential egg donors, I quickly realized that the thing that mattered most to me was finding a woman who had a high probably of welcoming a relationship with my children should they every want to know her. I wanted and still want for my children the opportunity to get their questions answered about where they come from and who they are. They may never care to know but I didn't want to make a choice that would close the option off unnecessarily.

    Other potential recipients of donor eggs I knew were not so sure they wanted their children to know. One of the most prescient comments made in our support group was that the truth almost always comes out and it usually does at a time of crisis. It is hard for people who have a lot invested in a position to change their minds but perhaps you could appeal to his parents to take on explaining and apologizing for the years of deception when they can choose the time and setting for the dialog and do it without also having to deal with a family crisis. Apologies for any hurt caused are going be much more believable if they come clean of their own volition.

    You clearly have his best interest at heart and when and if you ever do have a relationship with him, I know he will feel lucky to know you and be connected to you and have a birth mom who cares so much about him and has so much room for him in her heart.

    I am so sorry you have been put in this situation. You rightly and generously put his best interest first, but you, too, are suffering from the unfortunate choice to deceive him. My heart goes out to you.

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    1. Thank you, Anita, and thank you for sharing your story. Which I didn't know! I really do hope his parents will come around and tell him, and just be honest about why they deceived him -- good people making bad decisions without thinking it through, most likely. And it certainly doesn't change that they're his parents.

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  15. By the way, I sent his step mom a link to this post last night. Obvs, I believe in transparency.

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  16. 1. If he doesn't know he's adopted, then no, it's NOT an "open adoption".

    2. If his APs have been lying to him about something as important as HIS OWN medical status then no, they don't "love him", they just want to pretend to possess him.

    3. If you don't tell him, you're as complicit as they are in lying to him.

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    1. 1) It was open when he was young. I was not consulted in it becoming closed by your definition.

      2) They are good parents who made a bad choice. I knew the family, that is why I chose them for him.

      3) I agree he needs to be told, but I would really really rather he hears from his parents than out of the blue from a stranger.

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  17. First, sorry for the length.

    i am an LDA. I was just barely 24 when I found out, so I really feel for your son as I was around the same age. I was a product of the closed adoption era, but by the time I found out, there had been a reunion registry for quite some time in my province. My bio mother had waited patiently for me to search for her, but finally hired an agency. They were who told me I was adopted.

    Even if his aparents are the ones who tell him, & they do it NOW, there's a good chance their lies & betrayal for his whole life will have destroyed any chance of his maintaining a relationship with them. I can't be sure, but I think if my adoptive father hadn't died, I might have cut ties. As it is, we put up with my amother. My husband has never forgiven her. My coping method is stuffing/ignoring, so I really don't know how I feel about her most of time. She's not my mother, though. I never felt that, even before all this.

    No matter what you say to convince them, if they haven't told by this point, I doubt they ever will. AP's who hide the adoption all seem to be slightly (or hugely) unbalanced. My amother once admitted to me she doesn't believe she did anything wrong by not telling me & that she never would have if it hadn't been taken out of her hands. And she is, in every other way,an average, sane person.

    Here's another thing; you're worried he'll be angry with you if you're the one to tell him, but have you considered how angry he'll be that you knew how to contact him, that you could have told him, & didn't? He's likely going to be angry & resentful & hurt with all of you for at least awhile, not just about the lies, but about being given away in the first place. If he knows you effectively agreed to the lies by not telling him...well, I wouldn't count on him wanting a relationship with you after that. My own biomother didn't participate in the lie and we still barely have a relationship.

    To be blunt, being adopted sucks & completely messes with your head. Being an LDA adds a whole other level of messed up.

    Also, what 7rin said. I agree completely.

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    1. I am hoping that he is strong enough and his family ties and love are strong enough that this won't be catastrophic. Mind-blowing and life-changing, probably. But my hope is that it is clear to him how much everyone involved loves him, and that my choosing to stay pregnant even though I wasn't able to be a parent and then finding him a really great family -- all good. All good things.

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  18. Thanks again for all the feedback and advice. You have my gratitude, every last one of you. Positive progress has been made -- which means I most likely will not be writing about next steps. Not without permission of those involved. No guarantees of course, but I am in chirpy optimist mode. Chirp!

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  19. Yeah!!! Fantastic news!!!

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Respectful disagreement encouraged.

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