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The searching adoptee’s lament: ‘I wasn’t whole. I didn’t belong. I needed to know’

Here in National Adoption Awareness Month, adoptees like me continue to #FlipTheScript on the dialogue around adoption, finally putting emphasis on how adoptees feel instead of letting everyone else drive the greater conversation around adoption. Last week’s post considered the notion of adoptee as “lucky.” This post looks at a theme I explore in the book I’m writing on the adoptee experience: why adoptees search for their original families — and why that act of searching is much more challenging than one might think.

Ask an adoptee why he or she searches and you’re bound to hear: “Because I must.”

missing piece

“The Missing Piece.” Credit: J. Sibiga Photography/Flickr

The pull to understand who we are by knowing our history, heritage, and circumstances around our births is incredibly strong — primal even — and it is always at odds with the overarching message society touts about adoption: That it is a wonderful way to create forever families. Almost always overlooked in this dialogue are adoptees, even though we are the centerpieces of the whole arrangement.

The original way of thinking about adoptees as “blank slates” who could readily adapt to life anywhere failed to understand that nearly all of us experience a kind of genetic bewilderment as a result of growing up without biological relatives. Without natural relatives to mirror, we grow up at sea, developmentally, emotionally and in terms of identity. Adoptees actually have to learn to be part of their adoptive families, something biological children don’t typically face. That cognitive dissonance in turn leads to feelings of alienation and disconnection that can last a lifetime.

It’s no wonder that many of us devote years to discovering where we fit in the world. Often this exercise leads us to search for birth parents and other biological connections, hoping we will finally find a missing piece of ourselves, learn who we look like and what our ethnicity is, discover our medical history and who we share character traits and talents with.

However, with its archaic laws that keep adoptees’ original birth certificates and adoption records closed in an effort to maintain an “adoption is good” focus, most of society frowns on the idea of adoptees questioning their status quo. So for many of us adoptees, our compulsions to search were once furtive, denied and hidden away, or else cloaked in secrecy much as the rest of our lives are lest we offend or upset the people around us.

In recent years, adoptees have found their quests stoked by an explosion of information on the Internet around DNA testing and genealogy, along with the popularity of TV shows such as NBC’s “This is Us,” TLC’s “Long Lost Family” and ABC’s “Find My Family.” If only the state laws and societal views kept up with pop culture. While these platforms and programs may offer hope to searching adoptees, they depict an idealized and unrealistic view of search and reunion.

The reality does not unfold so neatly.

Adoptees like me who seek biological connections find that while the act of searching itself can be overwhelming and emotionally draining, those logistics are nothing compared with other challenges we face.

By stepping outside the conventional belief that adoption is all good and the past is better left untouched, we risk the love and approval of the people who raised us, and set ourselves up for the devastation of a possible second rejection by the people who gave us life.

Making the decision to search is no small act.

The pressure to conform to society’s view of adoption as something to be unquestioningly celebrated is intense. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about how adoptees should conduct themselves, so searching adoptees often face a litany of questions from friends and relatives:

  • “Didn’t you have a nice childhood?”
  • “Aren’t you worried about hurting your adoptive parents’ feelings?”
  • “You mother didn’t want you, why would you bother her?
  • Doesn’t your birth mother deserve her privacy?”
  • “Why does it matter? Your adoptive parents are your true parents. They changed your diapers and stayed up with you when you were sick. You owe them.”

Almost no one asks, “Why is this important to you?”

And yet there are few more important things to a searching adoptee: The chance to know our true identities means validation, understanding, the opportunity to finally understand where we fit. Whether this also leads to new relationships with biological connections is beside the point.

Tracy, a 56-year-old New York-born adoptee, explains it this way: “I always wanted to search because I knew I wasn’t whole. I felt I didn’t belong. I needed to know.”

About Terri S. Vanech

Wife, mother, communications specialist, Jazzercise instructor and recently reunited adoptee. I'm living out loud -- and trying to make it all work -- in midlife. Having a sense of humor sure helps.


3 thoughts on “The searching adoptee’s lament: ‘I wasn’t whole. I didn’t belong. I needed to know’

  1. It is definitely a calling which you so expertly put into words.

    Posted by Paige Adams Strickland | November 5, 2017, 3:44 pm
  2. Love your insights, Terri. Thank you for verbalizing the experience so eloquently.

    Posted by Gary Osbrey | November 4, 2017, 6:04 pm

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