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The Adult Adoptee’s Search For Self

It is my belief that the search is a journey of the self. Prior to finding one’s first families, it may feel like the search is all about finding them and while that can be an exhilarating experience, it is only the beginning. Every adoptee that I have worked with, whether they have what they feel is a successful conclusion to their search or one which is in some way disappointing, emerges with an improved sense of themselves, for the search is really a journey of self-discovery.

The decision to search is a very predictable and healthy milestone in the life of an adoptee. While not every adoptee decides to search, every adoptee must cope with the common experience of growing up with missing aspects of their identity. For some adoptees those unanswered questions take the form of a type of “internal searching,” where there’s a lot of time spent thinking about why they were adopted. They may wonder what was wrong with them or how their life would have been different had they not been adopted. For some adoptees, an “external searching” also takes place where they study the faces of strangers and wonder if they look like or could be related to them. For those who search and find, gathering information puts an end to the questions which may have troubled them all of their life.

The Search For Self

Perhaps as you think about telling your parents about your decision to search, it would be helpful if you understood what the search means for you. The most common reason that adoptees search is a need or desire to know whom they look like, which can include gathering information about first parents, siblings and or ancestors. Just finding a genetic resemblance to another person can help you feel a part of and a connection to the world. It may ease the sense of aloneness that can be felt when you do not share a physical resemblance with your family. While others may not always see these differences as acutely as you do, adoptees are often highly sensitive to the fact that they do not look like anyone in their family. What may be minor differences to others can be glaring and painful to you and can lead to a sense of alienation within your family.

Adoptees want to know what their family medical history entails. This is especially true for those who have been diagnosed with a medical condition and who are at a loss to answer questions regarding their family history. During young adulthood and especially in the childbearing years, many adoptees begin a search to know their genetic histories as they want to know what they could pass onto their children.

Adoptees search for answers. They need to know the circumstances of their relinquishment they need to hear it from their first parents directly. It is not enough to get written background information from a social service department or from one’s adoptive parents. Adoptees want to hear from their first mothers why the decision to relinquish was made, how it was made and what factors were involved at the time. Once you have the answers to these questions, you won’t need to spend so much time and energy wondering about them, and you’ll have the opportunity to integrate the story of your birth.

Adoptees search for knowledge about themselves. They want to know to whom they look like. Most harbor a deep sadness as a result of not being more like the members of their adoptive family. Often there is a hidden longing to fit in and to be “like someone.” It is a relief to finally understand why you have certain interests, temperament or personality traits and not others. Having missing aspects of your identity siphons off energy, keeps you in the dark and makes it difficult to move forward in life. This is especially true in the area around life and career choices. When you have information about what you’ve naturally inherited, it is much easier to move forward and feel confident about yourself and the career choices that you make.

Adoptees search to be healed. Those who embark upon a search and a reunion with their first parents find it inherently healing to be able to sit and look into the face of the person who gave birth to them. They often feel for the first time that they were actually born and not just picked up from somewhere. Hearing how their relinquishment affected their first mother or father’s life, to see their tears, hear their grief and loss, tells the adoptee that someone was mourning for them, and someone was thinking about them. Discovering that your first parents remembered and missed you helps to begin to heal the wounds of being separated from them. It is incredibly powerful to realize that you have not been forgotten, but rather that you have been held in their hearts all these years. Hearing that first parents welcome a reunion with you helps soften the old feelings of being rejected. You may be surprised to learn that the reunion is as healing for them as it is for you as it puts an end to their years of wonder and worry about you.

Regaining Control

The experience of being adopted leaves an individual with a feeling of powerlessness. Whether adopted at birth or a bit older, being adopted is not something that you probably chose, but rather something that happened to you. The sense of being powerless can manifest in many ways in your life. You may have struggled with closeness, trust and intimacy in relationships with your partners, parents and close friends. Worried that you could be hurt again, many adoptees keep what they believe to be a safe distance between themselves and those who love them as being loved becomes woven with being given away. Forsaking the very people who have the ability to heal their wounds, walls may be set up which act as a protective device to avoid experiencing or tapping into the deep wounds and losses around adoption.

Making the decision to search is a way for an adopted person to regain control over the events that culminated in their being relinquished and then adopted. It is perhaps the scariest decision that an adoptee can make. The biggest risk is not knowing how you will be received by the very person who left you. The risk is of possibly being unwelcome or rejected again. Yet despite the risks, millions of adoptees take control and go on to search. With all its inherent risks, “knowing” becomes more important than staying safely in the “unknown.” At some point in your decision to search, you will discover that despite the outcome, it is the journey itself that becomes the curative factor. Accessing the internal strength that it takes you to search can allow you the strength to take risks in other relationships where intimacy, trust and vulnerability are inherent factors.

Adoptive Parents

Most parents of today’s adult adoptees were adopted through the traditional or closed adoption system. That means that minimal information was shared between birthparents and adoptive parent. Your parents were likely told that in a closed adoption there would be no further contact with the first family. They may have held the belief that if they just loved you like their own and openly acknowledged your adoption early on, adoption would not be an issue. The social worker may have never even mentioned to them that searching might be something that you would want to pursue.

Until your adoptive parents begin to understand the “need to search” from your perspective, they can be stuck in fear of what the search may bring into their lives. They may worry that you will not see them as the “real parents” or be struggling with hidden issues of loyalty. Sadness and or anger may be present as they wonder why you want to search. Your parents may not understand how the missing pieces of your identity have affected you. After all, they have not had the experience of growing up in a state of “genealogical bewilderment” (psychological confusion about their genetic origins), so how could they understand how this might be so debilitating.

If you can share how adoption has affected you and what you hope for from the search, it will allow them to see through your eyes and give them the opportunity to consider the process differently. Once your parents gain more understanding of your “need to search” they can be supportive of your quest for wholeness and share in this life-altering journey. It is an opportunity for an adult bonding experience between you and your parents. Rather than losing you to your birth family, their support allows you the opportunity to deepen your trust and relationship with them.

Getting Support

As you begin your search, you may experience a deeper need for support and understanding from the significant people in your life. Telling your parents that you have decided to search can be a frightening first step in the process. You may fear that they will be hurt or threatened, or possibly rejecting and it may feel like a huge risk to tell them. Foremost, you will need reassurance from your parents that you have their blessings, understanding and support and that their love will not be withdrawn because of your decision to search. It’s not that you need their permission to search, but rather that you need to know that the people who love you, support and understand you and your need to take this uncharted journey.

You’ll likely need the support from friends as well from people who are familiar with the process. For many adoptees, an all- consuming quality takes over during the search and an adoption competent therapist can help you sort through your thoughts, fears and worries. Searching is only the beginning of the process, and hopefully a reunion is the next phase. You may find that you need as much help and support after completing the search and during the reunion, as deeply felt emotions emerge as you try to navigate through the reunion with your first family. Today, thankfully, we have many books dedicated to helping educate us as to the “whys” of adoption. Reading books and stories written by first mothers, adoptees and adoptive parents can shed light upon the experience and can be an invaluable source of knowledge and comfort for both you and your parents.

It is a good time for both adoptee and adoptive parents to be connected to search and support groups. Each can gain strength and insight from others who have struggled through the unknowns of the search and reunion. Support groups offer a place to share feelings openly and honestly without the worry of hurting someone’s feelings. They decrease the feelings of aloneness and offer comfort, information and the opportunity to hear others stories. Just knowing that you are not alone in what you are experiencing will help to normalize the experience of searching.

It is my belief that the search is a journey of the self. Prior to finding one’s first parents it may feel like the search is all about finding them and while that can be an exhilarating experience, it is only the beginning. Every adoptee that I have worked with, whether they have what they feel is a successful conclusion to their search or one which is in some way disappointing, emerges with an improved sense of themselves for the search is really a journey of self-discovery. Good luck in your journey!