The Atlantic

Editor's Note: Every Wednesday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I was adopted at birth by two amazing parents who also adopted my younger sister. Whenever people have asked, “Are you interested in meeting your birth family?,” I’ve been consistent with my response: My adoptive family is my only family, and I have no interest in searching out my natural family.

I’m now a 34-year-old man with a young daughter and aging parents. Recently, I stumbled across a box of records in my parents’ attic that included the name of my birth mother. This was a particular shock since my parents have always maintained that I was adopted in a blind adoption. The records also revealed the name of the hospital where I was born, the city where my birth mother had lived, and the color of her hair and eyes.

The internet being what it is, half an hour later I had developed a comprehensive picture of my birth mother’s life, including a reasonable guess at my birth father and the understanding that I have at least two natural siblings. As far as social media could tell me, my birth mother is living a happy life in a stable family. She has the same eyes and chin as my daughter.

After I saw my birth mother’s name, my default response vanished. Having a daughter has given me an even keener appreciation for the pain my birth mother must have felt at surrendering her child, and I want desperately to reach out and tell her that I’ve had an extremely blessed life. I have a more pragmatic concern as well: I’m tired of writing “I don’t know—ADOPTED” every time I have to fill out a medical history, and I’m concerned about the genetic legacy I’m leaving my daughter.

My family, particularly my mother and sister, is very sensitive. I think one of the reasons I was always so quick with my “No, I don’t need to meet my birth mother” response was to avoid hurting my mother. I’m also concerned that my sister will resent having to “share” me with two new siblings. And I worry about disturbing a woman I don’t know, who might not have any interest in communicating.

My wife thinks that I’m being overly solicitous towards the feelings of others, and that if I have a need for contact then I should follow the urge. My current thought is that I should gently broach the subject with my mother, feel out whether the idea of this causes her pain, and see if she’ll volunteer the information that I’ve already gathered. If she is okay, then I’m planning to write to my birth mother with an anonymous return email address, so that she can decide how much contact she’d like.

I’m usually very disciplined mentally, but this entire situation has thrown me for a loop, and I’m not sure how to get out of it without hurting someone. I’d appreciate any thoughts you have on my plan.

Matt

New York


Dear Matt,

There are so many layers to your letter, but at its core, it seems to be a letter about how we construct our life stories. For 34 years, your adoption narrative was spun around the certainty of having no interest in your biological parents; then, in the span of 30 minutes, a whole new narrative emerged.

It’s clear that you love and care deeply about your parents—and your mom and dad are and always will be your parents. They are, like all parents, central figures in your story. But your birth parents have a part in your story, too.

Your empathy and generosity toward your family is palpable, but maybe some of that generosity can be directed toward yourself now. You say that you’re “very disciplined mentally,” which is sometimes a way that people manage anxiety or even early trauma that they aren’t aware of. As they repress their own feelings, they become overly accommodating, always trying to take care of everyone else’s feelings. But I’d like you consider this: You get to have your feelings, too.

My colleague Angela Gee, a psychotherapist who specializes in adoption (and is herself an adoptee with an adopted daughter), told me that often there’s a misconception about how children make sense of having been adopted at birth. The adoptive parents, who very much wanted and chose their child, may underestimate the loss caused by separation from the birth mother, thinking, Newborns don’t remember. While most parents anticipate eventual curiosity about birth parents, they may not be aware that infants also form implicit memories. And when your explicit memories of your loving family butt up against the early implicit memories you carry, this can lead to (often unconscious) turmoil and confusion. Giving space to both types of memories, on the other hand, will help you form a cohesive life narrative.

Adoptees are often acutely aware of their parents’ sensitivities, and because children rely on their parents, for survival and for approval, they may be afraid to ask questions, or might postpone their search until after their parents are gone. But for most people, knowing where we came from is vitally important. It’s not that you want another set of parents—you want a sense of your own story.

That’s what you can help your parents to understand, by saying something like this: “I’ve stumbled upon this information, and I didn’t realize it would be so meaningful to me. Especially now that I’m a parent myself, I’m realizing that I want to fill in some of these gaps in my heritage. I know this may be a lot to absorb for all of us, but I want you to know that I already have parents—you guys—and that’s not going to change. I haven’t figured out how I want to act on this information yet, but I want you to be a part of this process with me.”

Being a part of your process could mean anything from being supportive of whatever you choose to do, to engaging in open dialogue about it, to meeting your birth parents one day, should you so desire. I suggest this approach because it allows for transparency—rather than “feeling out” or tiptoeing around the situation—and once you take away the secrets, you also minimize the potential for betrayal.

Meanwhile, it might help to connect with a therapist with expertise in adoption to help you navigate the path forward. This person can, first and foremost, help you get a better sense of both what you feel and what you need—something you haven’t paid much attention to until recently. Here you can safely work through what might be complicated feelings around the ways your parents protected the information you found, while at the same time holding onto your compassion for them as a parent yourself. (Becoming a parent has a way of softening us to the missteps of our own parents.) You can also explore any sadness that may come up, or what it’s like for the first time in your life to see someone who looks like you, or any what-ifs you might have even though you wouldn’t trade your upbringing for another.

This person can also help you think about how to make appropriate contact with your birth mother (and possibly birth father). It’s likely that your birth mother has thought about you over the years—say, when she gave birth to her younger children, or when she would see a boy your age and wonder where you were and what you were doing. But it’s hard to know how your contact will be received, and somebody who works with adoptees can help you prepare you for various outcomes. Maybe your birth mom will want to meet you but won’t want her family to know. Maybe she’ll welcome you with open arms. Maybe she won’t want contact at all. Maybe you’ll meet once, or maybe you’ll have an ongoing relationship.

Whatever happens, it will likely be less of a resolution than the start of a new chapter—an important one. It will help you to weave the meaning of the adoption, your life after the adoption, and this new plot twist into your evolving story, which is yours of course, but also a legacy you’ll pass down to your daughter. It may have taken 34 years to get here, but some stories are worth waiting for.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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