Bianca Bagnarelli

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

Dear Therapist,

My daughter gave a child up for adoption about 25 years ago. She already had one child, and although I offered to help her raise both children, she felt it wouldn't be fair to us or to the baby, so she gave her up to a very nice couple, whom we both interviewed and liked. The couple has kept in touch with us both over the years, sending pictures and updates on their daughter.

My daughter always felt that in time the child would want to get in touch with her, and in fact, her adoptive parents have encouraged this, but the girl has always said she didn't want to. This is very painful for my daughter. Can you give us an idea as to why the young woman might not want to meet her birth mother, or offer any explanation that would make my daughter feel less rejected? She has even tried contacting her on Facebook, and the response was that Facebook was not an appropriate place to discuss this relationship. But no reciprocal contact has ever been made.

Lynne
Oakland, California


Dear Lynne,

I’m glad you’re curious about why the woman your daughter put up for adoption 25 years ago might not want to meet her birth mother. I say this because you write about your daughter’s pain and feeling of rejection, but I’m not sure that your daughter has a good sense of how her adopted child might feel—not only about this meeting, but about the circumstances that led to the adoption and her life since then.

Something to consider: Adopted children don’t get to choose whether or not they are adopted, or what family they’ll end up in. Adults make these choices for them. Given their lack of choice in what happened, making their own decisions about how to handle their experiences later on matters greatly.

Of course, different adoptees will make different decisions, for all kinds of reasons. But too often, adults try to dictate how they should feel and what they should do with regard to their birth parents. Sometimes it goes something like “You shouldn’t try to find your birth parents; after all, your mom and dad will be so hurt.” Other times it might be “Don’t search for your birth parents, because it might disrupt their lives or that of their families. They chose a closed adoption for a reason.” Or: “You should definitely search for them, because you’ll regret it later if you don’t.” Or: “How can you refuse to meet your birth parents? Don’t you realize how lucky you are that they’ve reached out and you have the opportunity to know them?” None of this, of course, respects the feelings of the person who was adopted.

Right now, there doesn’t seem to be much regard for your daughter’s biological child’s wants or needs—your perspective seems to be all about your daughter’s desire for this relationship. In fact, there’s so little regard for this young woman’s feelings that your daughter, despite knowing that her biological child has consistently said she’s not interested in meeting, reached out to her on Facebook.

As for why someone who was adopted may not want to meet her birth mother, the reasons are as varied as the individuals involved. Some adopted children feel angry or abandoned by the birth parents, especially if there are other siblings who stayed with one or both biological parents, as is the case here. (This may feel like being the “unwanted child.”) Some adoptees don’t have those feelings—they are living a perfectly happy life—but there’s fear of the emotional turmoil such a meeting might bring. It could raise new questions of what might have been; it could reveal information that the adoptee would rather not have known; it could start a relationship that doesn’t work out, resulting in a loss that could be quite painful on top of whatever feelings of loss the adoptee already has.

I’ve also heard from some adoptees who have met their biological parents that they found the experience disappointing. Despite imagining that they’d have a lot in common with their biological parents, upon meeting they felt as though these people were aliens with different interests, worldviews, personalities, and values—leaving them with a sense of emptiness. Some have told me that they would have preferred to maintain whatever fantasy they had of their biological parents rather than be faced with the much starker reality.

All of this is to say: A lot can go wrong, so it makes sense that some adoptees would choose not to be in contact with their biological parents. But whatever this young woman’s reasons, she doesn’t owe your daughter an explanation. It’s not her job to meet your daughter’s emotional needs.

Instead, gaining a better understanding of what those emotional needs are might help your daughter feel less pain about not meeting her biological daughter. I imagine that she has a lot of complicated feelings about the adoption that perhaps she doesn’t fully understand, and talking to a therapist about them might not only lessen the intensity of the longing but also help her consider what she’s asking of her biological daughter and why.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that your daughter’s biological child may feel differently about reaching out at another juncture in her life. She may have some questions about the family’s medical history one day, or decide that she wants the experience of seeing her biological mother face-to-face. If that time does come, it will be important to focus on her needs. There’s a difference between a phone conversation and a meeting, and between a meeting and embarking on a relationship. The less this woman worries that her biological family might want more from her than she’s willing to give—which is likely how she feels now—the more open she might become one day to making contact. But even if she doesn’t, the most loving thing you can do for her is to honor her choice.


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. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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