Cracking Open a Closed Adoption

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Another reader tells her story:

I am an adoptee born in 1962, the Secrets and Lies-era, back when records were almost always permanently sealed, thus ensuring that birth parents and their biological children would never reconnect.

Do I love my adoptive parents? Yes, I do.  But there is a fundamental human need to know who we are and how we fit into the genealogical continuum of mankind. The Bible, for example, has pages of “begats” to trace lineage. More people than ever search genealogy sites like trying to find information about their ancestors. It is a human instinct to yearn for this connection!

But not only is that connection denied to the adoptees of that era, we are castigated for even bringing it up. It is implied, or even directly accused, that if we have questions about our biological origins then we don’t love our adoptive families. That isn’t fair.

Parents can have two children or ten and love every single one of them. They aren’t asked to limit their love to one child. It is accepted that their hearts can hold enough love for all of them. Why, then, is it supposed that an adoptee seeking answered about their birth families couldn’t feel the same way?  Why do we have to “choose”?  

For the record, I found my birthparents at age 39.

My birthmother had mourned my loss all her life (having been forced by her Italian Catholic parents into giving me up) and was overjoyed when I found her. It helped bring closure to the most painful experience of her life.

My adoptive parents reacted to this by dismissively claiming “she has nothing to do with you, she’s not your mother," and then refusing to hear any more about it.  Meanwhile I, as a grown adult—not a child “belonging” to one parent or the other—remain caught in the middle.  

So here’s what it’s like to be adopted: The parents who raised you are your parents and the relatives that you knew growing up are all “related” to you. But beyond that is nothing; I feel zero connection to “great-great grandmother So-and-So” who has no blood relationship to me whatsoever.  Those ancestors belong to my parents and cousins, but not to me.

On the other hand, it is the complete opposite with my birth family. With them, I do not feel that they are my parents, siblings, cousins, etc. in the sense that I feel that way about the family I grew up with. They are strangers who are related to me by blood, but we have no shared history. Yet when they talk about our mutual “great-great grandmother So-and-So,” then I DO feel connected. The same blood that ties them to our ancestors ties me as well. We are equally connected that way.

This is a dichotomy that no non-adopted person will ever face or understand. It is something every adoptee (of a closed adoption) experiences to some degree.  Without an origin story, which everyone else takes for granted, we feel rather like we were just found under a cabbage patch with no link to the past and no bloodline to pass on to our own children.

When we have Family Tree projects in school, it cuts deeply. We were grafted onto our tree, we have a deep sense that we don’t really belong there, yet we have no idea where our own tree is planted.