Most people that are not adopted take their experience of growing up with their birth family for granted. They understand who we are in relation to our family, where their family came from, and also know unconsciously that their parents have chosen to raise them as part of their family.
Heinz Kohut, the creator of Self Psychology, believed that all individuals needed to grow up trusting that their parents/caregivers were competent and able to successfully attend to the their needs. Kohut also believed that a clear sense of identity with the family unit was neccessary, as was mirroring, which is when parents reflect love and acceptance back to the child, embracing who that child is as a person. According to Self Psychology, these three elements are neccessary to develop into a fully functioning, dynamic adult.
Adoption is an interesting case therapeutically because two of these three elements can be shaken up from a very early age. As a therapist specializing in issues of self-acceptance and identity, I find working with adopted folks very interesting. The question of “Who am I?” is never easy to answer, but in these cases the question can take on a different spin.
After Adoption: Creating a Personal Narrative
by Wendy Freund LCSW
A few years ago I was invited to speak at a conference of adoptees, many of whom were searching for their birth‑parents, about my work as head of a record information unit in a large, old, and well established adoption agency. I named my workshop “Saying No: An Agency Perspective.” No one came. At that time I learned that adoptees and search organizations often set themselves in an adversarial relationship with agencies. I receive requests from former clients who are adoptees, former foster children, former birth, adoptive, and foster parents who are looking for bits and pieces of their personal narratives. I am in the unique position either to go personally to the record room, pull the files (some of which date back to the 1800’s), and read the record on microfilm or microfiche or assign the case to another social worker. Most of what I am allowed to reveal is restricted stringently, regulated by New York State law, which assures that all people in the process will have utmost confidentiality, and, therefore, only non-identifying and general information can be released. I did not go into social work in order to say ‘no’ and to withhold information, and I find the legal restrictions extremely frustrating, as do the members of the adoption triangle.
I am in the unusual position of knowing the information that is often desperately sought but not being able to share it. This frequently makes me the target of the client’s anger and leaves me feeling impotent in spite of the fact that, in actuality, I am helping them create a story by providing some of the “missing pieces.” In this article I want to stress three main points: All people need no have a personal story in order to build a sense of identity. Members of the adoption triad carry real and fantasy stories that are frequently conflicting and confusing. It is the agency’s responsibility through counseling to help their clients construct a solid narrative.
New York State law was written to protect the confidentiality of the members of the triad and to allow them to go on with the secrecy that often begins with the biological mother denying her pregnancy, goes on to the adoptive family denying their infertility, and continues with the person who has been adopted denying his or her status is special in any way. This has not been a workable plan. In reality, the studies show it is largely unnecessary. The current situation may make the problem worse for all concerned. “Withheld data” does not protect adoptees but instead gives them the feeling that full information would reveal “awful truths” (Sorosky et al., 1975, p. 25). Adoptive parents are acutely aware that they did not birth this child and may feel threatened by their belief that they will be punished for separating the child from her biological parents and, therefore, prefer to see themselves part of a “natural” family (Wieder, 1978, p. 563). Adoptive parents may feel especially vulnerable and fear rejection by their adopted child because of unresolved issues relating to their infertility (Sorosky et aL, 1975). Openness is generally curative, and all members of the triad are usually able to confront the issues, sometimes with therapeutic intervention, and empathize with each other.
Almost all people with whom I deal are in crisis because the information itself is so startling that it provokes a crisis where there was none. Moreover, most people begin searching because they are, in fact, already in a crisis involving their career, marriage, children, or health. The most frequent precipitants for searching are marriage, pregnancy, birth of a child, and death of an adoptive parent.
Post legal adoption services would be most helpful if targeted at adolescence and at pregnancy/childbirth. Adolescents frequently have friction with their adoptive parents and fantasies about their biological parents (Kowal & Schilling, 19S5). New York State law does not allow us to release information to children under 18 years of age unless we go through their adoptive parents, and these parents may feel threatened by this information.
Adoptees carry two sets of parents in their minds: the parents who birthed and then rejected them and the parents who raised them. This leads to idealizations and denigrations and many different fantasies, which then get played out in the transference. Adding a twist on Freud’s 1908 paper ‘Family Romances”, many adoptees fantasize that they were left by their biological mothers to die and were rescued by their adoptive mothers (Wieder, 1977). The idea of two mothers is confusing cognitively and can result in “linguistic interchangeability.” The word mother itself no longer has a clear meaning and may call up conflicting images that result in cognitive disturbances (Wieder, 1977, p. 10). It is worth noting that professionals trip themselves up as well when they switch terms according to the current political climate and refer to the natural mother, bio mother, biological mother, or first mother.
I first met ZJ when she was searching for her parents; because of legal constraints I was unable to give her the information she requested. Her adoptive parents were extremely supportive of her search. Her adoptive mother even accompanied ZJ to my office. ZJ was unhappy with the information I released and contacted my superiors.
She wrote: “My adoptive parents urged me to write to you, be on the level, and explain my situation outright from the beginning, but I decided not to take their advice because quite honestly… it would’ve been more painful for me to be denied for telling the truth. It would’ve hurt and upset me to receive a ‘Dear John’ response from you saying, ’I’m sorry but I can’t tell you that’ when the truth of the matter is that you can and won’t” I can grant her request only if I am willing to ignore the agency’s policies as determined by the law. This position makes me uncomfortable because I sense her yearning. Later she writes, ‘Everyone suddenly comes down with an acute case of amnesia to what went on years ago…. My feelings are simply a reflection on the system, and the system STINKS…. My husband and l are planning to try and conceive a child within the next year or two, and this scenario is weighing on my mind. I am worried about whether I should anticipate any health problems of my future children.’
This adoptee found her biological mother, who had gone on to marry and have other children who did not know about ZJ. ZJ’s biological mother did not want to continue to have contact with ZJ because she was afraid that it would destroy the life that she had built with her husband and other children. ZJ was able to understand this because she felt that “justice” had been served when she discovered her biological mother. Her biological father, however, warmly welcomed her into his life. ZJ has kept in touch with me for approximately five years and calls almost monthly and sends cards at seasonal occasions. She is no longer angry at me for not meeting her needs and has grown to be supportive of and curious about counseling services provided to other families impacted on by adoption.
On a daily basis l am struck by the importance of my work because people who have no clear sense of their own history are very vulnerable and lack a core identity structure on which to build the rest of their lives. They are left with fantasies instead of reality and with no way to check out their hypotheses and construct their lives. The search process itself frequently involves a major restructuring of an individual’s sense of self. Clients say things like “It’s funny I’ve always been a Mary and I don’t feel like a Diane.” Not surprisingly the fantasies often begin with the biological mother who has surrendered her child soon after birth and was assured that the pregnancy and birth would have no impact on the rest of her life. No attempt is made by the agency to keep up with later developments of any member of the triad. All clients who come back to record information do so voluntarily and at their own initiative. Adoptees feel cheated because they lack significant medial data to share with their doctors. Although I can supply the medical material from the record, it is generally incomplete, is not current, and has all identifying data deleted.
The anxiety an adoptee experiences is palpable and contagious. As I look at the record, I frequently wonder about the accuracy of the information because there are inevitable inconsistencies and no way to verify the data. Social workers made interpretations and selected data based on their own sense of values and also on the times in which they practiced. Diagnosis and vocabulary have changed dramatically. For example; not so many years ago people looked askance at a single father who expressed a desire to raise his out‑of-wedlock child; now he is a hero. It is also easy to get sucked up into the client’s own insecurities and doubts as more and more information from the past get discovered.
In the following case ST did not know she was adopted until she was about to become a godmother in her mid‑thirties and needed a baptismal certificate. (She received no papers when her father died.) Not only was she shocked when the church directed her to my office, but I so over identified with her that l found myself doubting that she was adopted. The record revealed that her adoptive parents were counseled to tell about the adoption and even given literature to read. They had stated that they agreed with openness and would tell her at an appropriate age, but they never did.
ST lost her adoptive mother when she was 18. Her father remarried about five years later, and she had a “nervous breakdown.” She states that she is okay now after receiving 10 years of counseling. It is common for me to see clients who are in long-term therapy elsewhere. I always hope that the therapist knows how to work with the issues raised by adoption but am dismayed by how many do not have a working knowledge of the field. ST is functioning well and has a career in technology and lives on her own. She gets along well with her stepmother and says they have their ups and downs but that in general, she is treated like a daughter. She states that she has had a lot of losses recently. Her father died in February, and her stepmother is selling the house that she grew up in. Her own parents spoiled her and she hypothesized that she got the most of the three children because she was the adopted one and that her siblings are resentful of her. She wondered about her siblings but believed that she remembered both trips to the Foundling and her mother’s pregnancy with her sister. This is an example of how the adoptee uses fantasy because there is not enough information to build on reality. Surprisingly, it turns out her sister and brother were also adopted.
ST became tearful upon hearing she was adopted and wanted to know how other people react. She says, “I don’t feel like myself, my own skin, l am not who I thought I was.” This is an expectable reaction as she begins to rework her identity. She also is upset that her parents lied to her. Adopting parents have often had to deal with the disappointment and hurt of finding themselves infertile and the stress that the information puts on their marriage. In the process of the home study they are scrutinized and may feel humiliated They go on to want to detach from these unpleasant experiences and to deny the fact of adoption and the fact that their child has another set of Parents. The children themselves quickly learn not to upset their parents and collude with the secret. For example, ST was very ill as a child with asthma and now had asthma and diabetes, which she had assumed that she got from her maternal grandmother. She now has to see that there was no blood relationship, and she anxiously wonders about the health history of her birth family. She was glad to hear that her biological mother was of Puerto Rican descent, because her adoptive mother was of the same heritage “and at least that’s not a change.”
This particular client immediately began to wonder about her biological mother as she worked on building dual identity, and she was surprised her mother was only 13 when she was born. “I wonder if she is looking for me. Can you tell me that? I’ve had so many losses, closings this year. At least this is an opening; she may be looking for me.”
One cannot help but hypothesize that they contributed to an unexplained feeling of shame – about which I asked her, and she stated, ‘I feel ashamed about being adopted.” The many years of secrecy compounded her surprise and subsequent feelings of shame, which l tried to dispel.
As it turned out, this adoptee was able to overcome her fear of being rejected by the rest of the family and confided in her younger brother and sister. They learned from their uncle that they were all adopted. Although their mother felt proud of having adopted, their father wanted it kept a secret. It is particularly worth noting that this client had structured a narrative for herself that incorrectly involved her mother being pregnant with her younger sister, and she had only the haziest memories of visits to the agency and blocked out the social work contacts with the family. The younger brother and sister have recently asked to have their records opened. ST is searching, and the siblings have begun to support each other in new and better ways with closer family alliances and without further counseling from our agency at this time.
Terminating is unique in this situation because, in some sense, cases have already been terminated in the past and clients are returning to have their cases reopened. Members of the triad request services all through their life span when painful issues and questions come up, and I am frequently left to feel that I am not doing enough, giving them enough time, but have come to realize that service for this population tends to be brief but intense and repetitive rather than long and continuous.
The clients that I have worked with have struggled to reconcile what they know about themselves with what they imagined happened. In the case of the biological parents, they may remember part of the birth and pregnancy; but they do not know how to imagine the future. The adoptive parents may not want to recall the piece of their personal history relating to their infertility. The adoptee may imagine their biological parents, find them very different in real life, and then try to incorporate them into his or her present and future lives. I am not suggesting that information should be shared without mutual consent of the parties involved. Confidentiality was promised and is an important part of the social work code of ethics. In many cases, however, confidentiality would be eagerly waived by all members of the triad. Yet, there is a responsibility of the agency that did the adoption to help all members build their identities based on reality, to live with the inevitable surprises, and to provide the counseling and peer group support systems needed for their clients. Agencies can help members of the triad to approach each other with consideration and respect and the knowledge that all lives have changed and moved on since the time of the birth. As members of the triad build new relationships, they may struggle with conflicting needs and desires; and may need continued help to build appropriate boundaries and form new relationships with the most significant people from their past. I would like to think that social workers in agencies could be helpful in opening new lines of communication and respect.
Andersen, R. S. (1989). The nature of the adoptee’s search: Adventure, cure, or growth? Child Welfare, 68, 623-632.
Freud, S. (1908): Family romances. Standard Edition, 9, 237-241.
Gergen, M. M.. & Gergen, K.J. (1984). The social construction of narrative accounts. In K.J. Gergen & M. M. Gergen (Eds.), Historical Social Psychology. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Associates.
Kowal, K.A., & Schilling, K.M. Adoption through the eyes of adult adoptees. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 55. 354-362.
Sachdev, P. (1989). The triangle of fears: fallacies and facts. Child Welfare, 68, 491-503.
Sorosky, A.D., Baran, A., & Pannor, R. (1975). Identity conflicts in adoptees. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 45,18-27.
White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Wieder, H. (1977). The family romance fantasies of adopted Children. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 46, 185-200.
Wieder, H. (1979). On being told of adoption. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 48, 1-21
Wieder, H. (1978). Special problems in the psychoanalysis of adopted children. In J. Glenn (Ed.), Child Analysis and therapy (pp. 557-577). New York. Jason Aronson.
Wendy Freund, M.S.E.D., LCSW, maintains a private practice in New York City. She is also Administrative Supervisor, Adoption Department, at New York Foundling Hospital.
All content is ©Wendy Freund, and may not be copied in any form without permission of the author.
Wendy Freund MSEd., LCSW
Union Square, New York, NY