To forget one's ancestors is to be a brook without a source
A tree without root~ Chinese Proverb

The practice of adoption has undergone dramatic changes in the last 25 years. An explosion of evolving understanding has influenced practice and philosophy. Instead of secrecy and barriers to contact, there is an increased emphasis on openness and knowledge. The voices of those impacted by the adoption journey have clamored to be heard. Adopted persons, birthparents and adoptive parents have educated professionals about the complexities of living with adoption. What was believed to be a simple journey, has instead resulted in being a highly complex life experience.

In keeping with societal norms, which promoted closed adoptions, a veil of secrecy was considered vital for the well being of all concerned, especially the adoptive family. Secrecy would prevent the birthparents from intruding and would allow the family to integrate into the larger community as though the children had been born to the adoptive parents. Thus, an adversarial model was created where in order to join a family by adoption, one had to obliterate the family by birth.

Making this very feasible was the belief that birthparents forgot the children they birthed. Society emblazoned birthparents with symbols of shame, removing them from the ranks of the worthy once an adoption occurred. After all, what caring parent would give away her child?

Supporting the sanctity of the adoptive family was the belief that adopted persons would have no need to know about their birthfamilies. If and when they did, it became a sure sign that they didn't love their adoptive families and were demonstrating a lack of gratitude.

The rise of the adoption movement in the 70s began to erode these popularly held beliefs. Adopted persons began to openly acknowledge a profound need to know their birthfamilies. They expressed a love and loyalty for their families by adoption. The need to know in no way denied the adoption ties. The search for self was identified as central to the quest.

Birthparents came out of the closet, joining ranks to belie the "forgetting" myth. Over 90% of birthparents are open to contact with their children. No matter what their personal story, the thread that joined them was a love of their children and a need to know of their welfare. The honoring of the adoptive parents was consistently expressed while identifying their own need to know.

Adoptive parents gradually joined the voices, exhibiting a heightened understanding of their children's needs. Where the fear of birthparents had previously guided their experience, increased empathy and awareness now brought their participation. In growing numbers, they seek changes in the laws and practice areas, which would allow their children access to their birthfamilies.

Little by little, some agencies began to offer services that were responsive to the expressed needs of their clients from the past. The challenge was to identify the nature of the services in light of "promises" of the past, revolving around confidentiality and ownership issues. Adoptive parents were often told that the child would be theirs with no chance of intrusion by the birthfamily. Withholding information about identities of all parties sealed the possibility of paths crossing by chance or on purpose.

The search movement opened the door to pro active searching. By the time someone decides to search, the need is compelling. Searching takes tremendous courage as one prepares to face the truth and possible rejection. The fear of rejection is a major stumbling block to starting a search. Safe & socially acceptable reasons are usually initially expressed such as “I need medical history”. There are a multitude of other reasons expressed only when trust and empathy are discerned.

Search and contact set off a massive rollercoaster that offers pathways for healing to all parties involved with adoption. Some of the outcomes of a search are feelings of wholeness, clearer sense of self and self worth, increased trust, increased ability to interrelate and have intimacy, diminished sense of rejection & abandonment, entitlement to exist and strengthened bonds between the adopted person & his parents/family. Inherent in this process is the right to develop whatever relationship is possible as in other families.

Each of us, involved with adoption, has the opportunity to expand the understanding in our community regarding searching. In this manner, we can lend our voices to support the healing potential of those persons living under the rules of secrecy. Secrecy embodies shame. Truth is liberating and strengthening.


In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep,
to know our heritage --
to know who we are and where we have come from.
Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning."
~ Alex Haley

Presented at Ontario Adoption Community Conference, Toronto 2002. Content may be reproduced when credit is given to author.