An Adult Adoptee’s Dilemma: To Search or Not to Search

Imagine you are at your favorite Chinese restaurant. A bill tray and three fortune cookies are slipped on the table in front of you. Before you dig into your wallet or purse, you grab the first cookie, crack it open and read the enclosed message, “Don’t wait for your ship to come in, swim out to it.” Amen, you might think, it must be a sign. I should just go for it.

You crush the next cookie. “I think you ate your fortune, while you were eating your cookie.”

Now, you stare at that last cookie. This one will to be the fortune that yields all the answers. You inhale deeply, break the cookie in half and pull out the white narrow strip—“Next time you have the opportunity, go on a rollercoaster.”

When I seriously considered whether I should or should not search for my birth family, I might as well have turned to fortune cookies to guide me in the right direction. At the time, I did not know of any other adoptees wanting to make a search.

Adoption forum boards, private Facebook discussion groups, and fellow adoptee Twitter feeds did not exist. Research on the subject of searching was scarce and adoptees were expected to just be grateful that they were adopted. Although my adoptive parents were responsive to my questions—not even knowing if I should crack open the proverbial cookie in the first place, hurled me straight aboard the search and reunion roller coaster.

I was under ten-years-old, when I absorbed the meaning of being adopted from an era where adoptions were closed. I felt an internal dilemma riddled with ongoing debate and mystery.

Even though I was being raised in a loving and supportive adoptive family, I still yearned to fill the holes drilled into my being.

By the time I was a young teenager, my craving for answers grew. I would frequently ask myself: “Where did I come from; why was I given up for adoption; what is my birth story; what does my birth family look like; do I have biological brothers and sisters; and what is my ancestral and medical background?

I would often seek signs from the universe to tell me if I should actually proceed with a search, and longingly look up at the stars on my birthday wishing that my birth relatives might be doing the same. When I was sixteen-years-old, I even attempted to will the name of my birth mother and father right off the page of the non-identifying information that accompanied my altered birth certificate!

It wasn’t until I reached my late teens, that I asked my parents for their help to search. I felt a thrilling sense of excitement and overwhelming spell of fear. The thought of slashing into the now archaic principle—a birth mother has the right to privacy—caused me alarm. If my search were successful, I would have to be prepared to deal with any and all possibilities.

Even though I strongly desired to capture my missing information, I made it clear to my parents that I was not looking to replace any of my adoptive family. In fact, it was because I felt loved and secure in my adoptive family that I felt confident enough to search. I hoped to eventually meet and love my birth relatives, but I was painfully aware that I might not find a fairytale ending.

With the aide of my parents, a dedicated adoption search angel, and a few clues, I was fortunate to find my birth mother at the age of twenty-one—in the state of Texas— where birth records remain sealed today. Our reunion did not fill in every one of my missing holes, but I have no regrets. I accept what I’m able to know, and I’m grateful to know it.

Like many adoptees, my longing to potentially search occurred as a child, but according to 2007 statistics from the American Adoption Congress, some adoptees are motivated only after a triggering event—which could be a marriage, the birth of a baby, or following the passing of a loved one.

Still, I have other adopted friends who have never felt the same need to seek out their pasts. Some prefer to leave well enough alone. They are either quite content to leave the past in the past, are afraid of finding something negative, fear rejection, or dread the idea of potentially hurting their adoptive families.

The adult adoptee’s dilemma of whether to make that search or not, is a deeply complicated and personal preference. And thankfully, today, an adoptee does not have to make the search decision—alone. Adoption research abounds, and books, adoptee memoirs and adoptee essays are plentiful, including several that are on Secret Sons & Daughters’ Adoptee Tales “Searching” page.

Sometimes just reading the stories of others can help provide a sense of a future direction that might be right for you, which can make that fortune telling scenario a thing of the past.

Stay tuned for my upcoming post on resources and tips for searching for your birth family…

How did you feel when you decided to search for your birth family? What was your experience? Would you like your medical history without an ongoing relationship?

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7 Responses to “An Adult Adoptee’s Dilemma: To Search or Not to Search”

  1. Deb Lattimer says:

    What fortuitous timing with this post. I’m 53 years old and just received my “non-identifying” information from my adoption agency today, after paying the court to allow it, and paying the agency to release it. The lack of medical information has been my motivation to search, too. Much, if not most, of the information I already knew, due to a “search angel” some years back–when I was less motivated to search. But I wanted it in “black and white” from the agency, so that if/when I contact my birth siblings (my mother is deceased and I don’t have contact info yet for my birth father), I can share it with them, as proof. Having it makes me wish that I had been more interested in searching earlier, as it said that my birth mom “very much wanted to keep this child” and had been in love with my birth dad. Sad that it wasn’t as much of an option back then. Heather, we have something in common, too, as I have my MPH, as well as an MSSW, and live near D.C. Where I was born, actually.

  2. Scott says:

    “Like many adoptees, my longing to potentially search occurred as a child, but according to 2007 statistics from the American Adoption Congress, some adoptees are motivated only after a triggering event—which could be a marriage, the birth of a baby, or following the passing of a loved one”
    I was 43 before I felt that trigger event. Never felt the need to find my birth family or even thought about it until then. My childhood was great and never identified with being an adoptee. I was lucky, my adoptive parents never gave me a reason to feel like I needed to find my birth family. However wow when I finally felt that need it was overwhelming. When I finally found my birth Mom and 2 birth sisters its was something I could have never imagined being so great. So you just never know when it might hit you. I only wish it had hit me at 18 or 25 or 35 so I hadn’t missed so much time with them.

  3. Diane says:

    It is is helpful for me to read all of this. At 16 I was able to go to the county and retrieve some information — nothing medical, but some details I still read over and over. I’m almost ready to try and find her. All the stories that are shared give me incredible insight. Thank you.

  4. Mary Wolfe says:

    Not everyone grew up in a loving adoptive home. Some of us had things very rough, and I now realize that when I reached adulthood, I didn’t think of looking because of fear of being rejected AGAIN, and fear of who I’d find. If I was given to such bad adoptive parents – my real family must have been much worse. Being in my 60’s – I am searching now – those fears won’t go away, but I feel I can handle them. And am hoping with all the help out there now, that I will be successful. Billions of dollars are spent on research on the history of the world, our nation, peoples, yet we as adoptees are denied the right to know our history, and treated as criminals when we search.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, Mary, and show another side of searching. You make a good point that sometimes what you know is what you expect to find. I was found by my birth mother when I was 19 and that was a different set of challenges as well. The situations are so incredibly varied, but one thing that is the same across them is that no matter who finds whom, it’s very important for that ability to be there. Best of luck with your search!

    • Renee Davies says:

      Mary, I grew up in a severely abusive adoptive home. My adoptive parents abused my older brother (also adopted, not related) and me in every way there is to abuse a child. I’ve spent a lot of effort, time, and money working through the damage they did after promising to provide me with “a better life.” We deal with not only the pain of being given away by one family, but the additional pain of being tormented and abused by another.

      And I do understand being afraid of rejection. But I wanted to know–or at least identify–my natural parents and families all my life. That desire was much stronger than any fear.

      I searched for 32 years and finally found my mom when I was 50 and my father just a few months ago at age 52. They’re both alive. I have a wonderful relationship with my mother–we’ve been in touch one way or another every day since our first phone call and see each other a couple of times a year despite the miles. My father has not answered or acknowledged my letter, email, or Facebook message, even though I was clear that I’m really only looking for information (rather than a relationship).

      I’m fine with both outcomes. I haven’t gotten any answers from my father, and yes, I’m having to deal with being “rejected,” I suppose, but I know his name. I know who my parents are, and that means I know who I am, and that’s HUGE.

      Also, please don’t assume that you’ll find horrible people at the end of your search. My mom gave me up because her parents allowed her no other option, not because she was unfit or incapable. She’s a lovely woman–smart, kind, funny, successful. And heartbreakingly, my adoptive mother’s superior in every way.

      My father is, from what I understand, not such a nice guy. But I can accept that and try not to judge. Typically, what adoptees find is a mix of positive and negative. And we’re big girls. We can handle both the good and the bad, especially when it means finally knowing our truth. Don’t you think?

  5. Medical info was what I hoped for as a bare-minimum. I wanted relationships that were loving, friendly and meaningful, but was prepared for at least health history. Like you, I had no idea what I was in for, and I knew full well I risked finding people who were addicts, criminals, violent or otherwise mentally unstable and unable to accept me. Like you, I had no Internet or easy ways to research the topic of adoption. I found a few magazine articles, (mostly about celebs), and hand-searched in courthouses and our downtown library through public records. Sometimes I felt sneaky and “bad” for doing what I did, but I also felt I had the right to know the truth about my start in life and to meet my birth parents at least once. I know they had rights too, and I had no intention of wrecking someone’s life, but it was and still is a dilemma as to where their rights and our rights all as adults begin and end.