Dr Gary Clapton: To meet or not to meet? The hard question for adopted children – and birth parents

Most adopted people at some time in their lives will want to know more about their families of origin.

Most adopted people at some time in their lives will want to know more about their families of origin.

Many will try to find their birth ­parents, invariably their mother, at first. Curiosity as to resemblances, medical information and reasons for being adopted all may loom large.

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A large majority of the parents of children given up for adoption, ­particularly birth mothers, but also many birth fathers, want to know how their child has got on in life, ­perhaps meet them and explain the reasons for their adoption.

There is no trouble-free way of ­making these aspirations ­happen. Despite supportive legislation and policy, adopted people can be frustrated by red tape, missing records, and costs. A ­crucial ­consideration, should they trace a birth relative, is ‘how will I be received?’ Despite recent ­supportive legislation, birth ­parents face similar obstacles but also ­wonder if they have the right to do so, to trace and meet their son or daughter, ‘to barge into their lives’.

These anxieties have not stopped people contacting each ­other. In the past private detectives have been used at great cost. Today people use social media. In a few clicks you can find a birth mother in ten minutes. The risks of doing this on your own without a go-between are obvious.

For a birth parent or relative, the search is much more demanding with much fewer prospects of uncovering an adopted person’s name or an up-to-date address. Whoever makes the first move, the searcher knows what they are doing and has built up to deciding to make contact, thinking it over, perhaps talking it over with a trusted friend or loved one, whereas the searched-for party knows nothing. A meeting can be a gamble.

What happens after that first flush of anticipation and excitement? When ‘relative strangers’, separated by adoption meet after decades of being apart, how do they make a start at a relationship?

We are nearing the end of a year-long study of 200 adoption reunions that have taken place between 1996 and 2006, which set out to answer these questions. It has not always been smooth sailing, with families reunited without trouble. But the experience is generally positive, with nearly all being glad that they did make the decision to search, go on to meet and have a relationship with their birth mother or adopted son or daughter.

Writing years after reunion, adopted people said that they were attending their birth families’ events such as weddings, described contact as regular, and spoke, contentedly, of “being in each other’s lives”. For others, the contact had “eventually fizzled out”.

However, for all of the adopted ­people who spoke with us, whether they described their current relationship with birth family as flourishing or lapsed, the decision to seek out and meet birth parents was not regretted.

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Birth mothers’ accounts were more varied. For one, “original contact was by letter, and then email which dried up for a year. Now the only contact from him is by ­‘liking’ the photos which I put up on Facebook. He has a full brother and a half brother and sister who would love to meet him”.

In all the accounts, there were grey areas, as in the one from this mother looking back after meeting her son 15 years ago. “Contact is occasional, which is fine for both of us. We aren’t close ­geographically and transport is a problem. Generally, we keep in touch by mobile phone – he’s abroad a lot. It’s tricky, we are both aware of the awkwardness of the history. And we disagree strongly about politics and various other things. Have to tread carefully. And I’m still guilty”.

But for others, the experience has been more like this mother. “Contact has continued over the years and it is a good feeling to know that my daughter comes and goes freely to my house and she doesn’t feel left out.”

Whatever the long-term outcomes, adopted ­people can achieve a sense of completion of identity. Birth mothers can have their worries about how their child has fared alleviated (though the complex emotions engendered are rarely ever laid to rest). Our study reveals all these themes and more in the life-long business of being adopted, and having given up a child for adoption.

Reunions make connections between people divided by adoption, but these meetings carry only a possibility of a relationship. That’s where the work happens. We take strength from the deep connections that can never severed. In adoption, though much is taken, much abides.

10 Years After, Adoption Reunions: What Happened Next? will be published by Birthlink this year.

Dr Gary Clapton is a senior ­lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and a supporter of ­Birthlink.