Michael Gove and Jackie Kay show complexity of seeking roots – Dr Gary Clapton

Michael Gove is adopted. He was born in ­Edinburgh and brought up in Aberdeen. He is also a front-runner for the Tory leadership – however that is not the subject of this article.

In a Scotsman interview on 27 May (‘Michael Gove: Prime minister push ‘driven’ by adoption’) he was asked if he had thought about ­tracing his birth mother. He replied: “I have always felt that it might seem as though I was saying they (his adoptive parents) were somehow not the complete parents who have given me everything that they could, so that has been the reticence.”

This is a feeling that adopted ­people frequently voice and it’s understandable. After all, if the choice was between growing up in public care (Gove spent four months in care) and two parents that offer love and care, as was the case with many of the adoptions in the era when Michael Gove was born, who would not feel grateful?

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Yet, in our experience, it is rare that adopted people seek to replace one set of parents (adoptive) with another (birth parents). Adoptive parents often simply need reassurance that any wish to seek out birth family members is perfectly ­natural and the urge to do so is about the need to complete a sense of identity – the missing piece of the jigsaw for adopted adults. This is not a rejection of adoptive ­parents or an upbringing. Adopted people search out their biological roots for many reasons: resemblances, medical and health purposes, genetic information, and yes, even connections (in adoption, connections don’t mean rejections – research tells us that adopted adults can skilfully incorporate their found birth family into their lives).

Unfortunately, because of love and respect, and fear of appearing disloyal to adoptive mums and dads, adopted adults may leave it too late to begin a search for their birth mother or, as expressed by Michael Gove, feel ­reticence, indeed a fear, because any curiosity about their birth ­parents might seem to disparage their ­adoptive parents.

Because adoption is often shrouded in secrecy and, at the least, fraught with difficulties in talking openly and at length about it, raising matters of origins can seem like a selfish act.

‘Rocking the boat’ and ‘opening a can of worms’ are phrases used to explain the trepidation and reluctance of adopted people in sharing feelings and curiosity about their birth family with their parents.

Though not to belittle these obstacles to sharing, it is worth knowing that, rather than sow division, talking about roots can bring families closer.

Take Scotland’s famous poet and writer, Jackie Kay. Jackie Kay’s adoption took place in the same era as that of Michael Gove. She was brought up in Glasgow and when she became curious about her roots – she has written extensively about growing up as a black person – her mother became a willing ­participant in Kay’s search for self, and shared speculation about, and stories of, Kay’s search for and meetings with her birth parents.

In the case of Jackie Kay, full and frank disclosure and an embrace of the adopted person’s dual ­heritage points to the opposite of hurt and weakening of kinship ties, and instead to a strengthening of them.

So what adoption-related advice would I offer Michael Gove if I were asked? He has been open about being adopted and the influence this has had on his life. He is considerate to foreground his parents’ feelings. Indeed, acting on any curiosity about his birth family will be complex given that he is such a public figure. But, fears of pursuing matters and causing offence, in our experience, are unfounded. Rather than an unsettling of kinship ties, there can been a sense of peace and completeness when adopted adults put a face to a name. Jackie Kay’s adoptive parents were communists. Who knows, ­perhaps Michael Gove’s birth family will be died in the wool Labour. Oh, and he ought to use an intermediary.

Dr Gary Clapton for Birthlink.