approaching your birth parents issues and options to consider

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1 CYF043 April 2005

2 approaching your birth parents issues and options to consider

3 INTRODUCTION 01 COMMON ISSUES 02 THE IMPORTANCE OF RESPECTING YOUR BIRTH PARENTS PRIVACY 09 MAKING CONTACT 10 WAYS OF MAKING THE APPROACH 12 TAKING THE RISK 15

4 introduction This booklet is intended to help you to make an informed decision about how to approach your birth parents. It addresses some of the common feelings and concerns often experienced by both adopted people and birth parents. It also outlines the various options for making contact, including some of the advantages and disadvantages associated with each. This booklet does not attempt to cover all the feelings that may arise prior to making contact with your birth parents, nor does it imply that you should be experiencing particular issues. It simply provides a summary of common concerns based upon client feedback, personal experiences and adoption literature. If you are experiencing any of these issues, to a greater or lesser degree, the intention is to allow you to place these in a context and see them for what they are common responses. If you are not experiencing these issues at this time, that is fine too. page 1

5 common issues Do I have the right to contact a birth parent after so many years? Yes. The Adult Adoption Information Act 1985, or equivalent legislation for those who were adopted overseas, gives adult adopted people the right to access their birth parent s name (as provided on their original birth certificate) and identifying information about them for the purposes of searching. The law, therefore, has recognised and responded to the need for information and contact as expressed by birth parents and adopted people over the years. If either a birth parent or adopted person does not want to be contacted, each is given the right to place a stop (or veto) on the release of information that would identify them. If you have received your original birth certificate naming either of your birth parents, this means that they do not have a veto in place. Once you have a name (or names) you are free to search for and approach them. If they ask how you found them you can explain that you received the name on your original birth certificate and located them through public records. Feeling vulnerable Many adopted people talk about feeling very vulnerable prior to making the initial approach. Vulnerability and fear are common responses when considering contact with a birth parent after so many years. You may be fearful of how they will respond or even how you, yourself, will respond when the approach is made. Many adopted people are surprised by the variety of feelings that arise for them as they begin the task of searching page 2

6 and approaching. When you have a name, physical address and/or telephone number for your birth parent, you may feel yourself emotionally connecting to him or her and to your feelings about your adoption at a level not previously experienced. On the other hand, some people talk about feeling nothing and describe a sense of unreality. This is common, too. There is no particular way that you are supposed to feel or react. Contacting your birth parent again as an adult presents a unique situation. You share the most intimate of bonds and yet you do not know one another. Opening a can of worms Some adopted people fear that in approaching their birth parent they are opening a can of worms that they will not be able to close again. In a sense, this is true for both you and your birth parent. You cannot go from having made contact and knowing to not knowing. You may be concerned about your responsibilities and obligations or that your wishes and expectations about contact differ from those of your birth parent. On the other hand, you may not be aware of what your wishes or expectations are. Some adopted people express fear about the impact that approaching their birth parent may have on their current life and their sense of self. "I ve got a good life, a family that loves me, why rock the boat?" Up until this point, you have created a life, sense of self, family and your place in the world. In approaching your birth parent, you provide yourself with a wider context in which to place these. However, you should be prepared to feel some confusion along the way. If you do decide to make an approach and find out what is possible for you both, you may end up getting to know her or him, your extended family, and yourself in the process. page 3

7 Feeling scared, confused or alone You may find yourself on an emotional roller coaster ride and it helps to talk about it. It is important that the person you talk to is someone you trust and feel safe with. While the people in your life may not necessarily understand what you are going through, they may be able to listen and support you. You may also want to talk with other adopted people or birth parents that have been reunited. These are people who have been in your situation and can empathise with what you are feeling. For example, many people who attend adoption support group meetings say they feel understood and validated by sharing stories and recognising the similarities between their feelings and experiences and those of other adopted people. Support is also available from adoption social workers at Child, Youth and Family s Adoption Information and Services Units across the country. You can phone during normal working hours and ask to speak to a duty social worker regarding adult adoption. If you find that you have issues that you would like to explore at a deeper level, you may wish to see a counsellor. A second rejection? Many adopted people express their fear of experiencing a second rejection. A second rejection, however, implies that your birth parents rejected you when they placed you for adoption. Most birth parents talk about adoption in terms of loss rather than rejection. They often talk about feeling that they had no other choice, or that they believed that adoption was a sacrifice that they made in their child s interests. There is the possibility that your birth parents may not be ready to speak with you, provide you with information about your background or develop a relationship with you. Research shows that there is also a strong possibility that they will and that they have, in fact, been waiting for you to contact them. page 4

8 Fantasy versus reality The anticipation of leaving behind the fantasy and embracing the reality may feel scary. What if your birth parent is not the person you imagined or does not respond in the way that you had hoped? It is important to remember that they have been on their own adoption journey for as many years as you have been alive. Unlike you, they have conscious memories of you, your birth, and any time you may have spent together before the adoption. The loss of you has fundamentally shaped their life. Some birth fathers, however, may not be aware of your birth. Your birth mother in particular may have explored her feelings and sought support over the years or may have repressed them and not talked about you with anyone. She may need some time to think; or she may be ready and eager to see you as soon as possible. Be prepared for a variety of different responses and try to let go of any specific expectations you may have. Whoever they are, they are your birth parents. Whatever your background, it is uniquely yours. Doing the right thing It is important to stress that there is no right or wrong way to approach your birth parent. Whether or not she or he is prepared to have contact has more to do with their state of mind and well-being than how you make your approach or what you say. It primarily concerns the situation they are in now and whether they have dealt with their feelings about your adoption. If they choose not to meet or develop a relationship with you, it may be that they have decided that these feelings are too painful and they are not yet emotionally ready to deal with them. Or perhaps they fear that they will not measure up to your expectations. Many adopted people look for advice or assistance in making their approach. Some assume that there is a standard way in which approaches are made or that someone else should make the approach, e.g. an adoption social worker, support person or friend. People are often afraid of doing or page 5

9 saying the wrong thing, and of the response of their birth parents. If possible, we encourage people to make the approach themselves. No one is better equipped to approach your birth parent than you and the approach is much more meaningful from you than from an intermediary. When you make the approach, you are in control of what is said and done and the pace at which this occurs. You experience that contact first-hand rather than being told about it by the person who made the approach. Hearing about it second-hand may increase the possibility of misunderstanding and misinterpretation as it is relayed back to you. Also, pieces of information that your birth parent may have mentioned to the intermediary may be important for you to hear but may not have the same importance to the person making the approach. By making the approach personally, you are able to hear your birth parent s voice, answer their questions, receive their letter, and so on. Will I be disrupting their life? As far as disruption goes, your birth parent s life was disrupted when you were adopted. By re-approaching her or him, you are creating the opportunity for you both to develop a relationship and to acknowledge past losses. If they are not ready to develop a relationship with you, they can say so. You are offering them a choice. Under the Adult Adoption Information Act 1985, birth parents cannot simply gain access to their child s adopted name. They must make an application to have their child searched for and approached by a social worker. This is subject to a veto check and assumes that their son or daughter can be located through public records such as electoral roles. Some birth parents may not be aware that they have this right and others may feel that they should not disrupt their son s or daughter s life. Many birth parents talk about being fearful that their son or daughter may not even know that they are adopted or may be angry and rejecting. page 6

10 Even if a birth parent does not feel prepared for contact, you will have the knowledge that you tried and they will know that you are interested in contact should they choose to pursue the opportunity in the future. Any disruption that may occur for them is not so much a new disruption as a re-experiencing of old feelings about the initial disruption at the time of your adoption. If you can, try to give them time to take in the new situation. Often the searcher has taken some time before reaching the point where they feel ready to make contact. The person being sought may equally need some time before feeling ready for contact. Where do I fit in? You have always been a part of your birth parent s life at some level (apart from cases where birth fathers may not have been aware of the pregnancy). Finding your place within it may take some time, or you may feel yourself slipping back into their life in a way that feels surprisingly natural. They may also wonder what their place is within your life. It is important to communicate your feelings and expectations openly and honestly with one another and this involves taking risks and is not always easy. You may be worried about how you come across to them (e.g. needy, pushy, cold, assuming) or whether you might scare them off by the things you do or say (or do not do or say). It is likely that they have those same concerns. Integrating your birth parent back into your life (at whatever level) may take time and you may feel concerned about how this affects other people, such as your birth parent s partner, their other children. It is important to remember that your adoption has affected them, too. For example, your birth grandparents may grieve the loss of their first grandchild and your siblings may be angry that they missed the opportunity to grow up with their brother or sister. Your extended birth family members may have always known about you or they may have just found out and need some time to get used to the idea. If your birth parent hasn t told their partner and/or children, they may need time to work on this before deciding whether they can develop a relationship with you. page 7

11 I don t want to hurt my adoptive parents Deciding to search for your birth parents is a completely separate issue from how close you are to your adoptive parents or what your upbringing was like. It is not about replacing one parent, or family, with another. It is about integration integrating your birth parent, birth family, and background, into your present life and the person you are. It s about having more of a complete picture. Searching for your birth parent and your background concerns your desire to know who you are and where you come from. It may also be about your desire to let your birth parent know that you are alive and well. Many of our adopted clients talk about feelings of guilt and disloyalty to their adoptive parents when they start searching. Even when their adoptive parents are deceased, some still express such feelings. Adopted people may be afraid that their adoptive parents will be hurt or insulted by their desire to search. However, many people find that relationships with adoptive parents improve, deepen, or become more real following a reunion with a birth parent. Your adoptive parents have probably always wondered whether you would search for your birth parents at some point, even if they have never talked about it with you. They may have prepared themselves for this possibility over the years and may be more supportive than you think. They may also be interested in your birth parents because they are your birth parents. They may have always wondered, for instance, where you got your hair colour, musical ability or sense of humour. Having a greater understanding of who you are and where you come from may help them to better understand and support you. page 8

12 THE IMPORTANCE OF RESPECTING your birth parents privacy You have no way of knowing your birth parents circumstances or how they would prefer to be approached. There are, however, some basic considerations that you could apply when making your approach. For example, it is important to respect their privacy. She or he may have told their family and friends about you and may not have any concerns about privacy. It is also possible that she or he has not told their family and friends about you and fears that they may find out and be upset. Therefore it is important that you try to contact your birth parent directly, rather than contacting their family members. If you respect their privacy, you provide them with choices, which gives them an element of control over the situation. They can then choose who they would like to involve and how or when to tell them. If, however, you are unable to contact her or him directly and must contact a family member, proceed with caution and sensitivity. You may wish to give them your name and contact details and, if they ask, say that you are trying to get in touch with them about a personal matter. If the family doesn t know about you, this would allow your birth parent to be the one to tell them and they would also be the first one to find out about your approach, rather than hearing about it from a family member. page 9

13 making contact You can: make contact yourself use an intermediary (such as a friend, social worker, counsellor, etc.). Making contact yourself Advantages: You are in control. This means that you control the pace at which you progress and ensure that the initial contact is made in the way you wish. You are able to experience your birth parent s response at first-hand. This is a precious moment and cannot be recreated. You can address any fears or questions your birth parent may have in that first contact. No one else can do this more effectively than you. If arrangements are made for contact to take place, you are able to ensure that you both reach an agreement that you are happy with. Hearing directly from you may help your birth parent to connect emotionally with what is happening, whereas an intermediary may run the risk of depersonalising the approach. Your birth parent is given the opportunity to respond directly to you rather than through someone else. In that first contact you share something special with your birth parent that would not occur if an intermediary made the approach. page 10

14 Disadvantages: Making direct contact may not allow time for your birth parent to prepare herself or himself to respond to you. (However, many birth parents indicate that they have been preparing themselves, at some level, for the possibility of being approached by their son or daughter.) You will be on the receiving end of your birth parent s response and must be prepared to deal with it. Using an intermediary Advantages: It allows your birth parent to prepare herself or himself for direct contact with you. It puts the responsibility for making the first contact into someone else s hands if you feel unable to initiate it, or unable to deal with the possibility that your birth parent may not be open to contact with you. Disadvantages: Loss of control. The approach may not be done in a way that you feel happy with. You may then be left wishing that you had done it yourself and wondering whether your birth parent may have responded differently to you. You may also find it difficult to consider re-approaching your birth parent, if they have told the intermediary they are not open to contact with you. An intermediary can never really express the depth of feeling that you may have and answer all the questions that your birth parent may want to ask about you. Your birth parent may not connect emotionally with what is happening if a third person makes contact. If they are scared or hesitant, a lack of emotional connection may make it easier for them to say no to that first contact. There is a risk that any arrangements or decisions that are made in that first approach may not be what you really want. page 11

15 the WAYS approach OF MAKING You can: 1. write a letter 2. make a phone call 3. make a visit. Option 1: Writing a letter (typed or handwritten) Advantages: Your birth parent may feel receiving a letter is less intrusive than a phone call or visit. It gives your birth parent time to think about how they feel and to respond when they feel ready. It also gives them an opportunity to talk with anyone else they feel they need to. A letter may be your only option if you are unable to find their telephone number or are unable to visit. You can include photos and information about yourself, as well as your feelings and expectations about contact. It may make it easier for your birth parent to respond once they have a sense of you as a person. Handwriting the letter may give it a more personal feel. You are able to make your first contact in a planned way because you can include everything that you want to say without fear of forgetting something or freezing up. Disadvantages: You cannot always guarantee that the letter will reach your birth parent. It may be opened by someone else or may not necessarily be forwarded on if they have moved. page 12

16 You will not get the immediate response that you would get from a phone call or a visit. You must be prepared to wait for them to respond. You may find it difficult to decide what you want to say and how you want to say it. You may, therefore, put off writing the letter because you simply don t know where to start. If your birth parent misunderstands something you have said in your letter, there is no immediate way of reassuring them. A typed letter may have a less personal feel but may be easier to read. Option 2: Making a telephone call Advantages: By making a phone call you can both share that first moment of contact that cannot be recreated. You are in control of when you make contact and what you say. For example, you may want to phone in the evening when you have your house to yourself, or from a friend s house where they can offer you support. You get an immediate response that you can then reply to. You are in a position to immediately reassure your birth parent or answer any questions they may have. You are able to hear her voice or his voice and they can hear yours, which makes the contact personal and makes you seem more real to them. Your birth parent is able to maintain their privacy. You could begin the call by giving them your name and then say that it is a personal matter that you would like to talk about. You could then ask if they are alone and able to talk. If not, you could give them your phone number and ask them to call you back. page 13

17 Disadvantages: You may ring at a bad time (for instance they may have company) and you may end up misinterpreting their response if they are unable to explain why they cannot talk with you. Someone other than your birth parent may answer the phone and ask you who you are and why you are calling. Your birth parent may have an unlisted number or one that is not listed under his or her name. Your birth parent may have a disability that prevents them from using the phone. You may freeze up and forget what you wanted to say. Your birth parent may freeze up and hang up the phone. Option 3: Making an approach in person Advantages: Your birth parent may be able to immediately identify you as family. You are able to see what they look like and assess their physical reaction. You can reassure them if they have any concerns or fears. Their response will be immediate and, if they feel able, it may be possible to spend time with them there and then. Disadvantages: This approach could be considered intrusive and it might make it difficult for your birth parent to maintain their privacy and feel in control. They may assume that you don t respect their privacy and they may be concerned about your intentions (e.g. will you approach their family members without telling her or him?). The particular time you visit may not suit their situation or circumstances. page 14

18 taking the risk Approaching your birth parent is an important decision that takes a great deal of courage. You have to be prepared to step into the unknown. Although, if you have lived all these years without knowing them or very much about your background, you actually have a great deal of experience in coping with uncertainty. Whether you go on to develop a close relationship or only ever have one contact, you can feel good knowing that you took the risk you created an opportunity for contact and gave them a choice. They will know that you are alive, well, and available for contact. Making an approach shows you are prepared to take responsibility and change your current circumstances. That you are ready to put aside any fantasies or expectations you may have had about your birth parents to discover who they really are and whether they are ready to have some form of contact. It is important to remember that in this relationship, as in all relationships, you have choices, and that you both can continually discuss your wishes, expectations, boundaries, and so on. Most of our adopted clients say that they are glad that they made the approach, regardless of the outcome, and that they prefer knowing to not knowing. Knowing means your feelings can be based on reality. It may not necessarily meet your expectations or answer all of your questions, but it will mean you can stop fearing the unknown. page 15

19 Preparation helps, but you cannot predict how your birth parent will respond or how you will feel when the first contact is made. Before you make the approach, however, you may want to ask yourself what your expectations and motivations are for contact. This may help to determine how ready you are for contact and to accept the reality of what you find. If you are interested in adoption literature, handouts and reading lists are available nationwide from Child, Youth and Family. You are welcome to telephone 0508 FAMILY ( ) and ask to speak to the duty adoption social worker for your area. page 16

20 Child, Youth and Family, All rights reserved. Department of Child, Youth and Family Services, PO Box 2620, Wellington. ISBN

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