To reunite with my birth family or family members is perhaps one of the hardest things I did as an adoptee, or that another adoptee will ever do. Unless the adoption was open and the two families have had continuous contact, the adoptee may have little to no information that could help in a search for the biological family. It has taken some older adoptees (~1940-1990) decades to track down even a distant cousin, much less find a birth mother or father. Privatized records complicate the search by only revealing tidbits of information that may or may not be useful. Many adoptees in this situation end up hiring private detectives or go through other avenues to help find the information that the government or adoption agency will not provide because of past closed adoptions.
Before the Search
Before an adoptee begins to search for the birth family, adoptees often have to process any deep-rooted psychological struggles with adoption. An adoptee must be ready to handle details about the adoption that might be surprising, shocking, or even traumatizing to hear. If the adoptee feels comfortable with what is already known about the adoption, it provides a sort of protection if things don’t go the expected way. Reunions may or may not go well, as it all depends on whether or not the birth family wants to have contact with the adoptee, circumstances surrounding the adoption story, along with many other situations. Most of the time, the conclusion of the reunion is left in the birth parents’ hands, which can often be frustrating to adoptees.
In my case, the preparation for reuniting with my birth parents was a challenging and difficult road. I knew very little about both my birth mother and birth father, except for names and a brief description of my birth parents’ past. I had never seen a picture of my birth father before and had only seen less than five images of my birth mother. Looking back, there was so much information that I had not processed and wasn’t prepared to deal with the information that I was about to be handed. There was a significant amount of guilt associated with my unpreparedness; at 19, I thought I would be “grown” enough to have “gotten over” being adopted, as many told me. To be frank, this is a highly inappropriate way to go about talking through the emotions of a reunion with an adoptee. I believed these things to be true until I “came out of the fog,” which means that I realized that it’s perfectly fine to experience anxiety, depression, or even a traumatizing experience during the reunion process.
Some other ways to prepare yourself for searching for your birth family are:
- Try thinking about things you are still struggling with about your adoption. How bad do you struggle with these aspects? Are you ready to resolve concerns prior to your search?
- If you’ve been to therapy for your adoption, review old notes or handouts you were given. Often, these can give you a mental “boost” when you need it the most.
- Make a list of coping strategies for situations where you could get overwhelmed.
Another important thing to do is have a discussion with your adoptive parents before searching if you have a trusting relationship. Searching in secret adds another layer of complexity to an already nerve-wracking journey and is not something that is recommended. Let your adoptive parents know that this is a decision that you are personally making that has nothing to do with your relationship with your adoptive family. In some cases, adoptive parents may be hurt when an adoptee begins to search for the birth family. Adoptive parents may believe that as a mother or father, he or she has not been sufficient as a parent, that not enough love was given, or that a mother or father was inadequate in some form or fashion. For many, this is most certainly not the case; adoptees just want to know where he or she came from. The emotions that come with this discussion may be tense, as this is a tough discussion to have. However, it is important that your adoptive parents support you and provide you with a sense of comfort in knowing that you are not alone in this journey. On the other hand, as an adoptive parent’s child, it is just as important to let parents know that you are not doing this to hurt your family in any way.
At the end of the day, most people do not find everything to be accounted for. Adoptees hope to meet a birth parent or have a relationship with a sibling, to find a grandparent that is still alive, to find out all the information an adoptee has been wondering about for an entire life. I speak from experience in saying that not finding what you want or hitting roadblocks along the way is devastating. You must, must, must be prepared for this.
On the other hand, reunions can provide an adoptee with all the information and the family he or she was looking for. No matter what happens, however, you will come out of the situation knowing that you did the best you could to find what, and who, you wanted.
What Do You Already Know?
Before jumping into an extensive search, go through the information that you already know about your birth family. Get a piece of paper and write out anything you can remember being told prior to your search or things you have found throughout your life in a personal search. Have a conversation with your adoptive parents and view any documents kept from your adoption. Doing this will help to avoid searching for things that you already have.
Original Birth Certificates
When a child is born and then adopted, that child is issued two birth certificates. One will have the birth parents’ names on it but is considered illegitimate. The other certificate will have the adoptive parents’ names on it and is considered the legitimate one. Until I met adoptees from across the country, I had no idea that adoptees had different birth certificates for each set of parents. Most younger adoptees also find themselves in that situation, as adoption has evolved from protecting the privacy of birth parents to having more open and semi-open adoptions. Because of this, it has eliminated the need to make records so privatized. However, if your adoption records are sealed, obtaining an original birth certificate will potentially allow you to learn the names of your birth parents.
DNA Equals Truth
With DNA testing becoming more publicly available, adoptees can find out a lot more about biological families and even locate family members. Sites like ancestry.com, heritagedna.com, 23andme.com, and others have created databases where anyone can submit personal DNA and obtain results. Most sites follow a standard procedure for submission:
- Order a kit from the website and wait for it to be shipped.
- Once you receive your kit, there will be a tube to spit in. Be sure to fill the tube with spit all the way up to the line or the DNA might not be testable. (TIP: Remove all lipstick of makeup from your lower face area before spitting in the tube. If any particles get in, it can compromise the results.)
- Send the test results back and wait for your results.
Once your results arrive, you will receive a breakdown of your ethnic heritage by percentage.
On Ancestry, one of the most commonly used DNA analysis programs will even show you how your ancestors migrated throughout history. For example, I have ancestors from the Congo in Africa. When I received my results, it showed how ancestors were brought to the east coast of the United States in the late 1700s and early 1800s by White colonists. It also provided the historical context of what life would have been like for those people and what the world was like during that time period.
Your DNA results are also compared with all other DNA in the company’s database for potential matches. Those who match your DNA, no matter how small the connection, are provided to you. Many adoptees have found second or third cousins and, in rare cases, siblings or parents. The message feature allows you to communicate between people that have your shared DNA.
As the header of this section implies, DNA provides the truth for many adoptees. It can help adoptees connect to people that adoptees would have never met otherwise. However, like with every situation that could lead to reunification, make sure that you are prepared to handle anything that might be a shock to you. In my experience, once you meet one family member, you will quickly meet many more. When I contacted my birth father for the first time, I learned that I had eight aunts and uncles, three new siblings, and hundreds of cousins. It was an overwhelming, yet amazing time.
I’ve Found Something…Now What?
You’ve finally found some important information–whether that be a family member, a friend of the family, or an unknown fact about your adoption. If you’re anything like I was, I didn’t really know what to do. When I actually found something, I was almost dumbfounded; the culmination of excitement and confusion was an emotion I had never felt before. No matter where you are in your adoption journey, how old you are, or how positive or negative the information you find is, it’s something that will profoundly impact the rest of your life.
While there are many bits and pieces of information to find about your birth family, pictures can sometimes be the most startling thing to discover–especially if you have never seen a picture of your birth family before. For many adoptees, there’s not really a good term to describe the feeling of seeing someone that you look like for the first time. In my case, seeing a picture of my birth father was like looking in the mirror. We looked so much alike that it was uncanny. Out of everything that I learned in the short period of my search, this was the hardest thing to get adjusted to. Being able to see related features like eyes, hair, or a smile in a relative is something that most everyone takes for granted. When you experience this for the first time, it is completely normal to be shocked and a little confused.
If you’ve discovered a new family member, I personally recommend taking a slow approach when meeting that individual. Communicate via social media, email, or texting before you make the first phone call or video chat. Take the time to get to know the person at more than just a surface level to make sure that an appropriate level of trust can be established. Ask yourself the hard questions: Is this person someone I want in my life? How do I really feel about creating new relationships with my birth family? Am I comfortable with it or is this something I need to reflect on a bit more? Again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a step back at any point during your search or reunion to gather your thoughts and restructure your plan.
However, the most important thing you can do at this point is to set boundaries. Set these boundaries for your birth family so that family members recognize that this may be an overwhelming time for you. It is very easy to get excited and try to rush into a situation, especially when you’ve searched for your family your entire life. However, if you do not set the terms for how you would like the relationship to start off, it is very hard to go back and alter those boundaries if things get too involved too quickly. Also, set boundaries for yourself. Just as birth families can get excited to have you in the picture again, the same can happen on an adoptee’s side.
Now that we have explored several of the most important aspects of searching for your birth family, here are a few reminders of things to not forget during your search:
- Do not feel ashamed or guilty by making the decision to search for your birth family.
- This part of your life can be exhilarating, confusing, shocking, and rewarding. It can add more complexity to your life, or it can resolve years of wondering about the basic information that every other person has about their history.
- You are creating your own story and paving your own way of finding your truth.
- Stay comfortable in your own skin and grounded in the fact that you are worthy of receiving this information.
- It is important not to lose yourself in the process of finding yourself.
At the end of the day, always remember that you deserve the right to know your history, your story, and your truth.
My name is Morgan Bailee Boggess, and I am originally from Owensboro, KY, (where I was raised) and was adopted from Henderson, KY. I currently live in Lexington, KY, with my fiance, our Yorkie (Heidi), turtle (Sheldon), and a variety of saltwater fish. Beginning in 2016, I sought out and met most of my biological family. At the end of my searching, I discovered that I have, in total, 8 brothers and sisters, 20 nieces and nephews, and one godson. I graduated from Georgetown College in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and am currently working towards getting my master’s in Social Work (MSW) with plans to get my Ph.D. in Clinical Neuropsychology a few years after that. I am a psychometrist and clinical research assistant at Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky. My research focus is looking at how forms of complex trauma (particularly intergenerational) affects the cognition in older adults. In my spare time, I write and read spoken word poetry at events to help benefit local nonprofits. I am also involved with several national diversity organizations and serve on the Board of Directors for Adoptees Connect, Inc.