Reflections on Adoption, Part 2

Part 2, from philosopher and adoptive parent Brynn Welch.


Social convention 2: unless the adopted child, adoptive parents, or birth parents say otherwise, assume the birth parents are off limits.

What happens in the absence of this convention: Curiosity quickly moves to voyeurism, the expression of which ranges from thoughtless insensitivity to staggering cruelty. First and most importantly, details about the birth parents are simply none of anyone’s business. Just as it would be invasive for me to ask for the details regarding someone else’ child’s conception and birth or the impact those have on the parents’ emotional, financial, or professional situation, there’s no good reason to ask for those details about my son’s birth parents. Second, the tone underlying many of these comments is troubling. They are sometimes openly derogatory and almost always disregard the birth parent’s experience, treating the birth parent(s) as merely means to an end. In general, questions and comments about birth parents fail to recognize them as moral equals. One thing that has always shocked me is that while people will celebrate my new family, they will show disdain for the person who made it possible. Third, people often ignore the fact that my son is present when they ask these questions/make comments about his biological parents. The effect is that I am often asked invasive questions in front of my child, and those questions (or the assumptions that generate them) are insulting to the mother of my child. That is obviously an undesirable effect, and I am certain not the one intended by the person posing the question or making the comment.

The advice: bear in mind that questions about the birth parent(s) seem benign but are often experienced as intrusive and offensive. Moreover, the type and quality of relationship between adoptive parents and birth parents vary widely. Those relationships are deeply personal and complex, so it’s best to avoid probing into/commenting on the relationship for the same reason it’s generally a good idea to avoid doing so with respect to someone’s marriage. In this case, curiosity is trumped by a family’s desire for privacy, so err on the side of caution: wait for an invitation inside.



5 thoughts on “Reflections on Adoption, Part 2

  1. You don’t spell it out in the post, but I wonder what your thoughts are on adults who were adopted as infants trying to learn about her/his biological parents. It seems to me that there’s potentially important information there and I guess that I just don’t see that I’d be under any particularly strong obligation not to try to reach out to my biological parents without first receiving an invitation. I’m approaching middle age and I’d like to know something about my biological parents’ health histories, if nothing else.

    (Fwiw, I agree with just about everything you say in the post and think that it’s wonderful that you are running this series.)

  2. Hi anon,

    I’m not the author – and Brynn can speak for herself – but it seems like adults who were adopted as infants/children seeking information about their biological parents is a very different issue from those discussed in the post. The problems the post is addressing – invasive curiosity, voyeurism, etc – seem like they wouldn’t apply in the case of someone trying to find out about *their own* biological parents.

  3. I was adopted during the era of ‘closed’ adoptions, and Brynn’s point above also applies to asking an adoptee about whether they’re seeking to meet (or have met, or what they know about) their biological parents. (Often this is phrased as “Oh, you’re adopted! Do you know who your real parents are?” Ugh.) I’m asked this sort of thing pretty often, and it doesn’t offend or bother me a lot, but for many adoptees their attitudes towards their biological parents (and/or searching for them) are “deeply personal and complex,” as Brynn puts it.

  4. I would agree with magicalersatz on this. I would certainly encourage my son if he wanted to develop a relationship with his birth family. And we have an open adoption, so there are many respects in which that will (ideally) be easier than in other cases. However, *his* questions are fundamentally different from a third party’s questions. It is information that may matter to him, and he is absolutely entitled to it. Outsiders are not. I’ve also had friends tell me they have exactly the experience Tim mentions and that they feel similarly frustrated. In books on adoption, this is called “adoptism.” The idea is that there are subtle things we say and do that reveal that we do not really see adoption as forming families that are morally equivalent to biologically formed families. It has shocked me how pervasive it is.

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