Through my time as a Professional Genealogist, I have come across many clients who were adopted, seeking the truth to who they are. There are numerous laws and regulations concerning the adoption process, and also the practice of finding birth family, but I shan’t delve into those now. I’d like to ponder for a moment about the emotional aspect of discovering where you come from.
The choice of whether to delve into the unknown is deeply personal. I know some adoptees who are quite happy never to open Pandora’s Box, and some who have become obsessed with wanting to find out more. From those who had extremely happy, warm, loving adoptive families, to those who spent troubled years in the care system, each story is unique; and the decision to investigate the past is equally individual.
When an adopted person does choose to explore their roots, quite often it’s not for an explanation of why they were parted from their birth family, but more a quest to understand who their ancestors were – who they are made of. I strongly believe that the greatest gift of genealogy is the feeling of being part of something bigger, a sense of belonging. This can of course come from exploring the family history of the adoptive parents. Recently, a client reveled in the discovery of her adopted mother’s early years, and how they (quite astonishingly) mirrored her own children’s interests and aptitudes. Thus, prompting the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture.
Exploring family history can be enormously rewarding; however, researching that of an adopted individual presents a higher risk of encountering sensitive issues, so it’s vital to consider who may be affected by the findings. You never know what you might uncover, and the ripples from revelations can have a far-reaching effect.
Genealogy brings frequent surprises (some more welcome than others) hence you should always remember to expect the unexpected. You may discover living relatives completely unaware that an adoption took place, who find the news emotionally disturbing. Though you might be thrilled to locate long lost siblings, aunts or uncles, they may not be quite as enthused. The impact of unveiling secrets can be painful, it’s not always the happy ending you see on tv.
Excitement, and a thirst for answers, is often overwhelming so it’s rather disheartening when you hit a brick wall. Missing information, a change of name or address, can cause the search to be painstakingly slow. The exhilaration when you come across a DNA match, might quickly fade if there’s no immediate reply from a message to a cousin. But with a lot of patience, good research skills and a little luck, you may well find that elusive evidence to prove identity and relationships.
For an adoptee, having the knowledge of where they come from can be a lifelong quest. Establishing an affinity with ancestors is fulfilling – irrespective of a positive response from close, living relations. Whether it’s learning a half-uncle shared a musical talent, or a second cousin twice-removed was skilled at a favourite sport, that bond can satisfy a deep need for connection. The most treasured find for one of my clients was a photo of her biological grandparent. The likeness was uncanny, and even though she had the most wonderful adoptive parents, having a picture of someone that looked like her was the first time she felt ‘recognition’.
My advice for those exploring adoption ancestry: take your time, tread carefully, be prepared for ups and downs, keep an open mind, be patient and respectful of all those involved, and enjoy making those discoveries – no matter how small.