Will I hurt my adoptive parents by trying to find her now?
Question: My adoptive mother was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago. It came as an awful shock and I suppose it made me realise that life can take very unexpected turns.
I never wanted to find my birth mother before this, but I hadn’t written off the idea either. Now, the possibility of losing my adoptive mother has made me face my own mortality. I’ve realised I may never get the chance to meet my birth mother and I’m suddenly struck with this feeling of great urgency.
I now feel compelled to make contact with my birth mother, but I don’t want to upset my adoptive parents, especially as my mother is going through chemotherapy.
It feels like the wrong time and yet it feels like I’m running out of time. What should I do?
Answer: It sounds like you’ve been through a difficult few years. A parent’s illness is traumatic. So too is the emotionally charged decision to locate a birth parent. Each experience can be overwhelming in and of itself, yet in your case, these experiences are happening all at once.
As you acknowledge in your letter, your adoptive mother’s illness has sparked your decision to find your birth mother. And while these feelings have caught you unprepared, it’s not uncommon for big moments of transition to have a cascade effect.
“Imminent birth, sickness and death can bring about serious reflection on our lives and sometimes it can bring to light some unconscious thoughts that might have previously been ignored or even repressed,” says psychotherapist and author Stella O’Malley.
“There seems to be a primal instinct within us that seeks to uncover the details of our birth,” she says. “Essentially, it is a piece of the jigsaw that brings us to an understanding of ourselves.”
In your letter, you touched on the sense of urgency that you’re feeling, but O’Malley advises you to take some time to “unpack your thoughts” with a counsellor.
“The fact that this person had never written off this idea suggests that somewhere in their subconscious there was an awareness of unfinished business yet to be attended to,” she says.
“It could be very helpful for them to tackle this — however, they should only do it if they can be properly supported during this difficult time.”
Cork-based psychotherapist Marian Ó Tuama offered similar advice when I shared your dilemma with her. A serious illness in a parent can bring us “face to face with our own mortality in a way that we may never previously have considered”, she says, and this in turn can make us more aware of the passage of time.
“I can absolutely understand you feeling that you are running out of time, but in reality, you do have time to take a breath and consider your options,” she says.
There are many psychotherapists in private practice who specialise in counselling adult adopted people, she adds, while several Irish organisations offer peer support services.
However, she suggests that you consider some questions in advance of making a decision: “What do you hope to gain from meeting your birth mother? Do you have questions that you wish her to answer? Do you wish to form a relationship with her?
"How will it be for you to discover that she does not wish to engage in contact with you, or if she initially engages but then decides that it is too difficult? How will you feel if you discover that she has already died?”
Ó Tuama says it’s equally important that you are fully aware of the process of tracing a birth parent, which can be lengthy and complex.
“Once you commence the process, you will meet with a social worker who can talk you through the steps involved and give you a timeline of how long the process might take,” she says. “Starting the process may help you to feel that you are taking proactive steps to progress matters, but you can pause the process at any time if it becomes overwhelming.”
The process can lead to several possible outcomes, she adds. “You may get information about your birth mother and decide that the information is sufficient and you do not want to proceed any further. You may go on to make contact with your birth mother and meet her, or you may discover that she does not wish to (or feels unable to) meet with you.
“You may discover that she has died, or you may discover that insufficient information is available to allow you to find her.”
This brings us to your next question: will your decision upset your adoptive parents? Ó Tuama wonders whether it is possible for you to embark on this process without informing your parents. “It may not be feasible for you,” she says, “but if it is, it would allow you to explore this without having to consider how to manage your parents’ emotions around this issue, as well as your own.”
On the other hand, O’Malley points out that this doesn’t have to be an “us and them” situation. “The adoptive parents have been through a process, just like the adopted child has,” she says.
“Bringing their parents into the process from the very beginning might be more heart-warming than the person believes it will be, so long as it is done with sensitivity and care. Depending on the relationship they have with their parents, it could become an emotionally bonding experience.”
Ultimately though, this is your decision, she says. “It’s very important to remain sensitive and considerate about your adoptive parents, and yet your birth belongs to you.”
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