Adoption Reunions Literature Review
The past few years have seen the growing significance of scholarly interest in the relatively new phenomenon of adoption reunions, spurred by numerous researches that document the effects of adoption on both the adopted individual’s psychosocial development and identity formation, (Borders, Penny, & Portnoy, 2000) and on the birth family’s psychological health. ( Sobol, Daly, & Kelloway, 2000) However, despite the upsurge in interest and actual research activities, there remains a large terrain in adoption reunions to investigate. Undoubtedly, adoption practices remain a very controversial issue, one that is often fraught with social stigma, a fact which probably explains the rise of adoption reunions. (March, 1995; Kirton, Feast, & Howe, 2000) There has also been the perennial question of why adoptees continue to seek their biological parents and families despite having very loving adoptive families ( Kirton, Feast, & Howe, 2000; March 1995, 1997; Carsten, 2000 ) and if the majority of adoption experiences point to a greatly beneficial aspect in the adoptees’ lives. (Carsten, 2000; Gladstone & Westhues, 1998; March 1997)
Social Stigma and Alienation as a Motivation for Reunions for the Adoptees
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For adopted individuals, one of the primary motivations for seeking the biological family is the social stigma attached to being adopted. A study conducted by March (1995) involving sixty (60), predominantly female, randomly selected adult adoptees who have had contact with their birth mothers reveal that adopted individuals often experienced being treated differently by people when they disclose being adopted. Using Goffman’s model of the dynamics of social stigma to analyze and interpret interview results, March discovered that societal perceptions of being different that was felt by many adoptees often result in a heightened awareness of their difference from their adoptive families, and increased feelings of alienation and identity crises. Likewise, the study shows that while majority of adoptees did not see their adoptive families as being different from a biological family, social pressure forced them to acknowledge the importance of a kinship based on blood relationship which later encouraged them to look for their biological families.
These findings were also evident in a much later qualitative study by Kirton, Feast, & Howe (2000) on transracial adoptees and their motivations for a reunion with their birth families. The study utilized in-depth qualitative interviews from thirteen (13) transracially adopted individuals to determine the role of racial and cultural identity in the decision for an adoption reunion. Utilizing almost the same framework used by March (1995), the study assumed that perceptions of difference and experiences of having to deal with negative social response on being adopted played a key role in such decisions. Results of the study reveal that transracial adoptees often experienced feeling different from their adoptive families that was not only limited to their biological ties but also had to contend with racism in their environments. The stigma surrounding one’s status as an adoptee was therefore doubled by virtue of his or her ethinicity that alienated him or her not only from the community but even from the adoptive family as the adoptee was wont to undergo experiences incurred from a having a different racial lineage that the adoptive family would have difficulty emphatizing with.
Expectations, Actual Reunion Experience, and Outcomes
After the decision to seek one’s biological kin is formed comes the formation of expectations for all those concerned: the adoptee, the birth family, and the adoptive parents, which play a crucial role in the manner by which actual adoption reunion events will ultimately play out. A study conducted by Affleck & Steed (2001), for instance, which examined the expectations and responses to unmet expectations of adoptees and birth mothers in adoption reunions, show that the level of expectations created and how these are met or not are crucial in the determination of the reunion’s outcomes. This conclusion was reached from the analysis of semi-structured interviews from ten (10) adoptees and (10) birth mothers, which revealed that the former tended to have set higher expectations than the latter with regard to the concept of an ideal mother, the degree of intimacy in the relationship that should be formed, and the over-all “model of relationship” sought. Conflicts therefore arise when the expectations between the interacting parties do not complement, and the relationship is likely to deteriorate if both are unwilling to compromise. Consequently, the participants’ ability to change their expectations to adapt to the realistic circumstances regarding these themes were found to be able to successfully maintain the relationship than their counterparts.
With regards to the experiences of the adoptive parents, research done by Petta & Steed (2005) suggests that most adoptive parents had to deal psychologically with the fear of losing their child that stemmed from an inferiority complex associated with infertility. Based on semi-structured interviews of twenty-one (21) respondents, adoptive parents are put through turmoil despite the outcome of the adoption reunion. Likewise, adoptive parents were often threatened by the birthparents or families’ attempts to establish intimacy with their daughter or son, fearing that “they will be cast as inferior from birth parents” or that their childrearing abilities and their relationship with the adoptee will be put in critical light.
The long-term effects of adoption reunions has also been explored by Howie & Feast (2001) in a qualitative study involving forty (40) respondents who continued contact with their birth mothers, wherein majority of the respondents say that the outcome itself of the reunion was immaterial and placed a higher significance on the search process and the reunion experience. However, the continuity of contact was found to be influenced to some extent by the quality of relationship that the adoptee had with the adoptive mother, with the adoptees seeming to favour maintaining contact with their adoptive mothers. Issues of negative perception of the adoption are also a factor, as well as that of identity and self-worth for majority of the adoptees, which mirror a previous research conducted by Gladstone & Westhues (1998).
Opportunities for Further Research
Current efforts to study the factors surrounding adoption reunions have therefore been conducted from the range of sociological, anthropological, and psychological perspectives, particularly the interactionist approach in order to define the factors surrounding the nature of relationships created or destroyed by adoption reunions. These mostly centred on the qualitative exploration of the motivation, expectations, actual reunion experiences, and how these contribute to the long-term effects of adoption reunions on the adopted individuals, adoptive parents, and the birth families.
On the other hand, most of the research conducted had predominantly female subjects: birth mothers, adoptive daughters, and adoptive mothers. This clearly limits the narrative of adoption reunions to the female voice. Most of the researchers have not attempted to discover the reasons why male adoptees are scarcely included in their samples, which poses the question of whether the experience of male adoptees or of birth fathers and adoptive fathers significantly vary from the female experiences and outcomes of adoption reunions, or if the same factors of motivation, expectations, and actual reunion experiences affect men or male adoptees in the same way as they do the female.
Affleck, M.K. & L.G. Steed. (2001). Expectations and experiences of participants in ongoing adoption reunion relationships: A qualitative study. Am J Orthopsychiatry,71(1):38-48.
Borders, L.D., Penny, J., & F. Portnoy (2000). Adult adoptees and their friends: current functioning and psychosocial well-being. Family Relations, 49(4):407-418.
Carsten, J. (2000). ‘Knowing where you’ve come from’: Ruptures and continuities of time and kinship in narratives of adoption reunions. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 6(4): 687-703.
Gladstone, J. & A. Westhues (1998). Adoption reunions: A new side to intergenerational family relationships. Family Relations, 47(2): 177-184.
Howie, D. & J. Feast (2001). The long-term outcome of reunions between adult adopted people and their birth mothers. British Journal of Social Work, 31:351-368.
Kirton, D., Feast, J., & D. Howe. (2000). Searching, reunion, and transracial adoption. Adoption and Fostering, 24(3): 6-18.
March, K. (1995). Perception of adoption as social stigma: Motivation for search and reunion. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 57(3): 653-660.
March, K. (1997). The dilemma of adoption reunion: Establishing open communication between adoptees and their birth mothers. Family Relations, 46(2):99-105.
Petta, G. & L.G. Steed (2005). The experience of adoptive parents in adoption reunion relationships: A qualitative study. Am J Orthopsychiatry, 75(2):230-41.
Sobol, M. P., Daly, K.J., & E.K. Kelloway. (2000). Paths to the facilitation of open adoption. Family Relations, 49(4):419-424.