Supporting a parent in search of their biological family
June 11, 2024 3:19 AM   Subscribe

My mother was adopted by my grandparents. She wants to search for her biological family. How can I support her?

The story that I know is that her biological mother travelled from a small village somewhere in China to the capital to give birth in a hospital (?) and then gave her up to my grandparents 3 days after her birth. This was in the 60s.

So we’ve discussed my mother’s desire to reconnect with family, but I’m not sure how true the story is (how does a rural woman from a mountain village even have the means to get medical care in a Beijing hospital?) and my grandmother remains tight-lipped and will not even acknowledge the fact that she’s not my mother’s biological mother. Grandpa was more loving, more transparent, and more open, but he’s dead.

I don’t understand my mother’s deep-seated desire to find her family, but I’m not adopted, and I don’t believe in the whole “blood is thicker than water” stuff. I’m estranged with a good chunk of my family, including my (biological and bastardly) father.

So, how can I support her? This process is going to be painful, and I know she has these insecurities about abandonment - runs in the family I think - but I’m also worried about blurring the boundaries I’ve previously built up with her since I learnt about parentification.

If anyone’s ever gone through the same thing or helped a loved one in a similar journey, I’d love to hear from you.
posted by antihistameme to Human Relations (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Watch a few episodes of PBS’s Finding Your Roots to understand the interest in finding out more about family history-LaVar Burton is one episode that helps understand the interest, which feels more like a second-half-of-life pull without adoption being in the mix. There are surprises, but Gates only goes forward with people who are willing to publicly roll with that. There was someone who did not move forward after learning that their immediate parents went for sperm/egg donation which just.wasn’t.talked.about decades ago, and it can be unmooring. The show flips highly positive.

Dani Shapiro writes about her experiences with her biological roots from family experience that is closer to the emotional temperature of what you have shared if bibliotherapy might help-it’s her memoirs, not her fiction.

Finally, my BFF from high school was adopted, knew it, and had the same lingering question in the US. She found both parents had married and had 5 more kids. They were teens and had nothing out in rural Appalachia. Take it super super slow, one relationship at a time. It’s unknown how settling finding biological parent/s might be. It may be that a curiosity is settled, it may be a new set of names and addresses for holiday cards, sometimes it’s more. For my friend, the curiosity is satisfied but it’s very uneven. They might visit, but the newness has worn off, and yes, therapy helps!
posted by childofTethys at 4:55 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]

I have watched a mentor go through this quite publicly (she became part of the open adoption movement and wrote a book that is now out of print. Sadly she has passed.)

I think the key things are:

Honour the person’s need to search
Support them by listening, if that works for you
Don’t feel you have to solve this for them - really important if you were parentified
Avoid ageism - my own MIL is going through some questioning of her family history and there’s definitely a societal tendency to believe that once you reach a certain age you should just be content and that’s..annoying
posted by warriorqueen at 5:50 AM on June 11 [11 favorites]

In terms of practical things she will most likely want to sign up for a DNA site as it is more likely to be of use than tracing paper trails. A lot of the stories given to adoptive parents are, frankly, bullshit, especially going back in time. Starting with the agency through which she was adopted might help but the right people to ask are Chinese adoptee organisations in your present country.
posted by Iteki at 6:01 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

I think the best thing you can do is be curious, be an empathetic listener, encourage your mom to find a therapist, ideally one is understands adoption issues. I’m an adoptee and I enjoy talking about my story. I’m really glad to have connected with my birth family and lucky that they are generally open and kind people. Every person is a bundle of nature and nurture often at odds with each other. My adopted mother and I have had a hard time of it and there’s kind of a fundamental mismatch in how we engage with the world. It was wild to be among people who actually felt more like “me.” They didn’t raise me, so how could this be? It’s all a real mind-twister. For you, though, maybe just reading some rote, “how to be an empathetic listener” stuff would be a good primer. If you are just open to hearing about it all, that’s enough. You might find that you, too, are actually kind of interested in who the real grandparents are. Maybe you have some very interesting cousins?
posted by amanda at 6:08 AM on June 11 [6 favorites]

I agree with the great comments from warriorqueen and amanda about how to support your mother. I'm an almost 75 year old adoptee who only learned about my bio parents/family 5 years ago. Like amanda, I had a not good relationship with my adoptive narcissistic mother though, fortunately, had a very nurturing adoptive father. Clearly my bio father didn't know about me, but now I have a sister and cousins who have joyously welcomed me into his family. I'll never forget the utter joy I experienced at the births of my children. Up until then, there was no one in the world I knew I was related to (a perspective that many non-adoptees havent thought of).
posted by Scout405 at 10:55 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]

I am a parent through adoption but was not adopted myself, so I can tell you what I have learned about adoption through extensive conversations, reading, and listening; this is not my own experience.

Adoption is loss and trauma, even when the person who was adopted has a loving and caring adoptive family. It's quite common for emotions related to adoption to come up throughout an adopted person's life. It's extra complicated when there's shame and silence around the adoption (an in-law of mine also grew up with no one acknowledging or discussing that he was adopted even though everyone, including him, knew). It's also complicated when the adoptee learns how much of a wealthier/better/more stable life they have had because of the adoption.

As with anyone who has an experience different than yours, you don't have to understand; you just have to believe her. (For example, have you ever seen or experienced racism or sexism or another -ism and shared that with someone outside the targeted group, and they didn't believe you that it was an -ism? Sometimes we just need to believe people when they tell us their feelings and experiences.) I also have found it helpful to read memoirs written by adult adoptees. There's a great list on this excellent blog. Even though the context for these books might be different, many will still speak to the emotions people experienced around their adoptions, so it might give you some insight.

I also suspect the adoption and her feelings about it have such a huge impact on your mother that they have made her the mother she is to you, for good and for bad. So learning more about adoption might also help you understand your own childhood.

Finally, I want you to be kind in questioning the few details that your mother does have. Yes, there are often lies and mistruths and mistakes in adoption. But also, perhaps in the 1960s in China, the city was the only place to find a hospital? It also makes sense that she'll hold onto the few details that she does have. I also might encourage you to learn more about Chinese history of this time period. Here's one American woman's graphic memoir of her Chinese relatives that might be of interest.

All of this is to say, I recommend the following:
-Continuing to have good boundaries with your mom in general
-Learning about adoption and Chinese history from sources other than your mom
-Believing her that this is important and meaningful
-Helping her get a DNA test, because there are likely living biological relatives, perhaps even some in the US, who can fill in some gaps
-And, finally, if it might be possible and with your mom's permission, having you talk to your grandmother about adoption. Sometimes people are more open with grandchildren than their own children. Would your grandmother talk to you about this in a way she won't talk to her mom? Maybe you can get some detail out of her, like the name of the mother or the village.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:37 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]

DNA test is cool. I'm adopted. I sent mine in. Now I have a big brother. Wow.
posted by Goofyy at 5:36 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

I do not know when in the 60s you are referring to, but you may need to bear in mind the impact that the Cultural Revolution had on events, the stories told about events, and the documentary evidence about both events and stories.
posted by plonkee at 3:26 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]

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