Truth Telling in Adoption

In a recent O The Oprah Magazine, there was an article by Martha Beck on truth telling. You need to understand that I am a big advocate for telling the truth. I’ve hammered away at it with my kids for years. Yes, I understand that there is a time and place for some variation from the truth when a person you care about asks: “how do I look?” or you receive a gift you already have or don’t particularly like. But most of the time, I’ve stated: “the truth will set you free.”

Martha Beck advises something different, and I’d like to discuss her ideas in the context of adoption. Her basic premise is that not all situations demand the same level of openness. The amount of truth you give depends, she says, on how much healthy intimacy you want with that person. 

I love her Rule 1: Always tell yourself the truth. We often engage in denial, telling ourselves, for example: if I act happy, I will be happy. But Beck recommends we “follow the flames of suffering” because believing lies makes us miserable. Notice when you are feeling terrible and ask yourself: What am I afraid to know? What am I hiding? What do I almost know? What knowledge am I avoiding?

In the context of adoption, it may be that an adoptee is hiding the truth that the loss of his/her first parents hurts. S/he may be afraid to know the true circumstances surrounding the decision to make an adoption plan. S/he may be avoiding the suspicion that s/he was unlovable and, therefore, rejected by the first family. S/he may be avoiding the truth that the adoptive parents cannot be everything the adoptee needs to feel grounded in him/herself. Getting to the truth might seem to be a recipe for hurting adoptive parents or the birth parents (and it might, indeed, hurt them in some way), but the bottom line is that the adoptee needs to align him/herself with the truth, and relinquish the idea that s/he can control the other’s behavior or response. 

Beck’s Rule 2: Tell your loved ones as much truth as you can. We feel empty and disconnected when we aren’t truthful with the people we love. Also, people grow apart when they don’t share what’s happening to them as they grow. 

When adoptees and birth parents reunite after years apart, there is often joy followed by a period of awkwardness or strain (as I have heard from adult adoptees and birth parents). Those years of living in the dark – of growing without sharing the truth – can leave their mark. But truth telling on both sides can bring them closer. However, if one side continues to lie, the distance between them will grow. As hard as it may be to let another set of parents or a whole universe of biological relatives into our lives, adoptive parents need to get onboard with our children’s pursuit of those relationships or we will be left behind. Speaking from personal experience, our misery as adoptive parents may result from unresolved feelings regarding infertility. We wish to be the sole parent, the only parent, the one we could have been had we given birth to our children. But the truth is that we are not in this alone. If we deny our children’s other parents, we lie to ourselves and to our children. We grow apart.

Rule 3: Tell acquaintances enough truth to maintain optimal connection. This is an interesting “rule” for someone like me because it suggests caution about revealing too much, too soon. (My mother has been telling me this for years!) Beck says: “Tell a bit of the truth, evaluate the reaction, then tell a bit more-or not.” Evaluate as you go along to avoid drama or hurt feelings.

As I think about it now, I realize that I’ve been doing this all along with my children’s birth relatives. In the beginning, when the “matches” were made to pursue an open adoption together, John and I made some conscious and some unconscious decisions about how much to reveal – as I’m sure our children’s mothers also did. Of course, there were certain things that had to be shared, certain critical information. But there was also a lot of gray area – information about each of us we gingerly put forward, testing the waters. I think, for example, of the time we were working with a young woman who had been raped. I was quick to share that I, too, had been raped in my 20s. With other pregnant women, I was not so quick to share this information. 

This reality has implications for adoptions that are intended to be open from the beginning. Can there be “informed consent” if we withhold information? What is the critical information that cannot be withheld if there is to be “informed consent” by birth parents? Adoptive parents, as well as birth parents feeling desperate about placing, are psychologically motivated to say only those things that will result in a “match” and eventual adoption, aren’t they? Yet, in the early stages of getting to know someone, we are cautious and gentle. It seems to me that counseling by an unbiased, adoption-trained therapist is critical at this juncture. Someone needs to have his/her eye on the stuff that matters to the overall health of all parties involved: first parents, adoptive parents, and child. Someone needs to be taking the long-view. Can this relationship – these sets of relationships – be sustained given the particularities of the individuals, as we know them at this time? It’s imperfect. No one can predict the future. But the alternative of NOT having a trained third party to help seems like a recipe for potential disaster to me.

In the realm of reunions between adoptees and birth parents after years of separation, I can see the value of taking tentative steps forward as well. Although the ultimate goal is to have a fully intimate and loving relationship, the years apart have produced “acquaintances” who must learn about each other and avoid hurt as much as possible. I suspect some move quickly to intimacy, but for others the steps are much slower.

Rule 4: If you’re desperate to kill a relationship, lie.   Beck uses the extreme example of being held in captivity by a tyrannical dictator. Lie and get away, she says. Perhaps some of our family relationships also feel this way, but we lie to “protect” them. The important thing is to refer back to rule 1. We need to be aware of what we are doing. We are either being truthful and growing closer or poisoning the connection with falsehoods.

I’ve heard adult adoptees talk about finding birth relatives but keeping them secret from their adoptive parents. This always makes me sad. I hear their rationalizations: “It would break my mother’s heart.” “They would not understand.” I also hear these same adoptees talk about being estranged from their adoptive parents. I wonder if they understand there is a connection between lying to their adoptive parents and the disconnection they feel. 

I hope never to be an adoptive parent who, by word or deed, gives my son or daughter the impression that I would stand in the way of his/her connection to birth family. I hope to be there for as much of their growing up and getting connected as they will allow. To do that, I must both face my own truth and get out of their way as they face their own.

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