Adoption Study Challenges What It Truly Means to Be a Parent
A Redditor spoke to 30 adoptees about making contact with their birth parents. Here's what she found.
A year and a half ago, a Redditor writing under the handle AnOceaninaPond, posted in the Adoption subreddit asking if any adoptees would consent to being interviewed about connecting with their birth families. The interviews would help inform her dissertation on adoption. When all was said and done, she talked to 30 adoptees who had made contact with one of their birth parents. Fast-forward to Thursday, August 29 when AnOceaninaPond took to the subreddit to share the results of her study.
The original poster (OP) explained that she used a theory called Relational Dialectics Theory to frame the study, which she says allowed her to "understand and represent the variety of experiences that adoptees have as they make contact with birth parents." She was specifically "interested in how adoptees construct meaning around the term 'parent' as they make this contact." What she found was that two discourses emerged. (Though she pointed out that her purpose was "not to generalize," as what she found was representative of the experiences of a small group of people.)
"The first discourse I found was the discourse of parent as a specific person," the OP noted. "For some of the people I interviewed, their definition of 'parent' referred only to their adoptive parent(s), and that definition didn't change when they met their birth parent. There were three specific reasons that kept coming up: (a) the birth parent didn't engage in parenting behaviors when the adoptee was young, (b) the adoptee didn't share a relational history with the birth parent, and (c) the birth parent just didn't 'feel' like a parent to the adoptee. People who cited this discourse sometimes clarified that meeting their birth parent actually solidified their adoptive parents as 'parent.'"
The second discourse was of "parent as label," she explained. For those adoptees, "parent" was "not a specific person, but was instead a dynamic role that could (and did!) change over time. In other words, what it means to be a parent was not 'locked in.' Their definition of 'parent' changed to include both their adoptive and birth parents." An important point here: "People I interviewed didn't feel that this definition changed until they met the birth parent, and for three reasons: (a) the development of a satisfying relationship with their birth parent, (b) feeling the need to include the birth parent in the definition, and (c) a reconceptualization of surrendering a child for adoption from a negative 'giving up' of a child to a positive parenting move as 'what's best for me.'"
AnOceaninaPond's "TLDR" summation: "I found that people I interviewed fell into one of these two categories. Either their definition of 'parent' remained the same and referred only to their adoptive parent(s), or their definition of 'parent' expanded to include their birth parent (but only after they made contact with them!)."
The bottom line for the OP was that her project showed a variety of experiences for adoptees who had connected with their birth families, as well as a "variety in the way we as adoptees process and think about what 'family' means to us." She explained, "This is hugely important, because a lot of work on adoption focuses on the adoptive parents' perspective, but the adoptee perspective is worthwhile and deserving of attention."
The Redditor-turned-researcher's findings were applauded by commenters in the community, some of whom are adoptive parents and others who are adoptees.
An adoptive parent, writing under the handle YourPaleBlueEyes, shared, "Fascinating and good for you! Each relationship is so very different and somewhat the same, as you found. All I know is I am grateful for the establishment of a relationship with OUR daughter (bio), and the fact that she has her 'parents' (adopted) and US, her bio parents."
An adoptee Muladach fit into a third discourse, writing, "Interesting. I fit in neither group. I've always saw all four parents as parents."
And with open adoption becoming far more common than it has been in the past—according to a recent report from the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 55 percent of U.S. infant adoptions are open, meaning the adoptive family remains in contact with the birth family as their child grows—one Redditor writing under BananaButton5 pointed out that it would be interesting to see how these discourses shift and change for the next generation.
The OP's findings clearly served to stir conversation around the important topic and to shed light on the facts that experiences are unique and that the definition of "parent" is constantly evolving and fluid.
As a Redditor named HeartMyKpop shared, "I wish the second definition of the word, 'parent' would move into colloquial use even outside of the adoption community. Some people have more than (one or) two parents. That should just be normal in this day and age. There are step parents, foster parents, birth/biological/first parents, adoptive parents, surrogate parents, egg/sperm donors, parental figures, and probably a whole lot more. They may all play different roles, but none of them are less real."