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Journal Issue: Adoption Volume 3 Number 1 Spring 1993

Perspectives on Open Adoption
Annette Baran Reuben Pannor

Psychological and Emotional Effects of the Closed System

Our decades of experience in counseling individuals affected by adoption suggest that requiring anonymity between birthparents and adoptive parents and sealing all information about the birthparents from the adopted child has damaging effects on all three parties. These damaging effects are discussed below.

Effects on the Birthparents

Relinquishment of a newborn child may be profoundly damaging to birthparents and cause lifelong pain and suffering. Even when relinquishment is a carefully considered and chosen option, birthmothers—and often birthfathers—may suffer from a heightened sense of worthlessness after giving away a child. They may feel guilty about their actions. These birthparents may believe that their offspring will not understand the reasons for relinquishment and that these offspring will blame and hate their birthparents for rejecting and abandoning them. The birthparents may want their children to know that they continue to care about them and, in turn, may wish to learn about the kind of people their children have become. No matter how many children they may have subsequently, birthparents may still desire knowledge and contact with the one they gave up.6

In traditional closed adoptions, such knowledge and contact is not possible. Birthparents do not know who adopted their child, where he or she lives, or even whether the child is alive or dead. Even in so-called open placements where all parties know the identity of all other parties, birthparents often have no ongoing contact with the child. In these instances, birthparents may feel powerless. They have no knowledge of what is happening to their child and no opportunity to let the adoptive family know of significant events in their own lives.

Effects on the Adoptees

Adopted children also frequently suffer from the secrecy imposed in closed adoptions, particularly during adolescence when they often experience greater identity conflicts than members of the nonadopted population.7 The process of developing an individual identity is more complicated for adoptees because they live with the knowledge that an essential part of their personal history remains on the other side of the adoption barrier. In closed adoptions, any desire on the part of an adopted child to learn more about the birthparents is blocked, often leading to fantasies and distortions. Easily escalated, these may develop into more serious problems. In our studies, we described these adoption-related identity conflicts as resulting in "identity lacunae," which can lead to feelings of shame, embarrassment, and low self-esteem.7 In addition, adoptees may experience a deep fear of loss and separation. Many adopted children feel that they were given away because there was something wrong with them from the beginning.

We observed that, in late adolescence, negative feelings and questions about being adopted increased. In young adulthood, plans for marriage may create an urgent desire for specific background information, particularly about family history. For adopted adult women, pregnancy and the birth of a child may raise fears of possible unknown hereditary problems. Becoming a parent may also trigger intense feelings in the adoptee toward his or her own birthmother. These feelings may include not only empathy for her difficult emotional situation, but also anger and disbelief that she could have given up her own child. The feelings frequently create a need in adoptees to search for birthparents and the hope for a reunion to bring together the broken connections from the past. Such a search, if undertaken, often is prolonged, painful, and fruitless.

Effects on the Adoptive Parents

Finally, closed adoption can also have negative psychological and emotional effects on the adoptive parents. With no knowledge of or contact with the birthparents, adoptive parents may find it difficult to think and talk about birthparents as real people. They may be unable to answer truthfully their adoptive children's inevitable questions about why they were given up, what their birthparents were like, and what happened to these parents in later life. The ghosts of the birthparents, inherent in the closed system, are ever present, and may lead to the fear that these parents will reclaim the child and that the child will love these parents more than the adoptive parents.