Family membership in post-reunion adoption narratives.

Author:Browning, Julee


This article reports original research conducted with 20 adoptees, adopted under closed-stranger protocols, who have been experiencing regular post-reunion contact with their birth families for more than 10 years. It expands on earlier research that focused on the search, reunion and immediate post-reunion stages. Drawing upon in-depth interviews, it examines the long-term experiences of adoptees in post-reunion. It examines the themes of the mothering role, family obligation and family membership to uncover how adoptees navigate their family membership within and between two families (adoptive and birth family). This study is informed by the thoughts, feelings and observations of the participants, in their own words, to convey a deeper understanding of their experiences. The findings indicate that long-term reunited relationships have no predictable pathways and are approached with varying levels of ambivalence and emotional strain; that no fixed pattern of family arrangements and relational boundaries emerges; and that the adoptive mother generally retains the primary role of "mother". While closed-stranger adoptions and the subsequent reunions may eventually cease, this research may assist in understanding the issues surrounding the reunion between gamete (egg and sperm) donors and their offspring in the future.


It is now two decades since the Adult Information Act 1985 permitted identifying information to be disclosed to adopted people about their birth parents and vice versa. A considerable number (31,247) of adoptees had, by 2004, made application for such information (Griffith 20042), and many of these applicants have since been reunited with birth parents and/or birth-family members (3) (especially birth mothers) (Kennard 1991). Many have also gone on to form long-term post-reunion relationships with these birth parents and their wider family groups. This article reports on the experiences of adoptees who have been in post-reunion relationships with birth-family members for 10 years or more. It therefore gives some indications of the long-term qualitative outcomes of enduring post-reunion relationships.

The Adoption Act 1955 was based on closed-stranger adoption. Frequently, out-of-wedlock pregnancies were a cause for family shame, and newborn babies were relinquished for adoption in secrecy. Adoption was usually facilitated by the state, no exchange of identifying information occurred between the birth mother and the adoptive parents, and children were raised in ignorance of the identities of birth parents. It was assumed that children would bond with the adoptive mother and, placed in a wholesome environment, they would adapt to that environment as a family member (Griffith 1997:9). This practice was justified theoretically on the assumption that a child's development is largely determined by the environment (Bowlby 1951, 1953, 1969, Lorenz 1961), and also on psychodynamic theories about the "unsuitability" or emotional needs of women who become pregnant out of wedlock (Griffith 1997, Else 1991, Rowe 1959). The preference was therefore towards a "complete break", and the 1955 Act provided the mechanism for this to occur legally.

Since the 1950s, social attitudes towards out-of-wedlock births have changed dramatically, and many children who were adopted under the closed-stranger system grew up with a desire to know who their "blood" kin were. Policy and legislation moved in favour of adopted people's right to know their birth origins. Following the passage of the 1985 Act, a large number of adopted people made application for information (3,896 in 1986). Application numbers then settled down to a steady stream of adoptee applicants (932 in 2004) (Griffith 2004), and it seems likely that eventually applications will decline to minimal numbers. (4)

The Adoption Information and Services Unit of the Child, Youth and Family Service administers applications and provides identifying information under the 1985 Act. Adoptees who are applicants (born prior to 1986) are required by the 1985 Act to undergo counselling prior to receiving any information--though this requirement is not placed upon birth-parent applicants or adoptees adopted after 26 February 1986. If the birth parent is the applicant the adopted child does not have to undergo counselling (Mullender 1991:133).

The process of reuniting adoptees and their birth parents has been the subject of considerable research inquiry in New Zealand and overseas. (5) However, there has been little research into the long-term outcomes or effects of reunion. Little is known about how the parties to the reunion bond or about the kind of family associations that may be formed. Modell (1997) looked at how the lack of a relationship script forces adoptees and birth families to apply elements from the models of other lasting reciprocal relationships: patronage, friendship, courtship and extended family ties (primarily those between aunt/uncle and niece/nephew). Howe and Feast (2001) observe that the desire for genetic connectedness is important, but suggest that this does not imply the desire for a relationship with birth parents, and that the affectional bonds formed in childhood with adoptive parents are strong and long-lasting.

Neither the Modell (1997) study nor the Howard and Feast (2001) study were based in New Zealand, and the length of time in reunion in their samples is on average about 10 years. New Zealand was one of the first countries to open records of closed-stranger adoption, and it was the first country to include applications from birth parents. Hence, studying reunions in New Zealand has the potential to provide insights into longer-term outcomes than was possible in the earlier studies. The participants in the present study of 20 adoptees experienced a range of time in reunion from 10 to 26 years (6) (16 years on average). Using qualitative methods, this study inquired into the degree to which adoptees immerse themselves in their birth families as family members.

The findings of this study provide insights into the issues that adoptees may face in a long-term reunion with their birth families. Such information could be of benefit to those who counsel or advise applicants in future. While closed adoptions are becoming rarer, the 1955 Act is still in effect and such adoptions still may occur, meaning that reunions will continue to be sought. Furthermore, the introduction of new fertility technologies, especially egg and sperm donation, will result in a new wave of people who seek to be united with their donor-parents, and similar emotional and social issues may arise. (7)

The research findings also lead us to question those theories of family belonging that are based primarily on consanguineal ("blood") relationships--a view that is commonly expressed in the saying "blood is thicker than water". Malinowski's view was that the relationship between the cultural and the innate is such that kinship bonds are not purely a matter of biological relatedness:

Social and cultural influences always endorse and emphasize the original individuality of the biological fact. These influences are so strong that in the case of adoption they may override the biological tie and substitute a cultural one for it. But statistically speaking, the biological ties are almost invariably merely reinforced, re-determined, and remolded by the cultural ones. (1930:137) Malinowski thus asserts that adoption creates kinship where no biological relatedness exists--though this is viewed as an exception to the rule that "biological ties" are the basis of kinship.

Emile Durkheim drew a clear distinction between adoption and "normal kinship", but points out that the establishment of kinship is historically and culturally contingent: "Thus the nature of adoption has regularly varied [in European history] as the role which law and custom assigns to normal kinship has also varied" (Durkheim 1980:212). He concludes that kinship (even when based on "nature") is socially constructed rather than simply consanguineal.

The importance of both the biological and the sociocultural factors in defining and creating family bonds is also recognised in New Zealand law. The New Zealand Families Commission Act 2003 (section 10) uses the phrase "related by marriage, blood or adoption" as part of its definition of "family"; and the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act 1989 (section 2) defines the "family group" of a child or young person in a manner that may include biological or legal relationships, thereby including adoption.

Nonetheless, the difficulty of integrating the non-consanguineal relationships formed by adoptions into theories of kinship has caused some authors to characterise adoption in negative terms...

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