Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ancestry and Adoption

OK, this is going to be a disjointed and tentative post, since I'm still trying to think through this issue. I'm also stymied on the research front, not finding much information about attitudes and feelings, not able to track down things I think I've read before.

On another list I'm on, an adoptive parent said he was talking to his wife about looking up his ancestry on Ancestry.com, and his 11-year-old adopted-from-China daughter asked, "Do I have ancestors?" Another adoptive parents answered that after assuring her children that they did have ancestors in China, even though they were unknown, she told her kids that her (the mom's) ancestry was their ancestry.

That "not knowing" thing would make the whole issue of ancestry difficult for adoptees, I'd think. How could it not? And I'm not sure that the adoptive parents' ancestry makes an adequate substitute. I wish I could find the source, but I remember reading somewhere that adoptees often don't feel deep connections to more distant family members, that of course they love and feel connected to parents and close relatives, but distant relatives feel. . . . distant. If so, then what exactly does the adoptive parents' ancestry mean to an adoptee?

And I'm wondering about general views about adoption and "ancestry." Merriam-Webster defines ancestry as: "line of descent: lineage; especially: honorable, noble, or aristocratic descent." I've blogged before that the Daughters of the American Revolution organization won't allow adoptees admission based on their adoptive parents' lineage. Do you think that comports with the general public's understanding of adoption and "ancestry?"

Say Abraham Lincoln is somewhere on my family tree (I first used George Washington as an example, until a good friend gave me a little history lesson, that George and Martha didn't have children, only Martha did from a previous marriage!) -- would people say about my adopted kids, "They're related to Abe Lincoln"?

And perhaps more importantly, how will my kids see themselves -- as relatives of Abe Lincoln, or not? (No, Abe Lincoln is not really in my family tree; in reality, the "honorable, noble or aristocratic descent" which I could pass on to my kids would involve an ancestor who abandoned his wife and children to get out of the state and avoid debtor prison, a cattle rustler, and a moonshiner!)

When I look at Ancestry.com, and search for "adoptee," I find articles for adoptees seeking birth parent information, as I expected (See here and here.). I suppose if adoptees are researching their adoptive parents' ancestry, they don't need special articles at Ancestry.com.

In the comment to a blog post about geneology research, an adoptee said, "When you’re adopted, those sites are not much help for anything except a bruised id. . . ." I can sure see how that would be the case. I'm assuming that adoptee was talking about the problem of not having birth family information. And I didn't find the blogger's response particularly satisfying:

No reason why you can’t do your adopted family’s genealogy. That’s what my aunt
does. She loves genealogy so she works on the same genealogy I do (when she isn’t frustrated by it).

I consider her as much family as great-great-great-grandfather Bubba, whom I never met. It’s not about biology. It’s about connections. I think of it as social networking with your dead relatives. Deadbook, anyone? Ba ding!

Hmm, is geneology not about biology? One adoptive parent opined that given infidelity, uncertainty, secret adoptions, and the like, most of our "ancestry" is a biological mystery, unless tested by DNA. But the "just research your adoptive parents' geneology" seems awfully dismissive.

So chime in, help me figure this out. Can anyone identify my missing source? Does anyone know of adult adoptees who've written about this? Does transracial and/or international adoption complicate this (do you see an adult adoptee from China saying, "I'm related to Abraham Lincoln!")? Please, comment!


Wendy said...

Adopted the movie touches on this as well. M has had her DNA through the National Geographic genome project (prior to meeting her family) and I have to say it really comforted her--she liked retracing the steps of HER ancestors--although very distant ones. She takes pride in that. We "know" her family know, but not in the full sense of ancestry and family trees--not enough info.
It is so dismissive to say, just use your a-family's. You may want to incorporate both if you feel strongly they are just as much your family, but the denying the DNA is denying a part of who you are. I had always wondered (so did M) about some of her expressions, features, but really, personality traits--nature vs nurture. It was when I met them that I sat back and went "THERE IT IS!". She is us and she is them. She is also her foster mother. Nurture plays a big role, but nature sure as hell does too. There is no way to deny either side.

If I find anything I will let you know.
bw--J is related to Lincoln! They share a rare genetic condition that is only found in that blood line. Funny that you used him as an example!

malinda said...

So J. is related to Lincoln -- is M.?

Wendy said...

That would be a no--according to her as well! She loves Lincoln--she has several books about him, but she says "Daddy is related to Lincoln". She has pride her Dad does, but she never claims that for herself.

Anita said...

I'm an adoptee. I'm the eldest of four in my adoptive family, the others aren't adopted. I've always been interested in family history & genealogy, as well as my Dad's culture of origin. I'm in my 30s & have very recently met my biological father for the first time. I had some contact with my birth mother several years ago. Both are from a culture & race background very similar to the one I grew up in. I would have to say I am equally fascinated by both sets of family history & feel a genuine need & right to know both. However I strongly feel more connected & interested in my adoptive family background, as it is the heritage of my family that I know intimately & love dearly.
Just my own perspective, hope it's of interest. Glad you asked the question,

Anonymous said...

First of all it is completely dismissive and disrespectful to tell an adoptee (especially a child) that his/her ancestry is the adoptive parents! That's crap.

It is extremely frustrating to want to know your biological history and having people tell you that it ISN'T RELEVANT. The ONLY person who knows whether it's relevant to me or not is ME.

Nurture vs nature? What? Bonding to adoptive parents has NOTHING to do with wanting to know your biological history, do a family tree, etc. I wish people would stop implying that an adoptive person MUST want to know this information because they did not have a happy childhood with their AP's. That's utter nonsense and dismissive.

Adoptive person spend their whole lives adapting to a family that they weren't born into. It's natural to want to know one's history. We make kids learn history in school yet they cannot know THEIR OWN!!!???

Keeping this information from adopted persons IS DISCRIMINATION, along with falsifying birth certificates upon adoption to instantly "change" who the child was born to. DISCRIMINATION.

Anonymous said...

No, I don't think one is a substitute for the other. And her ancestry is not her kid's ancestry, whether she wants it to be or not. Especially for girls from China, there is so much bound up with culture, attitude, circumstances, and it all relates to ancestry.

I appreciate that Anita wants to know both, though. That is sort of nice to hear compared to the repudiating you-are-not-my-people rhetoric from certain quarters. It seems as though the double roots have enriched her life.

Adoptees being denied the simple pleasure of going on Ancestry.com should be the subject of an educational campaign around open records.

malinda said...

Anon wrote: "First of all it is completely dismissive and disrespectful to tell an adoptee (especially a child) that his/her ancestry is the adoptive parents! That's crap."

I appreciate your sharing your viewpoint. I agree it is completely dismissive for an adoptive parent to say, "you don't need to know your biological family's ancestry, you have mine" or "since we don't/can't know about your bio family's ancestry, you can use mine."

But doesn't an adopted person have the RIGHT to the same ancestry as their adoptive parents, if they choose? Can Wendy's daughter, M., say "I'm related Honest Abe," if she chooses, because her adoptive father is related biologically to Abe?

Still thinking . . . .

Anonymous said...

No, Malinda that would be FICTION.

malinda said...

WHY is it fiction?

Is it fiction to say that M. is related to J., her adoptive father?

Is it fiction to say that M. is related to J.'s dad?

to J's great-grandfather?

to J's great-great great-grandfather?

Where is the line between fact and fiction?

Wendy said...

M is allowed to decide for herself. It is not a fiction that she is related to Jeff; therefore not to his ancestors. It is also very true that her DNA lies elsewhere. I feel it is her who should decide how much of each family (Jeff and mine) she wants to take as her own--I know I have sworn off some of them! Yikes!
She is our daughter, she is entitled to share in that--it was so heartbreaking to watch in Adopted how she was not able to be listed along with her father.
She is also DNA distinct. She can choose to say she is only Chinese.
Currently she likes to have her own ancestors; however, she wants us all on her family tree--kind of a melding of the two, which (imo) she is.

Anonymous said...

Because specifically when you say "related," the commonsense understanding is blood related. I am more deeply connected to my chosen family than I am to members of my own bio-fam but I cannot claim that I am related to the chosen family. That word has always been about biology.

Wendy said...

It is all in the definition I guess--we use related differently, as in relation to. I am "related to my husband as well, we do not see family as only blood relatives in that sense.

malinda said...

OK, I'm beginning to think it's my lawyer brain that is making the difference here in how I'm seeing things. I don't think of "related" in biological terms, but in LEGAL terms! Clearly, my adopted children are related to me legally -- I'm trying to find the limits of that legal definition, I think!

Mei-Ling said...

"I don't think of "related" in biological terms, but in LEGAL terms!"

Genealogy is about bloodlines, is it not?

(Not saying that having two family trees isn't doable or should even be discouraged, but the basic point of GENEalogy is for... genes.)

P.S. Hope I spelled it right. I've probably spent over 8 hours on the computer so my eyes may not be catching typos...

Anonymous said...

Having done a bit of genealogy, I feel that it is not just about bloodlines, but about relationships between people, which can be legal, emotional, etc. After all marriage is a legal (and emotional) relationship that is recorded when doing genealogy. Adoption, like marriage, is part of genealogy. But, when I talk to my children about my deceased relatives (those they never met), I say something like "that was my grandfather" more often than "that's your great-grandfather." But I do say both and leave it open for them to eventually decide whether they feel a connection to the ancestors who are biologically related to me.

Would it seem less weird for adopted children to reseach the ancestry of their adoptive family if they were of the same race, rather than a different one?

Sue (aka anonymous)

mama d said...

Last night, all the families in our oldest's class were invited to speak some time this school year, for an hour, about their heritage, culture, and how they came to be in America. In talking about it with my DH, we concluded that it would be great if he could speak on our behalf (he's a German citizen, here for 12 years), but that nothing we said could give our oldest a deeper understanding of what it means to be him. He is not our ancestral history, and we are not his.

Of course, hearing DH talk about a childhood on a German farm may give our son much needed information on how his father ticks. But, we don't expect any of our children to fully take on our personal histories as their personal history. We have a collective set of discrete stories, and each of our personal stories is now part of what enriches our family.

Anonymous said...


You asked:

Would it seem less weird for adopted children to reseach the ancestry of their adoptive family if they were of the same race, rather than a different one?

NO. It's just AS WEIRD. It's NOT TRUE. All the wishes and dreams of adoptive parents who think that adoption magically turns their adopted children into THEIR VERY OWN is fiction. The truth is: AN ADOPTED CHILD IS SOMEONE ELSE'S CHILD, TOO. The 2 people who came together and created the child that you were lucky to adopt into your family. DO NOT DE-VALUE THESE PEOPLE. YOU (AP'S) OWE THEM A LOT, INCLUDING RECOGNITION THAT THEY ARE YOUR ADOPTED CHILD'S BIOLOGICAL PARENTS.

Anonymous said...

I think I have to go with Anonymous here. As adoptive parents we WANT everything to be the same for our adopted children, but the reality is things are NOT the same. I think a lot of the linage angst arises from our wondering how we as adoptive parents will be seen not necessarily in our child's mind, but in their children or grandchildren's eyes. A hundred years from now will my daughter's grand-kids view me and my wife as a genuine part of their family tree? Or will my grand-children simply view us a "space fillers"?

I think a lot of the responses you see (an adoptive parent saying that her family is the important one, for example) comes from adoptive parent "angst" that they are not viewed as a total and complete parent in the eyes of their adopted children.


malinda said...

Brian wrote: "A hundred years from now will my daughter's grand-kids view me and my wife as a genuine part of their family tree? Or will my grand-children simply view us a "space fillers"?"

Interesting point -- I can't say I'd ever thought of that end of it. I've been considering it from the perspective of the past, not the future.

But I guess it would go both ways, wouldn't it? I've been hypothisizing that adoptees would be uninterested in ancestors with whom they have no biological link, and that that goes double for transracial adoptees who can't really see themselves in those ancestors of the adoptive parents. So why would the biological descendents of adopted persons care about those non-bio ancestors?

Mei-Ling said...

Anonymous 4 nailed it: "I think a lot of the responses you see (an adoptive parent saying that her family is the important one, for example) comes from adoptive parent "angst" that they are not viewed as a total and complete parent in the eyes of their adopted children"

In terms of adoption, my adoptive parents are ultimately the ones who are thought of first.

My biological history is shoved to the background, invisible.

It's like that quote I read in Outsiders Witin:

"The love of white adoptive parents
Somehow overpowers any other kind of love."

This is true within the basis of the arguments for lineage, language, and culture in regards to the adoptive family as well.

Anonymous said...

Well, we talk about the fact my children have a biological family in China that we don't know... that they have birthparents, grandparents, possibly siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. I do not deny that this family exists. However, I don't feel saying that my grandfather is their great-grandfather is disrespecting their biological family. If I said that my grandfathther was NOT their great-grandfather, that would seem to me to be implying that my adopted children are not really part of our extended family. They are. They have TWO families.

I agree with "mama d" who wrote: "But, we don't expect any of our children to fully take on our personal histories as their personal history. We have a collective set of discrete stories, and each of our personal stories is now part of what enriches our family."

It kind of reminds me of an activity that my daughter has done with Jane Brown. At the beginning of the workshop, the adoptive parent and child make a braided bracelet. If I recall correctly, Jane explains that one thread represents the birthparents, one represents the adoptive parents, and one represents the child. Adoption is a weaving together of threads. It can be a tricky thing for kids to come to terms with these various threads (families). Part of our job is to guide our children through this process as best we can.

Sue (aka anonymous)

Ann BF said...

I just wanted to add another insight to this thoughtful discussion. In thinking about ancestry and especially in transracial adoption, I have done some non-legal and non-semanitc reflection on this. It started when my son (bio) was about 6 or 7 and his sister (adopted from China) was about 2, with us a little over a year. He answered an aquaintance who asked him -- what is your family's ethnic background ? like this: "oh, we're Italian-Chinese". I explain it the the girls this way. When I adopted you , I adopted everything about you. So I have become Chinese and African American in my heart, and I am connected to your ancestors and you to mine through us." It seems important that the "adoption" works both ways. And being open to that has led us down a lot of paths, most recently living in China for a year, that we might not have considered so strongly without the goal of finding some sense of belonging in their birth cultures not just for our daughters, but for ourselves, too.

Lori said...

I told my daughter, when I was explaining that she had two families, that she had parents, and grandparents, and their parents in turn, a long line of people in China. Maybe brothers and sisters. Probably cousins. And maybe other places, since for a variety of reasons we are not sure of the details of her ethnic background.

I really wanted her to feel that she had a whole lineage behind her, not just a "birth mom" (we do not use that term in our house).

patti said...

My oldest daughter is 9 and has seen me work on ancestry.com. She has always included herself on my family tree. I think she has a right to that, as well as a right to what ever biological family information she may get (she's Chinese too.) When I adopted her, I didn't say, "You're in my family EXCEPT for when I do a family tree." Other non-biological family is on the tree - spouses. All of my adopted family is on my tree because they are just that - FAMILY.

Chaya said...

This has always been an interesting subject for me. I am not adopted, but my grandmother was, and she was adopted transracially (she is 100% Cherokee Indian, her adoptive parents are half-Cherokee/half-French, and 100% English Daughters-of-the-American-Revolution-and-the-Confederacy, old money Southerner) Anyway, because I was very, very close to my great-grandmother, it always complicates things, because while people know that my grandmother is Native American and identifies as such, people get confused when I mention something like that I am a granddaughter of Governor William Bradford on that side...so then I always have to follow it up with, "through adoption," which I hate.

mac said...

My daughter has a All About My Ancestor report due she too is adopted from China. She knows she was born in China and has a birthmother and birthfather. Because we don't know anything about her birth family. We are choosing to write the story about me (mommy) ancestor. Any suggestions?

Elizabeth Kryda said...

As a child I always felt that my adoptive family's family tree was mine, too. There were and are many relatives living locally. After I found my birthmother in my late 20s I was of course fascinated by her family history, some of it known back to the 1600s. In subsequent years I started to feel that although my adoptive parents are so much more my family in my heart than my birthparents, the farther back it goes into history, the more I feel related to my birthfamily and the less so to my adoptive family ancestors. This past week I found a family tree for my birthfather going back to the 1400s, with lots of info about his ancestors in the Revolutionary War. Clicking on the "family tree" page on GeniWeb was an emotional and thrilling experience. You know you're related to lots of ancestors if you're human, but as an adoptee I had a feeling like I kind of dropped from space. It's amazing and healing to see that I spring from infinite history just like everyone else.
That said, as I think about it more deeply, I see that I also feel related to my adopted family ancestors. Doing my bio ancestry research has made me see how many things get passed down that we aren't aware of, and I think that works on the "nurture" side, too. I'm sure there is a lot about me that is formed by great-great ancestors on my adoptive family side. And even if it's not by blood, I certainly am connected to this family! So I've come around to be more inclusive on this.
A previous poster said something about having TWO families. That's really it. We really do have two families, challenging as it may be to wrap one's mind around it. It's a life's work perhaps.
There was recently an episode of "Forever," a tv show, where an adopted kid finds out he is related to his adopted dad. It made me cry. I had the fantasy as a child that I was secretly my a-father's kid, as we have the same general fair coloring while my mom and her many relatives are Italian-American.
The thing is, as I have buried myself in family trees and genealogical histories this past week after discovering my b-father's roots, I'm coming to see how widespread the phenomena of family relations really is. In a way it is truly infinite. So the idea that you are related to your adopted family is not far-flung but it's not far-fetched. Of course if you're of different ethnic backgrounds that puts it a step or few more removed. It's a big world, but it's a small world, too.

Elizabeth Kryda said...

Oops, I meant "The idea that you're related to your adopted family IS far-flung but it's not far-fetched."