The "Two Sets of Parents" Myth

Will adopted children be confused by having supposedly two sets of parents, one adoptive and one biological? If the children are confused, can the adoptive parents ever feel like true parents or will they always feel like they are only sharing parenthood with the birthparents? The answer is a resounding NO, but lets discuss this in more detail. How do any of us identify who our true parents are? Is it biology or is it something else altogether? If you ask people what would happen if they suddenly found out that they were adopted, most reply that they would be shocked, hurt, and perhaps furious at their parents for never having told them. But, almost everyone admits that this information would not make their parents any less their true mother and father. The secrecy and deception would be the source of their upset more than the actual fact of their adoption.

Our parents are our parents not because of egg and sperm, but because, for as long as we can remember, they have always been the people with us and for us as mother and father. The same is true for the children in an open adoption. They know who their parents are; they are people who are committed to them, who are always there, and who love and take care of them as parents.

A curious test of this often happens in the first few months after the child's birth when the birthparents come for their first visit to the new family. This meeting has multiple purposes. For the birthparents, they can see for themselves that everything is all right for their child. For the adoptive parents, they can show the birthparents how correct they were to choose them to raise their biological child. Whatever the reason for the visit, this still can be a nerve-wracking time for the adopting parents. They have just started feeling like a mother and a father. Perhaps the visit of the child's biological parents will somehow undermine that wonderful emotion? In reality, the experience is almost always the opposite. The visit confirms for the adoptive parents that they are, indeed, the parents. For the birthparents, seeing their child with their new family deepens their sense that, as one birthmother explained, "the baby is still my baby but she is not my daughter."

We invited Kathy and Mark, the birthparents of our adopted daughter, Georgia, over for her first visit. Georgia was about two months old. We were pretty nervous. We knew Kathy and Mark were not going to change their minds. All their carefully laid plans for each of their lives would be down the drain. And we knew they had chosen us carefully for their son. But, yet, you never know. We had Georgia all dressed up and she looked so incredibly cute. In some ways, we wished she did not look that cute; maybe it would be better if she looked more plain to the two of them. But that was not to be. She looked adorable! Now that I have been the parent of a infant, I realize I should have known exactly what would happen next. Kathy took Georgia and Georgia started to cry. My daughter knew she was not with her mother. My daughter did not need any intellectual analysis of the essence of parenting to know that I was her mother. Kathy and I burst into laughter. Kathy was laughing because she felt so nervous about Georgia's crying. I was laughing the hardest though. I realized that what I thought would happen—that somehow my little Georgia would scream "Oh my God, this is my birthmother, please take me away"—was pretty ridiculous.

The children in an open adoption simply do not feel any contradiction between having one set of regular parents—their adoptive parents—and one set of biological parents. The depth of this feeling often surprises adopting parents, yet their children demonstrate their clarity about this issue repeatedly.

It was our adopted son Carl's sixth birthday and his birthmother, Karen, came for a visit to our home in Iowa. In the first year after Carl's birth, she had seen him every few months, but as time went by, her visits became more of an annual event. But we kept in regular touch with her. After cake, ice cream and gifts, the adults were sitting around talking and Carl and the other kids were running around the house. For some unknown reason, the kids starting talking about babies. Suddenly, Carl walked over to Karen, his birthmother, pointed to her stomach, and said to the other kids, "That is where I came from." The kids kept on going, but the adults were left speechless. Then, a few minutes later, Carl fell down on the stairs and banged his knee. He ran right past Karen, without even giving her a look, and right straight to me. He was crying loudly "Mommy, Mommy, Mommy." Sure, he knew his biological origins, but he also knew who his mom was. Not only is the two parent issue rarely confusing to the adopted child, but often a source of joy and support. How could anyone suffer from having too many people in the world who love them? Our son enjoys having so many relatives. To his birthgrandparents and their families, he is just one of the kids when he comes for a visit. He loves all the attention.

As for my son, he knows he has grandparents, Godparents, and birthparents, and that they are all special in their own ways. But none of them is ever confused with his real parents—us!

We have three adopted children and have become true believers in open adoption, to say the least. For our oldest son, Andrew's, birthday party, we not only invited his regular grandparents (our parents) but his birthgrandparents as well. And we invited the birthparents and birthgrandparents of both his brother and sister. It was a zoo but great fun. One couple, guests who did not know much about open adoption, asked me if maybe this was just too much for Andrew. I had to admit that the party was a little chaotic but I told them they should ask Andrew himself how he felt. When they asked him, he said, "You mean I could have too many grandparents and too many presents, "and walked off shaking his head about how strange adults can be sometimes.

Recently, I observed as a reporter, writing a story on open adoption, interviewed Nick, a seven-year-old boy adopted in an open adoption.

The reporter kept asking him if he felt funny about having two sets of parents. Nick kept shaking his head, saying "No," and seemed annoyed with the question. Finally, Nick frowned, shook his head and said to the reporter, "You mean to say that I have these parents who love me all the time and I have these two other people out there who love me, no matter what, and that is bad? I don't get it!" Then, as if to clinch his argument, Nick stood up and asked the reporter a question. Nick asked the reporter, "How many children do you have?" The reporter replied that he had two children, a son and a daughter. Nick looked him right in the eye and asked him, "Do you find it confusing to have two children? "The reporter laughed and finally understood. It was not that Nick had found the perfect analogy but that he had made his point clear. To Nick, having two sets of parents was natural.

Kathleen Silber, co-author of The Children of Open Adoption received this letter from a nine-year-old girl about her two sets of parents.

Dear Kathy,
Being adopted is lucky if you think about it.
I think I'm pretty lucky to have two mothers and two fathers.
I really don't think about it much though.
That is all.


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