An Examination of the Late Discovery Adoptee Experience
The majority of adoptees are informed of their adoption in childhood. Many adoptive parents tell their adopted children in age-appropriate ways from very early childhood. “Late Discovery Adoptee” (commonly referred to as LDA) is a term used to refer to adopted individuals who did not discover their adoptee status until they were at least in their late teens or early adulthood. In some cases, the discovery did not happen until middle age or even beyond.
The LDA community is not well researched or understood. Discovering an adoption truth in adulthood is a jarring experience that can lead to debilitating depression, loss of identity, anger, and trust issues. It can disrupt existing relationships. It can occupy a disproportionate amount of focus and energy, leaving the individual with inadequate resources for their normal life’s pursuits. Many LDAs feel that their life has been entirely upended.
Late Discovery by its very nature means simultaneously discovering that people who were deeply trusted had been lying. In some cases they were lying by omission, but in others they were outright lying in response to direct questions from those who for whatever reason suspected they might have been adopted. In many (if not most) cases it is discovered that there was a far-reaching web of individuals that were aware of the adoption but agreed to or were coerced into maintaining the secret. The LDA can feel that they are the butt of a cruel joke, or the victim of a vast conspiracy. In some cases the adoptive parents are dead when the discovery is made, leaving the LDA with no good path for resolution.
Late Discovery means instantly learning about and then grappling with society’s expectations for adoptees, and even internally challenging those narratives that have been absorbed over a lifetime. In the midst of discovering and processing the shocking facts, the LDA must also respond to the reactions of the people in whom they confide. Oftentimes these reactions include some manner of defending the adoptive parents and adoption in general – for example, comments such as, “Your adoptive parents were your real parents. They didn’t tell you because they loved you and were trying to protect you.” This kind of commentary, while usually given in a spirit of kindness, is often hurtful and devaluing of the LDA’s experience, which leads to feelings of isolation.
Most adoptees feel some level of anxiety when making the decision to seek out their biological family. In LDAs this anxiety is often compounded, especially if the discovery happens later in life. The older the adoptee is the more likely it becomes that their biological parents are already dead. They may worry that if their adoption occurred many decades ago they would be unwelcome intrusions in the lives of their biological family. It may be difficult to discuss with their existing family. Their children may have varying reactions to the fact that they suddenly have ‘new’ grandparents. They may have adoptive siblings who also discovered their adoption at the same time, and everyone needs to absorb that they are not genetically related, that there are multiple sets of biological parents involved, and that the parents you thought you shared were not your biological parents at all.
In the course of writing this paper I conducted an informal survey that I offered to members of the closed LDA Facebook group of which I am a member. I have compiled their complete responses as an appendix. There were 35 responses. The age of discovery range of the respondents was 17 to 60. The average age of discovery was 38.8. The range of length of time since discovery of the respondents was 4 months to 40 years. The average length of time since discovery was 11 years. Of the 35 respondents, 34 have discovered that there was a wider web of individuals (beyond adoptive parents and immediate family) who were aware of their adoption and had been keeping the secret.
Here are a few excerpts from their responses to the question, “How did you feel when you discovered?”
- Lost, betrayed, hurt, alone. No words really to describe it. My parents have passed so I cannot question them. It’s just a really weird feeling.
- It was a seismic shift in my reality. I questioned who I was at my core. Every time I looked in the mirror, it was as though I saw a stranger’s reflection.
- Ashamed, sad, angry and a tiny bit relieved.
- Isolated, angry, resentful, sad, emotional, aggressive.
- Betrayed, numb, confused, lost, angry, bitter.
- FAKE! I suffer with trying to understand who I am. Betrayal, unworthy, anger, not good enough
Here are a few excerpts from their responses to the question, “Do you have anything you would like to say about being an LDA?”
- It’s hard. the feelings of betrayal of trust, the crisis of identity you struggle with, the way it colors every part of your life and relationships, the lies you remember, even if just by omission, the fact I gave false medical info my whole life and they LET ME! how people who are not LDA try to tell me how to feel, how to react, and that I was just being protected. You can protect a child from the hard truths of their past, and STILL tell them they were adopted! geez. lol
- I understand why it was so important to my mother. There was a stigma. But I would have loved to be able to thank my parents for choosing me.
- It’s a horrible, traumatic discovery that I don’t think I will ever fully recover from.
- Very difficult experience, roller coaster.
- It is abuse. It is criminal.
- It’s changed me. I have zero tolerance for dishonesty, I will only have serious conversations in person, I want every chance I can to assess what they are saying. I miss the closeness I had with my family pre-discovery but I am glad I know the truth. I’ve met my bio Dad Matthew & 2 sisters 1 brother.
- It has been earth shattering and no one should have to endure it. It rattled my basic sense of trust in people. After everything broke down, I’ve had to rebuild everything; identity, relationships, self-care, beliefs.
Overwhelming anecdotal evidence points to the LDA experience being acutely painful and confusing. In some ways the LDA has similar emotions to a typical adoptee, but their experience of these emotions is temporally compressed and much more intense. They have compounding threads of deception and betrayal, loss and grief that a typical adoptee does not experience, or experiences in a more abstract way over the course of their lifetime. Further study and the development of appropriate therapeutic models for the LDA community is warranted. It is quite possible that our society is on the cusp of a tremendous surge in the population of the LDA community, that we, as a society, are currently ill-equipped to support. There are two main reasons I believe a surge in the LDA population is imminent: the ‘Baby Scoop Era’ and the preponderance of DNA testing.
In the “Baby Scoop Era,” a period of time roughly defined as the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s, an estimated 4 million babies were placed for adoption worldwide, with an estimated 2 million in the 1960s alone (Wikipedia). The prevailing harsh social condemnation of unwed mothers and their so-called ‘bastard’ babies coupled with a lack of sex education and available birth control led to an unprecedented number of babies being relinquished to adoption. Young women by the score were shunted off to maternity homes, often in cities far from their homes, to live out their pregnancies and deliver their babies in secrecy and relative anonymity. Concurrently, the post-WWII social fashion toward large families as an expression of patriotism and status led to an unprecedented demand for those babies (Fessler). The dual shame of illegitimacy and infertility was hidden by the practice of creating an Altered Birth Certificate upon adoption of the infant, and having the original records hidden and sealed under court order.
Because of the stigmas associated with illegitimacy and the prevailing notion of giving the baby a ‘clean slate,’ it can be surmised that a higher percentage of adoptive parents in the Baby Scoop Era chose to keep secret the adoption of their child – even from the adoptee themselves – than adoptive parents before or after this era. Given that the average age of adoptive parents is between 35 and 55, BSE adoptive parents would be approximately in their 80s and 90s in 2017. In other words, toward the ends of their lives. The death of an adoptive parent is often the precipitating event in the LDA’s discovery, whether it be a relative who feels relieved of the need for silence with the death of the adoptive parent, or the discovery of hidden paperwork or clues among the deceased adoptive parent’s belongings.
Additionally, there is the current, heavily promoted fashion of recreational DNA testing, which can inadvertently reveal that a person’s genetic makeup is radically different than what they were told, and can also lead them to unexpected genetic relatives.
Given these factors, it seems that the LDA population is likely to grow exponentially in the next two decades. I have not yet identified any organized effort to study and support this community. A steady stream of members finds and joins the private LDA group on Facebook, and they almost to a one arrive bewildered and shaken to their core with no idea where to turn for help.
After 6 months post-discovery I identified my own need for counseling support, and was unable to find any local therapists who had even heard of the category, let alone had any idea how to address it. My search encompassed all of Chicagoland – a major metropolitan area. The stock answer was, “They specialize in adoption issues.” But LDAs should not be lumped into the general adoptee population. From the moment of discovery, many LDAs enter into a condition of acute crisis that has a far-reaching impact on their lives and well-being. Their experience has some similarities to that of a typical adoptee, but in critical ways it is entirely different. The dearth of readily available information about their situation is distressing. Even within the traditional adoption support communities, the LDA is in a tiny minority and therefore something of a curiosity, rather than a place the LDA can find desperately needed support and guidance.
It is my sincere hope that by exploring the LDA experience I might inspire further study, which would hopefully lead to much-needed support for this very vulnerable population.
“Baby Scoop Era.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_Scoop_Era. Accessed 4/22/2017
Fessler, Ann. The Girls Who Went Away, Penguin Books, 2006