Step-parent Adoptions: The Forgotten Cog in the Adoption Wheel?

People who are aware of the need for sincere adoption reform would be appalled by parts of my personal adoption story. They would gasp at how my adoption meant I was cut off completely from my family of origin; how my adoptive father did not allow us to even acknowledge that we were not biologically connected to him; how I have never been able to recover any medical information. They would tsk at how my adoption, and those of my four siblings adopted at the same time, was featured on the local news, how the story of a Navy man adopting five children painted him as a savior. They would advocate for me getting a copy of my original birth certificate and tell me to keep fighting the county that has denied my access multiple times.

These same people might also brush me off when I explain my status as an adult adoptee. “Well,” I have heard before when trying to assert my adoptee voice, “That isn’t really the same thing as adoption…”

I, you see, belong to a special group of adoptees who flummoxes the adoption world enough that we are typically left out of conversations entirely. I am an adoptee who teeters between two worlds. The child of a step-parent adoption. I grew up with one biological parent and one adoptive parent.

I do not think I can claim full adoptee status. I grew up with my mother and some of my siblings. But I believe there needs to be a place, albeit probably a separate one from other adoption spaces, where people who were adopted by a step-parent can process that experience. And we need some regulations.

Typically, when a step-parent adoption occurs, friends and family celebrate the moment. What a lovely event, we announce, that the person who married this child’s other parent is willing to also commit so heartily to the child. The adopting parent might  include the child in their wedding vows. Sometimes, there is a party to mark the moment the adoption is finalized. Sometimes, as in my case, the adoption makes the local news or fills up social media, a feel-good story for the masses.

What the adoption world forgets is that step-parent adoptions are also predicated upon loss. For a step-parent to adopt, the other biological parent has to have somehow been removed from the picture — through death or choice, often through a custody battle. Then there are the absentee parents, mothers and fathers who choose not to take on the parenting role, and fathers who never knew there was a child who needed care. At the very least, the other biological parent has been forced or has agreed to relinquish legal rights to the child.

In modern day adoptions, adopting parents are rightfully taught to keep our children’s biological families as much a part of their lives as possible. We are to honor our children’s families of origin, thus nurturing our children through some of the murky emotional waters inherent in adoption and, when possible, maintaining important familial connections for every member of the adoption constellation. Though some of our children’s histories might include greater pain than we would want our children to have to process, it still generally healthier for them to know the truth than to be left hanging on fantasies, confusion, and misinformation.

Somehow, this modern adoption edict has not made it to the realm of step-parent adoptions. Thus, many children who fall under this category, like myself, essentially lose an entire half of our identity when we are adopted. It was not until I was in college that I realized I could not actually claim the ethnic heritage of my adopted father, for example. I had no connection to my biological father, nor to his side. In family discussions, my adopted father’s heritage was the one upon which we focused, with nary a nod made to the biological heritage of the five of us he adopted. It is only now, long after the death of my adopted father, that I am learning more about who my biological father was. But so divested of that part of me was I that when I learned that my half-sister, born later to my biological father, lived a mere 6 hours from me, I chose not to visit and get to know her.

I also have no medical history from my father’s side of the family, a terrifying issue considering his untimely death — an event about which I know little — and no access to my original birth certificate.

Worst of all, as it is with so many children adopted by a step-parent, I was taught early to choke my losses (it was the subject of one of my earliest memories of his harsh discipline by my father) and to develop eternal gratitude that my father adopted us.

It has only been in working to maintain as many connections as possible between my adopted children and their family, ethnicity, country, and culture of origin that I have allowed the losses within my own family of origin to surface. Despite my understanding that the choice to exclude him from directly parenting my siblings and myself was in our best interest, I feel the loss of him and his extended family, him and his medical history, him and his heritage, as a part of my personal narrative.

Though there are situations that make a step-parent adoption a sensible choice, we must reconsider how such adoptions occur. We can learn some lessons from attempts that are beginning to be more fully developed within the greater adoption world. We need to dismantle the notion that step-parent adoptions are always happy occasions, absent of loss for the children adopted. As with all adoptions, we would do well to honor each adopted child’s entire history — even the parts we wish we did not have to acknowledge. Step-parent adoptions could benefit from some of the same systems in place for general adoptions: work with a social worker and classes, for example. Not every step-parent is qualified to become an adoptive parent just because they married the child’s other parent. Since the child has little choice in the matter, we would do well to at least properly vet the adopting parent. Finally, as the biological parent and step-parent celebrate the circumstances that have brought them together and to a place of pursuing a step-parent adoption, they must also allow the adopted child to process their own adoption experience — even if it conflicts with the joy desired by the couple.

Step-parent adoptions do not entirely parallel other adoptions. I could not claim to have experienced much of what my adopted kids experience based upon my step-parent adoption. But they are a form of adoption. Likewise, step-parent adoptions do not usually mirror blended families, as one side of the family is typically lost. Many children of step-parent adoptions deserve a discussion and consideration of their own.