Adoptive fathers' experiences of search and reunion.

Author:Feast, Julia


In the world of adoption there has been a dearth of information and research specifically about the role of adoptive fathers, although this is beginning to change (Baumann, 1999; Newstone, 2000; Gilligan, 2000; Steel et al, 2007, 2008). Adoptive fathers and male foster carers are starting to write about their experiences and tell their stories about the rewards and challenges of bringing up a non-genetically related child (May, 2005). But still little has been written about what it feels like for adoptive fathers when their son or daughter decides to seek information about their origins, and search and make contact with birth family members. For example, is their role as a father undermined? Do they feel anxious about the outcome? Do their reactions and feelings differ significantly in any way from those of their partners or spouses?

There is greater emphasis these days on the importance of fathers in children's lives. For example, in November 2008, former Children's Minister Beverly Hughes announced the Government's 'Think Fathers' campaign aimed at dispelling the myth that fathers are the 'invisible parent'. This was launched after research published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF, 2008) showed that children who grow up with strong and supportive father figures are less likely to get into crime, take drugs, experience poor mental health or struggle to form relationships (Care, 2008). The DCSF findings indicated that public, health and family services across the board need to do much more if they are to work effectively with fathers.

The main aim of this article is to investigate similarities and differences between adoptive fathers and adoptive mothers. It explores how they manage their emotions, thoughts and feelings when their adult son or daughter makes a decision to seek background information and make contact with their birth family. A further impetus was to explore whether, in view of the different construction of gender roles at the time when these families adopted, adoptive fathers in the study felt as close to the child as adoptive mothers did.

Triseliotis et al (2005) examined the experiences of a large cohort of adoptive parents whose son or daughter had searched for or been sought by their birth parents. Almost all the adoptive parents in the study had found the experience of raising the adopted child rewarding and satisfying. This contentment had not been diminished by the searches: 84 per cent expressed overall satisfaction with the outcome of contact, with 72 per cent describing it as positive, with relationships unchanged or good. However, they also reported feeling anxious about the outcome of the search and resulting contact that their son or daughter might have with their birth relative(s). The study also showed that this experience can provoke powerful, sometimes overwhelming emotions for adoptive parents, with 40 per cent saying that it had been stressful in comparison with other major life events.

The study reported on the combined experiences of adoptive mothers and fathers, and did not distinguish between the two. Interestingly, Quinton et al (1998) identified differences in the level of stress experienced during the adoption procedure. Although stress levels were high for both parents, fathers reported consistently less anxiety than mothers in relation to the placed child and to the placement in general. But apart from this, comparisons with other research are difficult. For example, in her scrutiny of adoptive fathers and birth fathers, Baumann (1999) does not report on issues dealing with search and contact in a way that permits comparisons, and the relevance of the Quinton et al (1998) study is limited by the fact that it covered only young children for whom issues of search and contact had not yet arisen.

Here we report the results of further analysis of the Triseliotis et al (2005) data, with the aim of exploring whether or not the anxieties and stress levels of adoptive fathers differ from those of the adoptive mothers. In that study, adoptive parents were given the option to complete a questionnaire individually or jointly. This resulted in 34 cases where a questionnaire was completed separately. As the analysis across several key questions revealed no major significant differences between the responses of mothers and fathers, only the adoptive mothers' data were presented in the 2005 publication. In the current article, we look more closely at the data from the 34 matched dyads of adoptive fathers and mothers, and explore differences in the impact of the search and reunion process upon them.

It is important to note that the majority of the adoptions in the Triseliotis study had taken place prior to the Children Act 1975 coming into force; that is, when adopted people had not yet been given the legal right to request access to birth records or when comprehensive preparation and training were not available to prospective adoptive parents. Most of the adopted people had been placed as babies and were healthy and without any special needs. The primary reason for the child being placed was due to societal attitudes towards single parenthood, particularly the stigma and shame attached to having children outside wedlock. This is a very different picture from today, where most children who are adopted are older, come from the care system and have complex backgrounds, such as a history of neglect and abuse or form part of a sibling group, thus making it hard to secure adoptive homes.



The participants comprised 34 dyads of matching adoptive mothers and adoptive fathers. The fathers were significantly older than the adoptive mothers (t (32) = 4.34, p

The mean age of the adoptive fathers at the time when their son or daughter searched for or were sought by their birth relatives was 59 years (SD. 6.6) and the figure for mothers was 56 (S.D. 7.7). Thus, on average, they were reporting on events and experiences which had taken place eight years previously. Eleven of the dyads were reporting on the experience of adopting a son and the...

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