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Adoption Blog: My Paperwork Pregnancies

How Important Is It for Adopted Children to Know About Their Ancestry?

While I've thought long and hard about the effect knowing only limited information about their biological parents will have on my children, it is only recently that I've begun to think about what impact the loss of access to their ancestral history might have on them. For each of our three children—all in open adoptions, adopted domestically as infants—certain factors have prevented us from knowing the full history of their biological families: Either the birthfather was never in the adoption picture, the birthparents couldn't give us a detailed history prior to placement, or it just was never discussed.

Our adoptions began as open relationships with the birthparents, but for now all communication, as I've blogged about, is one-sided with me giving and not receiving any. At the time of my children's placements we learned limited family information, which satisfied us. Then I was more concerned about the facts of the present time—the health of the child and whether adoption would be finalized. I did not think to ask for information about the birthparents' ancestry.

Partly, I assumed we'd have regular access to the biological parents, but perhaps another reason I didn't find out is because I've never been too interested in genealogy. To me, the actions of my relatives, especially of those who lived 100 or more years ago, do not impact my life. My grandparents were all first-generation Americans. Beyond that, I know the countries—Poland and German—where they came from. Maybe not having a particular attachment to my genes is why I never had to mourn the loss of a biological connection to my child when I chose to adopt. Heck, I'm adopting because I'm infertile. That's a genetic characteristic I'm happy not to pass on to anyone else!

While I may not personally feel a loss, that doesn't mean my children won't. This hit me the other day as I listened to local radio talk show DJs discuss an online ancestry program they greatly enjoyed using to research their families. One of the DJs, Dave, said something like, “Now I know why my uncle was no good to his wife. His great-grandfather walked out on his wife and three kids.” To which the other DJ, Tom, replied, “Do you think that your ancestors' actions influence the choices you make today?” Dave responded, “Oh yes, how can our actions not be tied to our ancestors? There has to be a genetic connection.”

While I know the DJs' discussion was tongue-in-cheek in tone and not meant to be taken as scientific contributions to the nurture-versus-nature debate, this brief radio discussion still got my head reeling with questions. What happens if you don't know your ancestry? Will my children be deprived of being able to search for their ancestors because we don't know where to begin? Will they feel satisfied searching for my husband's and mine instead? Is this yet another issue they'll have to deal with because of adoption?

While we can make an educated guess as to the geographic location where their ancestors may have resided, we'll never know which small village their great-great-grandparents were born in. We'll never know when exactly their ancestors chose to come to the United States from Mexico. We won't have any stories, such as knowing that my son's great-great-great-uncle was his town's largest landowner and that most of his town worked for him.

True, many others may not have any information about their ancestors, but odds are they just haven't spent the time researching. If you grow up with your biological family—or are in good contact with them—you can most likely get a name or two to get you started in your research.

Prior to hearing this radio segment, I would have easily argued that nurture wins over nature. I believed this because in our house it's eerie how many personality traits our children have in common with my husband, Paul, and me. But now I'm wondering if I'm in the minority with my thinking. Are children like mine, who have limited or no information to research their genealogy, being denied valuable resources that could help shape their identity? If so, what can I do about it?

How much of your child's biological ancestry do you know? Is it important to you or your child to know more? How do you discuss this topic in your home?

Related Posts on AdoptiveFamiliesCircle


Oh yes, I think ancestry is very important.  Of course, not everyone is a history buff.  I am.  I very much enjoy it, and I believe that understanding our individual histories helps us to appreciate the larger history of humanity.  Some people think it’s odd that an adoptee would have such an interest in history, especially genealogy.  I think it’s perfectly natural.  Adoption may attempt to nurture us into not caring, but nature does play a very profound roll.  The two work together to make us who we are. 

Yes, even g-g-g-uncles can be influential in one’s past.  One of my g-g-g-uncles, way back in the days when the area was still mostly wilderness, helped establish an Amish community in the county where I was raised.  Because of his actions, I knew what it meant to be Anabaptist when I learned that a quarter of my roots are there.  He is also the reason my grandpa’s family broke away from the Amish church.  He was a Bishop, and according to history, he didn’t see a problem with wearing buttons.  He took such great issue that he broke away, and the whole family went with him.  They eventually joined with the General Mennonite Conference.  As quaint as my uncle may sound, his son became a chairman of the SEC.  I’m still not sure how you get from being Amish to being chairman of the SEC, but it happened.  I think there may have been more to this story than just the issue of buttons.  smile

If that g-g-g-uncle hadn’t broken away, my grandpa might not have met and married my grandma.  I might not be here.  And because of the community he established where I was raised, I grew up knowing members of that family without knowing they were my cousins.  He definitely had an impact on me with or without me discovering him. 

That’s what history is all about.  It’s about piecing together the events that led to the present.  Everyone has a family history that contributed to their present circumstances.  It’s unnecessary and profoundly unfair for adoption to attempt to erase that history.  Not everyone is interested, but it’s one thing to not be interested.  It’s another thing to be obstructed from knowing. 

My adoptive family has a rich history of their own.  Their religious branch was Quaker, among them Samuel Shattuck who delivered the order from Charles II stopping the killing of Quakers in Massachusetts.  My adad is descended through his daughter, Sarah, who removed to Nantucket.  Nantucket is another interesting aspect of his history.  A quarter of his roots trace back to Nantucket.

As I said, I’m a history buff.  I know the history of both families.  Not everyone is interested, but for someone like me who really is interested, it’s cruel to cut us off from our own history.  There’s no reason.  There’s no excuse.  There is no interest of society or of anyone in it that is so compelling as to justify legally obstructing an individual from the opportunity to study their own genealogy and come to a better understanding of their place in history.

If anything, having this information enhances my relationship with my a-dad.  It certainly helps explain why, when we each take up an opposing cause, we sound like dueling preachers to those around us.  We both come by it honestly.  In no way is this information a threat to the integrity of my adoptive family.  It does not take away from.  It adds to. 

Having said that, my a-dad didn’t personally deprive me of my history.  To the contrary, he raised me to believe that my paperwork was mine.  He really does not understand why records are sealed, and he doesn’t agree with it.  He did keep my information from me until I was 18.  He certainly bought into that being a magical age, but to his credit, he did make good on his promise to provide the information after I became an adult.  Neither my adoptive parents nor my natural mother were told that I would be sealed out of my own records after reaching adulthood.

The problem is with the institution of adoption.  As an institution, it refuses to acknowledge that it is operating in the Dark Ages.  It’s time for a little light to shine in that dark place.  Knowledge is not an instrument of evil.  It won’t usher in the collapse of society. 

What can you do about it?  The American Adoption Congress is a good place for adoptive parents to start.

By Jeanne on Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 2:42 pm.

I think that you care enough about your children to be asking these questions means that you will do what is right for them, whatever that may be for your family.

I am an amateur genealogist and I’ll share what I’m doing in case it works for anyone else. I use the free family tree online to keep *private* birthfamily trees for each of my adopted children. I know only names and ages of birthparents and first names of birth grandmothers. I’m recording every little clue I have. A biomom mentioned a brother, so I entered an unnamed male uncle. If my children ever want this when they’re older, I know I’ve gathered everything I could. If not, no harm done.

But with that said, my children are 100% part of our family tree. To me a family is the people with whom you share experiences. I fully include all those who are part of our extended family in whatever way. My husband’s grandfather grew up with a boy who was raised as a brother, but there was never any official foster placement or adoption. He has a spot on the family tree. My now-deceased half-aunt was surprised that I was curious about genealogical information for her father. He was adopted, and to her, that made him inconsequential to the family tree—almost as if he were a non-person. I include him as fully as anyone else.

By sueb on Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 7:03 pm.

I’m curious as to why you addressed your questions only to adoptive parents.  I would think that the adoptee would be the best judge of what is important to them.

For those who don’t think it’s important, just look at the information you DO know as a non-adoptee:
  You are pretty certain of your ethnicity, your date and place of birth.
  You know how many siblings you have, along with their names and birthdays.
  You know the names of your grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, their occupations, talents, physical attributes.

You may not care about your great-great uncle, but imagine having little to no knowledge of all of the above.  Does having knowledge about your adoptive family eliminate the desire to know about your biological family?  No - not any more than knowing two siblings eliminates the desire to know about another one.

“Not everyone is interested, but it one thing to not be interested.  It another thing to be obstructed from knowing.”


Let’s say you knew your maternal great-grandparents came from Russia and the US government sealed all naturalization records of former Russian citizens.  You could get any other naturalization records for any other relatives - just not the Russian ones.  Are you okay with that?  Does it make sense to be told “be thankful for what you are allowed to have” or “well, some people don’t have records because the courthouse burnt down”.

There is a three-inch thick file about ME that New York State law says I can never see.  Fair?

By Romany Reunited on Sunday, September 04, 2011 at 6:47 pm.

In regards to this topic and blog, here are some comments from our Adoptive Families Facebook Page:

Amy Sanders Ramos After finding my birth family I now realize how important it truly is and will ensure my daughter will have that information from her birth family!!

Julie Lopes Evans It is very important. I talk to my kids about their heritage all the time. They need to know where they came from.

Anne Harvey Kilburn it is important. My 9 year old daughter is interested in researching her heritage but her birthmother didn’t want to be identified, so it’s a problem.

Vicki Slatton Vanderveen My children were adopted through foster care. While we have a very friendly relationship with the birthmom, the birth grandmother has been an invaluable resource for family information and baby pictures. In our school system, as in many, second graders do an “All About Me” project including baby pictures.

Gise Alen It is extremely important, especially when you are going through puberty.

Kanna Annamalai-Brown My opinion is just mine and comes from my experience growing up as an Indian in America. I do not have the adoptive parent or adoptive child perspective. So, please forgive me if my opinion is limited or unwarranted. Personally, I think it can be very important to understand both heritage and ancestry. But I think each is different. I think heritage is culture, religion, ethnicity, etc. Ancestry is your personal family tree. Heritage is crucial in part because people can see the “differences” and so to help a person connect and handle how people react to their “differentness” I think cultural awareness can be powerful especially for teenagers. Ancestry is important but it is more personal and not everyone feels the need to be that connected to thier own history. Some do and some don’t. I think it can be a powerful connection to your own past and history but I think knowing your ancestry can also be a burden. I come from a place where ancestry is considered to be based on the parents that raised you not the parents that birthed you- meaning that an adoptive child’s ancestry is with his/her adoptive parent not the birth parent. Not saying this the right view - just that it is one view and may shed a different thought on the whole process. I come from a family and place where ancestry is really important and I know my family tree back many, many generations (I am talking hundreds of years). it is wonderful, I have lots of family. It also means that expectations about my behavior and choices are also very high. So, it can be double-edged sword. Now in my personal situation, I love the connection and would not give it up, but I know friends who find it too much. Anyway, just a limited thought from a person with a limited view…

Chloe Saul I wish my youngest son had that option. I believe it is important, both physically and mentally. However, he was surrendered at birth under the Safe Haven law and we will not ever have any information on his parents.

Barbara Giordano I think children adopted internationally with no chance of connecting with their ancestors will and do experience loss. It is a given and a void that is very difficult to fill. Of course, each child responds uniquely to their own adoption experience. My daughter definitely feels a loss and fantasizes on the “what if”. We give as we’re able to. I’m not sure how much a heritage trip would help or make things worse in this regard. I do know my daughter expresses a desire to visit China one day. However, without a direct connection to one’s ancestors, i.e., grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc., it’s difficult to compensate for it. That’s where acceptance comes in for our children which comes with time. Culture is passed on through families. My children know American culture. We talk about their heritage but it’s not the same as living and being directly a part of a culture.

By Danielle Pennel on Monday, September 05, 2011 at 4:46 pm.

More Facebook comments:

EV I think it’s very important. We’re in the middle of adopting domestically and I was sad to find out that an organization that I belong to won’t accept my child for membership. To be a member one must be able to trace their bloodlines back to the American Revolution. Now I’m thinking of canceling my membership.

Adoptive Family Center We have always tried to keep ourselves open to our children’s mothers. This last month one of our children’s mothers closed the door. Our child is only four but it hurt our hearts as we know there is a time he will want to know whose nose does he have and with this door that was closed we might not be able to help him along his journey.

By Danielle Pennel on Monday, September 05, 2011 at 4:47 pm.

I tried to post a comment a earlier, but I don’t see it.  If it appears, I apologize for posting twice on this topic.

In response to Erica’s comment, membership in a lineage society isn’t something that usually comes to mind one thinks of adoption, but it certain becomes a trick if one is adopted.  Of course, adoptees have bloodlines.  We’re just not legally entitled to the required documentation. 

I have petitioned the court for my original birth certificate three times for the purpose of DAR membership.  I have been denied three times.  The problem isn’t DAR or any other lineage society.  The problem is a total lack of respect for adoptees masquerading as justice.  My first petition was denied on the grounds that I was just “curious”.  My second petition included twenty pages of genealogy including every copy of every birth, marriage, and death record that proved my lineage to DAR qualified ancestors.  It was again denied on the grounds I was just “curious”.  My third petition was rather accusatory.  It’s about time for me to draft a fourth.  I’ve yet to decide what angle to take.

By Jeanne on Tuesday, September 06, 2011 at 12:11 am.

This is just my opinion, and as they say, we all have one.  But I just wanted to share a few thoughts. Genealogy is a bad science at best.  There are very few families that don’t have broken lineages. In times when affairs, marriages of convenience and certainly there was some cases of infertility, true biological relation was often not known or hidden.  Just an examples.  My whole life I was brought up thinking that my father’s family was also mine.  Not until after my father died did anyone find out that the father he knew to be his father was not his biological father. So I have no clue about a whole branch of my family.  As far as I am concerned it doesn’t matter.  My point is, no one can be absolutely sure their so called lineage is 100 percent accurate. 

I will disagree that people who you don’t know that are suppose to be related to you, have anything to do with who you are because of genes.  It’s all about tradition, family traits through characteristics.  Who you are and who your children are, are a result of your experiences. Not genes. My father loved to work with his hands, because his father loved to work with his hands.  He was exposed to that. Some will confusingly say it’s because it’s in his genes. Absolutely not, since they was no genetic link there.

My point is, and maybe I’ve not done a good job at explaining it, biological links are often broken without knowledge. A lot of people think they know their direct line, but especially in the “olden days”, adoptions were hidden, affairs where hidden, children were raised in families that weren’t their own.  These things were not talked about or ever revealed. I’m not saying it was right, but I think that these broken lineages have occurred way more than anyone realizes.  So Joe Bob can think he loves to bake because his great-great-great grandfather was a baker, but more likely an explanation is that his mother/father/grandmother/aunt or some other relative that he’s had contact with during his life loved to bake and shared that love with him.

Share your love for life, for the family that surrounds you, for baking or whatever else it is that you are passionate about. Expose them to things, let them discover what’s important to them. It will not have a darned thing to do with genes!  (just a note that this has nothing to do with medical history.)

By missellie123 on Friday, September 09, 2011 at 7:11 pm.

With all due respect, one misidentified grandparent is not the same as being intentionally cut off from any form whatsoever of one’s own biological origins including ethnicity, family history, and genealogy. 

Even after we make those connections, adoptees still have to deal with past non-paternal events and the burning of courthouses.  It is not the same.  Genealogy is about putting those pieces back together.  Adoption is about dealing with the prospect of never having the opportunity engage in genealogy.

By Jeanne on Saturday, September 10, 2011 at 10:23 pm.


I think you missed the point of my post.  I never meant to imply that adoptees should not be allowed access to their records.  In fact, I didn’t address that at all.  My point is that one needs to take it all in perspective, because I don’t believe that anyone really knows their true biological lineage, they just think they do. 

Birth certicates, marriage certicates and death certificates do not prove biology or true bloodlines.  Only dna does that.

As for the one misidentified grandparent thing not proving my point. It was one example, I have several more, but didn’t wish to get into it here.  But one misidentified grandparent also meant, misidentified great-uncles, aunts, cousins, great grandparents, a lineage to what we thought was civil war and revolutionary war history.  It was all a big lie and I know I am not the only example.

By missellie123 on Monday, September 12, 2011 at 2:36 pm.

Just one other point.  When my children, should they be interested in their history later on, will have a huge gap in their “lineage” .  Had we never found out about that fact that my father was all intensive purposes adopted by who he knew to be his father (and we were never meant to find out) all that history, lineage, bloodline etc…would have been one fat lie.  I also thought I had half-brothers and sisters that I know now are not really biological, my grandmother was raised by her grandmother and died before we found out anything about her family.  It’s not just adopted children who have holes in their history, a lot of people do.  So all those people out there who think they’ve got everything tied up in a neat little package because they are not adopted, it could just been one big fat lie.

By missellie123 on Monday, September 12, 2011 at 3:03 pm.
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Danielle Pennel

Danielle Pennel


I have recently adopted or am adopting from...
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