How Do Adult Adoptees Feel About Illegitimacy? 1968

In spite of the growth of adoption studies and adoption science since the early part of the twentieth century, remarkably few researchers before 1970 considered adult adoptees a significant source of knowledge about adoption. Jean Paton was an important exception to this, surely because she was an adult adoptee herself and the founder of an early search organization, Orphan Voyage. Her 1954 book, The Adopted Break Silence, began the process of publicizing adoption narratives and mobilizing a new social movement devoted to promoting search and reunion, revising confidentiality and sealed records, and other reforms. This excerpt is drawn from a small study conducted by Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. The agency hoped to improve the information and preparation it gave to adoptive parents on the basis of reflections shared by twenty-two adopted adults ranging in age from 20 to 45.

What are the adopted person’s feelings about illegitimacy, especially during the adolescent years? What thoughts may an adopted person have if he knew that his biological parents were married when he was placed for adoption?

The discussion of illegitimacy elicited varied reactions and feelings from the group. Several generalizations can be drawn from the discussion, however.

(a) There was a definite difference between the feelings of the men and the women in the group. On the whole, the men did not seem to have strong feelings about illegitimacy. They felt that it may have been the circumstance of their birth but this did not affect them significantly as individuals. Some of the women in the group shared these feelings, but most discussed the subject with considerable emotional involvement.

(b) Most felt that the adopted person may know intellectually that his birth was illegitimate, but the person does not feel illegitimate.

(c) Several women in the group had strong negative attitudes toward unmarried mothers, in general. However, very few thought of their own biological mother in this way. As one woman remarked, “she was a good, Christian girl who made one mistake.”

(d) Several older members of the group recalled the stigma of an earlier time which illegitimacy carried. Because of the derision which they endured when younger, some wondered if they did have a “moral weakness” or if there was such a thing as a “bad seed.” Most felt that the state of knowledge and cultural attitudes today is such that this is no longer a problem for adopted children, or at least that it is a minor concern.

(e) Several women recalled that, during adolescence, they wondered if they might repeat the mistakes which their biological mother had made. For some, this caused confusion and concern in handling sexual thoughts and desires and they had difficulty relating to boys. However, the group felt that, in most instances, an adopted child’s feelings about illegitimacy might intensify rebellious behavior during adolescence but would not be the sole cause of it.

In general, the group felt that the knowledge that the biological parents were married when a child was placed for adoption is more difficult to accept than the fact of an illegitimate birth. Knowing that one’s parents were unmarried, perhaps quite young and unable to care for a child, is less threatening than knowing that a married couple did not want a child or perhaps mistreated it. In our culture, the group stated, illegitimacy is more understandable and easier to accept than parental irresponsibility or cruelty. Whatever the circumstances of birth, the group felt that this information was not necessary for the adoptive parents or child to have.


Source: “The Adopted Adult Discusses Adoption as a Life Experience: A Research Study Conducted by Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota” (Minneapolis, 1968), 30.

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