Information Seeking Behavior of Birthmothers
Responses from birthmothers reflecting upon their experiences surrounding perceived information needs, desires, gathering strategies and sources utilized varied greatly ranging from almost passive receiver to aggressive and persistent seeker.
Although adoption as a concept was familiar to all of the birthmothers, the actual process was completely unknown and unfamiliar. The situation required an intimidating foray into new and uncertain sources for information and/or an almost complete reliance on others to investigate the particulars and often make decisions.
Margaret, Birthmother: I never considered suicide or anything like that, it was just call daddy and what are we gonna do about this [pregnancy]. So he came and he had talked to his doctor friend and his doctor friend had given him some advice and where I was going to school at that time they had what they called home for unwed mothers. So basically he and the doctor made arrangements so that when I would have been ordinarily going back to school, instead both my mother and my father took me back as if I was going to school because it was all very hush hush, I mean nobody knew. No one was to know. So daddy did everything.
Lillian, Birthmother: I wanted to know absolutely every angle that I could…I didn't want to be surprised after I placed him with the emotions I was going through…I didn't read a lot of books…I don't think there was a lot of books at that time and we didn't have the internet then but that's why I think the counseling was so important…I picked it apart every little thing…I would show up every week and think there was nothing left to talk about and then the week would go by and I'd have other things to ask about. I'm definitely not a blunter…I looked in every nook and cranny I could and tried to find out answers
Table 2 provides direct responses from birthmother participants recalling their own familiarity with adoption, information search behavior, and how information was involved in their decision making process and coping.
The most adamant and passionate comments came in response to the question, “What have you learned or come to understand more fully since the adoption process that you wish you had known beforehand?” Four of the five birthmothers expressed strong feelings of disappointment and even anger regarding the lack of complete disclosure of information during the adoption process illustrating the unfamiliar nature of the context. Misunderstanding and some degree of distrust in the provided information surfaced months and even years after the finalization of the adoption.
Lillian, Birthmother: I wish I would have known how shrouded in secrecy everything was…they don't necessarily lie to you, they just don't tell you the truth.
Angela, Birthmother: I wish I been more aware of how the relationship could be between me and the adoptive parents. There wasn't a lot of discussion at least that I remember about the potential things that could happen…it was like we sat down and said this is how it's going to be but then it wasn't that way
Angela, Birthmother: The social worker asked us [herself and adoptive family] to make a list of expectations for the open adoption over the years. But they didn't hold up their end of the deal. There's no legal…no matter how much we sit there and talk about it they aren't required…
Table 2. Birthmother Responses to Questions about Information Seeking Behavior.
|Initial familiarity with adoption||Only as a concept, knew adoptees and adoptive parents, social work class field trip to adoption agency, media|
|Sources of information||Books about adoption (e.g. The Primal Wound, Verrier), Yellow Pages entries under ‘adoption’, social worker at adoption agency, public library, therapist, adoption lawyer family physician, friends, peers at home for unwed mothers, staff at home for unwed mothers, shepherding home, adoption support group, author of The Primal Wound, psychics|
|Sources of support||Parents, sister, social worker, friends, dorm mates, counselor, birthfather|
|Emotions experienced||Panic, denial, extreme sadness, excitement, confusion|
|Influences||Parents, birth father, social norms and stigmas, religious upbringing|
|Coping strategies||Denial, information gathering and planning, desire to understand and anticipate grief, prayer, religious/spiritual faith, desire to know every angle – no surprises|
|Missing / unknown information||Legal information about adoption, types of adoption – spectrum of open to closed adoption, things that might go wrong, no enforcement or recourse for broken promises, how closed “closed adoption” is|
|Barriers to information||Abbreviated and incomplete information about adoption options, feelings were contrary to what the information told her, court clerk|
|Recommended information for people considering adoption||Talk with other birthmother(s), talk with someone who experienced a similar crisis pregnancy and decided to parent instead of place, talk to adoptee(s), require copies of all paperwork, take time to get to know adoptive family to develop level of trust, volunteer at a day care facility to come face-to-face with reality of parenting|
Sarah, Birthmother: When I met the adoptive parents with the social worker I said specifically that I would like pictures of my daughter at least once a year for the first five years and I thought they agreed. I had to call the agency after her first birthday to see if the pictures were in the mail – and she [social worker] said she was sending two photos but the adoptive mother wasn't comfortable sending any more. That was actually the most excruciating moment of the entire process – I was so traumatized that I could never call back – how could they break their promise – that was all I asked for. I had no idea that any agreements from the adoptive family are not binding whatsoever.
Lillian, Birthmother: I wished I would have known the law…what it was like. And I wrote a letter to him [son] that was never going to be given to him…they just flat out lied to me. Well they didn't lie outright but I wrote a letter to him and my mother wrote a letter to him and I said when he turns 18 or whatever age he might come in here please give it to him. And they put it in my file and he's never seen it…good thing I kept a copy of it. I didn't know the law, I didn't know how closed closed adoption was I didn't understand this whole right to privacy thing…this confidentiality that they thought I was supposed to have because I never signed up for that. I had no idea and maybe it was in that paper I signed when I relinquished by rights that I couldn't read because I was crying – I had no idea that he would not be able to come there (agency) at age 18 and ask for information that was no non-identifying, get my letter, get my mother's letter.
Table 3 provides direct responses from adoption professional participants based upon their own interactions with women considering an adoption plan for their baby. Experienced adoption professionals also expressed extreme variance in how potential birthmothers seek information ranging from active to passive behavior.
Carla, Professional: You would think that they would want to know about the potential adoptive families…some do, some don't.
Alex, Professional: Most of them don't know the adoption options available to them and when I try to educate them some really all of a sudden want more, want more and some “I don't even want to talk about it, my mind is already made up, I just want to get it over and done with.” So there's that two schools – some want more more info and I've had …usually the ones that want more and more information then will become more and more demanding about getting their needs met. They will turn around and go back to their agency [adoption] and say “You know, wait a minute, I know I can do this and I want this. This is how it's going to be.” And then they are more empowered. But then there are others that I try to educate and they don't even want to go there. They're the ones that really need to close off in order to be able to do this process [relinquish child for adoption].
Barbara, Professional: There are some women who have already done reading and research about adoption and know more coming into this so they would have more questions. But other women who are just more desperate have not necessarily gone beyond making a phone call to us and then just sort of put that on us to make sure we cover everything and tell them so there's not a process in their mind.
Far from Routine
Echoing concerns expressed by birthmothers regarding expectations and legal issues of adoption, adoption professional participants note the importance of correct and full information.
Alex, Professional: I have to remind them unfortunately that no matter what option they choose and what's agreed upon there is no legal enforcement. And they can choose a totally open adoption and they can agree to it [adoptive parents] and once that adoption is finalized if the adoptive parents choose not to go along with it…this has never been tested in court…so they should really take the time to get to know these adoptive parents so they can trust them
Table 3. Adoption Professionals Responses to Questions about Information Seeking Behavior of Birthmothers.
|Observations about information seeking behavior of women deciding to place child for adoption||Information overload, trust social worker / adoption agency to provide all the information they need|
|What resources, people or places do women consult for information during the decision process?||Parents, friends, partners, faith leaders, internet, crisis pregnancy center, medical providers|
|Observed influences on decision making process||Peers, parents, birthfather, fear of foster care system, misinformation about adoption,|
|Observed emotional state and level of stress||Distraught, confused, frustrated, sad, angry, denial|
|Types of questions and information sought||Adoption process mechanics, information about prospective adoptive parents, what to expect, does adoption scar a child for life|
|Perceptions about what “information” ultimately helps a woman make and cope with a decision||Knowing what to expect in terms of the letting go process, understanding that none of the answers/options are really right for her but trying to choose the best under the circumstances, making a connection of trust with the adoptive family, finding support from their families, understanding the grieving process|
Information Seeking Behavior of Sperm Donor Offspring
A summary of participant information search behavior is described in the table below in Table 4.
Unfamiliar information sources
According to Savolainen (2003) a central attribute of everyday life and thus ELIS is the familiar. When sperm donor offspring seek information about their donors or their half siblings, much of the search is unfamiliar. Individuals tend to draw on familiar information sources in ELIS (Savolainen, 2003). Donor offspring are forced to stretch beyond familiar sources of information said to characterize ELIS. After being told (most often by their mother) that they were conceived via donor sperm, all donor offspring interviewed were forced to extend beyond the information provided by their mothers. Most participants interviewed expressed vividly remembering this moment because of its lifelong impact. Typically, the younger participants were when they received this information, the less impact was reported. For most, after receiving the life changing information that they were donor conceived and that they were not biologically related to their Dads, many attempted to contact their mother's physician. If this information was not known, an effort was made to learn of the name of the mother's physician, in order to make contact. Often, the doctor provided little information about the donor, leading to frustration:
Cindy: …My initial conversation was with my Mom's doctor was very much like “well, you've got all the forms signed by all these parties and they say we're not going to disclose anything to anybody” and I'm think What?!” You know? I remember as a kid I was really, really angry about that because all these other people find documents and I can't find out who my donor is? That's bullcrap!
Paul: I hunted down the OBGYN who did the procedure, he's actually still alive, for how much longer I don't know. He was completely unwilling to give any information citing the fact that this was done in total secrecy as was quite common back then and that everyone was sworn to secrecy and the donor had wanted it that way as well.
Most donor offspring began their search using the Internet. Often, the donor offspring who started their search with the Internet learned of their donor conception after 1997 when Internet search engines became widely available. While Internet search engines are currently a familiar part of everyday life for many individuals, some participants had difficulty grasping the correct terminology to enter into the search box:
Tina: I think 2 years passed before I even tried to do any sort of Internet searching. I didn't even know the words. I didn't even know “donor conceived.” So I had to start from the basics, “what is this?”
Table 4. Sperm donor offspring study participants
|Emma||50||35||a few years||1994–1996, 2008-present|
|Tiffany||32||32||less than a day||2009-present|
|Sam||54||28||a few days||1983–1991|
|Anne||27||19||6 months||2001–2003, 2009-present|
|Kelly*||25||8||15 years||2006 (2 weeks)|
|Kim*||22||4||15 years||2006 (2 weeks)|
|Lucy**||24||as early as I could remember||age 18||2003-present|
In addition, sperm donor offspring indicated interacting with medical professional to learn how to obtain medical records or find physicians who might have performed the artificial information. This was often confusing:
Tiffany: …told was a friend that I'd known since I was 8 or 9 and she's actually an OB [obstetrician] so I told her because I needed her help in figuring out what kind of doctor my mom would have seen.
Many donor offspring also used yearbooks as a source of information. Both Rose and Cindy stated that they would not have thought of using yearbooks as a source of information:
Cindy: The only reason I wanted to know if there were yearbooks was because I was in Junior High at the time and there were yearbooks. So I thought…you know?
Rose: I think my mom suggested [yearbooks] because a neighbor attended my donor's medical school during the same period and had kept the books.
As they were not a familiar source of information, yearbooks can be considered an unfamiliar source of information used during the search.
Obtaining records: an unfamiliar process
After being told (most often by their mother) that they were conceived via donor sperm, many donor offspring attempted to obtain medical records. The process of finding the record location was sometimes confusing, as was a records retention schedule. Participants did not understand why they could not have access to records about their donor:
Amy: I have some image of the bowels of the hospital somewhere where maybe there are some files that they're just not telling me.
Erin: I initially tried to call, and they were like “we don't know what to tell you” and then I sent an email to the actual clinic but I suspected its not the exact clinic it had been at the time and I know that the location definitely moved and they did not respond to me so my mother has gone, she took the day off of work and went up and tried to access her records at the records department. I was born in '79 and they said “you know I don't think we keep records from then.” So the man agreed to look in the archives and she had been trying to follow up with him and hasn't had any success.
Disguised intentions: unordinary behavior
Many donor offspring expressed that they felt the need to disguise the true nature of their search for information or expressed that they wished they had disguised the true nature of their search for fear that they would not receive all the information they requested. Not being ‘open and honest’ was different for them, because they were used to being open about their intentions. According to Tiffany:
When I called the University, I was very upfront with people and I realized when people weren't calling me back that I needed to keep my mouth shut and not be quite so open. That's one of my faults, I'm just very open with people. I don't usually try to hide things so I'm realizing that I probably, while I'm never going to lie to anybody, I probably don't need to be so open.
Cindy felt the need to disguise the true nature of her search for information, even though it made her uncomfortable. After looking through medical school yearbooks, Cindy was still unable to obtain information the height and eye color of the men in the yearbook. In order narrow down her pool of potential donors, Cindy obtained contact information for the doctors from the medical school yearbook and called the medical offices. Cindy described that a secretary would answer the phone and she would use a ‘cover story’ to obtain information:
I kind of made up a little bit of a story. I said hey I'm looking for a doctor I think it may be Dr. Smith or whoever, can you kind of just give me his physical description, how tall is he, what eye color does he have…
I'm unordinary. Is there anyone else like me?
After being told they were donor conceived, one of the most difficult issues for participants to address was the feeling of isolation. While some participants had a sibling who was also donor conceived, most did not and longed to know other people “like them.” Lucy expressed that early on, she thought others would think of her as a “freak” if they discover she was donor conceived. The feeling that they did not know anyone else who was donor conceived implied feelings of being unordinary. This feeling of isolation motivated many participants to seek support and many joined the PCVAI listserv at that time.
Lucy: I saw an Oprah episode about donor conception and at that point I was just like “oh my god, there's other people like me out there!”
Tina: You know what's funny? Beyond the online community, I have no community of other people like me.
Sam: You have to remember, in 1983 when I found out the truth, I thought that I was the only person who knew this
Anne: I first, well my mom explained it to me as artificial insemination…and I just felt like it was so surreal, this doesn't happen to real people, like a made for TV movie or something.
Cindy: I think it definitely puts you in a different state of mind. I feel like I'm in a different realm from the mainstream of society, a little bit.
According to Savolainen (2003), “the major information need areas are relatively stable” (p. 3). These areas include education; health; legal information; financial information; leisure and recreation; and public assistance. In everyday life, laws and policies do not typically act as barriers keeping individuals from accessing this information. One of the difficulties participants had with searching for information about their donor was the fact that there were individuals standing in their way, telling them they could not have the information that they wanted. This angered many participants, as they felt like they are being denied information about their self, genetic heritage and identity:
Tina: I think its just the process itself and not really knowing what to do next is frustrating and the fact that the records aren't kept and my mother can't access her records either, its very frustrating. Also just that I think I get into a belief about my rights that I don't have the right to this information, even though its about me. I don't get my own information about my genes.
Marie: Secrecy, it was all about secrecy back then. My mother's doctor, who sent her to the doctor never knew. Its all lies. Birth certificates are lies. Its all lies.
Amy: I spoke to the doctor who did the conception, who ran the clinic he was very clear that he didn't think I needed to know and he set up the system to be anonymous because he felt strongly that that's the way it needed to be. The kind of pact between the clinic and the donors, especially form that generation, really, really overwhelmed-and with the parents as well, really overwhelmed any sense that the donor conceived children had any rights or reasons to want to know who their genetic related to.
The desire to make search more routine
Many donor offspring spoke of wanting to help other donor offspring. Lucy provides information about her search activities on her blog with the idea that another donor offspring can learn from her techniques and make her own search easier:
Lucy: I feel I've done as much as I feel I could have done, at this time to find those answers and to find siblings and I think that's why I devote a lot of my blog to giving advice and giving ideas to other people because I feel like, you know, I want to play it forward…I feel like putting information out there about ways to do things and resources, I feel like then the next person who wants to go and search has an easier time than I did. I have 6 years of experience and advice and information on my blog. I don't want the next person to spend 6 years finding what I found.
Lucy's comments imply that searching for information about one's donor is not routine.
Highly emotional, deeply meaningful, profoundly personal
Many sperm donor offspring interviewed for this study used highly emotional terms to describe their feelings related to the search experience. Most participants expressed feeling frustrated and angry much of the time:
Tiffany: It definitely can be highly emotional, but sometimes its just so tedious going through page after page after page and just not finding anything. Its frustrating. Frustrating. Tedious. Elated. Yeah, emotional.
Lucy: …I think it's a very, very vulnerable position to be in and its very emotionally draining…
Most of these feelings were expressed in relation to the lack of access to information and their frustrating over having to search for information that they believed should be easily available to them because it is so closely tied to their identity. Kate remarked: I'm not just searching for answers in my career or my love life, but now I'm searching for answers in my own identity.
Kate's comment implies that the search for her donor is unlike a more common search for information about career or love life, information for which the general population might search.
Interview data suggests that elements of donor offspring's search for information about their donor is not familiar, ordinary or routine. Donor offspring searching for information about their donors encounter unfamiliar sources including uncomfortable conversations with physicians. Some donor offspring have to discover the correct terminology with which to search or look for the correct specialty of doctor. After discovering the true nature of their origins, some donor offspring feel unordinary and search for others “like them.” Some donor offspring desire to make the search experience more routine and help donor offspring who start searches after them.
Overall, the lack of access to information about their donors and in turn, the lack of access to information about their identity makes the search experience more emotional. While some donor offspring consider their searches as more passive, all do not consider their search completed until they find their donor.