Lived experience…

12 Jul

The study of phenomenology has fascinated me since I first learned of it, to me it is needed to understand the real impact of life on the person. I do believe it should be employed more often in adoption studies because of the differences in each adoptees experience, coupled with the gravity of adoption. We are at a point in this social experiment of how adoption is practiced today that the true impact can actually be measured and future practices determined. Studies based on adjustment scales can provide a snap-shot of how adoption can impact a group with outliers on either end, yet at the same time they can be so broad, and intentions of the researchers and those who fund the study must be called into question as well. The bias or funding to do the study can consciously, or unconsciously, create an outcome that may be a disservice to the actual group being studied.

I cannot pretend to understand the study of phenomenology more than the average person. I only know what I have read about it but it seems to me that perhaps in adoption the “lived experience” of the adoptee scares people – the feelings are more than simply “did okay” and if not okay just had a “bad experience” – they don’t want to delve into the difference as an adoptee – especially when they are party to adoption. Perhaps that is why some [adoptive] parents have a hard time reading adult adoptee blogs – they cannot separate out an adoptee’s “lived experience” and acknowledge it as A Truth – rather, they push back against those feelings as it is not The Truth they were told by studies of adoptees compared to biological children showing “most do just fine”. But those studies are often limited to simply “self” or “parent” or “other” answers of specific questions that do not begin to explore the actual lived experience. That lived experienced talked about on adoptee blogs takes away that comfort zone.

I also wish to note that any group of like individuals studied would have the same results as these typical outcome studies on adoptees – most would fall inside “doing just fine” with outliers on either side. These types of studies do not capture the “lived experience” and my guess is that anyone in a particular group studied would feel dismissed – be it people who have dealt with a health crisis, infertility, racism, etc., who want to change things and reduce the need for others to have to go through what they did. That in itself is the conundrum for the adoptee because although adoption does not cure infertility, it is a way for those who have gone through infertility to achieve parenthood, so to speak to reducing or changing adoption and promoting family preservation – is in direct conflict with those who see adoption as their path to parenthood.  Understandable push-back and reluctance to see and hear the “lived experience” but a direct disservice to the ones adopted.

Anyway, I was reading about descriptive phenomenology today and found the following thesis by Kevin Tyler Lutz based on adoption: “What is the Lived Experience of Growing Up in an Adopted Family?. I was intrigued and started reading and hence my post. He interviewed 6 adult adoptees (2 males, 4 females) between the ages of 32 – 42 with a variety of views and experiences and interviewed them using a descriptive phenomenology method (not describing it well). Each participant created their own timeline and then interviewed in an open format style. He found twelve inter-related common themes which he collapsed into seven major – yet inter-related themes. I quoted the seven themes below from page 32 of his thesis.

Uniqueness: There is felt sense that the individual is somehow qualitatively different than those who have not been adopted. There is also a belief that anyone who has not had this experience cannot understand the experience.

Connection: Adoptees feel a type of bond or felt sense of connection with others that they come to know were also adopted. Further, they feel that only those who have been adopted can truly understand what that experience is like.

Vulnerability: There are many issues related to adoption that create fears and anxieties in adoptees when attempting to actualise some of their curiosities, or fill in information as it relates to a sense of story completion. Adoptees who initiated contact / discovery / beginning engagement with the family of origin reported fears of rejection, finding out things that may be painful, feeling overwhelmed, the possibility of disappointment of self or other, confusion, loss of control, and fear of judgement. They become acutely aware of how things may not turn out the way they would like them to.

Incompleteness: There is an experience that there are things the adoptee could still learn about him/herself because there are a lot of unanswered questions, and there is an internal drive to seek the information. This is not meant in a sense that the individual is not a complete fully actualized person, but a complete person for who there is missing information from that person‘s life he/she wants to know, or must do to complete their story.

Awareness: Acute or hyper awareness to similarities and differences with families – The desire to look like, or to be like someone or share a genetic background is strong. There is a question about the aetiology of traits they cannot ascribe to the nurture part of their family, especially as they are individuating and developing an identity. This may be a constant reminder that they were adopted. There is also awareness about similarities or differences to biological family when they meet that may or may not be happy about. The need to have a biological family of one‘s own is affected by experiences with adoption.

Gratitude to / compassion: Gratitude to / Compassion for both families – Adoptees feel as though their biological families made the right decision and that their quality of life has benefitted as a result of their adoption, though this is influenced by their experiences with their adopted family. There is also a lot of thought given to the affect their curiosities will have on the well being of both families.

Curiosity: There is a felt innate desire or need to know or experience more about one‘s history and/or biological family. Often the curiosity waxes and wanes throughout life. When life is very busy, adoptees have less interest, but when opportunity arises, curiosity is brought into consciousness.

The above themes are discussed in the results which start on page 31, but I do recommend you read the entire thesis. The themes quoted are then related to parts of each interview with the inter-connectedness between the themes woven in. It also speaks to how a theme can be positively or negatively to an individual, and sometimes both sides at the same time.  It also asks the question of whether a theme seen negatively then sparks a positive reaction to another theme as a well to perhaps make up for it.  Interesting how the need felt by the adoptee to make it better for the [adoptive] parents shows though the interviews, and how much the adoptee worries about how the parents will react. Finally it showed to me that an adoptee can almost be considered parenting the parent for lack of a better description throughout their life – perhaps a conclusion based on my bias and not just applicable to adoptees, but I would suggest we may feel it more strongly due to the difference factor as well as the gratitude factor.

Did you read the thesis – what are your thoughts? Should there be more phenomenology based studies on adoptees? Would it make the adoption community more willing to push for change in adoption? Your thoughts?


Posted by on July 12, 2012 in Adoption, adoptive parents, biological child, Ethics


Tags: , , , , , ,

3 responses to “Lived experience…

  1. Andrew H

    May 1, 2014 at 1:06 am

    Great article and as a person who is using Phenomenology to study late adoptees sense of self I would definately interested in finding out more or help in research sources!! I am a late adoptee myself and I want to draw out the lived experiences and how they are often life long and quite powerful, whether we acknowledge it or not. Also I aim to link all this to discursive sociological forces (and touch on Social Cognition and of course Identity work).
    Andrew Hill


    • TAO

      May 1, 2014 at 3:12 am

      Welcome Andrew – are you going to try and find the author of the thesis? I think he will be easily found. Whatever you find out I am interested in hearing, do keep in touch. I’m sorry you found out so late – not fair.


      • Andrew H

        May 9, 2014 at 2:45 am

        Hi Tao!
        Thanks for the reply, nice to make ‘contact’. I should clarify that I didn’t find out late that I was adopted, but I was adopted ‘late’ just before my 8th birthday. I did know all along and that is the sense of fracture that I definately live out! I will be snooping around the site from time to time of course!
        I did find the thesis and much more so that was a great bonus! I think we adopted people have a greater sense of connection since our original connections were broken off or altered.
        I have collected about 350 pieces of solid research and adoption definately is an interesting field
        Andrew H



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