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Le secret des origines

Managing the Past in the Context of (Dis)Closed Adoption in Poland

“I was thinking of burying it in the yard”
Gérer le passé dans le contexte de l’adoption plénière en Pologne. « J’ai pensé l’enterrer dans le jardin »
Ewa Maciejewska-Mroczek et Anna Witeska-Młynarczyk
p. 78-87


Cet article est basé sur un projet ethnographique qui vise à comprendre la perspective des différents acteurs impliqués dans le processus d’adoption dans la société polonaise contemporaine. Nous nous concentrons sur le traitement du passé de l’enfant lorsque le processus d’adoption commence. Nous analysons les dilemmes sociaux, les incohérences et les manières d’organiser le déplacement de l’enfant adopté, en montrant à quel point les pratiques d’adoption mettent en œuvre un silence partiel sur le passé de l’enfant. Nous proposons d’appeler le modèle polonais contemporain « (dis)closed adoption » pour le différencier autant de l’adoption plénière (closed) que de l’adoption simple (open). Ce modèle constitue un champ social défini par des valeurs conservatrices qui sont perturbées par des projets de modernisation tels ceux qui s’inspirent des droits de l’enfant. Ainsi les centres d’adoption et les familles tentent à la fois de déployer ce qu’ils considèrent comme des « bonnes pratiques » pour informer les enfants de l’adoption, tout en gardant leur passé inaccessible.

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Notes de l’auteur

This research was funded by the National Science Center, grant number 2017/27/B/HS3/00645.

Texte intégral

In Poland, one in four marriages cannot conceive a child in a natural way. For many of these couples, the difficult experience of childlessness opens up the question of adoption.
(Adopcja drogą do rodzicielstwa, Ministry of Family and Social Politics, 2013)

1In 2015, out of 10,675 Polish children whose parents had their parental rights taken away by a court ruling, 2,946 were adopted (Dzieci się liczą 2017). While many children are taken care of by family members, in this paper we take a closer look at the cultural practice of kinning by strangers, as facilitated by employees in Poland’s mostly public adoption centers. In this case, when the married couple (or, in rare cases, a single woman) is successfully matched with a child by the adoption center, the privacy of the adoptive family is prioritized and protected while no contact is maintained with the first family. The new birth certificate replaces the first one and the previous last name is overwritten by the surname of the adoptive parents. The adoptive parents can also change the first name of the child if they wish to do so.

2By Polish law, adopted people are free to search for their roots only when they come of age. Birth records are sealed and are available only to adult adoptees if they search for them. The right to information is narrowed down to adult adoptees who know that they are adopted. Hence, firstly, the adoptee must know about their adoption, and only then can they decide to begin a search. Normally, they would start by looking into the first birth certificate, but this document may contain very scarce information and does not allow to find any real person, nor does it give access to some sort of contextual knowledge, like the kind of problems the biological family had been facing, or how many siblings, if any, there were in the family. Searching further, the adoptee can turn to the adoption center or to the court. However, as underlined by many adoption center employees we talked to, there is no equally open access to records, and the access is not given freely, because it is not clearly regulated by law.

3The legal framework organizing adoption in Poland promises access to the past, but it does not regulate the actual practices of accessing and managing it. Not only are adopted persons deprived of a clear mechanism of accessing the information about their families of origin, but there is also no certainty about how to manage the past within the adopted families, in particular when the adopted person is a minor, since access to the past is very limited in this period. While the way adoption is communicated is for the adoptive parents to decide, a lot of guidance is provided in the field of management of the child’s past during the training sessions provided by the adoption centers. Another main source of knowledge that is recognized as an element of expert discourse is the literature written for adoptive families.

4In this paper, based on discourse analyses of the literature written for adoptive families, interviews with adoptive parents and adopted children, as well as with employees of adoption centers, we focus on the tensions that emerge at the intersection of the state-provided normative system prioritizing the right to know one’s roots, and the actual practices of managing the adopted child’s past as mediated by expert discourses and state institutions. During our research we observed how as a rule, people involved in the adoption network solve these tensions in an unscripted manner. This lack of clear guidance is due to ongoing changes in adoption practices in Poland. Gradually, since the 1990s, adoption centers as well as popular literature on adoption have stressed the importance of the truth and the right to know about one’s past, to ensure the development of a healthy identity of the adopted person. Hence, adoptive families began to be expected to undertake some work in disclosing the fact of adoption to their children. Yet employees of adoption centers, heavily reliant on psychological discourses on trauma, and often leaning towards the traditional imageries of kinship, began to stress the value of the psychological stability of an adopted child. Among other things this implied keeping a distance from the first family, with whom contact was perceived as harmful. In fact, in the process of adoption, access to the child’s past prior to adoption is administered in a way that parents are merely required to disclose the sheer fact of adoption. The materiality of the past, personal details, or any form of contact with the biological family are not theirs to handle. Significantly, more often than before the families who adopt take an active stand on the matters of their child’s biography, becoming advocates of the child’s right to an identity and their access to the past. However, their options are narrowed by structural solutions.

5Taking these tensions as a point of departure, we will here present ethnographic material that illustrates local practices of adoption in regard to the management of the past. We propose to call the contemporary Polish model a “(dis)closed adoption” in order to underline the evolving character of this form of kinship, as well as to bring to the fore the fragmentary and selective process of unsealing the “closed” model of adoption. The emergent model cannot be called “open” because the first families are cut off from the adoption network through the practices undertaken by public institutions.

6As Signe Howell remarks, “adoption in Europe and North America during the past 50 years has primarily become a matter of emotional satisfaction on the part of involuntarily childless couples or individuals, a desire to become a ‘normal’ family” (2006: 152). Our ethnographic example reflects this more general tendency. Clearly, the Polish context skews the wider processes unfolding on a global scale. Yet, it also has its specificity, including a conservative imagery of family and child-adult relationships. At the same time, the unfolding processes of modernization have rendered individual rights, including children’s rights, more tangible. Merged with the powerful psychological discourse concerned with identity and trauma, the construction of conservative hierarchical family is being upended by these new flows of knowledge and legal solutions. We are interested in the way people, through a joint effort and in the process of complex interactions conditioned by local infrastructures, larger societal relations and expert discourses, try to navigate this terrain marked by contradictions, bringing to life a curious practice of “(dis)closed adoption”.

7After Signe Howell, we want to underline how the role of the “psycho-technocrats” and their “expert knowledge has been instrumental in shaping discourses, values and the practice of adoption” (2006: 11). The psy-expertise (Rose 1999) absorbed by the state shall here be understood as a form of contemporary governmentality (Foucault 1991), according to which power operates “less as an external force and more as an internalized understanding by which people cooperate with the agents of the state in aiming, not only for improvement of society and institutions established in order to promote the common good, but also self-improvement in ways which appear to be voluntary” (Howell 2006: 10). What we propose is an ethnographic portrayal of everyday practices of managing the child’s past in adoptive families who have been convinced by experts to be more open about adoption with their children and their social environment, while at the same time operating within the (dis)closed system of adoption, in which there is no formalized practice of approaching and cultivating knowledge about the past or about ways in which to maintain contact with the first families.

The Fieldwork

8This paper is based on ethnographic research conducted by the Childhood Studies Interdisciplinary Research Team at the University of Warsaw, within a three-year time frame (2018-2021). The main aim of the project was to analyze adoption as it is experienced in contemporary Poland from an anthropological perspective, taking into account the complexity and diversity of the Polish context, as well as the voices of various actors involved in the process. The project was planned as a multi-sited ethnography, as we wanted to understand adoption as a relational phenomenon shaped through numerous social connections, and material and immaterial flows (Marcus 1995).

9This paper is based mainly on the ethnographic in-depth, open-ended interviews conducted with over fifty actual or prospective adoptive parents (mainly mothers), eight people involved in foster care, eighteen young people and adults who were adopted and their siblings, as well as nearly thirty people working in adoption centers, in courts, counselling centers, and as social workers. The adoptees with whom we conducted interviews were mostly teenagers or young adults. Recruiting this group was the most difficult part of the fieldwork. The young adoptees often did not want to discuss their family lives with us. Moreover, some parents were reluctant about their children’s participation in the study. However, the young people who did decide to participate gave rich accounts of an intimate experience of being adopted. This paper does not focus on the narratives of the adoptive children. Instead, it builds on the ethnographic work undertaken with the differently positioned actors who work towards maintaining the adoptive network.

10Apart from ethnographic interviews, the research team also conducted discourse analysis (legal, psychological, media), following the major tropes and figures used to construct the concept of adoption and adoptive family in various settings (Rapley 2007). These were pieces of literature which were recommended by the adoption centers, some memoirs, popular press and online articles, blogs, Facebook groups and forums run by the adoptive parents.

11Participant observation and informal interviews during official meetings organized for the representatives of the social service for the purpose of training, exchanging experiences, and discussing the matters of adoption and foster care were also a part of methodology. Moreover, we relied on informal conversations, observations, and fragmentary insights obtained in everyday situations. While doing this research, one of our colleagues adopted two children which she had previously taken care of in foster care, which meant that we had an opportunity to closely follow and discuss this particular adoption process at length.

12It is important to note that the research project continued during the COVID-19 pandemic, entailing that our methodology had to be adjusted to the new circumstances. Approximately one-fourth of the interviews were conducted online, and a few were done by phone.

Different Shades of Openness

13In research about adoption, open adoption is a widely discussed topic. A broad critical review of already existing literature on open adoption is provided by Susan Wolfgram (Wolfgram 2008). Systematic research on open adoption in the context of the USA reveals the changes in the socio-legal framework of adoption (Grotevant, McRoy 1998), including kinship networks (Grotevant 2000). The changing models of adoption have been analyzed in various national contexts in relation to a number of factors and criteria including new sociological theoretizations of family (Jones, Hackett 2011), post-modern changes in family models (Appell 2010), adoption secrecy (Modell 2002), modern changes in the legal system in Ireland (MacDonald 2016), the developments in reproduction (van Wichelen 2019). It seems that “no single adoption arrangement is best for everyone” (Grotevant, McRoy, 1998). Each model presents distinctive challenges and opportunities and is due to changes: “openness is dynamic” (Grotevant 2000: 52).

14As related to adoption the term “open” is itself unclear on the ethnographic context, including the legal acts, the institutional practices and the acts performed in private. A glance at a scene from our fieldwork is illustrative of how vague and context-dependent the idea of “openness” is. While interviewing a Polish father who adopted a child in Great Britain, our researcher had trouble establishing the meaning of closed and open adoption. What Artur defined as closed adoption was, for the researcher working in the Polish context, something very different:

Researcher: Ok, I was thinking about it because in Great Britain adoption is open, but it is through letters, so you don’t actually plan any meetings [with the first mother].
Artur [a man in his 40s, an adoptive father of two children, living in a big city]: Wait, it is not open. It is actually closed, because we can refuse to send those letters, and if we don’t write, nothing happens. […] one entire day in the four-day-long training was about the contact with the family and its importance—how they see the difference between children who had the contact, at least through letters, and those who didn’t, and it connects with identity issues, maturation, and the need of getting to know the child. It is extremely important. So, it [the adoption] is entirely closed. These children are entirely ours. They just suggest, or advise, writing these letters. And if there are siblings who are in another adoptive family, they suggest organizing meetings once a year.

15This fragment portrays the tension between opening and closing the family for the adopted child’s past, which can be traced in everyday practices at the intersection of private life and institutional discourses and practices. Since in Poland legal and institutional solutions make the practices presented above impossible, we as researchers tend to interpret any contact of Polish adoptive families with the first families as a sign of new forms of unsealing the past in contemporary practices of adoption. While for a parent who adopted a child in the British legal system, various practices are offered and mediated by the institutions (e.g. a voluntary correspondence or other ways of keeping contact with the first parents), in Poland contact is rarely established and, when it is, it is carried out through unofficial channels (e.g. through Facebook). Moreover, in Great Britain, the scope and intensity of contact is left to the decision of the adoptive parents themselves. In Poland, parents have no influence over the knowledge which the employees of adoption centers pass on to them. If they do obtain personal details of the first family this happens through an omission by a state employee. This comparison brings us closer to the concept of adoption understood as an interplay of various degrees of revelations and secrets shaped by the asymmetries visible in the abilities of the actors involved in the process for decision-making. Focusing on this aspect also allows us to observe and comment on the relationships between children and adults in the context of (dis)closed adoption.

Adoption Secrecy

16From interviews conducted with people who were adopted in Poland in the 1970s or 1980s it becomes clear that for many years adoptive families were involved in what we call “adoption secrecy” or closed adoption. 

Agnieszka [an adoptee in her forties living in a small town]: My parents got a recommendation from the adoption center, that children shouldn’t know, in particular, that I shouldn’t know that I am adopted. 

17This was a common approach until the 1990s, when the right to an identity and the right to grow up in a family became an integral part of the Polish legal order. The change took place in 1991, when Poland ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). Yet, Poland had established a reservation to the Convention – the government decided to give adoptive parents the right to keep the adopted child’s origin secret. This reservation was only withdrawn in 2013. The indecisive and gradual changes in the legal order were coupled with the dissemination of new psychological knowledge which started to penetrate the adoption system more intensively, gradually shaking up the stability of the “adoption secret”, yet still within certain limits. 

18The Polish model of “adoption secrecy”, as it was operating in the past, has certainly been shaken up by contemporary practices and has started to transform. Yet at this point there is no space for opening up adoption beyond the disclosure of the adoption fact to the child and to the closest social environment. Thus far a model of open adoption in which an adoptive family maintains contact with a biological family, has not been debated in Poland. Yet there are ongoing processes of unsealing which secure the interests of adoptive families, adoption centers and, supposedly, the child. The rights of the first (biological) families are not recognized. During our fieldwork we observed that there is strong support for (dis)closed adoption, as expressed by the mentioned parties involved, because it provided them with a sense of stability. We noticed no eagerness to discuss open adoption among specialists of the adoption system (psychologists, pedagogues, social workers), or among prospective or actual adoptive parents. Some employees of the adoption centers we interviewed claimed that “open adoption” exists in Poland in a form of foster care. Unlike researchers in other countries, we didn’t find hardly any trace of a local political movement of adults who were adopted as children. It seems quite telling that even the academics who publish on the topic of adoption in Poland do not discuss the idea of further opening up the system.

Fitting the Ideal Polish Family into the Social Landscape of Adoption

19In Poland, an adoptive family is imagined as mimicking biological bonds. This cultural figure finds its expression in official policies:

[Adoption] has not only a psychological dimension, but also a legal one: relations that are created through adoption between a child and his new parents are identical to the relations based on ties of blood and ancestry. Both the child and the parents have the same rights and obligations towards each other, as those between offspring and biological parents. (booklet issued by the Ministry of Family and Social Policy, Ministerstwo Pracy i Polityki Społecznej 2016)

20State policies blur the differences in the ways families are formed. The discourse used in the documents issued by state institutions relies on naturalizing strategies which favor one highly normative vision of family. Along the same lines the employees of social care also imagine adoption as an ideal solution for a child: 

Karolina [a professional foster carer in her 40s, with 12 years of experience, having two biological children, living in a middle-size town]: Adoption is a miracle. It is the best a child can get—loving and conscientious  parents. 

21Similar to other countries, the contemporary Polish model of adoption is based on structural social inequalities and has a class dimension built into it. Those who adopt must present economic and cultural resources considered by the adoption centers as guaranteeing a sense of stability and success, whereas the children come from families with low capital. In this respect, the situation in Poland is similar to these in many Western countries (see Grotevant 2012). Polish couples interested in adoption stay on long waiting lists managed by one of the over 60 public or private adoption centers. The lists are long since most of the candidates crave for small and healthy children, who are a scarce resource. It is also the case that at the current time, children whose files arrive at adoption centers are almost always children who have been taken away from their families for reasons of severe neglect or abuse. The number of women giving away a child at birth is decreasing. This means that children who are considered for adoption have almost certainly lived not only through the trauma of broken bonds and numerous displacements, but also experienced neglect and various forms of violence.  

Marlena [a woman in her 50s, a manager in the adoption center in a middle-size town]: So, I think that these people who want to adopt are the same as normal people. They want to have a healthy child. So, I do not take it in a bad way, like that they are fussy or something like that. It is their right. They have the right to dream of a healthy child. Yet, we do confront these dreams with reality. 

22The employees of the adoption centers who run training sessions for potential adoptive parents perform what they call urealnianie (“making it real”), i.e. bringing the parents closer to the life experiences and worlds of the children who are waiting for adoption. Among others, they use the metaphor of a suitcase to explain that a child, just like the adoptive parents, comes to the second family with certain experiences and genealogies. In this system though, the child’s suitcase remains locked, while the parents use their suitcases to build family life.

23Similarly to other employees of adoption centers we interviewed, Katarzyna, a psychologist in her late 30s who works in an adoption center in one of the larger cities in Poland, sees the last decade as formative in regards to the knowledge and attitudes of adoptive parents:

Now, people show more altruistic motivations, we call it “the motivation out of excess”, the people want to share. This perspective has emerged during the last ten years. Certainly, they are more realistic, because before they imagined this to be a miserable child of well-educated parents, who died in a car crash, a cute blonde girl with blue eyes. […] Now, they have the knowledge, right? What is the child’s road into the system of care and what could be the reasons for the biological parents to neglect the child. So this knowledge, but also a growing openness to talk about adoption, to admit the child’s right to know. Because, when I started to work here, I encountered many statements like: “Well, we do not know whether to tell. Maybe it would be better for the child not to know”. Now, we practically do not see such attitudes.

24Recognizing this historical and cultural shift, we think about our ethnographic material as located in the “phase of unsealing” i.e. a situation in which the fact of adoption is gradually being socially opened and the children’s past is elaborated in a more intense manner, but within a quite narrow framework. Once people have undergone urealnienie, they need a language and the tools to privately deal with the consequences of the harm inflicted on the children (both by the first families and by the system of care). The processes of medicalization and psychiatrization (Beeker et al. 2020; Mills 2018; Witeska-Młynarczyk 2019) have brought about access to knowledge about the possible emotional and behavioral consequences of violence, neglect and displacement for children. The processes of diagnoses and therapies are one possible way of managing the past by the adoptive families. FAS or ADHD diagnoses can help build a narrative which makes the first family responsible for the emotional distress experienced by the child and its new carers. The medical language, if used, helps the adults encapsulate the past suffering in objective categories and makes it easier to distance themselves from guilt and responsibility for the increasingly challenging behaviours of adopted children.

Adoption Miracle and Remembering Bodies

25If, as we here propose to do, we understand an adoptive child and other actors involved in the adoption network as reflexive selves capable of interpreting and objectifying themselves in the situation of change (Callero 2003:103), we ought to consider from where they derive the cultural resources they work with. 

26We argue that the order of (dis) closed adoption is enacted, among other things, through the process of bureaucratically managed local acts of relating (and disconnecting) wounded strangers (Howell 2006), including by managing the child’s past, and focus on the ways in which these acts are conditioned by both globally circulating knowledge and national and local ideological and bureaucratic formations and social imaginaries. We observe how expert knowledge and governmentality play a constitutive role in experiencing adoptive kinship (Howell 2006: 6).

27Following Michael Lambek, we propose to understand the social modes of managing the past as “moral practice” (Lambek 1996). The past can be fully digested when it fits socially approved cultural forms. Hence, the process of voicing the past is necessarily coupled with selections, omissions and denials which serve the social and moral order of the community. As argued by Laurence Kirmayer, it is society which must provide individuals with a range of narrative forms to allow for the construction of coherent stories of self (Kirmayer 1996: 193). When we look at the cultural forms and the range of possible ways of narrativizing the past within adoptive families, we see that they are channeled into building a story founded on omissions. The circumstances of the storytelling are disproportionately shaped by expert practices focused on producing successful adoption (the adoption miracle) and by adult carers whose sense of being a good parent is prioritized over the rights of other persons involved in the adoption network (adopted children, the first families). Marlena, the previously cited manager of the adoption center, will draw us closer to this adult-centered cultural practice:

I like that children find families, and I like to see how children change. In our professional vernacular we call it the “adoption miracle”.

28Although the child’s best interest is claimed to be the major concern of all the actors engaged, it can be understood in various ways. Childhood studies literature recognizes the category of “best interest” as vague and contextual, as well as serving the interests of those who define it (Stainton Rogers 2009, Monk 2009). The notion of “best interest” can be disempowering for children, it can render them passive and it can teach them to equate compliance with happiness (LeFrançois 2013, Mills 2018). The key line in the argumentation presented in the critical mental health literature revolves around the culture of adultism that permeates mental health care (Coppock 2020, Liegghio 2016). In the case of adoption, suffice it to say that there is no procedure of informed consent that is planned for children who are to be adopted. Hearings of children by the courts in adoption cases are rare (they are obligatory only in cases of children who are at least 13 years old). Thus, children are silenced and exposed to ruptures and have little influence over the ways in which their lives are bureaucratically managed and circulated.

29After the court’s ruling, the adoption center closes the file and the adoptive family carries on life as usual. This also means that the adopted child, placed in an asymmetrical position with two adults who are strangers to them, has literally no possibility of reversing the “miracle”. Another fragment of a conversation with Marlena, the manager of an adoption center, foregrounds this adultist narrative:

Marlena: How can we ask a child whether he wants to go, whether he wants to be adopted by some strangers? He functions in a family where there is an aunt and an uncle, and in some foster families it is even a mother and a father. His needs are met […] because this is what foster care is for. So who among us, adults, would decide to go to a different, unknown family? To leave everything he knows behind? […] It is not the way that the child will want you. You are to make the child want you. This is your task. You are responsible for the child to start loving you. Not the child, ok? You are to do everything to make it work. And it works, right?

30Alice Hearst (2003) proposes the primacy of “identity rights” over the category of “best interest”. This seems a very good perspective to use while considering adoptive children, whose identity has been disrupted at some point. Although identity rights of adoptive children have not been approached in this way in the Polish context, Ewa Maciejewska-Mroczek (2014) already presented them as a framework for understanding the rights of children who were born with third-party reproduction. We suggest it is worth debating the notion in the context of adoption. At the same time though, we see how this discourse could clash with notions of “security” and “stability” of a child.

31Krystyna, the woman in her 50s, an experienced manager of an adoption center in a mid-sized town, clearly opposes the rights to identity to other rights, in particular to the right to stability. This account is typical of what we encountered while talking with the psy-bureaucrats in the Polish adoption network:

I just thought that in open adoptions, the parent has contact, and the child has a split personality. That the child doesn’t count here. Because what should count here above all is the stability of the environment, the sense of security, the sense of belonging. We should keep the child in mind and not focus on identity only.

32Charles Goodwin (2000) sees the individual action of remembering and forgetting as dependent on a framework that systematizes it, directs the processes of selection and provides with various semiotic resources. The micro-practices of management of the child’s past are performed in relation to the young bodies who, despite the practices they are subjected to, remain repositories of their individual biographies. Nicoletta Diasio in her research on Polish families shows how family narratives are being inscribed in the very bodies of family members, and sees this process as dynamic and ever-evolving: “the narratives are forever being rewritten as changes in the polysemous body and political, economic and as social changes occur as the years go by” (Diasio 2013: 400). The picture that emerges from this fieldwork is an adopted child’s body as a contested terrain shaped by the sealed past and longing for a miraculous future in which the psychological stability of a child is secured.

Burying the Past in the Yard

Researcher: Are you sometimes visualizing the moment in which he starts to ask about his roots? […]
Olga [Woman in her early 40s, living in a big city, an adoptive mother of a toddler]: No. At the moment, I am chasing such thoughts away. Maciek, what if he wanted to get to know his family [Olga turns to her husband]? Do you have some sort of a plan? Oh, we did have! We thought we would say—“We do not know”. Yet, something is written down somewhere. Perhaps in his certificate. We do have such a document somewhere, where his mother’s details are given.
Maciek [man in his early 40s, living in a big city, an adoptive father of a toddler]: If we say that we do not know, it means we do not know. We do not know where to look for that, that’s all. When he is eighteen, he can check it by himself.
Olga: Maciek, it seems to me that, coincidentally, I have one document, where it is recorded.
Maciek: So, we may lose it!
Olga: I was thinking of burying it in the yard.

33“Burying the past in the yard” is what many of the adoptive parents in Poland would like to do. They reveal an ambivalent attitude towards the biological family. Some of the employees in the adoption centers we visited told us that the adoptive parents did not want to know too much about the child’s background. The way the current adoption system works encourages the parents to give children a tale of adoptive love without giving them a sense of their past experiences. Whatever the case though, the unconfronted history continues to lie beneath the surface of the everyday kinning practices that are performed in the adoptive families who make an effort to narrate anew, to make a brand new life with “the child’s interest” in their minds. 

34Working at the intersection of everyday intimacy and larger institutional arrangements (Carsten 2004:24) we see the joint construction of tales and fantasies which are meant to sustain people’s daily lives in the context of adoption. Adoption is a coercive act, both in terms of individual biography and social tissue. It is about building one’s relationship with suffering, making it bearable and endurable. People with different capacities use various strategies of managing the past imagined as harmful in order to cope with it. Among others, people ease such suffering through storytelling, and stories can be built not only with speech but also relying on material culture. Yet in the emergent model of (dis)closed adoption, there is no systemic solution for managing the past in a more tangible form.

Stories of True Love to Fend off Trauma

Mirka (a women in her late 30s, a manager of an adoption center in a small town): I run this session, so I work through the issue of openness with the candidates. So the approach I suggest is to talk about adoption from the very beginning, right? So, not to wait for “the right moment” but to tell a family narrative even when a child does not understand the words and does not know what is going on. […] The adoptive child needs it. It needs the parents to tell how they saw him for the first time, what kind of sensation it was, what happened. This also is a beginning of a family life history.

35This and other employees of the adoption centers in Poland recognize a need to a narrative construal and just like other employees of adoption centers she therefore recommends a few books the adoptive parents can read together with their children once the adoption turns into reality. These books work as important facilitators for what is difficult to verbalize and what is actually meant to remain unknown. Among these not so numerous publications, there is one titled “Hedgehog” (Kotowska 2010)—seemingly the most popular among the parents who took part in our research, and highly valued among the experts involved in the adoption process and whom we talked to. 

36Hedgehog is a boy named Piotr, adopted by a childless couple. A fragment of a story to be read by the second parents to their children goes:

Before falling asleep Piotr said—I used to live in a big, grey house, but I was afraid to live there. The women there were kind but they were strangers.—You are here now, with us—the mother hugged him tightly.

37“The Hedgehog” is an example of discourse in action, and it illustrates redefinitions evoked by the flows of psychological knowledge and, in particular, the trauma paradigm which directs people’s kinning efforts and attention. New adoptive kinning involves bearing suffering and, through love, fending off trauma (Schier 2014) without actually talking it through or facing it. 

38Experts explain that a child needs special care because it has been hurt, and because past trauma will influence its development. Hence, the adoptive parents are focused on building attachment and a sense of security in their children, including through the recommended practice of spending time together at home intensively during the first few months, and cutting the past away, as in the case of Kinga (a woman in her 50s, a mother to one adopted child, married, living in a middle-size town) and her daughter:

I think that she did not know at the beginning what was going on because each time someone visited us, she wanted to leave with them. I do not know when she figured that she is staying. […] I remember we went to the hospital in December. The most important thing was that I was there, and whether we were in the hospital or here, it was not relevant. […] And a month later, we went for holidays abroad and it was cool. There were swimming pools, we were all together…

39The story of the Hedgehog—a boy named Peter, unfolds:

It was difficult to hug him and stroke him because the child-Hedgehog was not accustomed to it and hence he picked mercilessly. The man kept saying to the woman—You should be more careful. Look, you are hurt. —It is nothing, it will pass—said the woman. Hugging. You see how Piotr likes it? Besides look, thanks to my stroking, his spikes are getting softer. 

40What “The Hedgehog” does is to present a redefinition of the position of the child in the entire process—i.e. it works towards a growing inclusion of the child into a psychologized story of the adoption process, written by the adults, and also implements the practice of reading together. It is a readymade script. The child’s past in this description is very vague, it lacks colour and seems sad. The child’s life begins in a big, grey house, which is the foster home residence. The first family is deleted as the story does not reach that far back. This is a very important omission that is repeated in various forms, for example in the absence of memorabilia at the transition from foster care to the adoptive family.

41The adoption centers and the literature for adoptive parents focus on making the new start, on building the story of the second family. For example, people are encouraged to celebrate dorodzinki, i.e. the birthday of the new family, marked out by the child’s arrival. This focus on building a celebratory environment, on achieving sense of stability and security for a child, and on establishing trust and relationship, is coupled with cutting off the past. We find it to be a type of structural silencing, because the adoptive parents have nothing to build on. Children are deprived of their first memories, and of the material remnants of their past. The employees of the system in most cases do not recognize their right neither to photographs (be it of themselves as newborns or of members of the first family), nor to objects that give a sense of the places they dwelled in. Very few foster families, and hardly any institutional care provider, think about detailing children’s lives prior to adoption. Even the time between the child’s life in the first and adoptive families is not documented. It is treated as an insignificant waiting room (Krawczak 2020). Marta, the adoptive mother, tells us about the material traces of two of her daughters’ past, pointing to the unpredictable:

She came out of foster care with nothing, right? Holding a bag full of things that did not belong to her. The teddy bear which wasn’t hers, some clothing—not hers. Unedifying, right? I wanted to save some things as memory or traces and she got things that were completely accidental, because they kept her things for other children. […] And Wanda on the other hand came to us with such a teddy bear, with her own clothes. It is as if she had a piece of herself. 

42The same holds true for photographs:

No, we have neither photos of Iza nor of Wanda. […] I asked in the adoption center about the pictures. […] The first parents had pictures. The adoption center did not have any. 

43Due to the strategies of managing the children’s past employed by the members of the adoption network, the adopted child’s beginning remains as vague as a symbol of the belly of the pani (the lady) who could not have taken care of her child. Nonetheless, we know from the anthropological literature on silence (Kidron 2009) that people do experience absence in many cultural forms. This seems to be obvious for some of the adoptive parents who took part in this research and who had undertaken some creative strategies in order to break such culturally and structurally produced absences.

The Story of Creative Kinning

44During our fieldwork, we saw how the second families use social media to explore the lives of the first families. On the one hand, this speaks to the scarcity of information about the child’s background they obtain from the representatives of the system. On the other hand, it also illustrates their creative endeavours in confronting and reflecting upon the omissions in the narrative that is offered to them and to their children about the past. Some of the parents do not want to wait until the moment when the child is legally able to check his or her records, realizing that kinning an uprooted child is a challenge. This is the case of Ada, a woman in her early 30s, living in a small village, mother of four-year-old Hubert.

I made the effort and I found Hubert’s biological mother. From some notes in a health record book, I more or less know who his biological father might be. His sister, who was born after Hubert, stayed with these parents and a much older brother from a different father. So I downloaded their photographs—one per person—the mother, the father, the sister, the brother and so on, the first name, the surname and I simply buried it in a file. One day, perhaps, it will make his search easier.  

45While Olga, who was cited earlier, uses the metaphor of burying the past out of fear that it could destroy the stability of her family, Ada is burying remains of the past in her computer as a kind of treasure, or an asset to be used in the future. She also makes the material remnants of her son’s past available to him:

Hubert has got his box. There is a book of life in it, some albums which he got from the pre-adoption center, the clothes in which we took him, and his bottle. And he reaches for this bottle quite often. He pours water in it and sucks on it for a while. […] And then he took the box out. He said: come, see my album. And he took it, looked through it, talked about it, about what we remembered, about why we went to visit him. This way he asks questions about things that interest him. Or sometimes we are just looking through and he says: look how cute, how little I was! It’s a pleasure for him, he likes going back to this album.

46We read Ada’s work on the album as an exercise meant to make up for what was lost in the bureaucratically managed history of her son, such as the lack of photos from the first six months of his life. Ada’s story confirms Janet Carsten’s view that “creativity is not only central to kinship conceived in its broadest sense, but that for most people kinship constitutes one of the most important arenas for their creative energy” (2004: 9). In this view, kinship, and particularly the new forms of kinship, constitute an area of life in which “people invest their emotions, their creative energy, and their new imaginings” (ibid.: 9), which can turn into good or bad care (Mol et al. 2010). 

47Ada, talking about adopting a second child in the future, regards the history of her child as an important resource:

We realize how important the child’s history is, even these little things, so we don’t know if we would be able to support this child in such a way that she could bear this lack of her own history. […] Drugs or a mother’s schizophrenia are not a problem for us. […] Think, how important it is, how hard it is for someone who doesn’t know their history later, in the future. It influences their entire life, emotions, everything in fact, so I think that you need great knowledge, wisdom, sensitivity, to lead such a child. Not to know anything about yourself – it must be horrible.

48The mother realizes that in the Polish context there would be no guidance or models to follow, even if the adoptive family is ready to embrace the child’s past and follow the model of open adoption:

There are no such experiences here yet, which really, the psychologists… Or that there are children who lived in such a family, where they had contact with birth parents. There wouldn’t even be anyone to advise us, nothing to build upon.

49The lack of good practices and standards of open adoption make this model quite unimaginable for the Polish parents, even if they show a readiness to explore it.

The Threshold

50The children’s pasts are manageable and debatable, but there is a precise point in time where the power seemingly shifts and when the adoptees can take the past in their own hands. The threshold of turning eighteen is a momentous element in the adoptive imaginary. This is the moment when what was buried in the yard can be dug up and exposed to the light. This is the moment feared by many adoptive parents. No matter how strongly the existent narratives soothe these anxieties, the very fact that this firm threshold exists undermines the alleged stability of the (dis)closed adoption model. Is this really the moment in which the adopted person independently manages the future by turning to the past? Can we consider it a long-awaited moment of empowerment? These are valid questions for those responsible for evaluating the system which postpones adoptees’ access to their pasts.

51Weronika, a bright-haired, rebel-type adopted teenager living with her parents and brother in the suburbs of a big city, looks at our researcher when she tries to talk to her about the management of her own past and the sentiments it evokes. She is not very keen to embrace the adult “child right to know” perspective. Neither does she seem to be bothered by discussing this private, intimate topic, or feel obliged to any kind of particular sentiments, inscribed in the cultural patterns of dealing with adoption. She makes her own choice, a choice of refusing to follow the paths taken by the adults, and of framing the threshold in her own, teenage-typical way:

Weronika: I never had this need [to find the first mother], I never thought about it.
Researcher: Uhm. And this magical eighteen, don’t you think that it may change something?
Weronika: No.
Researcher: No. You don’t think there will be a change.
Weronika: No. The first thing I’m gonna do then is to buy vodka and a pack of cigarettes.

52Weronika’s choice is to withdraw from the possibilities and expectations presented by the system. Another adoptee we talked to during our research—Majka—a 27 year-old, adopted by a married working-class couple living in a small town, who struggles with intense mental health problems, presents the systemic solutions as a way of gaining medical information, yet, even in such a case the unregulated access to knowledge about the past provides her with no easy route.

Majka: I do not know which adoption center it was. I do not have the information so my hands are tied. Yet, on the other hand, I do not see why I would search for it. The only reason I see is to get to know whether there are any genetic dispositions towards illnesses in that family. I cannot imagine a situation, now, after 27 years, to find out that my family is dead, like my biological mother, or to find out that they are somewhere. And then what? Shall I approach them, after all these years?

53Other young people may treat the systemic solution as an opportunity and important element of identity building. In any case, the threshold of 18 years once again underlines the tensions between the legal framework and the lived experiences of children and their families.


54At first sight, adoption presents itself as a well-ordered and bureaucratically managed legal act. Yet, as our ethnographic research reveals, the adoption landscape in Poland is marked by many inconsistencies and unresolved absences. In this paper, we present one such ambivalent area, namely the management of the adopted person’s past.

55One major area of neglect is that legal regulations allowing people to obtain documents about one’s birth family are not accompanied by any kind of guidance or professional support in deciding upon contacting the family or maintaining that contact – neither for adoptees, nor for their parents. The opportunity given by the state system to know one’s own past is illusionary, as the information is scarce and there is no one who would help to find, understand and manage this knowledge. Families, and in particular the adoptees, have to find their own strategies of managing the past, which suddenly becomes more important as an option when they turn eighteen. Obviously, no guidance is offered to the first parents, who may be reached by their children. Thus, even in the threshold moment the shift of power remains a mirage, since the power is still held by the bureaucratic system, which has imposed structural silences and absences while neglecting the needs of actors involved in the process of adoption.

56Adoptive families are trained to begin anew, to build from scratch. They can change the child’s name, and they don’t have to and even are not able to maintain any contact with the child’s past life, apart from acknowledging the fact of adoption. The past is in fact being squeezed into a very narrow framework. It is reduced to a form of acknowledgement that the child was born from another person, who could not raise them. Such structural arrangements feed silences and maintain an illusion of freedom to learn about one’s roots. As Weronika and Majka reveal, after so many years, the actual first family and the past shared with them may have no chance of ever becoming more relevant.

57The concept of (dis)closed adoption is to expose historical changes that the social practices of making an adoptive family in Poland have been undergoing. It is a movement towards more open forms of adoption. The child’s past is becoming a more visible and important factor in the process of kinning. We call the current model of adoption in Poland a (dis)closed one, in order to stress the ambiguities and inconsistencies embedded in this process. It is no longer a closed adoption, in which all references to a child’s past were regarded as problematic and a disturbance for the formation of the new family. Nor is it an open model, in which the past is embraced and used as fundaments for creating the new forms of kinship. In contemporary Poland, the very act of disclosing the adoption fact is regarded as the only necessary step in taking care of the child’s past. This awkward construction actually favors the strategy of burying the past in the yard, as there is no knowledge and there are no tools ready to manage the troublesome biographies of adopted children.

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Ewa Maciejewska-Mroczek et Anna Witeska-Młynarczyk, « Managing the Past in the Context of (Dis)Closed Adoption in Poland »Revue des sciences sociales, 66 | 2021, 78-87.

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Ewa Maciejewska-Mroczek et Anna Witeska-Młynarczyk, « Managing the Past in the Context of (Dis)Closed Adoption in Poland »Revue des sciences sociales [En ligne], 66 | 2021, mis en ligne le 30 novembre 2021, consulté le 09 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Ewa Maciejewska-Mroczek

Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, University of Warsaw

Anna Witeska-Młynarczyk

Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, University of Warsaw

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