Adopted: Family History Unknown

Dawn Davenport


As adoptees do not know their family medical history, there are always questions from doctors.

As adoptees do not know their family medical history, there are always questions from doctors.

Last week was the first game for the middle school girls’ soccer team, and one of my daughters was starting as center midfielder.  As she streaked down the field, she took a soccer ball in the face.  She shook it off, and the game resumed.  All’s well that ends well, right? Wrong.

Her comment the next morning that she was seeing black streaks started us on a journey that would end three days and three doctors later with laser surgery to repair a torn retina.

I spent the week in doctor’s offices waiting, playing cards, and filling out forms.  In the past when we’ve gone to a new doctor, my daugher has been young enough that she was not paying attention while I filled out the forms.  Either due to her age (13) or her anxiety about the black spots and flashing lights, she was paying close attention as I completed them this week.

Every form had a family history section.  With the first form, as I wrote “Adopted: Family history unknown”, I thought that my daughter became a little more reserved.  I slipped into my Mommy-the-role-model role to show her how to handle this situation in a matter of fact manner.  Adoption is a natural part of her life, and throughout her life she’ll face situations where she has to explain it to others.  I’m sure she has done this many times with friends, but maybe not with adults or when specific information is being asked. After we sat back down in the waiting room, I tried to use it as a conversation starter about lacking information about her birth family.  It was a non-starter.

Later, the nurse felt the need to confirm that we had no family history, and then the doctor highlighted this fact when he reviewed the form.  With each successive form and doctor I noticed my daughter growing increasingly quiet during these brief family history discussions.  Her body language whispered discomfort.

I don’t really know what she was feeling; too much was happening then and since for me to have that conversation.  She needs some time to process, and for life to settle into routine again.  But what surprised me were my feelings.  I wanted so much to protect her from all of this.  Yes, from the torn retina and all that will entail both now and in the future, but also from a lifetime of writing “Adopted: No family history.” on medical forms and then explaining it to a lifetime of medical personnel.

I wanted to ditch the Mommy-the-role-model role and become  Mommy-the-super-hero (complete with spandex costume), throwing myself in front of speeding soccer balls and mending torn retinas with one fell swoop.  Mommy the super hero would be able to shield her child not only from speeding object, but also from prying questions.  Mommy the super hero would make sure her daughter never felt uncomfortable about being adopted.

OK, as I type this, I realize how silly this sounds—ridiculous really.  I know I’m over reacting.  My daughter’s medical treatment did not hinge on family medical history.  Nor is she emotionally fragile; she can and will learn to deal with these types of questions.  This is a part of her life, and as her mom, I need to teach her how to handle it.  But it stinks. It stinks that we don’t have this information and it stinks that she has to explain this fact.  So, in my fantasy, I’m wearing my Mommy-the-super-hero costume, filling out medical forms and slaying soccer balls.  And since it’s a dream, I also look good in spandex.


Image credit: Mercy Health

25/03/2008 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 10 Comments

10 Responses to Adopted: Family History Unknown

  1. Avatar Gayle McCracken says:

    Not only do I have to mark, “unknown history” in the doctor’s office for my Korean adopted boys, I also have to do it on the school forms, including sports register forms.
    The real kicker is when the curriculum in school comes around to ancestry and researching their family tree! Uggh.
    I guess educating and showing the child they are loved by God and their family and that they belong and have purpose is the key. Assuring this all along the way brings them to a natural state of being and acceptance of their situation not being typical. Being mad doesn’t work, but it sure happens every year when I see there is no trend in realizing a lot of kids, adoptive, no father history or donation of egg and sperm children are left out of this topic. I am at a loss however, as to how they would change this subject to include these children. I don’t think calling attention to the difference would be welcomed by the individual child who sits in the class alone in their predicament.

  2. Dawn – at the same time…

    Agencies are still promoting confidential closed adoptions while touting “best interests of the child”. All the while they know laws can change…

    To my knowledge they (agencies and/or industry) haven’t put a process in place to ensure timely transfer of info – it sits in the file until a request is made – if an update is received is that still the standard.

    To my knowledge they don’t actively proactively encourage regularly scheduled updates from both sides or even to keep updated with addresses. If they don’t make it important – it won’t be important.

    And finally in regards to openness…

    The agency that closed in Texas just recently – they had non-identifying “open” adoptions through the agency…agency is gone – what then?

    How many agencies close their doors each year – what happens to all those other non-identifying “open” adoptions?

  3. Adoption may be a natural part of her life, but it’s not “natural” to not know your medical history. Interestingly, a couple of adult adoptees blogged on this topic this week. Here are some words I found particularly powerful: “At that moment, I felt very sad. And afraid. I was just about to have surgery for the first time ever in my life and I didn’t know anything about my medical history; what if something went wrong?” (from
    I don’t think you are over-reacting. You are right — it stinks! Maybe her treatment didn’t depend on medical history this time, but what if it had? There _are_ adoptees who find themselves in life-threatening situations because of lack of medical info. This is definitely an area of adoption that needs some reform!
    Also, speaking as an adoptee myself I can tell you that I never stopped getting that thud in my stomach as I watched the doctor draw an X through huge sections of the medical form. They ask for that information for a reason; it’s difficult not to feel uneasy when you can’t answer.
    Thanks for addressing this issue. It’s an important one.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Rebecca, You’re right that it is not natural and that it stinks. I think adoption reform is working on this by encouraging open adoption, so adoptees will have full access to whatever their birth parents know.

  4. Avatar adoptedforlife says:

    Medical history is important. Think of how adopted embryos will suffer. No judge can open a birth record to find a family history because there will be none. One must consider the dignity of an adopted person.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Adoptedforlife, I hear you. At times I when talking with those in the infertility community, I feel like I’m shouting into the wind when I speak about the long term ramifications of not disclosing donor information. I feel for the children and I fear a big back lash in 15-25 years.

  5. Avatar Debora Day says:

    Great post. Thanks.

  6. Avatar Dawn says:

    Did it ever become just a normal part of life or do you still dread having this discussion?

  7. Avatar Jessie says:

    Thanks for entering this post in the carnival! I remember trying to explain to doctors that I didn’t know my medical history as a kid. Frustrating!

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