Switched at Birth- How does keeping your child's conception or birth story a secret from the child
Martha Miller (blonde, sitting next to Mrs. Miller in the background) with her brunette siblings. Photo from Life Magazine.

One of the most popular episodes of National Public Radio’s “This American Life” is titled “Switched at Birth”. Make sure to check out the comments to this blog to hear from one of the main players in this story.

At the Beginning

This true story started in the early 1950’s when two girls were born at the same hospital in a Wisconsin town.  As soon as Mrs. Miller brought her daughter home, she suspected she had been given the wrong baby.  For various bizarre reasons the Millers, primarily at the insistence of Mr. / Reverend Miller, did not act on their suspicion.  DNA testing wasn’t yet available, and there were other complicating factors that the show does a good job of explaining.  The other mother, Mrs. McDonald, did not suspect anything.  The Millers raised Marti and the McDonalds raised Sue.  Mrs. Miller told several people her suspicion, ostensibly to have them keep an eye out for Sue’s welfare, but I imagine this secret was just too big to keep to herself, and she needed the support.

The Secret Revealed

Flash forward 43 years.  Rev. Miller is dead, and Mrs. Miller decides it is time to tell Marti and Sue.  She writes them each a letter explaining what happened, and all heck breaks loose.  The show follows the emotional fallout for both mothers and daughters.  I felt such compassion for them all, even Mrs. Miller by the end of the show, and I felt something close to awe at the resiliency of people and families.

Universal Lessons of Family Secrets

This story is not about adoption or children conceived through donor egg, sperm, or embryo.  But as I was listening, I was struck by some universal lessons that do apply to families formed in alternative ways.  At its very essence, this story is about the destructive effect of family secrets.  Undoubtedly, the problems that ensued were exacerbated by major dysfunction in the Miller family, but secrets have a way of wrecking havoc in even the most functional families. I think most adoptive families now accept that how their child joined the family should be told early and often, but this is still a hotly debated concept for families formed through donated gametes (egg or sperm) or embryo adoption.  There was an interesting study done many years ago which found that children adopted transracially scored better on psychological wellness testing later in life than children adopted by same race families.  The researchers theorized that this result could be explained by the openness about adoption that transracial placements naturally require.  Since the child looks different from the parents, the adoption is obvious and discussed more openly within the family.  It is easier for families that look alike “to pass”, and parents can overlook talking about adoption other than in the most cursory way.

Trying to Hide the Truth about Third Party Conception

A surprising number (at least to me) of parents who conceived through donor gametes or embryo adoption are trying “to pass”.  The problem is that passing implies shame, or at the very least, discomfort.  Perhaps a deep-seated feeling or fear that this alternative method of creating a family is not as good as the old-fashioned way, and the resulting families aren’t quite as real. To state the obvious, there is nothing wrong with using donor gametes or embryo adoption, just like there is nothing wrong with adoption.  It is just a different, not inferior, way of forming a family.  Families formed in alternative ways can and do thrive.  What is dangerous and destructive to these families, in my opinion, is keeping this information from your child.  Secrets, especially family secrets, have a way of coming out, and it usually isn’t in a good way. The reality is that the child will in all likelihood find out.  If either parent has told even one other person, say a mother, a sister, or a best friend, this person has almost assuredly told one other person.  And this is the case regardless of how many times you told them that they couldn’t tell anyone else.  They will tell their mother, sister, or best friend and tell them not to tell anyone else.  Pretty soon, a number of people know, except for the person who has a right to know—the child.

The Real Kicker

And here’s the kicker–the very fact that you kept it secret gives it far more power than it deserves, and far more power than it would have had if it had been incorporated into the natural flow of family talk from the beginning.  If mom and dad hid this from me, it must be really bad; it must really mean something big.  I think we all want our kids to believe the way they joined our family is just a variation on normal, and the best time to convey this information and more important, this attitude, is when they are very young.  Also, from an emotional standpoint, the information that was withheld (their adoption or conception) can get all tied up in the explicit or implicit lies that went along with keeping the secret.  The emotions of being lied to then become part of the emotions of their conception or adoption.

Importance of Genetics

The other thing this show brought home to me was the importance of genetics in determining our basic personality.  Pre-kids, I believed that the environment was mostly responsible for how our kids turned out.  Since I was going to be the perfect parent and create a perfect environment for my children, this theory gave me a great deal of comfort.  But the more kids I had, regardless of whether I “had” them through birth or adoption, the less sure I was of this theory.  I became even less enamored with this theory as my kids aged. I now believe that nature and nurture work together, but that the basics of our temperament are determined by our genes.  The environment can bring out or suppress these traits, but can’t change the core.  And to tell you the truth, it’s a whole lot easier parenting when the entire weight of “creating” your child’s personality doesn’t fall directly on the environment you create.

Family Differences Can Be Hard

The show didn’t dwell on it, but it implied how hard it can be on children when they have a different temperament or personality than others in their family.  In this story, I was left to wonder how much this discomfort was caused by the screwiness of the Miller family, but even Sue McDonald, who was raised in what seemed like a very loving and functional family, felt different and somehow inferior to others in her family.  It’s a little scary.  My family consists of six people with very different personalities, strengths and weaknesses.  I can only hope and pray that I can help each of my children honor the ways they are different and the ways they are similar to the rest of our family.  I guess I’ll have to wait until someone does a show on my family 20 years from now to see if my kids agree. Now, that is a really scary thought.

Modern Day Switched at Birth Story

Do you remember the story in the late 1990’s of two baby girls switched at birth in Virginia (Rebecca Chittum and Callie Johnson). This has nothing to do with adoption or donor egg or sperm, or even family secrets, but I thought it was fascinating. The families found out when the girls were 3 years old. Each family wanted to keep the child they took home, but wanted visitation with their biological child. This worked for a while, then things turned hostile and each filed for custody of both girls. Ultimately, the children were raised by the families that took them home. They are old enough now to talk with the press, and it is interesting to here their part of the story.