Dates: June 2018 – December 2021 
Research team: Professor Beth Neil (Principle Investigator), Dr Julia Rimmer and Dr Irina Sirbu (CRCF at UEA).
Funder: Economic and Social Research Council

This study provides significant new understanding of the lived experiences and needs of adopted people who are now parents, and of adoptive parents who are now grandparents. There was no specific previous research about the experiences and support needs of adopted people who are parents, even though there is evidence that up to half of such individuals may have psychological vulnerabilities as they move into adult life. Neither had the experiences of adoptive parents as grandparents been studied before.

This research drew on a narrative identity methodology and we conducted life story interviews with 40 adopted adults who are now parents (82% of whom were in their 20s or 30s; age at adoption ranged from 0-11 years), and 43 adoptive parents who are now grandparents. The participants had predominantly been domestically adopted (or adopted their child) since 1989, mostly through the child protection/welfare system in England. The adopted individuals experienced a wide range of pre and post-adoption circumstances, including variations in openness with their birth family. Participants described their whole life history and located being adopted/adopting a child and becoming a parent/grandparent within these life histories. 

The study achieved equal representation of men and women in the research, filling important knowledge gaps about adopted men as fathers and adoptive grandfathers.

SELECTED FINDINGS: 

  • Adopted adults variously saw adoption in a wide range of ways including: as of low significance; a feature of positive interest; a defining positive or negative turning point; or mixed experience which did not per se resolve losses and adversities. For adopted adults, becoming a parent was associated with great joy and often a new focus and motivation in life. Many parents felt their parenting was affected by their adoption (e.g. emotional issues such as reawakened loss or anxiety; the need to redefine family relationships, including with the birth family; managing stigma). Parents were often highly conscious of ‘breaking the cycle’ – ensuring their children did not experience the same adversities they had been through.  

  • A typology of four differing types of life story as narrated by the adopted adults in the study was developed. This reflected variations in terms of people’s appraisals of the opportunities and adversities they had experienced as adoptive people and as parents, and the extent to which they felt they had overcome challenges (redemptive life stories) or were still affected by them in the current day (contaminated life stories). The four narrative types were: continuously stable; still battling difficulties; overcoming challenges; robbed of parenthood. 

  • The study has also generated significant new understandings of the diverse experiences of adoptive parents as grandparents, shedding new light on the grandparenting stage in the adoptive family life cycle. Grandparents’ life stories also included strong themes about the ongoing impact of abuse, neglect and adoption-related loss and stigma on their sons and daughters. The arrival of grandchildren was often presented as a positive turning point, “bringing the family together”. Where sons and daughters had ongoing challenges in their lives, many adoptive parents remained actively parenting their adult children as well as supporting their grandchildren. This meant balancing their own needs in mid/later life, with the sometimes competing needs of children and grandchildren. 

  • The study has created an archive of the rich and insightful life story interviews. All except two participants (N = 81) consented to their anonymized interview to be added to the dataset in the UK data archive.

Impact

Findings from the research will be disseminated and published in a range of formats addressing the key audiences (academic articles and policy/practitioner articles).