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Adoption families, online at a distance

(Ellen Weinstein for the Boston Globe)

We’ve all complained enough — at least, I have — about the weird, false intimacy of the Internet: the performance-art creations of shiny, happy lives; the distance between our real selves and our social-network avatars.

But sometimes, that built-in distance serves a purpose. Case in point: adoption.

This week, the Donaldson Adoption Institute, a New York-based policy group, released a fascinating study about the Internet and adoption — based on the stories of 2,000 birth parents, adoptive parents, adoptees, and professionals, who answered open-ended questions in an online survey. It found that the Internet has led to huge changes in adoption circles, for better and worse. The better: a vast support network for sharing advice and concerns. The worse: a web of shady people who post exploitative ads, preying on pregnant women and would-be parents.

Some of this is unsurprising. The Internet begs for caution. What is surprising is how many people, on all sides of adoption, appreciate the medium for precisely what it is: a way to manage their communications consciously, to be close and detached at once.

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Adoption is an evolving institution, and it's evolving into an open one. Many adoptions now explicitly involve some contact between children and birth parents. Many children eventually search for their birth families: Nearly three-quarters of adoptees who answered the Donaldson Institute survey said they'd used the Internet to find their birth families.

And once a search begins, the Internet makes it more likely to succeed, said Adam Pertman, the institute's president. "Now, you have to assume that there's going to be some level of contact or communication," he told me. "And you have to proceed accordingly."

People report proceeding with a greater sense of comfort. The Internet has changed the fraught dynamics of first contact: An anxiety-producing phone call or knock on the door can now be a slow-motion process, involving online observations, cautious delays, and written messages. One adoptee called social media sites "an invisible protection barrier," allowing people to manage their emotions at every step, and to reach out only when ready.

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Once adoptees and birth families get in touch, the study suggests, they often stay in touch — again, with the Internet's help. In the survey, 61 percent of adoptees said they kept up with their birth families online, through e-mail, Facebook, and other social media. And some birth parents wrote about how Facebook bridged the gap between constant contact and total disconnection.

"I can keep up with her life without being in her family's way," one wrote.

"I don't 'stalk' their Facebook pages, but I do like to see pictures of her smiling," wrote another. "The most recent ones I have seen have been of her first day of second grade and her first day of karate."

That quote seemed particularly heartwrenching to me — so close, but so far away. But for birth mothers, Pertman told me, a major healing factor is the knowledge that their children are okay.

"Imagine the healing that's going on," he said, "just by seeing that child online, being successful, going to high school, talking to friends."

Adoptive parents, too, wrote about the sense of comfort the Internet gave them, the benefits of knowledge without intimacy. "It gives a sense of self and identity," one wrote, "without blurring lines between who their parents are and who their past is."

There are pitfalls, of course, to this idea of constant observation. One woman wrote about realizing, with regret, that a child she'd placed for adoption could see her loving online exchanges with a daughter she'd kept. Another wrote that she made sure her Facebook page showed her on her best behavior, because she knew her child's adoptive parents would be watching.

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So, she applied a little gloss on her life. This is what we all do on the Internet, really: Apply a little gloss, then eavesdrop peacefully, with mutual consent, waving to each other from across a safe digital divide. Sometimes, it really does feel like a charade. But sometimes, it's a source of comfort.

"We know each other's names, what we look like and where we live," one adoptee wrote. "Life is better knowing that they are there."


Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.