I was adopted at three weeks of age and grew up in a loving family. My parents told me from the very beginning I was adopted, but I had no access to information about my origins because closed adoption was the norm in the United States well into the 1970s.
Back then, most birth parents signed away their rights to contact their child (often unwillingly), and the child’s original birth certificate was amended, with the adoptive parents’ names replacing the birth parents’. As a baby, my origins were literally erased.
My adoptive parents pursued adoption because they wanted a family and were unable to conceive. They explained to me that my birth mother was a teen when I was born and that in the 1960s unwed mothers had few good choices. They were compassionate about my birth mother’s situation and her decision to place me with adoptive parents.
Yet much of society gives adopted people subtle and not-so-subtle messages that we have been saved from a terrible fate, and that we should feel lucky to have been “rescued.”
Perhaps it’s easier for people to understand adoption if they vilify the birth mother; after all, only a “bad woman” would “give away” her child. This judgment applies the myth of the birth mother as a promiscuous, irresponsible, drug-addicted or generally bad person. Of course that’s not true; the reasons for relinquishing a child are many and nuanced. But for decades, the dominant paradigm has been that women who up and get pregnant without meaning to are seriously flawed.
The sexism of such thinking notwithstanding, it also implies that the resultant child of an unwed, unwanted, or unplanned pregnancy must also be damaged ― and in need of rescuing. And therefore, that child is oh so lucky to be adopted by caring, kind, financially solvent people.
When the adopted child is of a different race than the adoptive parents, the bigotry can be exponentially worse. I have friends who were adopted transracially or transnationally: Not only were these kids removed from their racial and/or cultural origins, but few of their adoptive parents knew the importance of giving their kids opportunities to reconnect with their heritage. These adopted kids grew up confused, angry and lonely. They grew up hearing things such as, “I’m sure you have a better life than you would have if your birth mom had kept you.”
The racism of this message would be harmful to anyone on its receiving end, but it is devastating to someone who has lost not only their birth parents but their connection to their culture and ethnicity to adoption. For transracial adoptees, this is part of their adoption trauma, as well as having to process racism and racial differences without the support of people of their own race.
Adoption is a permanent fixture in human society; there will always be a need for it. I’m not anti-adoption, but I’m exasperated with how the media often glosses over, exploits or simplifies adoption’s complexities for popular consumption.
In her book “American Baby: A Mother, A Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption” (Viking, 2021), veteran journalist Gabrielle Glaser works doggedly to expose truths about adoption, including the fact that adopted people often experience lifelong effects of the trauma caused by being removed from their original family, and that our society mostly ignores or denies such trauma.
As adoption researcher and psychologist Nancy Verrier explains in her book “The Primal Wound,” “Many doctors and psychologists now understand that bonding doesn’t begin at birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological and spiritual events that begin in utero and continue throughout the postnatal bonding period. When this natural evolution is interrupted by a postnatal separation from the biological mother, the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of these children.”
How does that trauma show up in adoptees? We may have problems with intimacy and attachment; we may experience loss in a much different way than non-adopted people; we may feel and express anger in ways that seem outsized or unfounded. We fear abandonment. We are afraid if we do the wrong thing we’ll be given away, left behind or excluded. We are afraid we’re inherently flawed and therefore expendable.
To my knowledge, my parents didn’t read any of the research about the psyches of adopted children or adult adoptees. Like most people involved with closed adoptions in the 1960s, they were ignorant about the psychological trauma babies experience when separated from their mothers, how those babies might grow into children who felt they didn’t belong, that they had been abandoned, that there was something intrinsically wrong with them.
Do I blame my parents for not knowing, not reading these things? Not really. Doing so wasn’t part of adoption protocol at the time. Unfortunately, it still isn’t. And that must change.
In my mid-30s, after a circuitous, decade-long search, I reunited with my birth families. Only after meeting them and giving birth to my own child did I begin to understand my loneliness was a side effect of my closed adoption ― something for which I never had context until I experienced the momentous events of adoption reunion and motherhood.
When a traumatized person struggling with issues of abandonment is told they are lucky, that they should be grateful, or that they were “chosen,” it negates the emotional experience of that person. When it happens to me, it makes me feel as though my feelings and thoughts and experiences don’t matter.
I tried to explain that loneliness to friends, some of whom brushed me off. “Everyone’s lonely,” they said. “You’re no different.”
But I am different ― adopted people are different. And we deserve our individual and collective truths to be heard, believed and respected.
What we don’t need is myths ― of rescue, of salvation, of being less-than, of requisite gratitude for the fact of our adoption.
In this country, we have been trained to see adoption as a fairy-tale ending to a tragic story, one that elides the birth mother’s complex feelings about relinquishing a child and the adopted child’s complex feelings of loss and abandonment.
Few things in this world are truly binary. Adoption is not an “either/or” situation. Like every other institution, it has flaws and strengths. It’s time to think of adoption in terms of “both/and,” to hold its opposing truths as equal and valid.
We must train skeptical eyes on the myths of adoption, work to debunk them, and start paying attention to the real struggles adopted people experience. For the benefit of all involved, we must shine light on adoption’s shame, secrecy, fear of abandonment, trauma, and loneliness, and work to heal these things.
Andrea Ross is the author of “Unnatural Selection: A Memoir of Adoption and Wilderness,” (CavanKerry Press, 2021). She is on faculty in the University Writing Program at UC Davis, and she speaks and teaches workshops about the adoptee experience. Find out more at andrearosswriter.com.