A paradox means that you have seemingly opposite and dual realities. Adoptees are rescued, repaired, loved, rejected, celebrated, abandoned, made to feel special, made to feel less than. We are both grateful and angry. We are different from everyone else, and yet we are the same. Regardless of the backstory or the upbringing, we usually know a reality that contradicts itself.
To understand the paradox, it is best to understand the history. Over the centuries, adoptee children have been stolen, sold, loved, wanted, abused, made into indentured servants, used as farm hands, and graced with wealth, education, and opportunities their native birth families could never have afforded them.
In the modern era, most love their families very much and feel wanted, safe, cared for, and a part of the family that raises them. But what no one who is not adopted can understand is this: no matter who raises you, you will never see your features in the people around you. And depending upon the circumstances of your specific situation, you will not know or have access to medical information and many other vital and identifying facts about yourself. Your heritage is theirs, not yours.
I know this because I’ve lived it. I was adopted from birth, born in 1965 at a Salvation Army Hospital for unwed mothers. My parents applied with an adoption agency in Yakima, Washington, and within a few months, were approved. When I was two months of age, they took me home, raised me, and loved me as their own. It may sound charming, and for the most part, it was, but there is always a gap. There is a silent undertone of living with the weight of the unknown, or what if, or how come – sometimes all of the above.
Adoption has consequences. It has joy. It can complete a family, create one from scratch or fulfill through some mystical unknown the way things are supposed to be, without the conscious knowledge of how. It can rescue, heal, and harm.
I am a fan of the practice – but it must be done ethically. Historically adoption had nothing to do with the welfare of a child. It was created to protect wealth and manage the labor of children. Throughout history, adoption has been done well and, at times, horribly.
My intentions with my upcoming book are to tell the tales of those who have lived any three sides of the triad: adoptees, parents, and birth parents. This is not sugar-coated rainbows and unicorns. It is an honest, hard look at the joys and tragedies that unfold for everyone involved. This is the baseline for the paradox of adoption.
“I just feel so incredibly lucky. My parents gave me so many opportunities that I would have never had from my biological mother. I used to think she didn’t want me, and that hurt. But later I learned that she hadn’t had a very stable or happy childhood, and so for that reason when she knew she was pregnant and my father wasn’t going to be in the picture, she did what she thought was best.” ~Kate
“I don’t want to say my parents are reluctant to discuss adoption, but they feel that once the adoption took place, that pretty much ended that whole chapter. Once I became adopted by them, everything was fine. There’s no need to go digging into the past. There’s no need to find out health-related things. You know you’re going to die anyway, so who cares. I remember this vividly when I told my parents that I was reunited and found by my biological sister. My dad said, “Well, it sounds like you had a better life with us.” And I think, “Okay, but we don’t know that things wouldn’t have been different had I stayed with them. Maybe my mom wouldn’t have gone down a certain path.” It didn’t hurt, but you don’t know that that was better for anybody. I remember him saying, “It sounds like your mom was messed up.” Yeah, I would be messed up too if I had to give my baby up, and my mom was considered a minor at the time; she was only 18. And I guess 21 was the age of consent in Michigan then. So, my grandmother was the one who placed me for adoption.” ~Tina
“I never really felt out of place or anything like that. Nothing like that. My mom told me I was adopted. I knew my whole life, you can just kind of see. I never really questioned it. I was like, they love me. I love them. When you’re loved, it really doesn’t matter by who.” ~Jacob
As an adoptee talking to others, it’s a common theme that there is a lingering sense of abandonment or rejection. That their birth mothers did not want them. That they are discarded, set aside, and unworthy of love. Here, you’ll not only read many personal stories from adoptees, but the book we examine the psychological impacts that adoption and its processes have on the emotional and mental health of adopted persons.
I have my own wounds. Being raised in a home with addiction colors my perspectives in ways that are so intertwined that they cannot be undone. As an adult now, I do not and cannot blame the mother who raised me for her flaws. Likewise, I never blame my birth mother for my circumstances.
Many do blame their birth mothers and are unable to move beyond what they have internalized as a physical rejection of them as human beings.
A question that needs to be asked is, ‘what is the difference between us?’. Why do some feel that profound abandonment while others do not? What forces create that? Biology, environment, or something else?
I once heard in an interview, “parents come to adoption on their knees.” Couples who cannot conceive because of biology, be they heterosexual or same-sex couples, are often in pain. They have tried multiple times to get pregnant or keep a pregnancy and have often experienced multiple losses and endless heartache. Gay and lesbian couples have faced open discrimination for centuries, which continues today. That has often been reflected in state laws on their ability to adopt and has changed over time, even though gay marriage has been legal in the U.S. since 2015.
People wishing to adopt have more options than in the past. Some contact state agencies or other non-profit organizations to help them. Others use the services of a lawyer or other for-profit organizations for private adoptions. Some try to find birth mothers via social media or other outlets.
National adoption statistics for 2021 report that approximately 1 million willing couples are actively seeking to adopt a baby. This contrasts with only eighteen thousand domestically born babies who will become available in any given year within the U.S. That level of disparity has never existed at any time since adoption records have been kept.
What is interesting in talking to adoptive parents in the modern era is that many report that when they contact an agency to apply, they are told to consider foster care first. The application and approval process is quicker for foster care than for becoming adoptive parents. Given the ongoing problems of the foster care system in the United States, that should give us all pause. Foster kids, adrift without their biological families for whatever reason, have an even higher need for specialized care both physically, emotionally, and mentally.
“I called everyone. The state was more interested in you fostering and then getting your home study for the adoption process. I wasn’t interested in adopting a seven-year-old, as we already had two children naturally, but a pregnancy was too much for me physically, and we wanted a third child.
It was extremely expensive. The first route we tried was the Mormons because they’re less expensive, but we’re not Mormon, so they wouldn’t help us. Then we went to Jewish Social Services. We are not Jewish. They did our home study, but they wouldn’t help us find a baby because we’re not Jewish, but they did all the stuff that’s required by the state for probably $20,000, which is less than Catholic Charities, the state, or anybody else. But we had to find our own baby.
Then we get a call from Jewish Social Services. Their attorney who deals with adoption has this baby that’s coming quickly, and she needs someone to adopt that doesn’t care about race, color, or whatever.
It was January. The baby was due on February 14th. The birth mom had a woman who was going to adopt the baby, but she never did the home study and approval process. If you wait, then it’s even more expensive. You’re talking $30-$40,000.00 easy because they have to rush all the paperwork. Now here’s the mother with a baby, and she has nowhere for the baby to go.
We met at an Olive Garden in town and talked to her for about four hours. She asked us, “Are you equipped and able to raise a chocolate child?” And yes, she actually used that word.
They induced her on February 12th. She called, and she had him at a local hospital. We walked into the room, and she said, “Here’s your chocolate boy!” I said, “Thank you.” That’s why he’s been Chocolate Boy ever since because his birth mom called him that. I even call him that.
My breast milk came in. I nursed him. So, I nursed him for two weeks. From the minute I held him, I loved him. He completed our family.
I would say this to anyone thinking about adopting a baby or a child – love it like it’s your own because it is. You have to go into adoption knowing that that’s yours until you die. No matter what they do, no matter their medical issues, no matter what. He is mine until I die. I never questioned that or would re-think that ever.” ~Gayle
I say birth parents rather than simply birth mothers because you have birth fathers as part of this experience too. Before a family is built, one is broken and dissolved. There are coercion and pressures brought to bear on birth mothers in particular, and a staggering load of personal judgment heaped upon them by others.
Inseparable from the issues faced by birth parents is the discussion of sexual oppression, access to birth control and education, and the sexual revolution as it has evolved and continues to evolve in American culture.
Whenever and however an unplanned pregnancy comes into being, there will be consequences from that. Before the modern sexual revolution in the 1960s and ‘70s, an unmarried woman could not be a single mother – our culture would not readily allow it. The increasing sexual activities of young people between WWII and Roe v. Wade created what is known as the ‘baby scoop era.’
During this phase, at least one and a half million young American women were trapped into giving up their babies by their parents and the constraints of our society. At no time in history were there more adoptions in the U.S., before or since. These women were pushed into relinquishing their children even if they had the financial means to have raised them. Young men were either not held accountable or were equally set aside by their parents. It was tragic for all involved, and yet it was normal at the time. One wonders now if the men were not pushed aside, if the women were allowed to socially keep the baby, what our current culture might look like.
In the modern era, women do and can raise children without a husband or partner. Some unmarried women without a partner will even adopt a child independently. We have progressed, but our shaded history still has living and breathing suffering from its impact.
Currently, birth parents who relinquish a child usually do so because they, together or singly, cannot feasibly support it. Some will give up their baby, knowing that because of addiction or criminal behavior, they are unfit to parent at that time. Women who become victims of a sexual attack will sometimes carry the baby to term and place it for adoption because of their religious beliefs.
There are now open adoptions to minimize the emotional pain of relinquishing a child. In these legal arrangements, the birth parent(s) will remain present in the child’s life even though the adoptive parents are the unquestionable caregivers and are solely legally responsible for the child’s welfare. These arrangements are often complex for all involved and create their own set of unique emotional and mental health challenges. But many birth parents and adoptive parents appear to make this work.
Regardless of the circumstances, I have never spoken to a birth parent who didn’t in some way think about the child they gave up. Even if they come not to regret their decision, and most do believe it was ultimately the right choice, they remember what happened.
“You have to remember, it was 1973. Our world was changing and there was a lot of the old guard who still believed that unwed mothers were garbage. And I was treated like garbage by the women I worked with, by the nurses at the hospital, and by the doctors. I was left in the hallway screaming in pain. And when the nurse came out, she unceremoniously spread my knees, looked in, and said, “You’re not ready. We’ll come back when you are.” And I remember screaming. And she said, “This is what you get for being an unwed tramp. I’m going back in there with this proper married woman and take care of her.” That was burned into my brain. So, when that baby girl was taken from my arms, I don’t remember anything. I just remember being numb. I was numb for months.” ~ Ellen
“It was like closing the book, but the memories are still there. You don’t forget the birthdays and the “this year he would be in kindergarten, and then first grade.” You don’t forget about those, but I felt like I have to go on with life. I always knew I did the right thing because I gave somebody else life that couldn’t have life. So, I didn’t sit back and beat myself. But the thoughts of those birthdays, or I wonder what he got for Christmas. Those thoughts always came up.” ~Ann
That night after dinner at my parents’ home, like always, we sat in the TV room, and I walked in and just stood there. I said to my father, “I’ve got something to tell you.” He let me tell him the story of Candace and that she was pregnant. They were just the kind of parents you’d want because they simply said, “is there anything we can do?” We had only dated a few months and had broken up several months before I learned she was pregnant. But she and her mother had decided they wanted to have the baby and give it up for adoption.
A lawyer was hired, and they took over. After that agreement had been reached, I was told not to reach out to her. And I don’t know if that was the attorneys talking or Candy saying she didn’t want to hear from me. I didn’t even know if I’d had a boy or a girl. ~Mel
The Challenges of our Time
As our country now dismantles Roe v. Wade and nationwide access to abortion, one thing stands out. How we as a society will treat our unplanned for children will say a lot about us. All of us. We are embarking on a gigantic social experiment now in the United States, and we are all watching to see how these changes will impact our society. Rescuing at-risk children will be needed indefinitely. Sadly, there will always be parents who cannot, or should not, raise children – anyone’s children.
What is clear to me, and maybe some of you, is that all regulations and laws on adoption need to be evaluated with the greatest care. Lives are at stake. And we should be asking ourselves – are we ready? Are our safety networks, social services, and the state of our modern adoption practices up for the task ahead?
Listening to and validating the voices of this often unheard-from triad is the mission behind this work – to tell stories from each of their inspirational, hard, sad, triumphant, troubled, and grateful voices – in their words. I hope you’ll hear them.