“One of the lucky ones”: A testimony on the trauma inherent in adoption

November is National Adoption Month.  Last week, I talked to Wendy, a Canadian mental health professional who was adopted in the early 80’s and met her first mother at the age of 29. Wendy is Black, and her adoptive parents are white.
 
Our conversation (which has been edited for length and clarity) began when I first asked her if my perception was accurate, that we’re much more likely to hear the testimony of adoptive parents, than the stories of adoptees. 
 
W: Yes. Among the adoptee community, that is our biggest complaint, esepcially during National Adoption Awareness Month. Did anybody ask us?
 
It’s quite appalling, the extent to which people who are hoping to adopt only want to hear the positive side; they only want to hear the fairy tale. And if you say, “That’s not the whole story,” they don’t want to hear it. We are called names, we’re gaslit, we’re told to get therapy.
 
On certain platforms, whenever I open my mouth to say, “Okay, but adoption is not a fairy tale” at 8:30 in the morning, I put my phone down, and by lunch time there are twenty-five people calling me bitter, angry, and ungrateful. Here we go, another day on social media as an adopted adult. 
 

Why are people so unwilling to hear it?

 

W: Adoption is an industry. The industry has to advertise itself.
 

As an entire society, we have really bought hard into this “adoption is a beautiful option,” especially in pro-life circles. It’s, “If you can’t parent, here’s this almost uncomplicated, beautiful option.” 
 
If I say to an adoptive parents, “No, it’s not beautiful, and it’s very complicated,” what they’re not saying, but what I hear, is, “I thought we were doing a good thing, and you’re telling me we’re not. If you’re telling me all of this is true about adoption, then all of this is true of what my child has experienced. But my child is happy to be adopted, and my child is well-adjusted.”
 
I would have told you the same thing until I was 34 years old. 
 
What happened?
 
W: We have this phrase called “coming out of the fog.” In oversimplified terms, it refers to realizing adoption is not a fairy tale. As an adopted person, you get this narrative growing up: “We chose you from all the other children to be part of our family; isn’t that special?” You have to explain it to children in a way they can digest, and people want to make it a good story for a child. They tell it as a fairy tale, so you grow up thinking, yup, it’s a fairy tale. 
 
The other part of the story for me is, I am a transracial adoptee, which means I’m of a different race from my adoptive parents. My adoption is very visible. I’m a Black woman with a very Irish last name. 
 
Growing up, people ask you, “Are you adopted?” It’s amazing the questions people think they have a right to ask. You’re coached to answer the questions as a fairy tale. Looking back, those were very intrustive questions they had no right to ask, but I was encouraged to answer them, because it’s such a beautiful story. That’s the lens I had for the longest time. 
 
Even while having that lens, there were times, from the age of 11 or 12, that I would have these very negative emotions that didn’t seem to be attached to anything. My life is fine; why am I feeling like this? 
 
I was 20 or 21 and I realized I was not a big fan of my birthday. On the day, I didn’t want anyone to talk to me, I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, and I didn’t understand what that was.
 
Finally, years later, I said to a friend of mine: “As an adopted person, that’s the day I lost my first mother, and I do not feel like celebrating it.” 
 

How did she react?

 

W: She was able to take it on board. Some people really are not. Some adoptive parents can’t get their heads around it. They want to celebrate their child’s life. But whether your child has realized it or not, it’s a day that marks loss. Of course, not every child feels like that; maybe not every adult feels like that. 

Did you know other adoptees? When did you start realizing this was a common experience? 
 
W: Other than three cousins, also adoptees — they are indigenous. The Sixties Scoop  is most likely how they came into our family. I don’t have a lot of contact with them. One is not alive anymore. We’ve never had a conversation about adoption as adults.
 

It was as an adult, and it was on social media, that I had my first honest conversations about adoption. It’s interseting now to see new people come out of the fog, and the response you see over and over is, “I’m not weird; I’m not messed up. Everyone is telling me adoption is this beautiful thing, and I just thought there was something wrong with me.” No, there’s a whole other side to this.

What are some things your parents could have done differently, that would have given you a different experience? Or is it almost a rite of passage that everybody who’s adopted has to come to terms with at a certain age?

 
W: When I’m getting that backlash, the implication is that I should be grateful, and a lot of people want to run to the defense of my parents. They put a roof over my head and treated me like their own.
 
The thing that was missing is the realization that every single child who has been adopted, especially if it was not a kinship adoption [placement with relatives], has been traumatized by the separation from the first mother. The story started with trauma. 
 
The phrase that’s often used is “Adoption is trauma.” Yes, it’s the trauma of separation. The more I think about it, the deeper I realize it goes.
 
People will say, “But you don’t remember. It’s not like you were five and dragged screaming away from your mother. You were a baby.” But if you know trauma, you know about preverbal trauma. You don’t have to be old enough to have a narrative of it, for it to affect you. It shows up in the body. I can’t tell you a story of what’s troubling me, but I’m feeling a certain way. 
 
Then recently I was led to think about the effects of prenatal trauma. If a woman is pregnant and is she is abused, or is experiencing poverty or food insecurity or is homeless … what’s the effect on the child she’s carrying? 
 
It’s not so much what my parents could have done differently, it’s what the agency and adoption professionals could have done differently. I would bet my bottom dollar [my parents] were told, “Love will be enough. Take this child into your family and love her as your own, and everything will be fine.”
 
But if the trauma is there, and it absolutely is, you can’t love it away. But if you’re informed about how trauma works, and what a traumatized child needs, you can parent differently. When that trauma starts showing up, if you know why, maybe you don’t take it personally as parents. 
 
A hopeful adoptive parent recently told me all she hears about adoption lately is trauma.  She asked me if she should adopt. What I said is, If you’re not prepared for your child to look you in the face, a child you did your best to love and provide for, and for that child to say, “You’re not my real mother,” you’re not ready to adopt. If you can’t sit still for that, please don’t adopt.  
 
Are you concerned that this will scare people away? That children who would get homes are not going to get homes, because of your cautions?
 
W: Maybe this is callous, but if my speaking honestly scares you off, you’re not suitable to adopt.
 
And I absolutely believe that. Until we get to a conversation where we can say adopted children carry the trauma of separation, and until this conversation is happening at the industry level, we’re gonna get people who are surprised by this. We’re gonna get people who hear this talk about trauma and are scared away. 
 

So what do we do about that?

This hopeful adoptive parent I was talking to said, “It sounds like you’re saying the whole system is rotten.”

 
I said, “Yeah, it’s rotten to the core.” 
 
I say this because vulnerable women who approach adoption professionals, some health care professionals, some mental health professionals,  are pressured and often shamed to give up their babies for a promise of a “better life” with other parents, instead of having a conversation about whether she wants to parent, what supports she would need in order to parent, whether there is any way to involve family or community so that she can keep her child.
 
There are many cases, more than most people know, and more than “adoption professionals” will admit, where a mother or the mother’s family could have cared for the child if supported to do so.  But instead, we terminate parental rights, change the baby’s name, alter the birth certificate and put the child in someone else’s arms.  It’s rotten to the core. 
 
But until we arrive at adoption reform, this system is what we have. There are children who cannot safely remain with their parents.  There are children who have already endured that trauma of separation, and are in foster care, and right now adoption is the way we provide care and permanency.
 
I don’t think adoption, the way we do it right now, is a good thing. Why do you need to erase someone’s indentity, ancestry, and history to provide them with stability and care? You don’t. But that’s what the adoption industry does.  The unspoken idea is that if you erase a child’s history and identity, they can be easily inserted into a new family, and be “one of them” the way a biological chid is.   But that adopted child already had a family and an ancestral history.   That doesn’t cease to exist because someone altered some paperwork.
 
So for right now, it is what it is. There are kids that need care and permanency, and right now, we do that through the adoption system.
 
That’s my quandary, as a mental health professional. If you can’t recognize and support a traumatized child, you should not be parenting an adopted child. I will die on that hill. So what do we do with these children who are already in care and experiencing this instability? They need a solution. The current way we do adoption is not it.
 
What I hear a lot from foster parents is, “You might think you have to be the perfect parent and know exactly what to do, but you don’t. You just have to do your best, and be there for that child.” Are they wrong? Or is that situation just too different from adoption? 
 
W: It’s in the same broad circle. The idea that you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to do the best you can, there is absolutely a lot to that. 
 
You can’t go back and make that separation not happen. I think the best an adoptive parent can do is be willing to learn about the trauma that is inherent in adoption, and be willing to do the work to understand how to support a child who has been traumatized by the process.
 
That’s where the thick skin comes in. Do the work. Go to your own therapy. Talk to adopted adults. There are things you can to.
 
As a mental health professional, I get to have this moment where someone is sitting in front of me, and they’re experiencing depression or anxiety or OCD, and by the time they get to me, someone’s already given them a diagnosis, but no one has talked to them about what it means. I get to say to them: “Here’s what it means. Here’s what you might be experiencng.”
 
The facial expression, the relief in their voices: “You get it. You said it. It’s real. Someone understands.” I didn’t cure your depression; I just told you you weren’t going crazy.   And so, with adoption, you can’t erase the trauna, but you can acknowledge it and support your child through it.
 
Can you tell me some more about your own circumstances, your birth mother? 
 
W: I’m “one of the lucky ones.” I’m in reunion with my first mother. 
 
Sorry, it’s “first mother,” not “birth mother?” How did you land with that term? 
 
W: If I say “birth mother,” that feels like that’s the body I came out of, and then she ceased to matter. Well, she didn’t. Her absence mattered to me, and will matter until the day I die. And my absence mattered to her, from the day I was born, and will contine to matter to her until the day she dies. 
 
“First mother” is like: I have a mother in the mother who raised me. But I had a mother before her, as well. 
 
So you’re in reunion with your first mother? When did that happen?
 
W: I was able to contact her in 2011. I had just turned 28.
 
Did you express any interest in meeting her growing up? 
 
W: Yes, but even when I was a kid, I could sense there was some discomfort around that. When it came out was when I was angry or upset: “You’re not my real family. I’m gonna go find my real family.”
 
But in addition to that, my parents had a very surprise baby when I was ten, and there were all these conversations about who that child looks like and takes after. I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t look like anyone. 
 
I met my first half sister in 2002. We have similar mannarisms and similar brains, but we don’t look like sisters. Whereas my other half sister, I couldn’t stop staring at her. I was 28, and I had to say, “I’m sorry I keep staring at you, but you have my face.”
 

And growing up, what was it like, thinking about your first mother? Was there a longing?

 

W: A longing, and a wondering. I don’t think I uttered the phrase “you’re not my real parents” after the age of about 8, because I realized that it landed, and really landed really hurtfully. In a way an eight-year-old can, I realized that whatever else was going on, don’t say that. 

But until I entered reunion, there was that longing. That’s really what I was feeling on my birthday, before I even realized it. That date brought it home.  

 
How was it, meeting your first mother? It must have been a lot. 
 

W: It was a lot. I don’t think I processed how much it was. I think I’m still processing how much it was.

We met in person in the summer of 2012. It was just so strange. Because so much of it was so normal. But meeting your first mother you’ve never met until the age of 29 is not normal. It’s not a normal thing to do. Yet all that happened was she hopped on a train and came to the city where I lived, and I met her outside this random building. I walked up to this woman, and this city does not have a lot of Black folks, so I knew who it was, even if I hadn’t seen her close enough up to realize she looks exactly like me.
 
I’m trying not to fall apart. We’re in the middle of the public square. I was physically shaking. She was extremely stoic; I was not. I was crying, but trying to hold it together. We embraced.  We didn’t speak in the first moments.  I bought her lunch, after. We just sat there and chatted. It was very strange that we were doing such normal things. I just kept looking at her, like, is this happening? Is this real?
 

It will never not be strange. Here’s the thing about reunion. It’s beautiful, and wonderful, and absolutely terrible, and heartwrenching, all at the same time. The intensity of it. Nothing else I’ve experienced has the strange intensity of being in reunion.

One of my sisters and I didn’t undersand how to be in each other’s lives. We fought, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Fighting with a sibling after being in reunion, it was terrible. We have to be very careful now. 
 
It’s nature and nurture. We are both people who will argue that the grass is blue and the sky is green if we think we can carry it off. We have to be right. When two people like this get in a fight, it’s freaking ugly. And so at a certain point, I said, “I can’t talk to you. I’m in danger of saying something unforgiveable, and if I don’t, you will; so we’re not going to talk right now.” We didn’t talk for a year and a half. 
 
You’ve had this longing for connection, authentic connection and belonging —  the belonging is a really big piece — and then to fight with the person you finally experience it with? No thank you. 
 
When that relationship went wrong, did it make you feel like there was something wrong with you, like maybe you don’t know how to have relationships with people?
 
W: This fighting was happening before I came out of the fog. I got the fairy tale ending with the reunion; how did this go so wrong? Is it me? Is there something wrong with me?
 
I’ve said to my first mother, “You and I, we cannot fight. We have to be able to have a conversation before it turns into a fight.”
 
There have been times when we had a miscommunication or missed contact] and I was having a reaction like, “You’re leaving me again!” and I’m in a panic. And I have said to her, “We can’t have a fight, because I will go out of my mind.
 
 Is your first mother motherly to you? Does she perform the function of a mother, or is it a different kind of relationship?
 
W: This is one of the griefs I carry. When we have those moments when she’s acting in a motherly way, that brings into sharp relief the relationship we lost. Even though we have those moments, we can’t get back what we lost. She is my first mother, but she wasn’t my mother for 28 years. You can’t come into somebody’s life when they’re twenty-eight and be their mother, you just can’t. 
 

This may be a loaded question, but do you call yourself a pro-lifer?

W: I consider myself pro-life. I’m not a huge fan of that term. That has more to do with what comes out of the mouths of other people that associate themselves with that term. One of the arguments pro-lifers come at me with is, “Well, would you rather have been aborted?” No, and if you see those two options in such a black and white dichotomy, you’re not very intellectually flexible, are you? 

I’ll say that, as a Catholic and someone who is pro-life and as an adopted person, and someone who sees this tension and the trauma that is inherent, I find myself in a very precarious position. 
 
The adult adoptee community are vehemently prochoice. I can see exactly why. For some adopted people, they’ve been so affected by this trauma, some will say, “Yeah, it might have been better for me if I had never been born, than to live in this much pain.” And then there’s the concern that if someone does not want to carry a child and give birth, they should not be forced to; they should have that option to terminate. And from a bodily automomy perspective, I can see that. But as a Catholic, I see that new life, that soul.  If I weren’t Catholic, I would probably be pro-choice. I probably wouldn’t have been, until I came out of the fog.  
 
I am the only practicing Catholic in my immediate family, one of two in my extended family. The story of my Catholicism is a whole other story. The bottom line is, by the time I came out of the fog, if I hadn’t been Catholic, that would have been the end of me being prolife.  And though I am, I make a lot of Catholics angry by saying I don’t think legal prohibition of abortion is a good answer.
 
 As vehemently as I am prolife, I can absolutely see the other side. I can see both sides, and when both sides dig in their heels, this is how we don’t make progress. Both sides are busy screaming at each other and vilifying each other. 
 
Wendy, I appreciate you sharing all these personal things with me.
 
W: Well, nobody’s been telling me to get therapy or calling me a horrible ungrateful wretch, so this is new, this is good. The funny thing about the “get therapy” thing is that good therapy is the reason I’m able to have this conversation in this way.
 
That’s one of my things. Adoptive parents, go to therapy. I know you don’t think you need it, but you freaking do. Don’t you dare adopt a child until you’ve been to therapy. 
 
That surprises me. I would kind of assume that people would. 
 
W: I don’t know what the process is like now, when someone approaches an agency to adopt a child. I’m so interested to know if it’s suggested, strongly suggested, required? 
 
When the older of my half sisters and I first connected, before we were allowed to talk to each other, we were supposed to have 4 or 6 separate [therapy] sessions about this reunion experience. Then there was this other option, where they would send you all this reading material, and you had to sign sworn statement that you had read it and don’t have questions. I’m waiving any right to say I was harmed by this process, because I’ve chosen not to do the therapy. 

Who required this?

 

W: Family and Children’s Services. You could ask to be named on the adoption registery, and if someone else who they could trace as being related to you was also named, you would get this official letter that this relative has also registestered. If youd  like to have contact, you can. 

There was a social worker assigned to our case. She could talk to my sister and she could talk to me, but we weren’t allowed to talk to each other until either the therapy was complete, or we’d signed that waiver. I called the social worker one time, and my sister was in the office, but it was against the law to talk to each other. It’s against the law for me to talk to my flesh and blood sister.
 

There was another time. I got what’s referred to as “non identifying information about my first mother and her family. It was biographical information without identifying details, and it was like, pastimes and hobbies and how tall they were. No medical information; why would I need that? That’s another fun thing, when you have medical mysteries going on, and you go to the doctor and they say, “Do you have a family history of this?” and you say, “I don’t freaking know.”

The other time this weird gate keeping happened, was I was already in reuinion with my first mother, and I thought, what happens now if I ask for non-identifying information? Because the one I had from when my parents requested was so redacted, whole paragraphs were missing. 

 

So I requested it again in 2011. I called the F and CS office in my hometown and was told, “When you come in and pick it up, we’ll have you sit down with a counsellor. There’s information you might find distressing.”

I told her, “Let me tell you, I have met my first mother, and she told me the story, and yeah, it’s pretty damn distressing. Whatever’s in that document, I already know about it, because she told me. If I have to get therapy, I’ll get therapy. I live five hours away; I’m not coming in to do therapy five hours away.  Mail the documents, please.”

 
Finally I had to write a whole letter saying I understand there’s distressing information in this file, I probably aready know it, and I’m releasing you from any liability if I’m emotionally damaged; now give me my freaking documents.
 
And they were still redacted.
 
It’s your history, and they’re keeping it from you. That must feel so strange.
 

W: You get that growing up. I knew my parents knew more than they were telilng me, because of this non-identifying information.

It’s my information; how am I not ready to have it? Some of it would have been pretty difficult to find an age appropriate way to say that, but by the time I was thirteen or fifteen. Tell me something. 

 
When people say, “Why are you so angry?” I am.  It’s that erasure of history. That erasure of ancestry. That erasure of identity. It’s actually not necessary to provide care and stability to someone. But the adoption industry wouldn’t thrive without it. Because it has to be the fairytale where you live happily ever after with a new family.  No one wants to talk about what you lost, first.
 
 
 
 
***
Image via Pxfuel 

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38 thoughts on ““One of the lucky ones”: A testimony on the trauma inherent in adoption”

  1. Could an adult adoptees or a first mother please throw The Stats at David, above. My brain is fried as I work to cope with the very recent death of my lost to adoption, in reunion since 2003, beautiful daughter. We have not even had the cremation or memorial service yet, & I’m still struggling to grasp the reality of the situation.

    Y’all know which stats I mean. Early death, health problems, juvenile/adult incarceration, percentage of mental hospital admittance, mental health system in general, high school graduation rates, suicide rates. Adoptee rates for all of the above as compared with the population in general.

    I have seen them many times, often all in one space, but, I have not the mental bandwidth nor the patience to look them up right now. But, he needs to see the stats. Thx.

  2. Infants only a few days old can record long term memories. “Infants do not think but they do process emotions and long term memories are stored as affective schemas” (Geansbauer, 2002). An infant separated from its first mother will record a memory of that event. Memories of this nature are called preverbal memory representations and they have a unique quality that must be understood by adoptive parents. “Infant memories are recalled in adulthood the same way they were recorded at the time they occurred. It is difficult possibly impossible for children to map newly acquired verbal skills on to existing preverbal memory representations” (Richardson, R., & Hayne, H. 2007). An older adoptee who recalls an emotional memory will experience it the same way it was felt as an infant. Adoptees can have troubling memories that they cannot identify in words. This means that they cannot understand what they are feeling and without a vocabulary they cannot even ask for help. This leads to a cognitive /emotional disconnection. “Children fail to translate their preverbal memories into language”(Simcock, Hayne, 2002).
    An adopted child will learn from his family that he is wanted, loved, belongs with them, and that they will never leave him. His emotional memories will trigger fears that are exactly the opposite. An adopted child can know he belongs but feel isolated. He can know that he will never be abandoned but feel that he will. He can know that he is whole but feel that a part of him is missing. He can know that he is loved but feel that he is not. This incongruence between thoughts and feelings becomes the foundation of poor attachment, problem behaviors, power struggles, poor academic performance, and behaviors parents can’t understand. The struggle to bring thoughts and feelings into coherence can be a lifelong task for adopted children. It doesn’t have to be this way.
    Enlightened parents can create a nurturing healing environment within the family if they are aware of this process and are proficient in how to deal with it. The knowledge needed to raise an adopted child is not readily available and few effective parenting programs can be found.
    References
    Gaensbauer, T. (2002). Representations of trauma in infancy: Clinical and theoretical
    implications. 23(3), 259-277. doi:10.1002/imhj.10020.
    Lierberman, & Pawl, (1988). Clinical applications of attachment theory. In J. Belsky & T.
    Nezworski, (Eds.), Clinical implications of attachment ( 327-351). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
    Richardson, R. & Hayne H. (2007). You Can’t Take It With You: The translation of memory
    across development. Current directions in, psychological science, 16, 223 – 227.

    1. All interesting and perhaps helpful points, if you intend to inform prospective and current adoptive parents that they need to learn as much as they can about adoption generally and their own adopted kid specifically. Yes, an important message. But if the point is to discourage adoption or suggest only extraordinary people should do it – no, that’s not good. That’s an agenda that is not considering all aspects of the best interests of the child. Unless you think forcing unwilling parents to parent, or permanent foster care, or orphanages are better for kids than a forever family. The fact that sometimes forever families don’t work out 100% doesn’t detract from the majority that do. Adoption is a necessity to remedy human and social imperfection. I suggest focusing on the realistic goal of making it better and more attainable – as so many adoption agencies and state and international rules do- rather than constructing some bizarre and inaccurate caricature. Substituting one pollyannish fairy tale for a “dark shadows” alternative isn’t helpful. No one should be looking to caricatures of any sort for serious guidance in so important a matter as the life of a child.

      1. My perception is that no one in this discussion is trying to discourage adoption. It appears all agree on the goal of making the system better in every respect, not eliminating it. Allowing the interviewee and others commenting here space to share their pain honestly even if it’s accompanied by raw emotion doesn’t preclude that goal or discourage adoption. Nor does sharing scientific research about preverbal trauma mean that fewer babies will be adopted. I trust that a reasonable person with a heart for adoption would not be deterred as they would already be convinced of the good in providing a child a loving home who otherwise would not have one. I am grateful to read the honest perspectives here of both adoptive parents and adoptees. I don’t understand the attempt to attach hidden motives when it appears all involved care deeply about the children. Tell me what I’m missing. Really. I see a number of people who care deeply about children. Why should this conversation be an us v them? It seems like you all care about the same thing?

        1. Cheryl – perhaps we perceive some of what’s been written here it differently. But I don’t think me picking up just a little jaundice in some of the comments is inaccurate. Wendy’s description : “I’m one of the lucky ones” probably contributes to the vibe, suggesting as it does that it’s merely a question of luck, not agency or good will and good decisions or educated effort; and only enjoyed by a few but not the mass of unlucky adoptees who may even represent the norm. I don’t have data handy beyond my personal knowledge of adoption and what I’ve seen and experienced among other adoptive families. But my strong sense is that that vibe is a misrepresentation of reality. Many of us have unfortunate and painful life experiences. I’m not sure that adoption is worse than having to deal with an alcoholic and abusive parent; or a parent with narcissistic personality disorder; or parental hostility, perhaps exacerbated by poverty. Millions of people have to carry these burdens, and do so well or at least adequately. I think the failure of the first parent relationship is just one of many ways children, and later, adults, suffer. Lots of apparently highly successful people bear the scars of imperfect childhoods. Adoption done well – and it very often it is done well; there are many “lucky ones,” certainly a majority in my experience – is a blessing, bringing good out of a difficult, painful and perhaps even tragic situation. We should make it as likely to succeed as possible.

          1. Thank you for your reply. I really am trying to understand your perspective. Yes, there is definitely hostility in some of the responses and in the original interview. I think your comment, “Lots of apparently highly successful people bear the scars of imperfect childhoods,” is kind of the point here. Wendy is sharing her “imperfect childhood scar” but no one wants to hear it because it’s about being adopted. She admits adoption is necessary. She just wants to be sure we hear from the adoptees too even the ones who didn’t have the same experience as the majority. I am so thankful for those who step forward to adopt. Recognizing the difficult experience of some adoptees doesn’t change that. If you acknowledge original sin, you acknowledge human imperfection. From that starting point I see two people (you and Wendy) especially who appear to care enough to make adoptions better, not perfect, just better. But that could never happen if people like the two of you don’t validate one another’s experiences. That might mean tolerating some hostility and uncomfortable questions from both sides. But as you said, this is so important, (we’re talking the life of a child) that the reasonable grown ups have to keep trying to make it better. It’s so much easier to make jabs and walk away in righteousness than it is to try to find common ground and give each other grace for the personal experiences that shape us.

            1. Cheryl – I agree with you, and I was completely accepting that this is Wendy’s experience. I just hasten to add that it is just that – personal. Real and valid for her, and others who have had similar experiences. I didn’t mean to appear to take issue with that.

              In rereading some of the correspondence, I realize my reaction is toward a handful of comments that I felt overstated the negatives and undervalued what I perceive to be the positives of adoption.
              It may be a matter of emphasis – I so believe adoption is a necessary option for many kids. To me, it’s a little akin to writing a criticism of “school” because school can be a time of insecurity, bullying, depression, favoritism, anxiety, bad influences, whatever. All that can be true about school. But school compared to a lack of education isn’t really much of a comparison at all. It’s just the admixture of some negative features with the overwhelming positive of education.

              1. My underlying assumption is that every reasonable person understands that adoption is not only a necessity in our fallen world but also can be a great good. As a Christian I believe it is a tangible representation of the Truth that we are ALL God’s children.

                With that starting point I am open to hearing all perspectives with the goal of making the adoption process better for children and families AND to offer what little support I can to a person who needs it.

                That being said, my husband often reminds me that there may be far fewer reasonable people roaming the earth than I think there are.

                Anyway, I am grateful to read this interview and all the comments. Most everyone is touched by adoption somehow. More understanding hopefully leads to more compassion and better outcomes for the children and adults who desperately need us to care.

                1. You are good person Cheryl, and your call for greater compassion should meet no opposition. After 40 years of curious attention to the world as an adult, however, I am well-aware that adoption can be viewed by some as a challenge to the legitimacy of abortion. The prolife movement has sometimes fostered this alleged conflict with the slogan “adoption not abortion.” I suspect some of the hesitancy or criticism of adoption in some of the commentary reflects this ideological dichotomy. Again, none of this reflects any challenge to the legitimate feelings an adopted person may understandably experience personally. It is more often the reflex of a non-adoptee who favors abortion as a solution to problematic pregnancies, and worries that the “adoption option” represents a subtle or maybe not so subtle critique of termination of the child rather than second parenting the child.

                  Thank you again for sharing your kind and generous perspective.

  3. This was a great article! I’m an adoptive mother of five siblings, and they were ages 5 – 13 when they came into our home. That was in 1995. And, yes. I wish we had known more about trauma. But, I faithfully kept every scrap of paper, every picture, every memory of their birth mom in scrapbooks for them. I knew their history was important, even if no one taught me that.

    I also think that adoptive families, especially those who adopt older children from the foster care system, endure their own kind of trauma. I have thick skin, but my adoptive children can be absolutely brutal. This especially hurts when it’s aimed towards my biological children. In many ways, I think my biological children have suffered deeply due to the presence of their adopted siblings in our family. It’s traumatic all around for all those involved.

    What struck me most about this article was Wendy’s anger. Wow. Her anger was palatable. I pray she can find some healing!

    As a side note, why don’t adoptees ever talk about their birth fathers? Interesting…I think most adoptees feel more anger towards their adoptive mothers than their adoptive fathers, too. Just an observation on how the dynamics play out.

    1. Whoa . . .you went down the “I pray the angry adoptee finds healing” path?

      Do you not think Wendy’s anger (or any adoptee’s anger) is justified, if even in part? Wouldn’t you be angry if your entire original identity was erased? If your original name, heritage, family, and history was obliterated with the swipe of a pen? If you were denied factual information regarding your birth and ancestry?

      And who are we as the non-adopted to say that healing for adoptees should not take the form of righteous anger at a system and industry built on the bartering and trading of their bodies?

      Healing always involves telling the truth, but sometimes capital-T truth is a hard thing for others to hear and gets interpreted as anger. Might it be possible that Wendy’s anger *IS* her path to healing, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable? And if it is, then why would we want her to feel anything but what she is feeling? If we truly love the adopted ones such as Wendy, wouldn’t we want to “sit shiva” with them hold space for them while they feel their embodied emotions, regardless of how it makes us feel, instead of praying for them to not be exactly what they are, how they are, in that moment?

  4. If Adoption is Beautiful:

    Why do people lie about it?
    Why isn’t it the first choice for couples who want children?
    Why doesn’t everyone give up a baby to someone who can’t have one?
    Why do adoptees turn to DNA testing to avoid dating a sibling?
    Why is family medical history still the first question asked at doctor appointments?
    Why are records kept from the very people they pertain to?
    Why is a court order needed to see the records?
    Why is coercion routinely employed to get “birth mothers” to relinquish?
    Why are there consistently over 100,000 eligible children waiting years for “their forever families”?
    Why do white children cost more than black children?
    Why did the Australian government officially apologize for its role in it?
    Why are teen adoptees overrepresented in mental health services?
    Why is it used as a tool of war and cultural genocide?
    Why can’t all adoptees get a passport? Why are others deported?
    Why are adoptees four times more likely than the non-adopted to attempt suicide?
    Why can’t we have this conversation?

    1. Conversation? That was just a litany of worst cases. In other word, an extreme distortion. How about a more balanced approach, one that doesn’t appear to wear hostility on its sleeve? Almost all adoptive parents I know, admittedly on the younger side who adopted within the last 30 years or so, do not share the deficiencies outlined in the article in any great degree. I believe the attitudes described did exist, and perhaps predominated, in the past, at least within certain groups within the US. But, happily, learning has not been stagnant and we now know, and generally encourage if not insist that adoptive parents know, the challenges and arduous requirements, as well as the joys, of adoption. That includes primarily inculcating a focus, a point of reference, on the needs of the child, not the needs of the parents. In most cases, if they accept that order of priorities, and live it in good faith with reasonable consistency, things turn out well. Or, better – substantially better – than they would have for the child otherwise. In many situations, the facts are too obvious to require extended explanation. Ask any kid whether they would prefer being raised in a shelter, or by abusive or neglecting parents – I don’t mean ordinary discipline or minor or occasional neglect – and they will prefer the safety, consistency, security of adults who love them, put them first, and commit to them every day. Ideally, that should be the first parents. But first parents are just people too, prone to incompetence or addiction or mental illness or deep immaturity or personality disorder, or death from illness, warfare, overdose or just early misfortune. And life goes on. Time is short. Kids grow and develop fast, for good or ill. They often don’t have time to wait for their first parents to get well or grow up, if they’re alive or around at all. And a kid should never be raised in an “orphanage” instead of a decent family if possible. Adoption is never the first preference, but it is necessary, and -approached with reasonable intelligence, openness to learning, flexibility, focus on the the needs of the child and committed love – it can be and usually is successful. And joyful. Recognize the challenges but don’t go overboard running it down. It is a good thing and the alternatives are generally much worse.

      1. I totally agree David. A litany of questions expressed in a hostile tone doesn’t suggest a person who is open to having this conversation (which yes, we can have). Adoption CAN be beautiful. It isn’t always. And when it is, that doesn’t mean there’s an absence of pain and trauma. It means that the beauty overshadows that, and yes, this is possible. Adoption is the first choice of some parents, although cost and red tape can move it to second choice. I would agree that it’s not the first choice of a biological parent, whose first choice might have been to not get pregnant to begin with, or to be able to raise her child herself. Sadly, as David mentions, some parents are unable to raise their children even when ample support is available. Adoption is probably never the first choice of a child, except for when they are being mistreated by their biological parents. Eligible children waiting for forever families are waiting because, during the time they were in and out of foster care and their bio families’ homes, they suffered abuse and related issues that not every adoptive family is equipped to handle. Teen adoptees being overrepresented in the mental health system could be due to many different factors (correlation isn’t necessarily causation), one of which is that their adoptive parents might be quicker than average parents to pursue mental health treatment. Family medical history is pertinent to medical care for obvious reasons; this doesn’t mean that adoption can’t be beautiful. Talking about what babies “cost” is a biased and unkind way to talk about adoption, but speaking for myself, I can give one reason for why Caucasian babies are easier to place. I live in a community that doesn’t have a lot of African American families, although there are many other ethnic groups in my neighborhood. I felt it would be difficult for a Black child to live in a community where they don’t see themselves reflected physically very often. I was open to adopting a biracial child due to the makeup of our community. My husband disagreed with me, but then at our adoption agency we saw a Black adoptee speak about her experience, and she reinforced my fears. The deportation of adoptees is an example of corruption in the adoption industry that needs to be reformed, as is the difficulty of adoptees obtaining their records (although I do understand the dilemma when a biological parent wants their privacy protected). I don’t have all the answers, but am willing to have a conversation.

      2. You put into words exactly what I felt as I read this article. The hostility was thick! And, yes! We live in a broken world, and adoption is a necessary part of living with that brokenness. I have been the adoptive mother of a sibling group of five for over 26 years now. Did things turn out the way I imagined they would? Not in the slightest. I have felt rejection, anger, and bitterness for things that were clearly not in my control. There has been a lot of pain. But, the joy is unspeakable in the midst of the hurt! Seventeen grandchildren later, and I wouldn’t trade my experience as an adoptive mom for anything! They are the redemption in a series of trauma for all of our family members.

    2. Brava, Mirah! Thank you.

      Ever ask some smug “Karen” who sits there & holds forth about the wonders of adoption, which of her kids she would like to give to strangers? The look on the face is priceless. 😁

      Mayne you could provide The Stats for all the big, huge fans of infant adoption on here, trying to tell us what’s really up. Nobody gets to tell our stories except ourselves, & I include every real mother (my personal preferred term; that or just “mother”. Why do I get the prefix?) and adopted person. I really don’t care much about adopters’ stories; they can tell them if they want, but, they are almost tiresome in their sameness.

      Adoption killed my beautiful young adult baby girl. You won’t see it on the death certificate; you only see it if you know what you’re looking for + you read between the lines. Her adoptive parents are great, we are all grieving together & completely on the same page, but, she never should have been with them in the first place. My gut told me, as young & inexperienced as I was, that this was messed up & indeed, a very bad thing to do to me or to her. Not sure who won what, here. But, I can start naming lots of what was lost. It would take me ages, & the list still would not be exhaustive.

  5. Maybe it is just me but I am concerned about our society’s obsession with trauma. While it is important to see both the bad and the good, we all have something in our lives that is not perfect and often awful. You can’t dwell in the trauma, you learn from it. You forgive. Forgiveness is the only thing that sets any of us free from our traumas.

    Also, this article does not reflect the fact that most domestic adoptions in the US today are open adoptions. Adoptees do receive family history.

  6. I’m a black woman adopted from birth to a bi-racial family. And I really appreciated your thoughts on this topic. But I was frustrated to see how much you talked about your experience as if it’s everyone’s experience. Personally I had no desire to meet my birth family even though I knew I could find them. I was a surprise baby to a single mother of several teenage children so my birth mother decided to put me up for adoption because she would not be able to care for me adequately. I had no desire for a reunion but I did look up some family members on social media once. And yes the negatives you mentioned are very real and should be told to potential parents but you are making sweeping generalizations of your feelings as if it’s how everyone should feel or will eventually feel.

    1. Very well said Cai. I completely agree that trauma and loss are inherent to adoption, and that there is a lot of corruption in the adoption industry. But that doesn’t mean that every adoption agency or adoption professional is corrupt, and it doesn’t mean that for every adoptee, the pain overshadows the positive aspects of adoption. In the broken world we live in, there will always be a need for adoption. We have to find ways to reduce the need for adoption, tell the truth about the pain and trauma, weed out the corruption, and just make adoption better in general, as opposed to trying to abolish it.

  7. My sons were adopted by my second husband after my first husband abandoned us all. When the adoption went through, everyone thought of it as our happily-ever-after following so much pain.

    I try to tell people that it’s not the end of the story, and none of the trauma ended with my husband’s love for them, but they don’t really want to hear that. It gave me a glimpse into what adoptees like Wendy go through, watching my sons (and to a lesser extend, me) re-process that loss at birthdays, big life events, and randomly. My youngest, who was only 4 months old when his first dad left, has no memories of him, but when he was 8 he went through an intense period of missing him and wondering about what it would have been like.

    My sons are all adults now, and the older two had connected with their first dad and were starting to build a relationship with him. The youngest just wasn’t ready. Their first dad was finally clean and sober, and it was hard but good. Then he died unexpectedly. The only time my youngest son got to talk to him – in his whole life – he was in a coma.

    It sucks. The whole thing sucks. I can be grateful for my husband and all he’s done for us and still admit that this story has no happy ending. Not this side of heaven.

  8. At one point during her several years-long journey to adopt, a friend said that a phrase she has carried with her is that “adoption comes from situations of brokenness.” As an observer, getting a peak at how much work and forgiveness and pain her adoption journey had been, even when the baby was only a few weeks old, I decided—wimp that I am—not ever to voluntarily pursue adoption. (“I don’t want that kind of gift, Lord, no thanks. Your will be done and all, but umm, nah.”

    One year and a half later, a baby without a family came into my home and a few months later the private (no agencies involved—the first parents were adamant) adoption was finalized.

    This parenting gig isn’t anywhere near perfect, nor was it planned for, well thought-out, or researched. From what I have learned from my parenting my older children, I am unlikely to get life/myself/my failures/my faith journey all “sorted out” by the time any of them leave at 18.
    The older ones’ lives were completely turned upside down with the arrival of their new and unexpected sibling—as was mine and my husband’s. Our stories now belong to each other, and are not only our own. We relearn this, and try to live it with openness, and with hope.
    No we weren’t passive; yes we made choices. Ultimately, though, it is God, the Lord of all, who builds families and places us– in all our weak brokenness– together.

    May his mercy cover all of our moments, start to finish. I have put all my hope into that promise. What else can I do.

  9. What an important interview. I was wondering if Wendy has different opinions on newborn adoption vs that of an older child. I assume an older child would have more years of trauma in the one hand, but also perhaps more of a confirmation that the first mom isn’t the best place to be? We have given it more of a chance to work out, not just pressured a scared pregnant mom that she cant raise a baby in these circumstances?

  10. It’s a hard thing to address with a kid that sometimes the family of origin can’t raise that child. I do think we need better resources to prepare families to address this in age appropriate ways.

    It’s also sad that we have such a small safety net that families in crisis don’t have the support to keep a child in the family.

    I would be interested in what the interviewee would like to see.

  11. Thanks for this great interview on an important topic. I think it’s really important to tell the truth about things, even if we’re afraid it might cause problems for some cause we believe in, like the evil of abortion.

    ‘If you’re not prepared for your child to look you in the face, a child you did your best to love and provide for, and for that child to say, “You’re not my real mother,” you’re not ready to adopt.’ What a powerful statement, and – to me at least – as soon as you see it put that way, you can just see the truth of it.

    I thought laws and opinions on this issue had been improving steadily, compared to the days when they didn’t even tell kids they were adopted, but then I run into people who have recently adopted and are still doing the fairy-tale version. I don’t know what their adoption counsellors have told them, but I suspect nothing so blunt as that statement above. A close friend is always telling us how wonderful their adoption story has been, and how their daughter is just perfectly matched to them in temperament, and there’s no way she’ll ever feel any need to find her birth mom because things are so wonderful. The child is 3, so she doesn’t yet understand that her mother routinely talks about her family of origin disparagingly and makes it clear that she considers the child a blank slate, thank goodness. I do wonder what she’ll have to say about it when she’s 30, though.

  12. I have an online friend who adopted children she was fostering, and she has often spoken of the existence of this trauma. Her kids are full siblings, and therefore obviously different ages when they could no longer live with their first family. In their case, too, the children’s first family is still an active participant in their lives to the safest extent possible. My friend helps her kids make Mother’s Day cards for their first mother (which is the term they use, too), and they have big family celebrations together, which I think helps minimize the trauma of separation. She consistently argues with anyone who says how lucky her kids are to have her for a mother. Her response is something along the lines of, “No, my kids were horribly unlucky to not get to live with their first mother.”

    1. We fostered for several years and always prayed with the children for their mothers. I always tried to show total respect for their biological families. I think this is driving home a reality that has huge implications for the sperm/egg market. Not being raised by your biological mother and father is a loss. Sometimes that loss causes great trauma and sometimes it does not, but the fact that our society is so joyfully promoting donor-conceived (I hate that term, as usually it is not a donation but, instead a cash transaction) pregnancy, does not address the reality of that loss at all.

  13. I cried to read this. My parents did foster care for many years. They adopted their foster son, my brother, in the early 00s. He is mixed race and my parents are white boomers. Everything was fine until it wasn’t, and then it was really, really rough. They are all at a place now where they can look back and say, “we should have done this and this. We should have tried a, b, and c. We should have been ready for x.” But no one will talk about adoption as if it has any nuance. It was all “tummy mom and heart mom” and the fairy tale. Nothing bad can happen, love overcomes all. And they just didn’t know any better, because no one would talk about it. And now, if my parents try to talk about adoption with any kind of nuance or realism, people look at them like they just sh*t on a piece of bread. They assume my parents are anti-adoption, or worse, that they regret adopting my brother. Nothing could be further from the truth! They are very pro-adoption, and love my brother with their whole hearts. They only want people to go into it with open eyes, to be ready for the possibility that things won’t be all wonderful fairy tale all you need is love. What you’ll need besides love is WORK and lots of it!

  14. It took decades for me to realize I’d aborted my child because I believed I should have been aborted instead of adopted.

  15. And this, all of this (well…maybe not the medical history stuff) is why I hate the surrogacy industry with a burning passion.

  16. I’m an adoptive mother. I have never thought of adoption as a fairy tale or uncomplicated. I completely acknowledge the corruption in the industry, and the trauma inherent to adoption. That being said, it has its place, and it can certainly be beautiful even in the midst of trauma. We have an open adoption, and my son’s first family are like family to us. My son is 13 and is well adjusted. I’ll get back to you when he’s 34. I don’t want to get into a lot of detail because I don’t want to betray his privacy, but if he had been raised by his first family, I can guarantee there would have been trauma in that situation as well.

    1. Another adoptive mom who agrees with Claire: trauma all around no matter what the situation. The adoptee trauma is very real.

      My son’s first family just couldn’t take care of him for all sorts of reasons. All of the reasons and stories have been told to him. He now knows it all. I’m not sure he accepts all of it but he’s been told.

      And yet, my son is in his early 20s and currently has no interest in hanging out with his open adoption first family. They are very hurt by this. He saw them on a regular basis growing up. We sent letters and pictures twice a year. We spoke on the phone. All was very respectful.

      When he turned 18, I think his first family thought he would want to spend more time on his own with them. They wrote letters and contacted him but… he didn’t want to spend time with them. We encouraged him to not ignore their attempts to get together with them but… he barely wants to spend time with us! 😆

      He’s living his own life and wants to do things on his own. I’m hopeful one day he will want to know more about them but I can’t force something. I’d like to force lots of things but I can’t. That doesn’t work with a man in his early 20s. I keep communicating with first family but not as much as I used to because he’s his own person.

      For me, it’s always been about what he can handle and what he wants. It’s about the adopted child, not the parents. It’s not about us as adults. So, I’m so happy to read this adoptee’s story here. So good that more of these stories of real pain are told. I want to know more. Maybe, some day, my son will tell his story. But that’s up to him.

      1. Agree with Claire and Babsie. We are adoptive parents and, if we had a starry-eyed view of adoption, we lost it long ago. It helped a lot that we were experienced parents with our own bio kids before we adopted. And we adopted for somewhat unusual reasons, after a longtime association with Mexico and an awareness of a group of kids there, all indigenous, who were hard or impossible place, collateral damage from the drug war. We decided because the need was there and our family could handle it. We already knew a lot about trauma, and even if we didn’t, the very stringent requirements for international adoption among treaty countries certainly went overboard in teaching us. Everyone acknowledged the trauma our daughter had lived with. She was 9 and remembered most of it. Trauma was the reason for the adoption. That was openly acknowledged, and it was a real good thing it was. If her life had been easier or only normally traumatic, there would have been no need for the adoption. We knew after spending a few hours with her. She carried it with her, just below the surface. And if we had had a pollyannish view of the situation, I doubt we would have been effective parents for her. It was difficult for several years, constant attention, constant focus on the bonding process and on working through the “shelter values” (from living in an orphanage). We were lucky to have a large family who welcomed her and who helped absorb the adjustment and shared the load.
        Six years on, she is doing great. She’s bonded very well, is well adjusted, happy in school and with her family. We love her deeply, and she has developed the capacity to love us as well. We fully anticipate there is a time, perhaps several times, coming when the trauma and unanswered questions are going to resurface as she matures. But she will have tools to manage those emotions. She has trust in us and other adults in her life. We both have a great deal of empathy for the suffering our daughter has seen in such a young life. My heart broke when we took her from the shelter in Mexico, knowing she was unlikely to ever again see the other abandoned and traumatized girls who were her only friends till then. She was happy to be with us, but I knew she had all kinds of internal turmoil and confusion . And fear, including fear of abandonment. Adoption inherently involves some type of failure, disruption or trauma. I can’t imagine how unprepared we would have been if we did not already know that and weren’t open to learning more about how to deal with it. Ultimately, adoption is like regular parenthood in that it is fundamentally about the good of the kid, not the needs of the parents. Except that an adopted kid has different and often much greater needs. And good parenting requires different knowledge, a different approach, and a realistic appreciation for how different things can be, and maybe already have been, for the adopted kid.

        All that said, adopting our daughter has been not only good for her, but a source of incredible joy for us. We can’t imagine life without her. And when the time comes when she has to work through what happened to her bio parents and how she had to settle for us instead, we will be prepared to figure it out and so will she.

        One final thing. Being a “good Catholic” doesn’t make you a good adoptive parent , and neither does being prolife. Good intentions are a good place to start, but there is no substitute for learning a lot about adoption and about your actual adoptive kid. There is a lot of collective learning out there, and only some of it is “Catholic.”

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