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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Listening to Adult Adoptee Voices

One of my favorite blogs is Rebecca Hawkes' Love is Not a Pie.  Rebecca is an articulate and insightful adoptee and adoptive mother who has a talent for summing up the complexities of adoption in just a few words.  In a recent post, she explained why she speaks out against the institution of adoption as it is currently practiced, and I'd like to share her wise words here, as I write and speak out for exactly the same reason.

"I speak out ... because I still see a huge discrepancy between the primarily positive way the adoption system is presented -- both to expectant parents and to members of the broader culture -- and the more complex reality as many of us have lived it."

Rebecca goes on to say that "the mathematical simplicity of the adoption equation fails to take into account some core issues of biology and human nature."  A perceptive commenter to her post adds, "Adoption seems simple to everyone BUT the people who have to live with it every day."

How frustrating it is that the experienced voices of those who have actually lived adoption are so often dismissed by legislative entities and by the culture at large!  As a 62-year-old adoptee, I commend all of the following adoptee comments, which were recently written on-line in response to a New York Times Motherlode article entitled "Adoption, Destiny and Magical Thinking."

"Adoptees are eternal children.  (The system represents) a huge imbalance of power; the adoption agencies and adoption lawyers are controlling affairs in which they have no personal stake."

"It is the facts of my birth, my life that I am denied simply because I'm adopted.  Good, bad or indifferent, I want and need to know my heritage and medical information."

"I want my rights, knowledge of my full ID, and I don't want to feel guilty for that."

"It's unfair to expect adoptees to somehow, as a group, pretend that culture, biology and ancestry aren't allowed to matter to us when they matter to so many others."

"Because adoption has become more about finding babies for couples wanting to adopt instead of finding families for children truly in need, we have come to the point where the concern is centered more on adoptive parents than children."

"The sad thing is that the adoptee is the one most impacted by the choices of birth parents, social workers, adoptive parents, etc., and they have the least control, the fewest choices of anyone."

The New York Times article generated 202 responses, most of them critical of the adoption system as it is now practiced and so often portrayed in the media.  The question is: Why doesn't the Times follow up and do an in-depth article on the adoption reform movement?  Or the history of sealing adoptee birth records, a practice that persists throughout the United States to this day?  And why do letters about adoption from adult adoptees so rarely see the light of day in the actual newspaper?

The New York Times is not the only paper to ignore adoptee voices.  I have written multiple responses to articles about adoption in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Each time, I get a response: "We are considering your letter for publication."  Each time, the letter fails to appear.  Many of my colleagues in the adoption reform movement have had the same experience.  That's why so many of us are blogging -- the mainstream media doesn't seem interested in exploring the nuances of adoption.

One begins to wonder just what is going on here.  Many people try to dismiss the adoptee voice by insisting that negative sentiments are expressed by just a few "angry adoptees."  Thus we often see comments like this one, in response to the Destiny and Magical Thinking article:  "Looks like this article got picked up by a listserv or message board serving aggrieved adult adoptees."  Rather than acknowledge that many adoptees might share a common experience, this reader would rather believe that the comments are the result of some kind of internet conspiracy.

Then there is this type of remark: "Sure do wish we could see more comments from adult adoptees who have had unequivocally or largely good experiences." Granted, some adoptees who wrote in had not had good experiences.  But past experience had little to do with many of the thoughts expressed.  For example, what, in any of the comments I cited, suggests that these adoptees had had unhappy homes?  Many of us love or loved our adoptive parents deeply, yet we resent the fact that our original identities were unnecessarily hidden from us.  And we deeply resent the fact that the industry today refuses to learn from our experiences.

Adoptee voices are sometimes diminished by comments like this:  "The people who are happy about adopting or being adopted have no axe to grind, so they're mostly off living their lives instead of commenting here."

For the record, I'd like to say that I and many of the outspoken adoptees I know have extremely busy lives.  We are mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, professionals.  We write and appear before legislative committees because we want to make the institution of adoption better for the people it most directly affects -- vulnerable children.  The system of adoption, which affects some of the most vulnerable people on earth, should be driven by sound research and experience, not by free market forces.

The truth is that adoption is complicated.  It is neither all good nor all bad, but it does present certain parenting challenges that must be addressed.  And in far too many cases, the adoption industry is not addressing those challenges.  Consider this insightful comment from another grown adoptee:

"My adoptive mother never gave my first mother a second thought the whole time I was being raised.  It never even entered her radar screen that my first mother and I lost something through the adoption.  She was so blissfully happy that she couldn't be there for me emotionally when I needed to work through my own issues inherent in adoption."

In this case, I cannot blame the adoptive mother for her oversight, as she was probably not prepared for the complexities and nuances of adoption.  I know my adoptive mother was not.  How could she be when the industry to this day continues to present adoption as a simple win-win enterprise for all concerned?

Adult adoptees have so much wisdom to offer because they know how it feels to grow up being adopted.  It is way past time for the industry, the media and legislators to acknowledge their voices without insulting their motives.


  1. Thanks so much for the shout-out! The admiration goes both ways!

  2. Likewise! It really thrills me that you quoted what I had to say! Someone is listening! Thanks to you, Susan, and others like yourself I have finally begun my journey for greater knowledge and truth regarding the industry of adoption. I think you really captured the breadth of the article comment thread in a meaningful, non-biased way. It got pretty intense. What really was driven home to me was the outrage of adoptive parents. They really do feel like they are under attack when all we want is truth, fairness, and change. *Note to self*
    Silent and despondent no more,
    Pat from TX

  3. My apologies, I meant Rebecca, not Susan! I had Susan Harness on the brain because I was just looking at!

    Oh, wow! Had to share this with you: Because another blogger shared your post on facebook and you threw the Motherlode link back in, I went back and found a response to my comment offering encouragement and assistance on a potential search!

    I look forward to following you, Rebecca, and other strong-willed, strong-written, and strong-minded bloggers I've recently found who share a voice from the un-heard perspective. It is very moving to know that there is care, support, and acknowledgment of my point-of-view! Keep it up! Now, to practice on my own voice ...

  4. Hi Pat,
    As more and more of us speak out, it is going to become harder and harder for us to be ignored. I think many adoptive parents really do want the best for their children -- many commented on the article in sensitive and profound ways, I thought. Unfortunately, a few did not, but they seem to be missing the point. If we say anything at all negative about adoption, those few seem to think that we are saying everything about adoption is bad. As you say, "all we want is truth, fairness and change." I tend to blame agencies and attorneys that put the bottom line first and fail to educate the people involved as to the challenges and complexities of adoption. My own adoptive mother didn't even realize that birth records are sealed -- she was told that information would be available if we ever needed it. Likewise, many relinquishing mothers didn't realize birth records would be sealed. The system needs to evolve and become more honest, ethical and transparent. Instead, it seems to be becoming even more commercial because the demand for infants is so high. In my mind, there is just no excuse for denying full-grown adoptees access to their own original birth certificates. Thanks for your comment. We just never know what effect our input might have, so I hope you will keep speaking out!

  5. Great post as always.

    But I do have a bone to pick with this:

    " For example, what, in any of the comments I cited, suggests that these adoptees had had unhappy homes? Many of us love or loved our adoptive parents deeply, yet we resent the fact that our original identities were unnecessarily hidden from us."

    I don't think it is necessary to always mention that adoptees love their adoptive parents more than life itself, that they are our real parents and that we are the happiest people to ever walk the face of the earth. I think this constant defending and explaining is playing into the enemies' hands (so to speak). I also think that the issue that many adoptees did not get wonderful adoptive homes is a very important one. After all, the #1 reason for adoption in the first place is so that the child will get a better life. And those of us in the ARM know that this does not always turn out to be the case.

    I realize that these are two different issues. That one is about our civil rights and the other is about family preservation. But they are connected. My two cents.

  6. Hi Robin,
    Thanks for your comment. I agree that the issue that many adoptees did not get wonderful homes is also important. But the critics do have a way of dismissing the entire collective adoptee voice by lumping everyone together. Of course we all had different experiences, just as everyone in every walk of life does. None of that has anything to do with our civil rights, and I find that with the critics, we just have to keep hammering that point home. Sealing records from the human being to whom they pertain is never right. Period.

  7. Susan,
    I agree with what you said. Whether or not we love our APs and whether or not we are happy as adult adoptees are red herrings. I worry about us get sidetracked by the opposition making us focus on these issues rather than the real issue which is our civil/human rights as adoptees.

    Although I do find it interesting that our opponents by trying to dismiss us by saying that we had a bad adoption experience are tacitly (and I'm sure without realizing it) acknowledging that many adoptees did not get good adoptive families. And yet these are usually the same people who are always touting adoption as being so wonderful for the child.

  8. This is really an up hill battle. As an adoption coach and an adoptive mom,I labor for ways to support and heal adoptees. I am shocked and discouraged at the lack of empathy and the negative energy adoptees face when they express anything critical about being adopted.Adoption is not a fairy tale solution where everyone wins in "problem solved" happily-ever-after bliss. An adoptee does not experience amnesia about their losses.Even if they were adopted as infants.

    Adoption is rooted in loss.It is essential that it be recognized and validated. It is cruel to expect an adoptee to paint a pollyanna attitude that denies the cost to them.Love is not a zero-sum game in which an adoptee must be expected/required to relinquish their roots in exchange for a family to love and care for them to adulthood.True love is expansive and allows all parties to own/access/celebrate every piece of their history.For too long adoptees have been expected to "choose" sides. Adoption must not operate like a grade-school friendship where one can only have a single BFF. (Best Friend Forever.)
    I love my kids and am eternally grateful they are in my life. I also know, THEY paid a high "price" for membership in our family. high "price"

    1. Wow! You articulated my thoughts and feelings into words very accurately. Thank you.

  9. Love this comment, Gayle. I may have to use it in another post! I especially like "Love is not a zero-sum game in which an adoptee must be expected/required to relinquish their roots in exchange for a family to love and care for them ... For too long adoptees have been expected to "choose" sides." And this: "I am shocked and discouraged at the lack of empathy and the negative energy adoptees face when they express anything critical about being adopted." That negativity really is difficult to deal with, and I think it's one of the main reasons a lot more adoptees don't speak out. I'm older now and much more secure in myself than I used to be, so I don't care what anyone thinks, especially when their views are rooted in myths.

  10. Keep up the good work - I hope someday things will be reformed.

  11. Excellent post! Whistle-blowers are always labeled disgruntled in an attempt to discredit their true message and to shift the dialog away from greed that causes harm.

    While I will likely get slammed for making a post about adoptees about me....I have to say that it is
    too bad even you - as you seek to be heard - shut out the voices of natural parents that likewise need to be heard... many of whom have for decades been on the front lines fighting right alongside adoptees for adoptee rights, and yet being made invisible even by those we are trying to help. Natural/first/original parents who stand up and publicly declare were never promised nor do we want anonymity from our children are an important part of the fight to end adoptee discrimination. Yet we go unrecognized for our efforts, even by adoptees such as yourself.

    I dare-say, that I - a mother who lost a child to adoption - have done more over a longer period of time to fight the injustices in the system and end the coercive, exploitative and corrupt practices than any! And still we are ignored.... even by those we work to support.

    We are ALL being silenced by the Industry that wants to perpetuate more loss, separation and pain and those who support the industry. Adoption is for, by and about those who pay and are paid to redistribute children. The children are the commodity and the packages they originally arrived in are simply collateral damage! We are inhuman and need to shut up and be grateful for the "better lives" adoption provides.

    Adoption never ceases to remind me of the story of the boy scout dragging the old lady across the street when she really needs and wants to stay on the side she is on! The best intentions...

    Mirah Riben, author, THE STORK MARKET: America's Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry

  12. Hi Mirah,
    Thanks for commenting. Please know that I deeply appreciate what you and many other original mothers have done and are doing to support adoption reform. I would like us all to come together to support adoptee rights, no matter what part of the experience we come from, and that is one of my frustrations, that there is so much infighting among the various adoption reform groups. I imagine that's one of your frustrations too. Perhaps such disagreement is normal when it comes to trying to change a deeply ingrained culture. I remember reading about all the infighting that took place as women labored to get voting rights. While this particular post was about the adoptee voice, please see some of my others, such as this one: I know that we're all in this together! My own original mother and I had one phone conversation, which was helpful, but she did not wish to meet or have me contact her again. I have a half-sister five years older than I am out there but so far have elected not to contact her since my original mother never told her about me. I realize my original mother relinquished in a very different era, so I remain conflicted about balancing her needs with mine -- see my post at Anyway, rest assured that I am grateful for every voice that speaks out for adoptee rights. I just wish that more would join the chorus.

  13. As a Birth Mother, I grieve deeply when I read these posts. It was 1969 when I gave my son away. I was 17 years old and I had no way to care for myself, much less a child. Society was so against the idea of unwed mothers. I was in a home and there were so many really fine young there. It was a sad experience for all of us, but we were doing what we had to do. I had no idea the pain it would cause my child and only in the past few years have I learned the negative effects adoption can have on children. I suppose for every hurting adopted child there is a mother out there somewhere who hurts, too. I am in my sixties now, I never had another child. I know about my son now, and I would like so much to contact him, but I am afraid of upsetting his life. I don't have a family to introduce him to, my life's story is not one of success and accomplishment. What do I have to offer him that would be better than what his adoptive family gave him or better than the life he has made for himself? It is conflicting. I look at pictures of him on Facebook and my heart is overwhelming with love for him.

  14. Anonymous,
    What a perceptive, moving comment! If you want to reach out to your son, I encourage you to do so. From my perspective, you can't go wrong when you reach out with the simple message, "I have always loved you." It is scary, I know, because we cannot predict how the other party will react or respond. But don't assume your message of love would have a negative effect on your son. Love is something deeper than whatever we feel we have accomplished in life, I think. My first mother was able to say, "I love you in my heart," but she wasn't open to meeting me or letting her other daughter know I exist. I would have loved it if she could have said, "I'm proud of you." I had loving adoptive parents, but I still felt a connection to my original mother. If you haven't already, I encourage you to reach out to a birthmothers support group in your area. These groups are so vital in helping you to process your feelings and seeking contact, if that is what you wish.


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