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What it Cost to be Adopted

What it Cost to be Adopted

The New York Times (NYT) recently published a piece, “What I Spent to Adopt My Child,” which was part of the larger series, “The Price of Modern Parenting.” In this story, three sets of adoptive parents were featured, highlighting the varying costs of adoption. While the practical aims were arguably simple – to inform potential adoptive parents about the monetary costs they can expect to incur should they choose to adopt – the story sparked considerable outrage among adoptees and birth parents.[1] How, one might wonder, could such a seemingly innocuous article on parenting stir such controversy? The answer lies with a systematic problem inherent in nearly all mainstream media accounts of adoption, namely, the glaring omission of the adoptee perspective. Ironically, the very children adoption purportedly ‘saves’ are rarely offered a seat at the table when it comes to discussing adoption. The reason for this, I argue, is that adoptee narratives overwhelmingly undermine the dominant worldview of adoption as a ‘win-win’ or an unqualified good. Instead, adoptees often provide much darker, more painful, and traumatic stories. They are difficult truths that adoptive parents do not want to hear. They are stories that the adoption industry outright refuses to acknowledge.

Consider, for example, that the NYT article links to another story, “What to Know Before Adopting a Child,” and never once in the entire piece is an adoptee consulted. In this story, they interview five ‘adoption experts,’ who turn out to be CEOs, lawyers, and directors of adoption agencies, none of whom are adoptees.[2] The article asks potential adoptive parents questions such as “How much contact are you comfortable having between you and your adopted child, and his or her birth family?”, which is an example of how the focus is almost always exclusively on the adoptive parents rather than on the adoptee. What about asking questions like: How comfortable might your child be never knowing their biological heritage? What might it be like to grow up never seeing yourself reflected when you look at family members? How will being adopted shape your child’s life and likely put them in a high-risk category for mental illness, substance abuse, and suicide? These are just a few of the non-monetary costs adoptees face, and they are almost never discussed in articles such as the one in the NYT. Adoptees who try to bring these issues into the conversation are typically ignored, silenced, gaslit, or even threatened.

Part of the reason for this refusal to hear from adoptees stems from the fact that adoption is big business. To be sure, there are agencies that are less profit-driven than others, such as the Dave Thomas Foundation, whose focus is exclusively on foster-care adoptions, which is by far the least expensive option for adoptive parents. Nevertheless, the truth remains that many private agencies in the United States profit greatly from both domestic and international adoptions. As more and more scandals are uncovered among these for-profit agencies, however, the adoption industry has taken severe hits recently and has been trying to rebrand itself. The last thing it needs are angry adoptees that might further undermine its lucrative capacity.

There are undoubtedly cases in which adoption is the best option for a child, and it would be an overgeneralization to say that all adoptions are part of a money-making scheme led by unethical and greedy profiteers. But these ‘good’ adoptions are far less common than the adoption industry would lead one to believe. Kathryn Joyce’s book, The Child Catchers, provides a compelling look at the way coercion and corruption serve to mask the number of adoptions that are nowhere near necessary, let alone in the best interest of the child or the child’s biological family. Even adoptions where it appears that the parents made a conscious decision to relinquish and the adoption was carried out in an ‘ethical’ manner, still carry with them problematic assumptions about who does and does not deserve to be a parent.

For example, my young and financially struggling parents were deemed unfit by society to parent, even though my paternal grandmother really wanted to keep me. Once an unmarried woman faces an unplanned pregnancy, if abortion is not an option for her, she then faces a supposed dilemma: parent her child despite incredible hardships, and perhaps even get disowned by her family, or, carry a baby fully to term, only to have to sign papers claiming she is ok potentially never seeing that child again. Even in the case of open adoptions, which are much more common today, there are far too many loopholes and lax legislation that result in many birth parents finding themselves shut out of their children’s lives when the adoptive parents decide they do not wish to maintain contact. But this dilemma is a false one. What is rarely considered is family preservation – in other words, providing social support for and destigmatization of ‘non-traditional’ families who would otherwise parent their children if they felt they had the means and encouragement from extended family and friends to do so.

Perhaps most importantly, adoptees are speaking out about the grief associated with their adoption, the loss they feel, and their struggles with mental health because of adoption – and they are perpetually silenced. This article is therefore an attempt to add to the growing movement in the adoptee community to break that silence. There are countless adoptee narratives out there, and no single adoptee can speak for all of us. But if you speak to an adoptee, what you will inevitably find is that they paid a price to be adopted. What those costs amount to cannot be captured monetarily, but they deserve to be recognized, regardless. After all, if parents truly want to know what they can expect to ‘spend’ adopting a child, they should be fully informed of the emotional price, not just the economic one.

What was so infuriating to so many adoptees about the New York Times piece was that it characterized adoptees as commodities to be bought and sold – financial hurdles to be overcome by hopeful parents who otherwise could not have children naturally. But adoptees are not cars whose price tag gets lower the older or more damaged they are. We are human beings whose complex emotional lives have forever been shaped by adoption, and we deserve to be heard.

So, here are the stories of three adoptees who were separated from their original families for various reasons. Their stories help illuminate the lack of choice – and costs – that adoptees face.

Mara Saltzburg – Foster Adoptee

Mara was born in 1972, during a time known as the Baby Scoop Era. This was a period marked by an increased number of premarital pregnancies and infant adoptions, as well as intense shaming of women who chose to have sex out of wedlock. Promiscuity was pathologized, and women who became pregnant out of wedlock were deemed psychologically unwell. [3]  

Mara’s mother, Becky, was 15 at the time, and her parents pulled her out of school, stating that she had mono. Becky gave birth to Mara in May and was not permitted to hold her or even see her face. She was forbidden to speak of the pregnancy ever again.

Originally meant to be a domestic infant adoption (DIA), Mara was instead turned over to the foster care system.

The couple waiting to adopt me changed their minds when they were told I was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate,” says Mara.

At 2.5 months old, Mara was adopted by a family who had adopted an infant boy 11 months prior.

“My adoptive father left us when I was 2.5 years old and went on to remarry and have a biological son who he later described as his ‘real’ child. My adoptive mother moved in with a man when I was six who physically abused me and my brother and emotionally abused all of us. My adoptive brother physically and emotional abused me and there were times I truly feared for my life. He ran away when he was 15 which was somewhat of a relief for me but also meant I had to endure the brunt of my stepfather’s rage. My adoptive mother was bipolar, undiagnosed until I was 12 years old, at which time I became her caretaker and we became completely enmeshed. I was hospitalized a couple of times for depression and anorexia during high school and left home after graduating.”

In the NYT piece, the first couple interviewed, Marc Koenigsberg, 45, and Robb Layne, 40, talk about their foster-care adoption. It’s easy for the reader to get swept away in the sentimentality of it – a gay couple realizing their dream to become parents, overcoming the obstacles society places on them as a queer family, and their courage to adopt one of the ‘cheaper’ models from the overburdened foster system. Indeed, they seem like wonderful parents and the child they adopted will undoubtedly benefit from their love. However, when discussing why they chose foster-care adoption, this is what Layne had to say about it:

 “The real advantage was the additional resources offered to families who adopt through the foster-care system.”

This is an odd thing to say because the chief advantage to foster-care adoption should be the fact that children who genuinely have no biological family with whom they can ever hope to be reunited, or children who are extremely hard to place, finally find loving homes. More importantly, not all foster children end up in great homes, as Mara’s story demonstrates. Her story also undermines a myth prevalent in adoption discourse, namely, the idea that there are so many children out there who desperately need homes. In Mara’s case, had her grandparents been willing to support their daughter rather than hide her behind a veil of secrecy and shame, Mara might never have been placed in foster care to begin with. Instead, she found herself with an abusive adoptive father and brother and a mentally unstable adoptive mother. She goes on to say, of her adoptive mother:

“My adoptive mother left my stepfather after I went to college. He’s dead now. My adoptive mom has Parkinson’s and lives in an assisted living facility while her third husband lives rent-free in her house. She continues to implore me to bail her out of every bad mistake she makes but I was done years ago. I don’t wish her harm, but I have a life of my own now and my priorities have shifted. My adoptive brother and I were estranged for nearly a decade but we have recently found our way to a healing place of forgiveness and connection because we were both born into trauma.”

Being born into trauma is something many adoptees recognize as forever marking their lives. It doesn’t matter how much your adoptive parents love you – the wound of being relinquished cuts deep and is lifelong.

Part of the “life of her own” Mara describes is one she has found in reunion with Becky. DNA testing is making it increasingly easier for adoptees who were part of a closed adoption to obtain their needed medical history, birth records, and information about their heritage. This is despite the fact that most states in the U.S. still refuse to grant adoptees their original birth certificates.

Mara and Becky in 2008, three years into reunion

“My adoptive mother always said she would support me in searching for my biological parents once I turned 18. I wasn’t really interested in finding either one of them until I reached my 30’s and started thinking about having kids of my own. I also wanted to be able to answer questions accurately about my family medical history and know the things that other people took for granted, like what time I was born.”  

Mara says that she and Becky are now extremely close. “She gets me in a way that no other human on earth ever has,” she says.

Reunion can be an integral part of healing for adoptees, but like adoption generally, reunion stories are often oversimplified and romanticized by mainstream media. Videos showing adoptees meeting long lost relatives for the first time, with all parties sobbing happy tears and hugging, fail to capture the complexity of the process, which often involves just as much sadness and grief as it does healing. Mara, for example, has yet to connect with her father and might never have that chance.

“A year ago, after doing a DNA test and confirming I was a match to my father’s brother, I reached out to my half siblings. They both welcomed me openly but we have yet to meet in person. Neither one of them have much to do with our father, who they describe as “The Asshole”. I did reach out to him, twice. And twice I’ve been met with silence.” 

As for her mom, Mara says the reunion has been mostly positive. Becky confirms what so many studies have found about mothers who relinquish their children for adoption – as Mara says, “Her guilt ate her alive for decades.” Becky did not have any further children, says Mara. “She said she was okay with it because she felt like having more children would somehow be a betrayal to me.”

Mara says that she and Becky found each other only two weeks after Becky’s mom died.

“Adoption cost me my identity and my self-worth. It robbed me of my mother, sister and brother, my nieces and nephews… it nearly cost me my sanity and it came close to taking my life several times.”

The silver lining in Mara’s story is her incredible relationship with her mother, Becky. Mara said that during therapy once, she engaged in a holotropic breathwork exercise to work through some unresolved trauma. During this session, she ended up feeling as though she was reliving her birth experience. When she met Becky, she asked her to recount her birth story. “She validated everything down to the last detail,” explains Mara.

Longing to connect to one’s original family is one of the most common tropes in adoptee narratives, precisely because it is such a basic and primal drive all humans have. Access to biological facts about your existence is something non-adoptees often take for granted. Adoptive parents, who often suffer their own trauma of infertility, assume they can adopt a child and soothe that wound, and are often disappointed to learn that their adopted child still wants to connect with their biological family. And as Mara’s story shows, keeping this knowledge and capacity for connection from her was damaging, both to her and to her mom.

As she says, regarding her reunion with Becky, “now we are free to love each other again.”

Paige Moss – Foster Adoptee

Paige was adopted in 1982, after being relinquished by a young married couple who already had a 3-year-old boy. As she explains, the couple had given birth to a girl just before her, but she said, “months before I was born. We were Irish twins, one year and ten days apart.” 

Because Paige was born prematurely and had health risks, she went into the foster care system for several months. A potential adoptive home had arisen just after her birth, but, as she notes, “they bypassed me when they learned of my health risks.”

Paige’s biological parents were told that she had been adopted directly from the hospital, when in reality, she remained in the NICU and then went into foster care, until she was officially adopted.

“I was eventually adopted by what seemed to be an upstanding upper-middle class couple who had no children,” said Paige, who also noted that her adoptive mother was an adoptee herself.

This is not uncommon in the world of adoption – people often play multiple roles, such as adoptee and adoptive parent, or birth mother and adoptive parent. The second parent interviewed in the NYT piece, Jaqui Hunt, embodies this last duality. She adopted her daughter 30 years after relinquishing a son she gave birth to at age 18. When Paige and I discussed Hunt’s story, we were both flabbergasted by it. “How it is even legal is beyond me,” she exclaimed. Paige and I are close in age, as I was born in 1980. We were both struck by the fact that Hunt’s relinquished child, who is approximately the same age as both of us now, could have easily read the piece and wondered, is that my mom? It was not mentioned whether Hunt had reunited with her son, but if we assume this has not happened, the implications of Hunt’s story are even more unfathomable. Her son might wonder why, in the age of easy access to DNA information, did his mom never once try to find him?

Like the hypothetical scenario of Hunt’s son stumbling upon this information about his mom, adoptees who learn that they had siblings who were ‘kept’ often struggle immensely. Paige says that this knowledge meant there was no end to her questioning, “what is defective in me that they couldn’t keep me?” Add to this that her biological parents went on to have another girl and kept her. “I was obsessed for as long as I can remember with finding my family,” Paige says. Like Mara, Paige did not exactly end up in the ideal and loving home so many people imagine when they think of adoption. Even though adoptive parents go through screening (the extent of the screening varies widely depending on the type of agency the parents go through), and so many adoptive parents seem idyllic on paper, the reality is that just like biological parents, they have flaws. Happily married couples can adopt a child and then divorce years later. Seemingly healthy people can suddenly face debilitating disease. In Paige’s case, despite how good her adoptive parents might have appeared, she says:

“Within a few years of my adoption my adoptive mother’s health tanked and she was both physically and mentally ill, in and out of medical hospitals and mental hospitals, sometimes for 12 months at a time. She was violent and terrifying and abusive in every way one can be. I carry scars on my body to this day, and more on my heart. They were heavily involved in an evangelical church and there was a lot of occult and religious activity in that adoptive household.”

At 18, Paige went on to join the military, and she says her adoptive family “pretty much lost interest in me. My adoptive mother told me I was her biggest mistake.” This was part of a conversation that was to be their last. Paige’s adoptive mother – the woman who supposedly ‘rescued’ her –  told her adopted daughter she was a mistake, and then died shortly thereafter.

Rejection, abandonment, loss, and grief mark so many adoptee narratives, and it’s not just about the initial relinquishment. In fact, adoptees are often taught to think of their relinquishment not as rejection, but rather, as an act of selfless love on the part of their birth mothers. Indeed, this is how adoption is framed by the adoption industry. It is how my adoptive parents characterized my original parents’ choice, and it is even how Paige thought of adoption.

“I believed that while I hurt terribly from being adopted, that my situation was unique and that adoption was still such a good, amazing thing.”

The pain of recognizing that those who should hold you closest and keep you safe abandoned you to strangers instead is staggering, but it is only one aspect to the suffering for many adoptees. Paige, for example, had to experience yet more rejection by her adoptive parents. Rejection can happen in failed reunions as well. Mara’s story about failing to connect with her dad is one of many examples. For Paige, luckily, she found her biological family and they are very close.
 
“Now I know my natural family and love them desperately. I live and work next to them, my brother is here with me, my baby sister whom I learned about after reunion is my best friend. Our kids get on perfectly and all look nearly the same. It’s so wild.”

In the NYT article, Hunt, the birth-mother-turned-adoptive-mother talks about her reasons for relinquishing, noting that “I just wasn’t prepared to be a single parent at that point in my life. It’s not something my family, or society, would have accepted at the time.” One wonders, much like with Mara’s story, if Hunt had been supported more – monetarily and socially – would she  have made a different choice? It may seem like idle speculation, but there are so many narratives and studies of birth mothers who regret their decisions, that it is not a far cry to imagine that different circumstances would result in far fewer adoptions. Paige notes that her case was somewhat unique insofar as her biological parents were married and already had a child, but felt they could not handle a baby with health problems. She said that when she met her mom, she learned that “the death of my Irish twin was easier to take than my adoption, and my mom said she couldn’t ever place another kid,” hence the explanation for Paige’s younger sister that was kept. Paige’s story, much like Mara’s, highlights the need to consider family preservation in lieu of adoption to avoid the suffering that so often accompanies the practice, both on the parts of birth parents and adoptees.

Ironically, Hunt says she opted for a special needs child when she adopted. This resulted in a 15,000-dollar discount for adoption fees. Imagine if that money had instead gone to helping the family who relinquished so they could parent their special needs child. This is what Paige advocates for in much of her writing and activism related to adoption. She says there is no price tag you could place on what her adoption cost her. “You simply cannot quantify a lifetime of missed experiences with your natural family,” she told me. The influential psychologist, Betty Jean Lifton, had a term for these ‘missed experiences’ with one’s natural family – the Ghost Kingdom. It’s the place adoptees visit in their minds when imagining their relatives, what it would have been like to have grown up knowing them, etc. Even when reunited with one’s natural family, as Paige is, there is no escaping this ghost world of ‘what ifs.’ There is no dollar amount that could make up for those moments an adoptee will never have the chance to experience. 

Daniel Drennan ElAwar – International Adoptee

During a visit to Lebanon in June, 2019, Daniel Drennan ElAwar (left) and his cousin Jamal Awar (right) take the bus from Beirut to Qurnayel, a family village
Daniel was born in 1963 in the small mountain village of Qbeih, outside of Beirut, in Greater Syria. He was adopted by an American couple and lived with them in Iran and then Australia, before settling in the U.S. His adopted parents originally thought they were incapable of biologically reproducing, but after adopting Daniel, they went on to have four children biological to them.

“My relationship with my adoptive family is excellent,” Daniel says, “but this doesn’t deny what was lost.”

At 40, Daniel had what he describes as an “identity breakdown,” and decided to return to Lebanon to find his roots. He says that although he grew up in a diverse area of the U.S., even the Lebanese community there was “hell bent on assimilation,” as “dominant notions of ‘All-American’ weighed heavy.”

So, he set off for Lebanon and took up work at the American University of Beirut. He located the orphanage from where he was adopted and says that “contrary to what I was told by my parents as related to them by the nuns at the orphanage and later to me by the nuns themselves, my mother wanted to keep me.”

Daniel’s mom, whose name was Bahija (which means “joy”), was from a “mushayakh” family within the Druze community, responsible for carrying down religious tradition for the community. This often meant that certain persons were deemed to remain celibate throughout life. Bahija, in her 30s, seems to have purposefully sought out getting pregnant, as she had an affair with a wealthy, married man. “Rather remarkable for those days,” Daniel says, “she informed my grandparents.” Even more remarkable is that Daniel’s grandfather presented Daniel to the man and his family and requested that Daniel be registered with the government, but would be raised by the maternal side of the family. 

My father’s wife said basically ‘he goes or she goes.’ So the plans were made for my adoption,” Daniel says.

Bahija pleaded to keep Daniel for a month so he would be strong enough to survive, and then when he was adopted, the nuns lied to his adoptive parents, claiming he was 3 weeks old, when in fact he was already 2 months.

It is not uncommon for international adoptions to be fraught with lies and omissions. As Kathryn Joyce outlines in her book, The Child Catchers, the international adoption market has been marked by scandal. Orphanages are often sites of outright theft and trafficking, nefarious practices that are scaffolded by American imperialism and cultural myopathy. For example, what is meant by the term ‘orphan’ is culturally particular, and in many countries, orphanages are places where disadvantaged parents can place their children temporarily until a time at which they can afford to house and feed them properly on their own. The international adoption market in the U.S. has become so oversaturated with problematic practice that some agencies, like Bethany Christian Services, have ceased facilitating international adoption. This has led some scholars to speculate that international adoption itself might soon end altogether.

From an individual recounting, it might seem that Daniel’s adoption was not a glaring example of international scandal. The truth is that adoption via Lebanon was and remains rife with corruption. The entire truth was never disclosed to his adoptive parents, nor to him. It is also evident that cultural imperialism played a role in his adoption. As he notes,

“The nuns at my orphanage told me that ‘darker babies like myself’ were sent to America, Europe wanting ‘lighter skinned’ children. This was when I started to realize the use of adoption by elite strata of society to get rid of their own unwanted offspring (handicapped, out-of-wedlock births, etc.) but also to decimate non-Christian populations via de facto conversion.”

During his 12 years in Lebanon, Daniel pieced together a lot of his heritage, but he is still searching for relatives. He has five siblings on his father’s side, but they have refused to meet him. He says his mom was so stricken with grief at losing him, she remained sickly for the rest of her life.

Daniel lived in a poor part of Beirut while he worked at the American University, and his time there was revelatory, even if he didn’t find everything he was searching for.

“Most striking to me was that the people who ‘got’ my story were likewise displaced, but for different reasons: Palestinians, Syrian workers, Bedouin. My neighborhood was welcoming and protective, unlike my orphanage or the university where I was working. This, the class issue of it all, really defined how I related to people, and I started writing for the local left-wing press on the subject. I put off doing a DNA test for the longest time, and when I finally got my results I could instantly tell from names and villages listed that I was originally from the Druze community, an extremely small population spread out over Greater Syria and in the diaspora. It took me a long time to figure out how to play detective with my DNA results, but after some initial contact with ‘cousins,’ things started to fall into place. Thanks to some extremely serendipitous and fortuitous circumstances, I met my cousin Jamal while working on a theater play. His family was extremely welcoming, and word started  making its way around the mountain villages. A man came forward to relate what he knew of the story to Jamal’s father. In June of 2016, just as I was finding out my story, the Lebanese government reneged on my visa and I was forced to leave. The stupendous irony of being able to stay “as an American” but not after having “become Lebanese” still boggles my mind.”

Daniel’s story is a testament to the price adoptees pay when they are the ‘products’ of international adoption. Besides the feelings of rejection and abandonment that many domestic adoptees feel, transnational and transracial adoptees incur the added cost of cultural ‘identicide.’[4] Even well-meaning adoptive parents, like Deirdre and James Parker-Young, the third couple interviewed in the NYT article, are incapable of providing their adopted child from South Africa with the immersive experience of growing up as a South African. Adoptive parents might take the time to educate themselves about their adopted child’s culture, take them on trips to their home country, or practice the original language with them, but these are mere gestures that do not come close to what it is like to be enmeshed in the lifeworld of that culture – it’s specific geographical location, daily customs, and the general feeling of being ‘home’ that Daniel claims he never felt. Ironically, when he finally was ‘home,’ he was still an outsider, and was forced to leave. His story encapsulates one of the most basic truths distilled in so many adoptee narratives; namely, always feeling like an outsider no matter where you are.

In the NYT article, the Parker-Youngs speak about international adoption purely in terms of financial costs and the hurdles they had to overcome to realize their dream of adopting a child. The country from which they adopted didn’t matter to them. In fact, they originally wanted to adopt domestically, but because the agency they worked with only served certain states for domestic adoptions, they went with its international program instead. As is typical of so many stories of adoption told from the adoptive parent’s perspective, the child’s identity prior to adoption is mostly irrelevant. On such a view, babies are blank slates, and the culture to which they were born can be erased and forgotten, replaced with the adopted culture. Love will be sufficient, adoptive parents think, to heal any wounds caused by severing a child from their cultural heritage.

But Daniel disagrees. As he says:

“When I think of the ‘cost’ of adoption, I think first of the check my parents gave to the orphanage to pay for my ‘stay’ there. The amount translates to about 2500 dollars today, a relative bargain. I think of my own loss of identity, language, culture, and family. I have made up for that quite a bit by returning and living there for 12 years, but this has made returning stateside precarious and uncertain in many ways, from dubious notions of naturalized citizenship, to questioning my entire identity before the age of 40. I walk a razor’s edge in this regard. I think of the cost to my mother. I think of the networks of mother and baby homes (convents), missionary-founded hospitals and orphanages, and the huge  conduit they create, a giant sluice exporting children to far-flung places in the so-called First World. In my own writing, I don’t speak too much about my own individual loss, because this focus runs counter to more communal cultures that many of us source from. So, I think of the political and economic cost of what happened to us as it maps onto other related displacement, dispossession, and disinheritance. The ‘cost’ here is human dignity, and the very notion of being considered human to begin with. In this regard, I am my mother’s son. And as I state in my “Open Letter to Lebanon“, my existence is her resistance.”

These are only three adoptee narratives. Undoubtedly, if you were to interview more adoptees, their stories would vary greatly. The common thread you will find running through many, if not all our stories, however, is that adoption cost us something. Even the happiest adoptees carry the weight of being born a burden, a problem, someone who needed to be ‘rehomed’ through no fault of their own. Both Daniel and I were fortunate enough to be sent to loving homes, and this assuredly mitigated some of the pain, but it did not erase it. When I located my original father, after searching for him for nearly 40 years, there is a reason it took me two weeks to stop uncontrollably sobbing. I spent most of my life buying into the adoption hype that biology was irrelevant while simultaneously searching obsessively for my origins. This sort of fractured identity makes it difficult to form a coherent narrative to frame your life. It may seem like a small price to pay, and this is what pro-adoption advocates want you to believe – that I, or Mara, or Paige, or Daniel would have lived a much worse life had we not been ‘rescued.’ In other words, adoptees should be grateful that they did not get ‘stuck’ in a bad situation. But stories like Mara’s and Paige’s undermine this dominant narrative. Moreover, even in ‘happy’ adoption stories, adoptees pay a price. 

Paige told me she is a search angel, meaning she helps others find their birth relatives. She says that “the number of elderly people who, even at age 70, finally come out of the fog and realize how adoption has affected them is absurd.” All of us want to feel at home. Some of us are good at convincing ourselves we’ve been there all our lives, only to realize decades later that we are not where we thought we were. It’s disorienting to be an adoptee.

Philosophers and psychoanalysts sometimes use the German word, unheimlichkeit, to describe the human condition. The word loosely translates as ‘uncannyness’, but in Freud’s discussions, e.g., it takes on another meaning as well: ‘unhome-like.’ While all humans might experience this unsettling feeling from time to time, I think what we can see from these adoptee narratives shared here, is that unheimlichkeit colors nearly every aspect of experience, even if only implicitly. The ‘unhome-ness’ one feels extends out from the moment of relinquishment and into the adoptive family, where one is genetically ‘unhome,’ even if they are loved and wanted. And reunion does not fully dissipate this unhome-like feeling. After spending a lifetime ‘rehomed,’ adoptees face the additional burden of re-rehoming themselves amidst their biological kin, something non-adoptees simply cannot fathom having to undertake.

 

There is no amount of money that can make up for these emotional costs. No reparations to be paid. No refunds. Love, for all its greatness, is insufficient to fully heal the wounds adoption causes. Perhaps, then, we ought to stop trying to heal adoptees, and instead, recognize that their wounds are permanent. The wound – a constant presence of an absence – is just as much a part of an adoptee’s identity as the courage they have in their hearts when they share their stories. To honor an adoptee, therefore, is to listen to them, and believe them when they tell you the price they paid for their adoption.



[1] The term ‘birth parent’ is contested among the adoptee and ‘original parent’ community. I tend to use the term ‘original’ to denote those parents who were the source of my origin and my first parents. ‘Birth parent’ arguably reduces a mom or dad to a biological vessel or vehicle and makes it easier for adoptive parents to ignore the lived experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, maternal-infant bonding, co-regulating, and the trauma of being separated shortly thereafter. In this piece, however, I will use the terms ‘birth mother’ and ‘birth father,’ so as not to confuse readers who might not be familiar with the contested language. First mother, Natural father, biological parents, etc. are all terms utilized among various parts of the adoption triad, but it is my belief that adoptees can call their parents whatever they choose and should not be silenced in this regard.

[2] Rita Soronen, president and CEO of Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption; Laurie Goldheim, Adoption Director for the Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys (A.A.A.A.), Deborah E. Guston, former Director of the A.A.A.A., Becky Fawcett of HelpUsAdopt.org, Dawn Davenport, Executive Director of the non-profit group, Creating a Family.)

[3] Cf. Wilson-Buterbaugh, K. (2017). The Baby Scoop Era;  Fessler, A. (2006). The Girls Who Went Away and  Solinger, R. (2000). Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade.

[4] This term can refer to the erasure of an individual’s identity by severing ties to their origins, but can also refer to the erasure of entire cultural identities. Unlike genocide which involves the literal murdering of humans belonging to a specific ethnic or cultural group, identicide is more about the politics involved in  silencing ways of knowing, ways of communicating, and ways of identifying.

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