Adoption Is Not a Fairy-Tale Ending

It’s a complicated beginning.

A photo of two parents torn apart, with a child in the middle
Getty / The Atlantic

In America, popular narratives about adoption tend to focus on happy endings. Poor mothers who were predestined to give their children away for a “better life”; unwanted kids turned into chosen ones; made-for-television reunions years later. Since childhood, these story lines about the industry of infant adoptions had gradually seeped into my subconscious from movies, books, and the news.

Then, following the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the tropes proliferated. Photos of smiling white couples holding signs that read We will adopt your baby went viral this summer, quickly inspiring online mockery. Many U.S. adoption agencies prepared for a potential increase in adoption in states that have made abortion illegal, despite limited evidence that a need for these services will increase.

As I found while researching a book on identical twins raised in radically different circumstances, the reality of adoption is far more complicated than some might think—and, as many adoptees and scholars have argued, deserving of a more clear-eyed appraisal across American culture. I began reporting Somewhere Sisters in 2016. The identical twins Isabella and Hà were born in Vietnam in 1998, and their mother struggled to care for them. Isabella (born Loan) was adopted by a wealthy, white American family that gave her a new name and raised her in the suburbs of Chicago. Hà was adopted by a biological aunt and her partner, and grew up in a rural village in Vietnam with sporadic electricity and frequent monsoons.

Over several years, I interviewed the sisters, their first family, and their adoptive families. I also followed the twins’ anticipated yet fraught reunion at age 13 and the time that followed. Meanwhile, I delved into the archives of adoption history and scholarship. And I interviewed other adoptees from around the world. This all made clear to me that when reunions with birth families do happen, they aren’t always happy; they can be painful, confusing, or traumatic.

I also saw how scores of adoptees who are parents, lawyers, educators, or activists have been challenging the rosy image of adoption that stubbornly persists in our culture. One of them is Victoria DiMartile, a biracial Black and white adoptee raised by a white family, who is working toward her Ph.D. in anthropology at Indiana University at Bloomington. She studies the social and economic effects of the adoption business and is the founder of Wreckage and Wonder, which provides adoption education. Children are not offered up for adoption in a vacuum, she told me. Many of them “are available because of certain, very strategic political policies.”

One complicated way that this plays out is in adoption across cultures, which is a common phenomenon—as of 2016, 29 percent of adopted children were being raised by parents of a different race, according to the Institute for Family Studies. For example, Operation Babylift, which happened toward the end of the Vietnam War, was characterized as a massive rescue and relief effort for children who were assumed to be orphans; the goal was for them to be raised in Western homes. Yet, as Allison Varzally writes in Children of Reunion, some family members in Vietnam had actually enlisted their children in Operation Babylift with hopes of reclaiming them as soon as they could make their own way to the United States. For them, adoption was a desperate but temporary attempt to save them from suffering in the aftermath of war.

Some of these Vietnamese parents did come to America to find their children. Some even participated in lawsuits to get their children back. Other adoptees from that era have never been reunited with their birth family. Far from being a linear, feel-good tale, the history of adoption from Vietnam shows how the act can be a tangle of hard choices, imperfect systems, and inevitable dislocation.

In another example of how adoption can be driven by forces beyond parents’ control, the Indian Adoption Project, which began in 1958, involved taking nearly 400 Native American children from their family and reservation and placing them with white adopters. Reasons for removal often included “neglect,” which throughout adoption history has been a broad category encompassing homelessness, poor hygiene, absent parents, and drug abuse in some instances, or leaving a child with caregivers outside the nuclear family in others.

Operation Babylift and the Indian Adoption Project show that adoption isn’t a solution to society-level problems. Some adoptees worry that the Dobbs decision could turn into another moment for adoption to emerge as a supposed panacea without considering its complexities and troubled history. Their fear is that fairy tales will once again be used to justify a flawed institution.

Fairy tales about adoption don’t circulate just among the public; they can be internalized by adoptees. For her master’s thesis in sociology at the University of Technology at Sydney, Indigo Willing interviewed 13 adults who had been, from 1969 to 1975, adopted from Vietnam as children and raised by white parents in Western countries. Willing is herself an adoptee born in Vietnam and raised by a white family in Australia as well as the founder of the community network Adopted Vietnamese International; she earned her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Queensland. In her interviews with adoptees, Willing noticed that when holes in their narrative about why they were orphaned could not be supplemented with facts, the adoptees turned to fantasy-like tales and speculation passed on from parents. Those she interviewed for her master’s thesis repeated “rags to riches” tropes.

Through her later work, Willing heard of another source for similar fantasies: “Red Thread” folk tales. In these stories, which originated in Chinese mythology, a celestial matchmaker arranged marriages by tying red strings between people who were deemed fated from birth to marry each other. In the U.S. and Europe, adoptive parents of Chinese children later reinterpreted the plot, which was repeated in internet forums and children’s books, and applied it to adoptees of other backgrounds. The core idea of these stories was that orphans were fated to end up with their adoptive parents. The narrative left birth parents out completely, brushing aside the social inequities that pushed parents to relinquish their children. “Fairy tales transform contingency into destiny,” wrote Macarena García González, a researcher and lecturer at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, and Elisabeth Wesseling, a professor of literature and art at Maastricht University, in the Netherlands. “Their inexorable ending drives the message home that once things are what they were meant to be, they will stay that way forever.”

A cover of the book 'Somewhere Sisters' by Erika Hayasaki
This article has been partially adapted from Erika Hayaski’s book Somewhere Sisters: A Story of Adoption, Identity, and the Meaning of Family.

The dominant narratives that many adoptees come to learn, DiMartile said, “are designed to feed the adoption industry.” Many of these idealized themes were a product of a supposedly color-blind era—an era that followed the Indian Adoption Project—in which social workers advocated for adoptees to assimilate to their new community. The implication of this mindset is that the happily ever after of adoption comes at the cost of forsaking everything that came before.

Some adoptees, such as DiMartile and Willing, talked with me about having a moment when they started to see beyond the narrative about fate and question their true feelings about the adoption system, and how it has impacted their relationships, personalities, and identity formation. The process, known in the adoptee community as coming out of the fog, can feel terrifying and unsettling. This idea has been around for a while, even before adoptees gave it this term: For example, the author Betty Jean Lifton wrote about “waking up from the great sleep” in her 1979 book Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience.

Many who have experienced coming out of the fog say the process is eventually liberating. It involves simultaneously holding an adoptive family’s love and well-meaning intentions alongside the ways that adoption can cause trauma and rippling pain, says Lynelle Long, a Vietnamese adoptee who in 1998 founded the website and online community InterCountry Adoptee Voices. “We need to uphold that there can be all these contradictory realities within our experience,” she told me. Indeed, the adoptee community has high rates of depression, and reported suicide attempts are nearly four times as common among adoptees than those who are not adopted, according to a 2013 study in the journal Pediatrics.

Adoptees exist in a space of extraordinary collision, full of both gratitude and loss. That duality can be hard to understand, but it ought to inoculate society from believing that adoption can be an easy solution to a complex moment in American family life. For the adoptees I spoke with, there are no fairy-tale endings.

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.