My Family Oversimplified My Brother’s Adoption Story

Believing that your sibling was “almost aborted” has a way of crystallizing one’s convictions.

Illustration of a baby in a mother's arms
In truth, I don’t think my parents ever knew much about the circumstances leading to my brother’s adoption. (Getty / The Atlantic)

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My brother arrived in my life like the rain always did: after fervent prayer and petitioning. My father was a crop duster in the Texas Panhandle, a land where memories of the Dust Bowl remained painfully fresh even as the farmers remained stubbornly persistent. And so we were always praying for rain, before Friday-night high-school football games, around the dinner table, at church on Sunday morning. When rain canceled the rodeo or a much-anticipated carnival, gratitude held our disappointment in check. When hail flattened crops and tornadoes ripped sheet-metal roofs off barns, we took the bitter with the sweet: At least we got some rain.

Late in the summer of 1985, when I was 3 years old, the drought must have been worse than usual. Adults fretted about withering crops and paltry yields; their anxiety hung in the dry air like static electricity—invisible yet crackling and buzzing. Perhaps I absorbed their worry, or maybe I was simply mimicking what I saw the adults doing, but I joined them in praying for rain. And when the fat drops of moisture fell solidly on the brittle ground a few days later, it was my turn to feel electric. With the matter-of-factness of a child suddenly convinced of her cosmic power, I greeted God with a new request: “Can I have a little brother or sister?”

Deep into the month of August, our phone rang. Our old family doctor in a neighboring town, a man familiar with my mom’s longing for another baby, asked if my parents would like to adopt a newborn boy. It was to be a private, closed adoption, as requested by the infant’s birth mother, who faced an unexpected pregnancy in a rigidly conservative and nosy town (which is to say it could have been practically anywhere in the Texas Panhandle). My parents said yes. William’s arrival came so suddenly that we had nothing for a crib except an empty cardboard flag box, leftover packaging from the paper streamers my dad sent flying out of his crop-dusting plane to mark his passes. It made a fitting bed for a baby who seemed to have come tumbling out of the sky.

In truth, I don’t think my parents ever knew much about the circumstances leading to my brother’s adoption. They never met William’s mother, so the doctor was the only narrator, which left plenty of room to fill in the story’s gaps with details that suited them. By the time Will and I were teenagers, we’d begun to understand that our father was the hero of his own story. And so it wasn’t surprising one day when he asked for the microphone at a local crisis-pregnancy-center fundraising event and brought my brother to the stage:

“His birth mom wanted to get an abortion, but the doctor wouldn’t do it,” I remember Dad saying, pausing for dramatic effect. “So she had the baby and brought him back to the doctor and said, ‘Here, you said I shouldn’t get an abortion, so you find someone to take care of him.’” Dad put his arm around Will and the crowd roared. It was the perfect fairy tale for the occasion, featuring a thwarted villain, clear protagonists, and a satisfying resolution.

Will stood on the stage, nervously smiling as he tried to sort out what he’d done to deserve applause; not quite figuring out that the audience was applauding their own righteousness. I wish I could say that even back then I’d felt some uneasiness with the tidy narrative we told ourselves. I wish I’d recognized how it flattened the story of my brother’s existence into a couple of stark and cold sentences. I wish I could say that I felt protective of my brother, unwittingly put in a situation in which the most tender and private parts of his story—whether real or imagined—were plundered rather than guarded before he was old enough to have a say in the matter. But I didn’t. Back then, I felt my heart swell with pride alongside everyone else in the audience as I joined in the applause. We were the heroes. We’d saved him. We would save them all, if we could.

Carrie McKean and her brother Will as children
The author and her brother Will as children (Courtesy of Carrie McKean)

Three decades later only one part of that story is unequivocally true to me: the satisfying resolution. I am grateful Will is my brother. I have worked and reworked that sentence trying to make it seem less flimsy, but no rhetorical construct can bear the weight of my love for him. As our family disintegrated throughout our childhood and young-adult lives, the thread connecting Will and me grew more resilient and durable. We have another brother who is roughly a decade younger, but in our most formative years, Will and I held on to each other as one clings to a life jacket in a stormy sea—reassuring one another as we rode the waves of the tempest that eventually shipwrecked our family. These days neither of us has any contact with our parents, but the two of us remain together—raising our families alongside each other, celebrating birthdays and Thanksgiving, meeting up for we-made-it-through-the-first-week-of-school ice-cream dates.

For most of my adulthood, I haven’t thought much about the fact that my brother was adopted. But in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade being overturned, I find myself considering his entry into my life yet again. Watching the gleeful moods of many in the pro-life community post-Roe, I see glimpses of my past. Believing that your brother was “almost aborted” has a way of crystallizing one’s convictions. Growing up in a conservative evangelical community, I was taught that morality was black-and-white. It was an orderly worldview with no room for messy complications; those were hidden behind closed doors. As a family, we attended pro-life rallies and at least once we marched in an anti-abortion protest, never mind that most everyone around seemed to already agree and the nearest abortion clinic was likely hundreds of miles away. It still felt good to stand up for what we thought was right.

When I turned 18 and could vote for the first time, choosing my candidates was easy. People like me were “single-issue voters,” and the voter guide in my church bulletin told me which politicians were pro-life. Just like so many within the pro-life movement today, we were blinded by our convictions to the uniquely complicating circumstances and considerations in each unwanted pregnancy. We sacrificed our concern for Will’s mother at the altar of our certainty, ridding ourselves of grace and mercy as we glossed over the fear and anxiety she must have experienced when she found out she was pregnant. In our hubris, we left no room for her pain. Will’s mother was almost invisible to us, one of the most monumental moments of her life reduced to a cameo appearance.

Maybe growing up in a fundamentalist family has given me a nose for sniffing it out, but these days fundamentalism seems to have infected both ends of the abortion debate, rendering us unable to speak to each other. In the Rorschach test of a 12-week fetal ultrasound image, many in favor of abortion rights see an undeveloped fetus where those on the other side see a baby. Some conservatives withdrew a political endorsement for a Republican legislator who dared to voice support for a rape exception to an abortion ban. Some progressives argue for no abortion restrictions at all. But in the middle of these extremes are the majority of Americans, like me, who believe that abortion should be legal in some circumstances and illegal in others.

I am the mother of two daughters who will be teenagers before I can blink, and even though I consider myself to be pro-life, I find the current legal landscape in my state deeply troubling. Should one of my daughters end up unexpectedly pregnant, my capacity as their mother to guide them through the ensuing decisions has been severely limited by Texas lawmakers who seem more interested in pleasing a vocal base than they are in having nuanced and thoughtful policy discussions. When we invite legislators into the privacy of a medical-consultation room, it’s no surprise we get bludgeonlike laws that make no clear exception for lethal fetal anomalies, the health of the mother, or rape and incest. No person should be reduced to a political pawn. And yet that’s exactly what my daughters and I have become, even as we have the financial resources and connections to maintain some personal autonomy in a state where poorer women now have very little.

In spite of these churning social, political, and personal complexities, the din of the raging culture war becomes background noise when I think of my brother and our ordinary life. What if that callous line happened to be true: “She wanted to get an abortion, but the doctor wouldn’t do it.” If she had indeed requested an abortion—what if the doctor had complied? One of life’s complicating factors is that we can’t experiment with counterfactuals. We can’t objectively weigh the life we have against the one we don’t. I can’t imagine a world where Will isn’t my brother, where my nephew doesn’t give me one of his trademark bear hugs every time he comes over, or where I’ve never heard my niece call me “Care-Care.” I don’t want to imagine it. And yet it is not lost on me that my feelings might find their closest mirror in the experience of a woman who cannot imagine the life she might have led if she hadn’t been allowed to get an abortion.

No matter how one tells the story, the very existence of the family I love today required a stranger’s sacrifice. It came at the cost, I imagine, of a young woman’s future plans—whatever they might have been—suddenly undergoing a tectonic shift. It is possible that adoption was her Plan A, despite the story we grew up hearing. Or maybe she wanted to keep her baby, but her parents pressured her into a different decision. Given the community she lived in and her limited geographic access to abortion services, it’s possible that her sacrifice was unwilling. If it were, would knowing the end of the story change anything for her? Would seeing a snapshot of her son today, playfully launching his kids into the air at our neighborhood pool, make it all seem worth it?

These days, considering that my brother’s mother might have bravely endured a set of circumstances she never wanted because she had no other choice sends my emotions spinning wildly. I move through anger, indignation, and sorrow for the circumstances she faced, for the personal agency she might have been denied, for the losses my brother and she have always had to live with, for the persistent grief that comes from severing a primal relationship. But the spinning can stop in only one place: gratitude for the abortion she did not receive, for the brother that I have. For the family that we’ve made.

My youngest daughter, also adopted, sat beside her Uncle Will on the curb outside his house one day this spring. She is 10, grappling more and more with the fact that she doesn’t look like us. For weeks, she’d been dissecting our family tree and figuring out how everyone fit together. That day she’d settled on testing the waters of her own belonging by poking at her uncle.

“You’re not my real uncle,” she said, keeping her voice falsely nonchalant and tossing her head so that her long black hair fell to cover half her face. “Because you’re not my mom’s real brother.” Will quickly glanced up and caught my eye. We both heard what she was saying between the lines about herself and her place with us. He knew better than I ever could what she was feeling, so I stayed quiet and let him respond.

“Hey,” his voice softened as he leaned over to gently bump her shoulder with his. She didn’t budge. He playfully kicked her cheetah-print Converse with his mud-caked work boot and she finally looked up to catch his eye. “I’m here, aren’t I? Doesn’t get more real than that.” I looked up at the sky and blinked back tears. His voice, gentled by his West Texas drawl and infinitely tender heart, landed like rain on the brittle places.