Adoptees of the 1960s

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

During that decade—before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion across the U.S., before the Pill was fully mainstream, and before the societal stigma for single mothers greatly diminished—adoption rates were unsurprisingly much higher:

The number of adoptions rose from 91,000 in 1957 to 175,000 in 1970, then fell to 130,000 by 1975; the decline of the early 1970s coincided with the legalization of abortion.

In that context, when adoption was at a historic peak, here are several stories from readers adopted in the 1960s:

My own experiences don’t jive much with those discussed by other adoptees in your reader series. Not a surprise—every adoption story is different. My parents were neither wealthy nor particularly well-educated. My childhood was a happy one, and although I suffered my share of bullying (and doled it out, as most kids will), adoption was never the target for other kid’s attacks.

But then, my adoption took place in the 1960s. I was born pre Griswold v. Connecticut [1965], pre Roe v. Wade [1973]. There were quite a few of us adoptees around town. I knew of probably two dozen, including the president of my high school senior class. Some of us were below average, some were stars (like the class president), but most of us were somewhere in between.

Another reader experienced a far less happy childhood:

I was adopted in the early 1960s. At the time, white babies were in high demand and there were plenty to go around, since reliable birth control did not exist. While there were screening processes for adoptive parents in place, the act of adoption was seen as benevolent, as these parents were rescuing these “unwanted” babies.

While the criteria for these screenings is unknown to me, I have a good amount of anger and frustration, since I was placed in a family where abuses, both substance and sexual, were prevalent. There were also the traumatic childhood experiences in school with children torturing me with taunts of my adoptive status.

I was placed in a lower-middle class family that did not give me the option of attending college. I spent my 20s and 30s in a whirlwind of jobs and failed relationships. I am convinced that the lack of bonding during the formative first eight weeks of my life, when I was placed in foster care, and the compounding of abuses I experienced in the adoptive home, led to my free-fall as an adult.

I still wonder if I should try to find my birth mother. But there is an irrational fear that I will be “rejected” again if she does not want to hear from me. Intellectually, I know that she was the victim here, and she had no choice but to give me up in a time when single mothers were ostracized. After 53 years, clearly, she has had a full life without me and may not have ever told anyone about me. There are many stories of an adoptee placing that phone call only to have the line go dead when they announce who they are.

And here is where I am at a loss. Could I handle this response? Respecting her decision(s) while trying to gain some self-love and respect for myself?

Adoption in the 21st century is clearly a different animal, but the psychological ramifications are still broad. Yes, there are children who need families. But there will always be strings attached.

Another reader also worries about the longterm effects of early childhood separation:

I was adopted in the mid-1960s, a white child adopted by white parents. I always knew I was adopted; I never “found out.” I had a little book called The Chosen Baby that my parents would read to me. They were always very loving and supportive; it was a great home. I saw adoption as a good thing, and I was puzzled when friends would express dismay or pity that I wasn’t my parents’ “real” child.

Mostly what I remember is a mild curiosity about my origins and imagining that my “real” mother might be, say, Judy Garland. (This was around the time I starred as Dorothy in a 4th grade play.) And I always had this kind of lonely feeling like I didn’t fit anywhere. I was fascinated by family resemblance, since I didn’t look like my parents or extended family. I felt like I didn’t look like anyone else. I was also very insecure and over-eager to please.

As an adult, I had some counseling and read a couple of books on the separation that happens when a child is separated from their birth mother and the trauma that results from that. I suspect that my fear of abandonment and the desperate desire to please (that I still struggle with daily) are part of this subconscious effect in my own life.

One more reader’s story:

Back in the ‘60s, you didn’t have a child out of wedlock—especially in a small town—so my biological mother placed me for adoption. No one knew she was pregnant, not even my biological father.

My adoptive parents were told not to try and have any more children. They had a daughter and then three subsequent miscarriages. Wanting another child, they adopted me—a small and frail infant about a month old.

When I was in the fifth grade, my parents sat me down and told me I was adopted. They told me very little about my birth mother, and I later discovered what they did know was a lie from the adoption agency.

My biological mother was married and divorced with a two-year-old daughter before she met my biological father. When she discovered she was pregnant, she took a trip to the other side of the state to give birth. She later married and had another daughter, making me her middle child.

I did some searching through the years, and when I was 30, I was finally able to make contact with my biological mother, her two daughters, and their families. I was welcomed “back” into the family as if I had never been gone. Twenty years later, we’re still close. I try to get down for a visit at least once a year.

I was married when I met my biological mother, but my wife left a few years later. Still desiring children, I adopted my son as a single adult male … something that seems to be rather rare. My son was 13 and we had a wonderful relationship until his death about seven years ago, at the age of 22.

When I turned 40, I was able to locate and first speak with my biological father. He married and had two daughters, both younger than me, both married with children. I was the happy surprise for my biological father later in life. His wife told me he had always wanted a son and was so pleased that I found him. I was a bit of a shock at first, but as soon as the shock wore off (right after my first visit), I was welcomed to his family just as I was my biological mother’s family.

All of this life experience, plus my mission work in other countries, caused me to set my life’s direction helping orphans and at-risk kids around the globe through Orphan World Relief. The story of my birth and adoption isn’t the end of the story, just a continuation of a journey … a destination unknown but anticipated.