When Adoption Turns to Agony

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

Our long-running reader series continues with a heartbreaking account from a woman who was adopted at birth in the late ’60s and never reconciled with that:

I always knew I was adopted and it haunted me—perhaps because I had such a bad relationship with my mother, or perhaps because I KNEW something of my birth family. I knew I had siblings. (I was an only child in my adopted family.) I knew that there were people out there I was connected to but didn’t know. I was obsessed with this knowledge and it ate at me.

When I turned 20, my adopted mother asked if I wanted to meet my birth family. Well, of COURSE I did. I wanted to know why. I wanted to know THEM.

So they arranged a meeting. Afterwards, my adopted mother was horrified that I still had a desire to stay in contact with my birth family. She thought I would just meet them, get answers to all my questions and walk away. It drove a bigger wedge between my adopted parents and me.

Over the years, I rarely saw my birth family, out of respect for my adopted family. But a few years ago, my adopted mother died. (My father died years ago.) So I decided to try and have a better relationship with my birth family.

But it hasn’t worked out. These people are strangers to me. I hear stories of their childhoods, of their memories, and it means nothing to me. The good, the bad—I had no part of it.

And then the nagging question of “WHY ME?” I wasn’t the only illegitimate child in this family. I wasn’t the only one whose mother couldn’t afford to raise her. And yet I was the only one given up for adoption. The grandmother who threatened to turn me over to child welfare if my mother DIDN’T give me up for adoption not only raised my older sister but her daughter as well. WHY NOT ME?

Over the last few years I’ve begun to understand my adopted mother better. Was she jealous? I don’t know, maybe. But I think she was actually trying to protect me. She knew what kind of lifestyle these people had because she grew up the same way—and escaped from it and spent the rest of her life trying to put it behind her.

This year, something just broke. I realized that the visits were too painful. I didn’t fit in, and I didn’t have anything in common with these people, so the visits were just too painful.

Ironically, I’ve learned that family is the most important thing in the world to everyone else. I always had friends that I thought of as family, but I learned the hard way that they didn’t feel the same way. And now I have nothing. I never felt like I was a part of my adopted family. I will never feel like I’m part of my birth family. I don’t even feel like I’m a part of my husband’s family. I’m just someone they’re nice to because of him. Weekends and holidays are always reserved “for family.” And I just don’t have one.