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Your Adoption Stories
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Scroll down for the latest in our ongoing series on the trials, tribulations, and joys of adoption. Email your own story, perspective, or disagreement to hello@theatlantic.com.

Show 2 Newer Notes

When Adoption Turns to Agony

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.

A reader, Kim, brings back our adoption series with the story of her search for her birth family:

My story begins in 1962. I was adopted at six months old. My bedtime story, as a child, was about the special day when my parents received a phone call that they had a daughter. Mom and Dad said I was dressed in a pink dress and black patent leather shoes. They called me their living doll.

I had amazing parents! Both wise and loved me dearly. During my younger years I knew I was loved, but I also knew that I was different from my adoptive parents—different talents, different looks. Whenever I thought about having birth parents, it was like putting my mind in a deep, dark, vast space—nothing existed. My constant thought was, “I wonder if someone out there looks like me, and is similar to me.”

When my first son was born, I thought, “My first blood relative that I know,” though oddly I thought of him as my husband’s son. My second son looked just like me. I was so happy! But again, I thought of him as my husband’s son. Same when my third son was born.

I realized at that point that I had never really felt connected to anyone. Maybe because my heritage was missing. I didn’t know where I came from. No real sense of belonging to anyone.

Before my adopted dad died he asked me if I ever wondered about my birth family. I responded with “sometimes,” but didn’t want to hurt my parents’ feelings. In their mind and in my mind, they were my parents. Dad then told me that in 1962, a social worker told them that my birth parents were both in college, smart, and named me Elizabeth Christine May. At that point my life changed.

A reader revives our adoption series by informing us that it’s National Adoption Month (the official day was Saturday). Her story “begins in January 1987, when I was adopted at three days old”:

It was a closed adoption through an attorney and my adoptive parents were much older than most couples who were having children during that time. Although my adoption was not during the 1960s, it was closed, and my adoptive parents did have a similar mindset of those in the 1960s-era adoptions.

My parents called my adoption the “A-Word” like it was some curse word that must never been spoken of.

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.

Below are two readers who fit that bill:

Sometimes I tell people that I would prefer to adopt because I was adopted, and they become defensive or threatened, like they think I am judging them for not wanting to adopt. A lot of people seem to think that an appropriate response is to say “oh, good for you, but I would worry that my kid wouldn’t be like me” or “that’s nice but I always worry that parents can never love their adopted children as much as they love their biological children.”

These kinds of statements are meant to make the speaker feel better about themselves for not wanting to adopt. But, not only are they based on faulty logic (just because you have a your own child, there’s no guarantee they’ll “be like you”), when people say these things, they don’t realize that these statements work because they make adoption, and by extension, adopted children, seem like a lesser option—the last resort if you can’t have children any other way.

A new reader with a new angle on the popular thread:

I adopted my daughter when she was seven. She is now 22. I have been a hands-on dad, and I cherish our close relationship.

The circumstances of the adoption are that my daughter’s birthfather was unwilling to take financial or parental responsibility for her. I was married to her mother and was raising her as my own. Her birthfather refused to pay child support and saw her rarely, so we approached him about adoption. His only question was whether or not it would mean that he could legally avoid child support. Told that he would be off the hook, he signed papers assenting to her adoption. I expected to see little of him after that.

I was surprised that upon the inception of the adoption, the birthfather began calling my daughter frequently, demanding that she visit him, making her feel guilty for abandoning him.

A reader responds to this heart-wrenching story:

While I can sympathize with the birthmother, as an adopted child myself, I feel as if a key component of the dynamic of adoptive children has been under-articulated. I grew up knowing I was adopted. It was always presented in very kind language: “She loved you so much that she wanted the very best for you.” My birthmother was always relatively present in this narrative. My mother showed me her pictures, shared the letters that they had exchanged, and I was given the opportunity to write to her if I chose to.

As an adult, I still have that freedom. However—and in many ways, I recognize this comes off as insensitive—I have no desire to establish a relationship with my birthmother.

An adoptive parent writes:

January 31, 2004 was the day that ultimately changed my life, when my young niece was killed in a car accident. She had been up all night getting high and attempted to drive home while exhausted. She had her two children in car seats in the back. One was just over a year old and the other one was almost three. It was a horrific car crash. They hit a tree at 70 MPH. The baby entered a coma, but the toddler saw his mother die. First responders were so devastated by the accident that two of them quit the field entirely.

I had been recently widowed and offered to take the children to raise. Their father said no. I didn’t know what happened to the children, as we were not allowed to see them. Then fifteen months later, the father was arrested on drug charges. The children went into CPS custody and ultimately to the paternal grandmother. After three months she gave them back, due to behavioral issues. They were like feral children, afraid of everything, wild and screaming. At the family meeting, I agreed to take the kids from foster care and raise them myself.

You would expect my family to be supportive, but you would be wrong.

Another reader tells her story:

I am an adoptee born in 1962, the Secrets and Lies-era, back when records were almost always permanently sealed, thus ensuring that birth parents and their biological children would never reconnect.

Do I love my adoptive parents? Yes, I do.  But there is a fundamental human need to know who we are and how we fit into the genealogical continuum of mankind. The Bible, for example, has pages of “begats” to trace lineage. More people than ever search genealogy sites like Ancestry.com trying to find information about their ancestors. It is a human instinct to yearn for this connection!

But not only is that connection denied to the adoptees of that era, we are castigated for even bringing it up. It is implied, or even directly accused, that if we have questions about our biological origins then we don’t love our adoptive families. That isn’t fair.

Parents can have two children or ten and love every single one of them. They aren’t asked to limit their love to one child. It is accepted that their hearts can hold enough love for all of them. Why, then, is it supposed that an adoptee seeking answered about their birth families couldn’t feel the same way?  Why do we have to “choose”?  

For the record, I found my birthparents at age 39.

That’s one of the lessons a reader, Kelly Robinson, draws from a tragic experience:

Biologically, I could have had children, but I chose to adopt instead. I adopted my beautiful baby girl at birth from a woman in Northern California I had met three months prior, when she was about five months pregnant. She was homeless and had two children, ages 6 and 10. Her boyfriend, whose sister-in-law had already adopted out a child, had influenced the birthmother’s decision to give her baby away. She said it was a case of date rape that had gotten her pregnant, and she feared the biological father might come looking for the baby. She and her boyfriend thought it was in the best interest of the baby to find her another family.

I went to California the day she was born. I fell in love with the woman who handed over this child to me, as I collapsed in the hospital chair overwhelmed with instant love.

A reader has a heart-wrenching story:

I was struck by the title of your reader note “Better Off Without Birthparents,” as it exaggerated the pain I already feel about my own daughter’s related sentiments.

I am a birthmother. I chose open adoption for my daughter 20 years ago, when open adoption wasn’t very common or studied. I was young, scared, with an unplanned pregnancy, and I was too poor to care for my daughter on my own. The process of making a decision like adoption when you are young, single, and pregnant and fears are high—not to mention hormones raging through the uncharted territory of pregnancy in your own body—is absolutely torturous. There is an immediate lifelong emotional connection being made with the child inside of you, but logic is trying to prevail.

I thought I was doing the right thing by her when I chose open adoption. She ended up in a family across the country from me, and I viewed it as granting someone else permission and the gift of raising her. But with open adoption, since I would still be in her life, I still viewed myself very much as her mother. I just saw it as her having two mothers. Equal but different.

What I didn’t realize when I made that choice was that I was rejecting myself.

A few readers can attest to that statement:

I was raised by wonderful adoptive parents. The bullies weren’t just kids, as your reader suggested. When I was 10 and my mom died, her sister asked to take some family furniture that she said should “stay in the family.” Fortunately dad put a stop to that. In high school, a teacher told us how if a mother had to choose between an adopted and birth child, she would always choose the birth child. Dad too intervened and had the teacher apologize to the entire class.

My brother had a lot of emotional issues that came from his genes. But despite his emotional demons, he’s a college-educated, well-employed adult. I have no doubt he would be a lout or in jail if not for how my father raised him.

Now I’m in my forties and met both birth parents. My birth father is a jerk. My birth mother is wonderful and we get along great, but it’s never the same bond as it is with the parents who raised you.

Another reader has a longer story:

I was adopted at birth, born in 1956 to an unwed Catholic woman in Michigan who entered into the arrangement through Probate Court. My records are still sealed to me. My adoptive parents were not well to do, and when my mom divorced my dad at around the time I was 10, we were even less well off.

My mother had emotional problems, and each time I asked her about my adoption, she would tell me something different: