Better Off Without Birth Parents

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

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:

“Your mother didn’t want you, but I did, so now you are mine.” “She was engaged to another man when she got pregnant with you and had to give you up to get married.” “She was a drunk and had more kids and didn’t want you.”

I knew that MY mother, my “real” mom, didn’t love me. Why else would she abandon me? As long as I can recall, I have had a hole in my heart, knowing that something was wrong with me, terrified that if people knew me they would not want me around. I’ve always hated Mother's Day, and a basic distrust of the Catholic Church.

All my life I’ve heard that women who give up their children for adoption are selfless and “want only the best” for their child. If that is true, why do they not send along a note to the child to allow them to understand why they were given up? Why is it that even now I cannot be told the circumstances of my birth without her permission? Even now? I am nearly 60. What harm would it do?

By the way, in the late ‘90s, my mother who raised me did give me a sealed envelop telling me her understanding of my adoption circumstances, but after 40 years I was afraid to pursue it. She died in 2011, and last year I located my birth mother through Google. I wrote her last November, inviting her to respond. I was not seeking a relationship; I just wanted her to acknowledge me. She did not answer.

I also joined Ancestry.com and had an autosomal DNA test. There were few matches and most were such distant predicted relations that I gave up thinking I would ever know about my family. Still, I built a tree from my mom’s maiden name. (She was from a small town in Michigan and had a fairly uncommon name.) Not long ago I received a match with a predicted 1st - 2nd cousin relationship, who had a public tree showing a connection to my mother. Her mother was married to my mother’s brother. Strengthened by this tenuous link, I decided to call my birth mother.

She told me I was wrong and it was not her, and she didn’t know why my mom would have given me her name. I questioned her more and she faltered in her answers and I had the feeling she was making things up as she went along. Finally I asked her why it was that I had a DNA link to a member of her family and she just said she didn’t know.

So, I am still rejected by her. Strangely, having talked to her and hearing her rejection voiced changed things for me. I now know what kind of person she is, and am glad I was adopted. I only wish I had done it before my mom died, so I could tell her she was right after all. My idea of who my “real mom” was turned a complete about-face.

I still intend to research my biological family connections through genetic genealogy, and am currently following a lead that may be a link to my birth father. I am waiting for a response to my request to Michigan’s Central Adoption Agency to provide the non-identifying information about my adoption, though I don’t hold much hope that there is much.

I firmly believe that every individual has a right to know the circumstances of their birth and the identity of their parents, at least once they reach the age of majority. Our biological parents may not want a relationship with us, but we have a right to know our origins.

During my life I’ve met many other adoptees. Most of them had similar feelings. Yes, there have been a few that were happy growing up, but they’ve been in the minority. Many had substance abuse problems. I drank too much for a long time, especially when my feelings of rejection were triggered. I just wanted to escape this life, where others had parents that wanted them.

I don’t know why I’ve emailed, but maybe if enough of us tell you what it is really like to be adopted, the insane idea that birth parents are some kind of hero will stop, and adoptees will have the right to judge for themselves if they did them a favor.

Send me an email if you also have a notable story to tell.