“The singular, unavoidable truth about adoption is that it requires the undoing of one family so that another one can come into being. And because of this, it is a practice, an institution, and a mode of family-making that is born of and begets trauma, loss, and grief. The fairy tale narrative of adoption denies adoptees the acknowledgement and support necessary to process their experiences across a lifetime. It delegitimizes the trauma of adoption loss and directly and indirectly influences the overwhelming statistics that show us adoptees are far more likely than the general population to struggle with trauma-related mental illness, suicide, and addiction.
“By ignoring the complex reality of adoption, we are also corroborating a sentimental narrative that drives a billion-dollar, for-profit adoption industry whose sole purpose has been successfully shifted in modern American history from finding homes for children who legitimately need them, to supplying hopeful prospective parents with kids to call their own. The fairy tale narrative of adoption uncomplicates these truths and it lets us off the hook. It makes us feel good about each other and ourselves without having to face difficult complexities and integrate them into our understanding of not only what it means to be adopted, but also what it means to be human.
“Inside the fairy tale, we don’t have to think about the darkness, the underbelly, or the unspeakable grief lying just below the surface of a child who has been severed from their home and family of origin. We don’t have to think about the countless pregnant people in the United States and across the globe who have been tricked, bribed, forced, and coerced into relinquishing their children or whose children are kidnapped and sold to agencies or intermediaries who stand to profit from their adoptions. Inside the fairy tale, we don’t have to think about all the first mothers and first families who would choose to keep their children or whose children might not have been unnecessarily or unjustly taken from them if they had access to the right kinds of support. The kinds of support that could be provided countless times over, both in the US and abroad, with the money currently invested in keeping the for-profit adoption industry and the child welfare industry in business.
“…It is here—in everyday encounters, in saccharine and reductive media representations, and even in our adoptive families—where adoptees are expected to embody the fairy tale narrative of adoption. A hopeful, well-intentioned narrative, but one that is historically steeped in white saviorhood and colonialism. One in which people with more financial resources, social capital, and most often racial privilege, feel entitled to the children of those with less privilege, opportunity, and support. And we have accepted this not only as an unquestionable good, but also as the best possible outcome.
“But what exactly is being measured when weighing this out? Are we certain a child will be “better off” living with the irreparable wound of parental separation and more financial resources than with a low-income or working class parent in their family of origin? Certainly socioeconomic status is often a clear indicator of one’s opportunities in life, but what’s the trade off? I have often wondered what our lives would have looked like had my mother and father made the decision to strike out on their own and raise me. And I wonder too how much of our future might have been determined by the biases that are alive in these very same assumptions. Am I better off? Am I lucky? The truth is, we will never know. And this, too, is a loss.
“Adoption loss is an ambiguous loss. While it changes shape over time, it is often life-long. It is without end. I have lost my entire family and yet, there are no bodies to bury, no socially acceptable ritual or process meant for me to understand this loss and how to live with it. My mother went on living, became someone else’s mother, while I lived my young life with only the presence of her absence and the fracturing unknown. Maybe she’s alive; maybe she’s dead. Maybe she loves me; maybe she has forgotten me. Maybe anything.
“Even after reunion, if it is possible or desired, there are new losses, new lives, and new selves to grieve. Loss of this magnitude and with this kind of ambiguity most often does not simply resolve itself. Adoptees must learn how to live with it over time, yet we must do so in the face of society insisting we exude joy, gratitude, and luck. An insistence that often means the kind of support we need to manage our grief is either nonexistent or unavailable to us. Imagine for a moment, if we treated other losses this way. Imagine losing a loved one—tragically, unexpectedly—and then being expected to behave as though it was the best thing that ever happened to you.
“We need a new adoption narrative. We need to ask ourselves why we have historically needed to perpetuate the sentimental fairy tale narrative of adoption that only serves to hurt those at the center of it and to support an industry in dire need of reconstruction. We need a narrative that can celebrate love and family-making, but which does not insist that adoption is always the best option. That in fact, it is often unnecessary and the most generous, altruistic thing we can possibly do is to help prevent another child and first family from having to live with a lifetime of loss and grief. We need a narrative that centers the voices of adopted people and can hold the complexity of our multiple and fractured truths. That can hold all of it. Because I think this is the reality of being adopted—holding these seemingly contradictory, disparate, complicated truths, in the same body, always. Holding deep grief and profound joy in the same breath. Holding love for one mother that does not negate the love for another mother. Belonging partly to one family or country or culture, partly to another, but maybe never feeling as though we belong to either. Feeling both wanted and unwanted, both chosen and abandoned. Wanting to belong here and wanting to go back there.
“What if we, as a society, chose to hold all these truths at the same time, at the same pitch, without the need to push one out in favor of the other? How might our questions or actions or beliefs about adoption change? How might our ideas about loss change? About healing? About family?”
Media Myths and Adoption Fallacies