I asked recently for examples of myths that are used to demonize or demean adult adopted people like me, with a focus on adoptees in the United States. Many adoptees responded. I’ll try to do justice to the issue by listing my own top five, guided by what I heard from many of you. And a quick note: I use the term “myths” in the title, but a number of these may be stereotypes or tropes or misperceptions instead of myths. So be it. Collectively, though, they are used to form a mythology around adoption, a mythology that in the last century has hardened today to an ideology involving secrecy, shame, and unyielding power to control the adoptee narrative.
5. Love Is All We Need
This is one of many Hallmark-card sayings that go along with adoption, like other marketing slogans (“BraveLove,” “Forever Families,” and “Love, Not Blood”). Yes, love is essential, as is care and compassion and support and empathy and basic parenting. Most adopted people get that. But love is not all that adopted people specifically need. There is growing if not well-established evidence of intergenerational trauma associated with family separation, which includes adoption. That must be addressed. And for transracial or transnational adoptees who have been compelled to navigate adoption and life through the lens of a white adoptive family, the myth of “love is all you need”—often translated into “love has no color”—-is dangerous. It fails to teach adoptees how to navigate a world largely defined and enforced by race. I’ll stop there. Instead, catch up on what adult adopted people have said in the last two weeks about their own adoptions and experiences, particularly transracial adoptees who have grown up in a prolonged age of relentless racism:
- Rebecca Carroll, As a Black Woman Raised by White parents, I have Some Advice for Potential Adopters
- Ashley Westerman, Am I Asian Enough? Adoptees Struggle to Make Sense of Anti-Asian Violence
4. We Are All U.S. Citizens
This relates specifically to US intercountry adoptees, who may be unique on the planet for having such tenuous citizenship status. Here’s the deal: a person who was born in another country and brought to the US and adopted by US citizen parents is not automatically a US citizen. In fact, tens of thousands of adult intercountry adoptees in the United States today lack U.S. citizenship, with thousands more who are minors and may not end up with citizenship when they later become adults. I represent a number of adult adoptees without citizenship, and it can be a long, expensive, and harrowing path to gain the security of citizenship that, at the least, their adoptions should have provided (see this chart, which illustrates the complex path many adoptees must navigate). In addition, with increased security around personal identification and the implementation of federal REAL ID requirements, even adult adopted people who have citizenship are struggling to prove it, usually in trying to secure state-issued ID, US passports, or other government documents, such as Certificates of Citizenship.
There is a fix. But it won’t fix everything. Congress has again introduced the Adoptee Citizenship Act (and here’s a quick update about where it stands today ). If enacted it will provide automatic citizenship to most intercountry adoptees who currently do not have US citizenship, and may provide a path to citizenship for adoptees who have already been deported (yes, there are adoptees who have been deported to countries they barely knew). We could use your support to get adoptee citizenship reform enacted.
3. We are Stalkers
This is actually close to my number one trope, and it is essentially an outgrowth that depends on perpetuating stereotypes that, as adults, adoptees are angry and needy children. The stereotype goes something like this: that in our deep and justified desire to know the simple facts of our own births and to live with and possess own own full identities and heritage—that is, to see ourselves mirrored in the faces of others—we will disrupt anyone who gets in our way and “out” anyone we find. That is, once we spend years of our lives trying to work out to whom we were born, we will suddenly “pop up” on the doorstep of that birthparent and say “surprise, you’re my mom.” This is cringe-inducing and exhausting to hear—-and we hear it over and over and over, often weaponized against us when we seek legislation around obtaining own original birth records. Recently in Maryland legislators went all in with every stereotype and trope about adoptees in order to disempower us. The idea of adoptee as stalker was paramount, with one legislator claiming that we were ultimately destroyers of families.
For all the dramatized TV and movie portrayals related to the narrative of searching for and finding biological kin—which many of us call “reunion porn”— showing up unannounced on a person’s doorstep is something that adult adoptees do not want nor seek out. At all. We live a complicated life involving juggling all the ideas of to whom and where we belong. We are experts at navigating those complexities, and we are likely one of a few groups of people with the most expertise on the planet in doing so. Not academics, not legislators, not those of you who “know someone who is adopted.” Actual adult adopted people like me. Try listening to us without buying into myths that attempt to control us. We are not stalkers intent on upending relationships and destroying families, (which, by the way, happen to be our families). We just want our truth, often contained on a single piece of paper called an original birth certificate. What we do with our truth is similar to what you do with yours: hold it, have it, and figure out who you are.
2. We Are All Angry
First of all, let’s just say that we are angry. So what? People get angry. Adults get angry and demand change in their lives. But the stereotype that constantly arises and attaches to many adult adoptees is that we are always angry, especially if we provide critical thought and insight on our own adopted lives and experiences. And especially if we demand full autonomy and equality as humans, not only as children but as adults. We have an absolute right to demand such autonomy and equality, not only in securing citizenship and reclaiming heritage but in obtaining the simple facts of our births, something that remains a state secret today for millions of adult adopted people.
Being shamed as an “angry” adoptee goes hand in hand with other expectations laid upon us, such as the gratefulness we should feel for being born and not aborted (what?) or grateful that we were ever adopted (huh?). But what is grace if you have no agency in that grace? And how are we any different than any other human in 1) being born or 2) being thankful we can keep ourselves alive on any given day?
Try this: accept adopted people as human, like yourself, just like your neighbors. We may actually be your neighbors. Sure, we could have been aborted, but same goes with you, your neighbor, or any other person currently present on the planet. We are not unique in being alive. We are unique in being adopted. Mull that around for a bit and try to understand the difference. Because that’s a big difference.
Labeling us as angry is also a way of telling us, again, to accept our fate and how we are treated. It is used to shut down debate, belittle our (adult) concerns, and to derail the very issues that make us speak up. We get it: you don’t want to hear the “other side” of adoption, one that is actually focused on the adopted person and the complications of an adoptee’s life. You are more easily persuaded by uncomplicated ideas of adoption, though those overly rosy narratives are never fully true—nor do they capture what’s happening in the minds and lives of adopted people, particularly adult adopted people. That’s at the heart of most tropes and stereotypes: the dominant narrative of adoption as a win-win for everyone in which all problems and issues are solved. It’s deemed “the beautiful solution.” Turns out, we’re the product of all those problems and issues—and are also expected to be the vessel to solve them. We must be given a stake in redefining adoption so that our voices are heard, and it will take people stepping back and accepting our critical thoughts not as angry adoptees but as justified human beings with core concerns about our own equality and autonomy.
1. We Are Perpetual Children
We are someone’s child (though even that is complicated), but we are not always children. We are adult adopted people. This term means—and it may be hard to fathom for some—that we have grown up. Into adults. With lives, jobs, spouses, partners, children, opinions, and experiences. Yet when we generally ask to be heard, we are asked to sit down. We are asked to listen to what we should accept as adoption, though we are the only ones living it directly.
Recently when the NPR radio program 1A correctly used the phrase “are adopted” to refer to adult adoptees and their histories and issues, an adoptive parent replied on social media that the phrase should be reworded instead to “were adopted,” to indicate that the adoption was in the past, complete, done. Yes, adoptions are in the past for those who don’t live them. Adoptions are in the past if they remain transactional, a contract completed, a request or need fulfilled, a convenient terminus. But adoptions are not in the past for the people who live them every day. For adult adopted people, it remains a present and ongoing reality.
Nowhere is that more apparent than how we have treated intercountry adoptees in the United States. When Congress attempted to fix US immigration law in 1999 to provide automatic US citizenship to adoptees who were adopted by US citizen parents, it did so only after carving out a massive exception: no adults. Children only. Apparently, adoptees as adults do not count as adopted, and the law ultimately cut them all out from citizenship, despite being told over and over as children that they were legally “as if born to” their adoptive parents. That’s the reality of adult adopted people generally—someone’s child, sure, but never grown adults in how we are perceived and treated. It’s time that changed.
Other Tropes, Myths, and Stereotypes
Many other myths and stereotypes exist about adopted people, whether we are children or adults. Here are a few that often pop up when other people describe our experiences for us, and some that came up in my original Tweet.
- We Were Chosen. Not so fast. It’s more accurate to say that our adoptive families were chosen for us. Or that our futures were brokered.
- We Were Unwanted. This trope is used to make us feel grateful that at least someone wanted us—other than our biological parents. Turns out, many birthmothers did not wish to relinquish their children but, because little support existed at the time of relinquishment, they had no other choice. As my own mother wrote in a letter to me that she had placed in my file 28 years after I was born “it was a decision, but it was not my choice.” Again, we live that complication. Please understand it.
- We Are Disloyal. This is a killer. If you are not adopted and you’ve come this far into this essay, I guarantee you and many others have entertained the thought “what about his adoptive parents, how does this make them feel?” (or people have wondered why I am so angry :O)
We get this all the time when we talk about issues related to our own adoptions. And this is called false “centering,” where the experience of adoption is centered not on the adoptee but on adoptive parents. I get that. There is a supposed “triad” in adoption: adoptee, adoptive parents, birthparents. But that triad is always weighted, and much of the weight is given to adoptive parents. After all, they have solved our “unwanted” status, have stepped in to “cure” an abortion and illegitimacy, have given us a second chance.
Adoptees are only telling the truth about their own experiences, and those experiences vary as widely as there are human relationships. Center the adopted person when that person is speaking. We are not being disloyal. We are being true to who we are.
The Original Tweet
This was the original tweet I sent out asking other adopted people about the myths that dog us all. Thank you to everyone who responded and I encourage others to read through those responses. I cannot capture all of the responses in the personally-picked “top 5” but you can scroll through the conversation on Twitter to see more and to hear from adopted people.
My Obligatory + Genuine Shout Out
Finally, as we seem always compelled to do when we talk about serious issues related to adoption, here’s a shout out to my mom, which is as simple in it’s message as it is complex in what it says. I love you, mom. You’re the best. And, dad, I miss you. May you always rest in peace.
Jenifer Lingeman says
Great post!!!! There are a thousand more- 1/8 of the iceberg.
I admit the term “birth mother” strikes me as antiquated and also somewhat pejorative; I prefer first family, or just family, but I realize some still use this term and if that’s what people prefer so be it. It’s often used by agencies engaged in the unethical practice of pre birth matching, though.
Matthew Kleid says
You are right. I have taken to just saying family. Family is family.
Jim Davis (Humes-Mallory) says
Jenifer, fwiw I use the term birth (Mother, Father) and adoptive (Mother, Father) as the only simple and unbiased adjectives for the 4 people who are the reason I am who I am. Not everyone can use these adjectives without an initial bias but I have grown to love all of these people *equally* since my awareness, search for, and discovery of those two that I had previously been unaware of.
I am blessed beyond measure to have had double the number of parents than most and the only better outcome I could have is if my adoptive parents and my birth father had been alive for us all to share.
How about “mother”? The mother is who carried the child for 9 months & gave birth. The adoptive parent is more accurately the “parent”. The obvious lie that’s on most amended birth certificates in adoptions places the adoptive mother’s name as the “mother”, having erased the name of the true mother. This deception is carried on through the adoption, refusing to recognize the identity of the real mother as “mother”.
Thank you! This is great.
I’m not so sure most adopted people had love, support, care and basic parenting. I seem to know an awful lot online who did not receive that but who were emotionally abused and scapegoated, especially when talking about our first family.
Gregory D. Luce says
Yes, the dual reality is that most adopted people have received good care and parenting but many did not. I think the reality changes again if we are speaking of the foster care system in addition to adoption.
NONE of us received “good care” because none of us were allowed to even know our own mother’s name. Wake up. Or spit out the Kool-Aid bud. Adoption is nothing less than negligence (ie: child abuse) and it is high time that was recognized by the entire goddamn world.
Kristina Anderson says
Yes. When the evidence points towards 50% of adopted children facing severe neglect or abuse at the hands of our adopters, and when dozens of adopted kids are murdered by their adopters in the US, it seems ridiculous on its face (to use a legal term), to claim “most adopted kids” received “basic care and love”. The most I can say about my adopters is that thankfully, they did not actually succeed in killing me and I am still here. Stop kissing the smelly rear ends of adopters in articles like this. Thanks.
Susan L says
Good article!! As an Adult ADOPTEE there is one question that I’ve been asked several times during my lifetime! “How does it feel to be adopted?” Mostly by younger people! I And actually more common when I was in school! I never could answer that question, I’d just come back with “how does it feel to NOT BE adopted?” Sure I had my own questions and I would wonder about so many “what ifs”! What IF I was still in France, What If I met any biological family, What If I have any brothers or sisters!!! The list goes on forever!
Lori Landsburg says
My husband and I are the parents of one biological child and two adopted children from Chile. They are all adults now. Our kids became US citizens when they were about a year old. I did all the paperwork and court petitions myself and even made my own special adoption certificates the judge signed. When our adopted kids turned 18 I looked for their birth parents and found them. My kids are wonderful. I never feared they would prefer the birth parents to me but if they did, well it was their right to do with their lives what they pleased. I was fortunate enough to have them with me for 18 years. My kids have contact with their birth families online but it is casual contact. They mostly wanted to know whom they looked like, why they were relinquished, any medical issues, and if they had siblings. Both kids have siblings. My kids are at peace knowing their origins. Adoption was not easy for them growing up. Because they are Hispanic and my husband, daughter, and I are white, everyone knew they were not our biological kids. Once a boy in grade school gave my daughter a book titled “Who Is My Mother?” as he and his buddies laughed at her. My son was once told at Boy Scout Camp that he should go back to his own country. Thankfully that Scout leader immediately packed up his troop and took his boys home. He was very embarrassed and angry. Now I am looking for an adult son given up for adoption at birth by his birthmother who is now deceased. She was pregnant at 18. She later married and had 6 kids. I have met strong resistance from the birth family in searching for this man. They do not want to tarnish the reputation of the birthmother. After all this time of what importance is that reputation? One family member told me that if her son wanted to find his birthmother he should have looked for her. Well, in New York, only recently have adopted persons been able to find their records. This man is 69 years old now. I am having help in my search and hope, through DNA on the birthfather’s side, that I will find him. The denial of one’s right to know who gave birth to him or her is inconceivable and cruel.
Boruch Fishman MD says
Other court appointed parents should be as enlightened and caring as you have been!
ALICE MCKINNON says
Sadly, as a mother who lost my first born son to adoption and who has been reunited with him, I find his own words to ring so true for some adopted people……”I did not feel like I fit into my adopted family but I also do not feel like I fit into my birth mothers family either.” Adoption is not the glowing story which some people like to paint.
Dottie Garrison says
I am an 82 year old adoptee. I know who my birth family is, my 3 brothers & my sister. Our mother died when I was 4; her brother & his wife adopted only me. My mother’s best friend took my sister but didn’t adopt her. My brothers rotated between our father, grandmother, & aunt. My adopted father died when I was 8. I was not treated well. I cannot get my OBC because of CA law. My husband & I have 2 bio & 3 adopted who are now adults.
How about “mother” for the biological mother? The mother is who carried the child for 9 months & gave birth. The adoptive parent is more accurately the “parent”. The obvious lie that’s on most amended birth certificates in adoptions places the adoptive mother’s name as the “mother”, having erased the name of the true mother. This deception is carried on through the adoption, refusing to recognize the identity of the real mother as “mother”.
I love to hear all the varied perspectives on this page, and I feel obliged to honor all of them. I was adopted in CA at 2 days of age or so in the early 1960s. My adoptive parents did the best they could and tried to go by the latest Dr. Spock-type recommendations and let me know I was adopted at about the age of 7 or so. I didn’t understand what that meant and had no feelings about it one way or the other. I told my kid friends and a few made fun of that, but I honestly still didn’t see what the issue was; why it made a difference, and again, no feelings about it one way or the other.
I never had the desire to look for birth parents, because I never believed that it was important, though I was curious. When my daughter committed suicide as a teenager, my wife thought I should look into the birth records to see if mental illness was in my history. I did so, and there was no way to tell from the official records I was privy to. I did find I have a half-sister. No desire to meet.
I often felt like I didn’t really “fit in” with my adoptive family, or with any other group of people for that matter. Not sure it has to do with being adopted. And actually, my knowledge of having been adopted has almost always ended up being a good thing – as the surrounding folks and family were often dull and uninteresting to me. How much this all affected me seemed to be directly proportional to my level of self-esteem, which I now believe – for me, and from my experience (I can in no way say how it is, or should be for anyone else) is an inside job. When I stopped looking externally for peace of mind, it changed everything.
I’ve been in recovery from alcohol and drugs for 30+years (I am in my mid 50s), and have had the privilege of choosing my family and my tribe. I hang out with people who support me, aren’t toxic, are autonomous and have no expectations of me, nor I of them. Family of origin, whether adopted or biological, and generational origins, history, or trauma is of little more than academic interest to me. Millions of moments and factors have made and continue to make me who I am, so I can’t point with any certitude at anything.
I have found that connection with other people is important to me, but not necessarily in long and lasting committed relationships, and the people are fairly interchangeable. That may have more to do with how I’m wired (I present as having “symptoms” of mild ADD or Asperger’s, though tests have not been conclusive), than adoption – but that’s just an intuitive speculation on my part. I consider myself a citizen of a diverse world, and am more interested in looking forward than being defined by my past or by anyone or anything for that matter. People will see me however they do. Not my concern or problem. The people who gave me up for adoption had their reasons. I can’t judge them. Nor can I see how or why I should take this personally; all babies look like old men, and their decision had nothing to do with my “value”, which is really up to me. Whether someone else values me is not really my business or within my power, generally, to impact – and certainly my happiness cannot depend upon that.
I’m an atheist, and I see the universe as cold and impersonal, and at the end of the day we are all actually alone in our own world – again, my perception and hunch based on evidence, not what society “says”. I’m totally comfortable with this, and though I may ask “why” about many things happening because I’m human, I am no longer attached to finding – nor do I pretend I will ever have – an answer. I just sit in the brilliance of mystery, and do the best I can, keep an open mind and try to put out more positive and less negative into the world.
I can say this, I think, because have the luxury of being a white male in America, who grew up in the suburbs, didn’t live through an inordinate amount of trauma, sought help in recovery and therapy, and now doesn’t have to look after anyone but himself, so that’s what’s true for me today. I realize there are many for whom this is not the case, and who have very different experiences and perspectives, and it’s not my intention to minimize that which I don’t understand. I wish nothing but the best of luck to all in their individual journeys.
Very interesting stuff!
I have to thank everyone who shared. I can see parts of myself in everyone’s replies!
Mike, as a fellow adoptee, I feel like there might be a lot of interplay between being adopted and your sub-clinical adhd worldview. Which came first? Being wired to feel isolated and to view people as interchangeable, or being abandoned to the Kafka-esque world of adoption as a helpless infant?
I am sure many of us adoptees can relate to your vaguely Aspergers-ish mindset. When we are treated as commodities and grow up knowing that pure chance dictated who we ended up calling “mommy” and “daddy,” how could it be otherwise?
To me it’s sad, and just plain the wrong ending to your story, that you don’t seem to feel very connected to anyone, birth family or adoptive family or good friends. So, I sincerely hope that your journey ultimately sets you on a more connected and loving path… whether blood relatives are part of that journey or not!
Good luck to everyone on their journeys,
Amy, age 53
-Born prematurely to 17-year-old from a “nice” family
-Given up for adoption at birth
-Weighed 4 lbs at birth, via caesarean
-Operated on at age 24 hours, without anesthesia
-Entered foster care. No photos exist, but someone in the foster family gave me my first rag doll, which I still have
-Adopted by “suitable” parents at age 3 months
-Biological grandparents were thrilled that my birth mom was able to attend her coming out cotillion ball only one year later than planned (um, priorities???), then college/whatever, so my adoption was a win-win from their perspective
-Of course my birth mom went on to never marry or have any other kids, and struggled with substance abuse, but that’s probably just a fluke, right?
-Was bummed at age 25 to find no notes of contact in my file, and to have to pay through the nose to adoption agency to get a small typed “family history” memo of vague vital stats that reads like a police report
-All dealings with adoption agency were so dehumanizing that I gave up trying to find out about my biological family and my medical history and my ethnic heritage
-So my long-anticipated trip to Europe didn’t include visits to cute home-towns of ancestors and corresponding friendly, facially-similar distant relatives after all… but I took lots of pictures in places that I _might_ be from, just in case
-Finally got a reply from birth mother after her parents passed away; by this time I was 36 and jaded, and frankly kinda ticked off with the whole exploitative experience
-I’m in occasional contact with my birth mother; have had no contact with birth father
-Eager to know more about who I am and where I’m from… maybe some half siblings or cousins will someday be available?
-Would prefer that the adoption agencies had asked adoptive parents to go by “aunt” and “uncle,” so that adoptees never had to deny their original mothers and fathers; so that the adoption was never a shameful secret; and so that adoptive parents recognized the reality of their role helpmates to struggling parents in raising a child. Is being a beloved aunt and uncle really such a bad thing???
-Peace to you all!