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. If enacted it will provide automatic citizenship to most intercountry adoptees who currently do not have US citizenship, and even as currently drafted provide a path to citizenship for adoptees who have been deported (yes, there are adoptees who have been deported to countries they barely knew). We could use your support to get the Adoptee Citizenship Act enacted. You can write your congressional representatives here.
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 “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, 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. They are not being disloyal. They are being true to who they 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.