What the ‘Better Life’ Narrative Takes From Adoptees
“If I’d known, I would have raised you. I don’t know if you would’ve had a better life. My parents would have wanted you too. They would have helped.”
My biological father said that to me when I found him two years ago. I was 50 — the same age my birth mother was when she died of colon cancer. She died before I found her. She told no one about me, not even my father.
I was born in 1968 to an unwed woman who did not know she was pregnant. Conventional wisdom assumed my life would be better if a married couple — a doctor and a homemaker who had adopted a boy four years earlier — parented me.
Perhaps. But do we know that for sure?
No. We can’t. All we know for sure is my life was different.
The dominant culture narrative of adoption presumes that adoption gives the adoptee a better life. Common assumptions are the birth parent did not want the child, the birth parent could not afford to provide for the child, the birth parent was negligent, abusive, or somehow incapable of parenting, that adoptive parents so wanted this child (and went to great expense) — their desire makes them better parents.
There are cases when adoption is in the best interest of the child and they live a better life. But most adoptions are a trade-off of pros and cons.
And most of what people think about adoption is wrong.
Did you know an alarming number of birth mothers felt lied to and coerced when deciding to surrender their babies? Or that studies have indicated that at least 10% of adoptions are disrupted, meaning the “adoption process is halted after the child is placed in the home but before the paperwork is finalized”? And not all adoptive parents turn out to be so wonderful for the adoptee. Did you know that since 1972 the National Association of Black Social Workers has remained opposed to transracial adoption because of a history of unethical treatment of Black children and families?
To understand the full scope of the adoption experience, we must challenge and change its narrative.
What if instead of GoFundMe campaigns for prospective adoptive parents, we provided adequate resources to birth parents so families could stay together? What if poverty wasn’t a crime and piano lessons weren’t a panacea?
“Better,” “chosen,” and “grateful” are adoption’s primary vernacular. But that language narrows the totality of our experience and the way adoptees get to speak about it. Talking about adoption with idealized language creates an unrealistic paradigm, one where what we lost isn’t just diminished, it’s denied.
As fellow adoptee Celia Conner said to me, “Our trauma is one of the only where the victim is still expected to exude gratitude.”
Gaining a family also means losing one. Let’s start there. Change the narrative so that loss and grief and longing are spoken about first.
Some studies have found that adoptees are more likely than nonadopted people to attempt suicide, to struggle with substance abuse, to experience mental illness, and to have ADHD and learning disorders.
Something isn’t “better” for us. So why isn’t calling adoption a “different” life good enough?
Lacking the cognitive skill to conceptualize the abstract concept of “chosen” as a child, I imagined I came from a place that looked like a bagel store. Like a flavor of bagel, I was selected from a plexiglass bin. “She looks delicious! We’ll take that one!” I lacked a birth story and a coherent explanation for how my parents chose me, so I created one.
I was five years old when one day on the school bus I announced, “I’m better than everyone. My parents chose me. Your parents were forced to keep you.”
Shocked, the bus driver told the school principal. “She’s not adopted,” the principal replied, annoyed. I was a notorious fibber. I once told my nursery school teacher a car hit my brother and broke his leg, but it was my cousin who broke his leg, and he had been skiing when it happened. So the principal called my mother to alert her to my latest fabrication. “This one’s true,” she told him.
Discussing the incident with my mom, I asked her why she hadn’t told the school. What was the big deal? “I didn’t want them to treat you differently.”
My mother’s secrecy is rooted in shame, yet I proudly proclaimed “I’m chosen!” and forged my own creation myth to explain the inexplicable. This is the false and contradictory nature of adoption mythology.
Imagine how confusing it is for adoptees.
I spent my life feeling like I didn’t fit in anywhere or with anyone.
Adoption is so great! And your selfless birth mother loved you so much she gave you away, and you were chosen! And rescued! And saved! But it’s also shameful, so it requires secrets and lies and new names and sealed birth certificates, and we don’t think adoption is sad, but we cry tears of joy at your reunions, and also a common ha-ha-ha put-down is to tell someone they’re adopted. Society can’t pick a lane because adoption doesn’t occupy just one.
My birth mother was not prepared to be a parent. She never had other children and died one day before my 27th birthday. My parents raised me with love and I live with the painful wounds of abandonment, and my birth father must reconcile having been denied the existence of his child.
All our lives are different because of adoption.
Imagine being told you were so loved by your mother that she gave you away. Take a second, don’t react to that statement or respond with tropes. Just pause.
No matter the glossy coat of paint you apply, underneath that exterior is a child who now fears that people who love you leave you. That’s not better. That’s different.
Living causes scars; no one makes it through life unscathed. But we put adoptees in the unique position of being told to express gratitude for what we got without being given permission to mourn what we lost.
When I found my birth mother 22 years ago, I wrote this in my journal:
All my life I have lived with a veil, a veil that made life seem unreal. That veil was my pain. I finally feel real. I look like you. We had the same major in college and spent our junior year in France; we both married Englishmen. I have roots and I share your soul. I am liberated. Your womb was my home, your blood was my life, your existence nourished mine. I know this not as your daughter but as a mother. My body housed my daughter. I know what you and I once shared.
Those are the words of grief.
Psychologist Nicholas Zill authored the Institute for Family Studies research brief “The Adoption Paradox,” which examines why adoptees have more negative academic and mental health outcomes than nonadoptees:
The data presented in this research brief show that adopted children in kindergarten and first grade display above-average levels of problem behavior, exhibit below-average levels of positive learning attitudes, and score below average on reading and math assessments, despite their advantaged family background. […] It is important for both prospective adoptive parents and policy-makers to be realistic about what adoption can and cannot accomplish.
In Zill’s follow-up report “How Adopted Children Fare in Middle School,” he noted that not only do adoptee outcomes worsen as they age, there is no difference between children adopted in infancy and those adopted later in life.
There is sound scientific data that shows severing maternal-child connection (even at birth) causes trauma. One reported study of adolescents found that 72% of adopted adolescents wanted to know why they were adopted, 65% wanted to meet their birth parents, and 94% wanted to know which birth parent they looked like.
Yet if you spend some time on #adoptee Twitter, you’ll see the vitriolic responses adoptees receive when speaking about their lived experiences. Sure, Twitter is often a trash bin, but it’s also a place where people say what they think but wouldn’t dare say to someone’s face. One response to my essay “Adoption Is Trauma” was “perhaps your parents just didn’t do a good job.”
I was a boy-crazy adolescent, and throughout my early twenties, every guy I dated was “the one.” My adoptive mother could not be more opposite. Then, 10 years ago, I received a letter my birth mother Gloria wrote to a friend. It was the first (and only) tangible piece of her I have. In it, she describes her life in France, all the boys she’s meeting, and Pierre, who she thinks is “the one.”
There’s no Trauma Olympics. It’s not a competition.
I could have written that letter myself. I sobbed reading it. It was so validating. I spent my life feeling like I didn’t fit in anywhere or with anyone. On this faded paper from 1966, I found a place.
Through tears, I told a friend how affirming the letter was. She told me I was being self-indulgent. “I mean, you’ve had a good life.” The sting of that comment remains.
Or the friend who told me it’s hard to listen to me talk about the downsides of adoption because her mother was abusive and her life would have been better if they had relinquished her.
Maybe. But that’s not the point. There’s no Trauma Olympics. It’s not a competition. The “better life” narrative leaves no room for adoptees to share the whole of our experience.
I can’t help but wonder if it also hamstrings adoptive parents. What does it feel like to have that pressure on your shoulders? I mean, parenting is really fucking hard no matter how your kids arrived in your home. None of us are heroes or saviors or saints. We’re all just humans doing the best we can.
So the next time you hear an adoptee speak about their experience, don’t reply with an adoption-adjacent response like “but my cousin is adopted and…” or “my adopted daughter has no issues…” Just zip it and listen. Then open your heart and mind and be willing to hear something you may not have considered before.
That can’t be too much to ask.