' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Adoption: Then, and Now

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Adoption: Then, and Now

When my daughter was born in 1966 at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York, I shared a room with another young mother, also unwed. She was undecided over whether she should give up her child for adoption.  From a work in progress: 

By Lorraine Dusky
copyright (c) 2010

My particular roommate turned out to be a chubby teenager with acne and over-bleached hair the color of white sand. That afternoon there had been three women crowding around her bed, talking low. Yet at some point our eyes caught each others across the room as eyes sometimes do.
Later, we verified what we already knew: she was not married either. Her name was Lydia, which seemed like a fancy name for her. She said she was “not yet sixteen.” She and her boyfriend had “tried to elope,” and even though they got as far as Maryland, the police found them at the behest of the boy’s mother and stopped them. Lydia had a boy.

Now her boyfriend wanted her to bring the baby home—not let their child be adopted—they will get married later, she told me. Her mother has said she can indeed bring the baby home, but Lydia was dubious. Her mother has said she would take care of the baby, and my cellmate could get a job someplace. Like Dunkin’ Donuts, I thought, where else is she going to get a job—without even a high school diploma? It all sounded so unsavory, so impossible, so many odds stacked against this kid—both of them, mother and child and for good measure, the baby’s father too—wouldn’t adoption be better? For everyone?

I did not want to be the only sinner in the room. We should both give up our babies so that they could grow up with nice couples who have stable lives on tree-lined streets in a prosperous town such as Rochester was then. A dog, a white-picket fence, a brother or a sister, a mother who bakes cookies, a father who bounced the baby on his knee, the whole works. Lydia’s giving up her child would validate my awful choice, we would both go on to have lives, one way or another, and certainly hers had more prospects if she did not keep her baby. Yes, I was looking for a partner in my crime. That is what I thought then. That was before I knew what lay ahead.

When I gave up my daughter a part of me was flayed raw; some of the sores have never healed. Despite all seemingly logical arguments to the contrary, despite all the logical arguments—it was the times, you were alone, you had no money, et cetera—what I did was a sin against nature and I am not convinced I deserve to forgive myself. I have accepted it. That will have to do. That is the bed I felt closing in on me in the hospital, and this is the bed I lie in today. This is the kind of item that catches my eye today:
“Adolescents who live with adoptive parents may be more likely than their peers to attempt suicide,” began a Reuters report on a 2001 paper published in Pediatrics,* the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. While a majority of adopted teens are not suicidal, a study of more than 6,500 students in grades 7 through 12 found that their rate of attempted suicide was double that of their non-adopted peers—7.6 percent for the adopted teens, 3 percent for the non-adopted. Adopted adolescents were also more likely to have received psychological counseling, 17 percent for the adoptees, versus 8 percent of non-adopted youth."
The studies always talk about “adopted” people; the language would be more accurate if they talked about “people given up.” For it’s not the adoption per se that is the issue, in most cases; it’s the being “given up” that is the killer. It’s the sense of being abandoned that adopted people feel, for to be available to adopted, someone had to give up that person first. And there lies the eternal hurt, the primal wound as it’s called, that makes the difference. If you read a lot of reunion stories, as I have, you come across the reunited adoptee often using the word “abandoned” or the phrase “sense of abandonment,” and then adding, Where did that come from? I didn’t even know I felt that way.

Today there are shows called “Pregnant and Sixteen,” many of which end in relinquishment, and I’m sure that they sometimes feature smiling, adoptive parents, relieved that the young mother did not change her mind and keep her baby. When this show was in production, someone contacted me—more than once—asking if I could steer them to possible girls in a fix. I can’t even watch these shows. I have a visceral reaction to any labor scene in a movie or on television; I almost instantly get nauseous and change the channel or cover my eyes, if I’m in a theater.

I hate television shows that feature adoption themes because rarely do they have the outcome I’d like to see. Birth mothers die with obscure illnesses, or are killed off in some convenient fashion—the last such show I saw ended with the mother's suicide; if they are allowed to live, they more often than not, “make the right decision,” and give their children to the upstanding loving couples who are waiting in the wings. I send baby gifts, but avoid baby showers. Understand I do not think every adoption is bad, I know some are necessary, but not in the wholesale fashion they occur today through international channels, and any closed adoption is wrong. The news that someone is going to adopt—and it’s news that I hear often in my professional, middle class life—throws a shadow over my heart, for what I am reminded is that somewhere out there is a grieving woman. So anytime I learn about a teen mother who finds a way to keep her child rather than give him up, I cheer and mentally pat her, and her family, on the back.

Today I would urge no one to give up a child.

Not unless they were hopeless druggies, inveterate alcoholics, absolute crazies, and even then I would urge no mother to accept a closed adoption. Of any sort. Only when the parents might be a danger to the child should the location be secret, and even then, identity and the truth should always be available to the individual at the center of the adoption, whenever they ask for it, whenever they want it. To enter into an arrangement to never know what happened to your child is to willingly enter a prison without an exit. Death at least has the recompense of knowledge. Death has a time for mourning, involves friends and family who send condolences, death has flowers and rituals. Death has a finality that pushes back the sorrow with acceptance and time.

A closed adoption with its secrecy and anonymity is eternal, all the questions and fears and wonder remain unanswered, and thus never can diminish but will always be stirred fresh with the slightest of reminders. But there are so many holes in open adoptions today; in most places the “contract” that is signed cannot be enforced; adoption agencies, and you, the mother, have no power over the legal parents to make the child available. Supposedly mandated visits and photographs are not really required—because there is no policing organization—if the now-legal parents decide they do not want to comply, no one is going to make them. This is not like child-custody disputes; the first mother has no legal standing. The legal parents have all the power. Some stories I’ve heard about “open” adoptions are pathetic; one agency worker from Bethany Christian Services, which advertises itself as the largest adoption agency in the United States, once let slip to another birth mother that “eighty percent” of their open adoptions do not stay that way. They end up as closed adoptions.

Yes, we occasionally read about some of the good ones in The New York Times and elsewhere, yes, I hear from adoptive mothers who actually want the birth mothers to stay involved, to show up when they say they will, but they are the exception, not the rule. I get desperate emails from first mothers who were promised by seemingly good people that the adoption would be “open,” only to find them slammed shut in a year or two. People move, change their phone number to an unlisted one, do not leave forwarding addresses or answer mail. They lied to get a baby, and then, they hide. They are the lowliest of the low, slugs on of the earth, no matter how they treat those children. Their love starts out by conning their mothers to get the children; their love starts out with fraud.

A friend of mine at a major magazine—the kind that stands for consumer rights—told me that one of the editors, a man, refuses to do television spots because “the birth mother” might recognize him, and then be able to locate him and his wife. I don’t know if this was an open adoption or not, but it sounds like one to me. The mother of his child met him once, right? Did he agree to a continued relationship? Or is he simply afraid that the inexorable pull of motherhood will turn her into a stalker? To those adopters who close what started out as an open adoption, I have no good words or understanding. If there is reincarnation, let them come back walking in my shoes.

*Suzanne Rostler, “Suicide Attempts More Common Among Adopted Teens,” Reuters Health, from adoptioncrossroads.org/Suicide.htm. from Pediatrics 2001; 108:e30.


  1. What an amazing post ~ thank you!

  2. Lorraine, I find that the open adoptions I hear about are truly more likely to close than not. I know one mother that closed her adoption - herself. While I understand her logic and emotional response to the entirety of the situation, I have to wonder how it could have been averted.

    I do not watch things like "The Secret Life of American Teenagers" or "Pregnant and 16" for the same reasons as you don't...It makes me nauseas, anxious and very upset. I tried, at one point to watch the first of those shows....oye, what a mistake. I also do not watch any of the local cable stuff, national but definitely more visible where I live in my little Catholic town, that touts how beautiful adoption is...It makes me angry.

    Closed adoption, secrets, lies...they are also responsible for the majority of abuses by adoptive parents. Humans tend to, if they are remotely "normal" emotionally and developmentally, feel a great deal of guilt over their personal wrongs...so their fraud becomes their most motivating factor...liars, as we all know, never truly prosper.

  3. What an amazing post ~ thank you.

  4. As an adult adopted person, I want to say thank you. Your perspective is as I have always imagined for my own first mother. Open, closed, private, whatever, there are too many "unnatural" gaps in the so-called triad. Indeed my adolescence was tumultuous, but believe that great strength comes from that which did not kill me. I would suspect the same to be true of your adult adopted child. With persistence and advocacy we can get our answers to those questions.

  5. I have to disagree that adoption per se is not the problem. That it is relinquishment. I know a lot of people like to say that as it is a "feel good" for adoptive parents, but I think there are problems inherent in the very act of being adopted.

    Which can include feeling like a fraud, feeling like one's whole basis is founded on a lie and therefore without a foundation. Forever missing the physical bond that creates a sense of safety.

    Before someone jumps down my throat and accuses me of being sloppy in my thinking, Yes I know not all adoptees feel that way, yes I know that the benefits of being adopted may for that individual outweigh the benefits of being raised in an alley by a prostitute,( I actually knew a woman with this experience, and no she was not having a fine time of it) or some other barbaric childhood. Then again, it may not, some adoptees have ghastly childhoods too.

    Also the druggie/drunk, impoverished thing, Idk, I read this book years ago and it made an impression on me for the lack of someone with a "better life" she doesn't seem to regret being raised by her own family.


    Sorry, it just gets my back up when it is suggested that the act of being adopted is not part of the problem. I see it as more kowtowing, holding the adopters experience above all, and always having to genuflect, defer and dismiss our emotional realities to take care of theirs.

    Not that I have issues with this, lol.

  6. Joy--You're right too. Adoption in most places is permeated with the fiction that the new family is all that matters, that the "old" original family can be handily taken care of with "love" and induction into the new. Rubbish. We know enough about adoption to know that is not true.

    I watched one of those POV movies last night--Off and Running--and that certainly makes the point that good parents are not enough. And your comment made me rethink how I will rewrite this section.

  7. Funny, I watched that last night too, and it really upset me.

    Will post about it later. I was surprised at how viscerial my reaction was, and what a restless night that followed.

  8. "For it’s not the adoption per se that is the issue, in most cases; it’s the being “given up” that is the killer."
    Great post apart from this point.Yes being 'given up' is the pits, but adoption itself is another trauma which is also a killer. Adoptees are asked to live another life, take on a new name, a new identity and in effect the person they were has been 'killed' if you want to talk about it in those terms.

  9. "being adopted is not part of the problem. I see it as more kowtowing, holding the adopters experience above all"

    This makes me wonder.

    If not for us adoptees, our parents wouldn't be ... well, parents.

  10. When I was pregnant with Megan, I was living in a rented room in an apartment hotel in San Francisco. A neighbor, a Peruvian, Victor, took it upon himself to watch out for me. He was appalled that I was planning to give her up. "How could you give away your own flesh and blood?" he asked. I didn't respond because I couldn't articulate my reasons. I knew I had to do it. Victor, I thought, was reflecting the views of a less advanced civilization, a more primitive people, governed by passion, not reason. In other words, Victor was a backwards spic.

    Later in the hospital, I had two roommmates. The first was an 19 year single African-American woman having her second child. Of course she was raising both her children. The second was a young Latina woman who appeared to be single (no young man came to visit.). She kept her baby as well.

    I fervently wished I was poor and black. Then I would have an excuse to keep my baby. Being white and middle class, I had to uphold the mores of a more advanced people as well as protect my family from shame, by giving my baby to strangers.

    These views are shocking today but they were promulgated by authorities such as the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and Ann Landers and shared by the great majority of white women.

    Like Lorraine, today I would not recommend adoption except under the most unusual circumstances -- and then I would recommend the child be kept within the family.

    Fortunately adoption rates are lower today than in the 60's (not low enough by any means). But we have come a long way, baby.

  11. I know I;m kinda from the outside looking in, I am an adoptive mom, that came in to this whole process blind (my own fault, not passing the blame). I can never ever imagine closing off my kids other families, with my daughter its set, when we visit etc., with my son, we have no contant , so I send reports to agnecy and tell them every time we are open if she ever comes back. but even still I can so see the ugly side to adoption even in open situations I can still see a million questions my children will have, so I just keep reading and hoping that the questions will be answered in the best way for them. and not much in adoption for me has been a feel good, it sure didnt feel good taking another womans baby, it sure was much much harder that I ever thought or imagined being an adoptive mom, its been a struggle, one that has never affected my parenting, just my soul and me as a person.

  12. Joy wrote:"Forever missing the physical bond that creates a sense of safety. "

    It is hard for those of us not adopted to imagine what being an adoptee is really like. It may be equally hard for adoptees to really understand what it is like to be raised by blood relatives, and to imagine universal attributes that are not there for all who grow up in natural families.

    I do not think that the physical bond of blood relationship creates a sense of safety per se. It never did for me, because I was not especially like my blood relatives except in appearance. My parents were good people but I never shared any inner emotions with them.

    What adoptees lose in not knowing blood relatives is huge. I do not mean to in any way diminish that loss and pain, nor to say I know how it feels to be adopted because I do not. But I do know what it is to grow up in a loving biological family without feeling a lot of emotional connectedness, and no special sense of safety.

    Some things are adoption-related, others are personal and can be part of adoptive or natural families.

    As far as adoption being "the problem", the alternative for children once surrendered has been foster care, often a series of foster homes, or institutional care. When adoption does not happen all is not rosy for the surrendered child either, and in the past, the natural mother was never informed and did not even know her child was not adopted.

  13. @ Jane, I find it weird that you say you saw being poor and black as an "excuse" (for keeping one's kid).

    @ Maryanne, I believe that the feelings of insecurity often associated with being relinquished *are* sometimes compounded by adoption itself, particularly in cases where the adoptive parents, whatever sort of people they are, are both physically and temperamentally very different from the adoptee.

    It seems to me that many adoptees have to struggle to 'self-create' in a way that non-adopted people don't. Not that it's easy for anyone to self actualize, but, as I see it, being adopted is yet another hurdle to get over in the search for personal identity, simply because the genetic mirror isn't there. There is no touchstone.
    There IS a model, but the component parts of that model may be so alien that the process of putting all the pieces together becomes more than usually tricky and confusing. I don't think that kind of struggle and confusion would help a person to feel safe. I imagine it as very kaleidoscopic and subject to chanciness.

    Also, I don't think feeling emotionally unconnected to the family in which one was raised can usefully be compared to feeling "unsafe" as an adoptee. It seems like apples and oranges to me.
    But what would I know?


  14. @ Maryanne:

    I am so not surprised that you can't understand what I mean. Let me phrase it in a way that may be more clear.

    Just to further clarify, my ex was raised by a sadistic father. Srsly, sadistic. Also a child molestor. He molested my ex's sisters and to imo a psychologcial sexual abuse of my ex. Stuff my adoptive parents would never subject me to. Stuff from war-torture. So despite the impression that you may have that I think only the adoptee suffers and all biological children are lost in heather and rainbows. No, I do not think that and I know he did not grow-up feeling "safe" in a very real sense of the word.

    As a matter of fact, I was born a regular bio-child the old-fashioned way. If my biological family did not have problems, I would never have been adopted. I am well aware that biological families have problems, mine have the sort of the biggest, they give their kids away when they have the resources to raise them. As in financial, obviously not emotionally.

    What you didn't understand in my comment, is despite the fact that I really honestly not only love but like my adoptive parents. They are my parents by choice. Once I reached 18, well in my case, 15, but that was my own doing. Once I became independent. It is my choice to be their daughter or not.

    I don't have the physical safety of a blood bond with them, I just don't. I can't fake it, shared history and love is not the same. It is worth something to be sure but it is not the same.

    If on the other hand, my son decides that I am a royal pain in the ass and wants nothing more to do with me, which does happen in biological families. There is no denying that he is still my son, I am still his mother.

    He may not like me, or love me, or want me in his life. The mother/son familial relationship will endure unquestioned.

    That is the safety I am talking about. That is why so many, not all adoptive moms flip out with nmoms. That is why the lady at the grocery store saw my nmom with me after so many times of seeing me with my amom and for the first time rubbed my hand and asked if "is she your mother?"

    I am my amom's daughter because I love her and I want to be her daughter. I am my nmoms daugther because I was formed out of her egg and pushed out her vagina.

    I know this post is long and rambly and directed at Maryanne Lo., and I know you don't like bickering, but pls. let it stand. I think it is really important.

    Why deny the obvious?


  15. Yes, I see what you mean Kippa. I think I equated "unsafe" with uncomfortable or unconnected, and certainly there is a much greater chance of that in adoptive families, as it is just chance that the adoptee would have anything in common. And thinking more about it,some adoptees do have the fear of being "sent back" which would make any child feel unsafe.

    Adoptive parent expectations that they can mold the child to be like them do a lot of damage, especially when the child is very unlike them in talents and interests. Then there is the "I took you out of the gutter" gratitude thing.

    The thing my son mentioned being most appreciative about his adoptive Dad was that he let him be himself and pursue his own interests, which were very different from those of the adoptive family, including getting him a home computer in the early 80s when they were very expensive and not common. Dad knew nothing about computers or science, but that was my son's interest so his Dad let him pursue it and was proud of him.

  16. Thanks for your long explanation, Joy. I still do not get how "came from her egg and pushed out of her vagina" equates with feeling safe, but it obviously means that to you, so be it.

    I have always felt equally physically connected to all my kids including the one I surrendered. They all carry my genes, my medical history is pertinent to them. I never felt I was not a mother to the son I did not get to raise. But because he was adopted, I always knew he had another mother as well, never wholly hers or mine but somewhere in the middle, as adoptees sometimes say they feel.

    Are you saying the physical connection is more important than the emotional connection? The physical connection is biological fact and goes on forever if there are descendants, but to me, without the emotional connection of a relationship that is cold comfort. If any of my kids cut me off completely I would be devastated.

    My parents had the financial means to raise my child. I did not at the time think I had the emotional means and did not press them to take us in. Mea Culpa.

  17. I suspect too that for many being adopted creates a sense of fungibility, regardless of the reasons for relinquishment or the quality of the adoptive parenting.

    Maybe I'm going off at a tangent and this isn't the best illustration of what I'm trying to say anyway, but here's a story told me by an adoptee who was adopted into a family which soon after produced several bio kids. Good parents, great sibs etc. Lasting relationships, still going strong.

    Anyway, to get on with the story, some years later, after the parents divorced and the mother married again, my friend's surname - and *only* hers - was changed to that of the new step-father (who by all accounts was an OK guy but he didn't stick around long).

    My friend, now adult, has changed her name back to the one she was given at the time of the adoption, but she says that the fact that only *her* surname was changed feels like confirmation of something she'd always suspected but couldn't put her finger on - that, unlike her siblings, she was a commodity to be exchanged at will.


  18. I have to agree in part with Joy too. We Adoptees have a double edge sword thrust in our hearts. We grow up feeling rejected from our Natural Parents AND have to deal with the insane stress of being told we are not allowed to even know who they are. That truly, is just too much for ANY child.....

  19. Maryanne, your last paragraph broke my heart.

  20. By the way, for those still following this thread...Lydia and her boyfriend came to sign the surrender papers, when to see the baby on last time...and took him home! There's no way I could ever find her again--Lydia was not her real name--but I would so love to find out how everything turned out.

  21. Sorry then, Maryanne, I don't seem to be able to help you.

    You might try reading books by adult adoptees or blogs by them. That may elucidate that which eludes you.


  22. I have read many books by adoptees, and a few blogs. What I have gotten from reading them is that while adoptees have some issues in common, they are very different individuals and deal with being adopted in many different ways. Some are much more affected by adoption issues than others. There is no one "adoptee voice".

    I would ask how much you have tried to understand the feelings of mothers who have surrendered, not just your own but the wide variety of women in that position. There too you will find some commonalities and some differences.

    I may be wrong, Joy, but what I get from your writing is that you feel being surrendered for adoption is the worst thing that can happen to a child, per your comment "I am well aware that biological families have problems, mine have the sort of the biggest, they give their kids away when they have the resources to raise them." This statement is what prompted me to make the statement Lorraine found heartbreaking,"My parents had the financial means to raise my child. I did not at the time think I had the emotional means and did not press them to take us in. Mea Culpa." I take responsibility for my actions, which I will regret forever. You want to make sure many of us mothers suffered for our acts? I certainly did. Does that make you feel happy or justified ?

    Is the biggest problem a family can have surrendering a child? Is being raised in an abusive biological home preferable? If that is not what you meant, please set us straight.

  23. Maryanne, you wrote:

    "If any of my kids cut me off completely I would be devastated."

    This is what happens to adoptees. We are cut off at birth, and sometimes repeatedly throughout our lives when we try to make contact.

    I agree completely with what Joy said about feeling "unsafe." Although I have wonderful adoptive parents, I worried about being sent back; I don't think I knew where I'd go, but I knew my home was my home due to a contingency. I was a very easy child to parent because I was constantly anxious about what might happen if I didn't act perfectly. My aparents love me unconditionally to this day, but I was aware of the artificially constructed nature of our bond. No matter what they told me, I felt some level of instability. You might shrug this off as just one adoptee's experience, of course.

    I recently spoke with my first mom, after 10 years of her denying me and avoiding me. It was a rocky conversation, including her telling me that she's lost 10 pounds and is on anti-anxiety medications because of me and my search; nevermind that her lying about her medical history two years ago left me with a chronic health condition. Had she been truthful to me, herself, and others, my first family and I could have avoided so much anguish.

    That said, our conversation ended on a fairly positive note. Hearing her voice, having her say that she was proud of me, and being acknowledged as a person did so much to ground me and give me peace (safety) within myself. Stuff that my adoptive parents could never do, although they would have liked to.

    For me, it definitely goes beyond relinquishment. I was relinquished once, but I live being adopted.

  24. I am an alumna of the Regina Residence unwed mother home in Port Jefferson New York. I recently drove by and a window is broken and boarded up, and it looks like it's going to be torn down soon . The nuns did not treat me badly,so I am not going to bash them,but for the most part they didn't have a clue. There was one very old(to me,then-probably all of 65-70)nun who was especially kind to me and taught me how to crochet a little baby jacket which went with my son to hia adoptive parents(he still refuses to show it to me) Also, I can relate to what Jane said. There was one girl who was 15. She was from Puerto Rico and her mother who was in her early 30's(not much older than me at the time) came to visit her one day and everyone was thrilled and she ended up taking the baby home My mother said I could keep my baby and even went shopping for a crib with me. The social workers had shoved some foster care papers under my nose to sign a few hours after he was born(just until you're back on your feet and can take care of him) Well, the sad story is I kept asking for him,being promised him,threatened to be taken to court,and on and on indoctrinated into why I was not the best parent for my own child and if I didn't sign he wouldn't bond with his (adoptive) parents. How stupid was I No wonder
    everyone is still laughing at me. I'm his mother and was and am still bonded with him-a bond so strong not all the lawyers or social workers or man-made laws can break it. After months of this I finally got so angry and demoralized I signed What I finally learned was that the adoption system uses negative emotions ,especially fear and anger, to convince naive girls to give up their babies when they are feeling especially weak and powerless(as if they too are a helpless baby needing parents) My parents didn't have a clue all this was going on I was so afraid that if I kept my baby he would die because I wouldn't know how to take care of him So, they sent us away,taught us how to be logical etc Never mind the feelings My son had a good adoptive mother, but no one could love him as much as I could. When his mother asked him what I was like (the day after our reunion) he said'she's like me'

  25. @ Maryanne:


    You want to make sure many of us mothers suffered for our acts? I certainly did. Does that make you feel happy or justified ?

    Is the biggest problem a family can have surrendering a child? Is being raised in an abusive biological home preferable? If that is not what you meant, please set us straight."

    This is a patently ridiculous statement.

    Who is the "us" you are speaking for? Don't answer.

    It is not my responsibility to make you understand what you don't seem to be either capable or willing to understand.

    Like I said, I can't help you, please seek help elsewhere.


  26. This discussion between Maryanne and Joy is over. Time to move on.

  27. I don't always agree on your perspective on adoptive parents (I'm an adopted child) but I thank you for sharing your story and encourage you to keep encouraging everyone to support open adoptions.

    I've been struggling, hit dead ends with no hope, of finding out more information on my birth parents and (it is my hope) to contact my birth mother and let her know my own medical history... I fear that any biological siblings I have out there will suffer the fear I did at 17 for Thyroid problems. When I was 17 knowing someone else with it, knowing anything about it, knowing how the variety of options worked out for another person would have taken away much of the fear that I suffered with alone.

    I think every adoption agency has a duty to the child to keep tabs on locations of everyone involved in adoptions and we need better state systems that do not further shut doors.



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