' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: The promise of a stable two-parent in adoption home is not a guarantee

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The promise of a stable two-parent in adoption home is not a guarantee

Many of us in contemplating adoption for our unborn child envisioned a home that we wished we had. I know I did. A devoted mother and father, just one or no siblings, having my own room.

My parents divorced when I was 15 but were emotionally separated for years before that. I envied the girls whose fathers drove them to school when the temperature was below freezing, which was frequent in Chicago winters, fathers who took them to movies, who were just there, unlike my father who was rarely around. In mid-century, it was, if not a disgrace, at least an embarrassment not to have an active father in the home. We were told to be raised in a "broken home" was a recipe for failure. I had four siblings and had to share a room with an older sister. My mother was 36 when I was born, at least a decade older than my friends' mothers, and to me old-fashioned in her dress and hairstyle. She was a teacher at a public high school and did her best--something I did not appreciate for many years--but school clothes from Sears was all she could afford, unlike my classmate clothed by Marshall Field.

For my child, I imagined that THE Adoptive Parents, to be selected by an all-knowing social worker, would live in a large house, not an apartment, spend Christmas vacations in Florida, were attractive and young and would of course dote on my child. I put aside (or blocked out) my actual early experience with adoption. My Aunt Katie, my father's older sister, a fine woman adopted a baby boy when she was almost 42. Within a year, she and her husband split and he remarried. I don't think he had much of a relationship with the boy.When he was still in diapers, Aunt Katie went back to work as a first-grade teacher. She hated to leave her son with a baby-sitter, but she needed the money.

The adoption social worker asked me what I thought of adoption. I told her how wonderful it was for my aunt; how devoted she was to her son. I did not even think about whether it was wonderful for the boy, or remarkably, his first mother--my counterpart in adoption. I didn't realize that the trade off for my daughter--even if she was placed with Ward and June Cleaver--was that she would not be was raised with people who looked like her, or who shared her interests and traits. I did not realize she would spend many years wondering why she was given up.

Within a few years, I saw that adoptive families were not always idyllic. During the time I practiced law (1971 to 1975) I encountered the following situations. The names below are fictitious.

Henry came to me inquiring about divorcing his wife. He and his wife had several adopted children. When I told him how much child support he'd likely be ordered to pay, he exploded. "I never wanted those kids. I only agreed to the adoption because she wanted them. I should not have to pay anything." I explained the kids were legally his and he would have to pay support. I never saw him again.

Evelyn was a smart, sensitive woman in her late 30's. She and her husband, a high school principle, had three young adopted kids and lived in a small town on the Oregon coast. She fell in love with a local artist, a man very different from her unemotional husband. He filed for divorce and custody of the kids. When she told me her story, I wanted to scream -- "you can't break up your family. You promised (figuratively) the children's first parents that the children would have a stable two parent family." I didn't say that of course and as I got to know her, I was sympathetic with why she wanted to leave her husband. The judge awarded the husband custody and allowed my client visitation.

Susan, a smart and attractive 17-year-old, was charged with prostitution in juvenile court. She had been adopted by a pedodontist (a children's dentist) and his wife. As a young teen she was, in the parlance of the time, "beyond the control of her parents" and they kicked her out. She broke into their (her) home and was convicted of burglary, and placed in the state's reformatory for girls, Hillcrest. When she was released, the adoptive parents refused to take her back. She had nowhere to go and no money. She decided to try selling  her body, but lacking experience was trapped by a police officer on her first attempt. Her parole was revoked and she returned to Hillcrest. As with the other clients, I don't know what happened to her.

William, a man in his early 20's was charged with several counts of robbery. He pleaded guilty. The pre-sentence report, prepared by court staff for the judge, noted that William was adopted. The family broke up because his adoptive father molested my client's juvenile sister--also adopted.

After the reunion with my lost daughter in 1997, I read every memoir by adoptees and first parents I could get me hands on and attended numerous adoption support groups, conferences, and retreats. Based on the stories of my fellow attendees and the memoirists, I concluded that over 50 percent of adopted children were not raised in the same household with both adoptive parents. Divorce was common, but also death. Adoptive parents had the same issues as biological parents, divorce, alcoholism, drug addiction loss of jobs, mental problems. 

We see this frequently in the lives of celebrities who adopt. Comedian Paula Poundstone, the adoptive mother of three,, was charged with a DUI while children were in the car and three counts of lewd acts upon a girl younger than 14. She pleaded guilty to inflicting injury upon a child and felony child endangerment. I've heard of a couple who adopted a daughter from China divorced when the child was quite young; the mother became an alcoholic. Happily, the father stayed involved, and eventually the girl chose to live with him. 

Adopters Angelia Jolie, Nicole Kidman, and many more broke up with their spouses. Adoptive mother Jamie Lee Curtis, author of "Tell Me Again About the Night I was Born" about the joy an adopted child creates for a family is in the news about her battle with opiate addiction. Rosie O'Donnell had a messy personal life and allowed her adopted children to be raised by nannies. One of the children, Chelsea moved in with her first mother the day she turned 18. And there are many more stories. A good friend discovered after reunion that the adoptive mother of her child--though seemingly a pillar of her parish--was a alcoholic and said dreadful things in the evening to her two adopted children when she sank into a drunken haze.

I need to add that my daughter lucked out and was adopted by fine people. She grew up with three siblings and went to college. She was raised in the Mormon Church which is hugely important to her. I also think she would have been fine being raised by me and would have gone to college. There were people that would have helped me if I had asked. 

Emily Hipchen's memoir
The irony is that among the first mothers I met, about 20 percent married the father of their baby after giving him or her up. This was the case of adoptee/memoirists Sarah Saffian's and Emily Hipchen parents, former AAC president Ellen McQuade and her husband, former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel and his wife, the parents of Brian Wheeler, the play-by-play announcer for the Portland Trailblazers,and of course Catelynn and Tyler of 16 and Pregnant. I and many mothers I met married another man soon after giving up their children, a man who would have happily been a good step father to the lost child.

My message to mothers considering giving up their child--for many children adoption doesn't provide a better life, only a different life. If you want to be sure your child is loved and well-taken care of, do it yourself. Help often appears from sources you don't expect.--jane

Oregon man finds his first family thanks to new Illinois law
Adoption is not all 'rosy' for O'Donnell

Paula Poundstone
Jamie Curtis opens up about her Battle with Opiate Addiction
Giants coach, wife appear with son given up for adoption

The Adoption Reader: Birth Mothers, Adoptive Mothers, and Adopted Daughters Tell Their Stories
February 7, 2001
This compilation of essays - beginning with birth mothers, then adoptive mothers, and finally the adopted daughters - goes above and beyond the usual "magazine style" articles on the quirks or perils of the adoption process. I was incredibly pleased and impressed by the diversity of Wadia-Ells' collection. Lesbian women, multi-racial families, and a variety of socio-economic backgrounds all lend to this book a wealth of perspectives. The contributors are thoughtful, often in emotional pain, honest about their experiences, and each one is a talented writer.

The one thing that did emerge most clearly from this work was the overall tone that adoption was an incredibly painful thing for all parties involved. The more positive essays were from the adoptive moms - birth moms and adopted daughters were obviously struggling to make sense out of their experiences. I suspect that there are numerous people on all sides of the fence with incredibly positive adoption stories, but pain often prompts us to find an outlet and for many women, writing is the answer. I do not regret for a moment reading this wonderful collection, but at the same time I seriously wonder whether adoption is something I'm able to emotionally tackle after experiencing Wadia-Ells' book.

Coming Apart Together: Fragments from an Adoption
October 1, 2017
Readers will admire Hipchen's writerly brilliance and identify with her experience even if not an adoptive parent or adopted child. One needn't have had a wild and crazy childhood in Texas to fall in love with Mary Karr's The Liar's Club or been a poverty-stricken boy in Ireland to be fascinated by Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes. I could find no better mouthpiece to the sacred in this compelling memoir than Emily Hip


  1. Another cruel reminder of a desperate decision made in abject fear that I would not be enough for my daughter. I'll have the rest of my life to regret not knowing that possibly there was help to keep us together. Had I told my mother, I know she would have discouraged me from giving my baby to strangers. A knife in my heart that never goes away. Beware of the con game in the adoption industry. You cannot unring that bell.

  2. I have to echo lulu that this is beautifully expressed.

    Our daughter's parents moved away from the area a couple years ago, and we went there this past August to visit them since it had been some time since we saw them (our daughter does facetime with them, but it's not the same as in person). It always gives me a little bit of an ache for all of them when I see them together- they are like missing puzzle pieces.

    What you said is what I always say to people with one addition: "adoption did not give our daughter a better life, just a different one, and also a more complicated emotional existence from the very start."

    Her parents are also together still, and it keeps me up sometimes at night worrying over the emotional implications for our daughter (and honestly, for them as well in regards to her... but I do not pry into their emotions or feelings- not my place- but I am very well aware of our daughter's feelings and know this is very, very hard for her). She has asked me if she could go live with them, and my husband and I would be supportive of working something out with her parents, but I do not see how it could happen given the circumstances (that I can't share) that caused her adoption in the first place are still there. It breaks my heart for her.

    It's all very complicated and very hard for adoptees and first parents... I wish it was more mainstream to discuss all of this rather than such a taboo to say anything that isn't rosy and sunshine about adoption. There are so many cases, like you stated, where it clearly didn't result in a better life, but we continue to market the idea that it is such a lovely option for all involved.

    1. Thank you tiffany for acknowledging what we know all too well--discussing this part of adoption is not what the mainstream wants to deal with--but it is becoming more common, as I mentioned in a previous post with the causal reference to "disassociation" accepted as a matter of course on Bull. And various issues that continue to come up still are imbued in This is Us. We are making progress, slow as that may be.

    2. A good friend last week talked with me about his fiance wanting to adopt internationally (from her country of origin), and he said his view of adoption has shifted as a result of our conversations. He wanted me to share with his fiance a lot of the complications and issues that he and I have discussed. I view this as a sign of progress- the more we speak out, the more people will listen.

  3. Tiffany, your empathy is much appreciated! As one of many first mothers, we have become accustomed to denigration. We deserve recognition of the loss we experience.

    1. Pauline, you really do. I'm so sorry. I am hopeful we can continue to work for change and shift the perspective around adoption.

  4. We were so naive! I pictured the adoptive parents as superior to me in every way, richer, more educated, more mature, more cultured. In my mind, they were the parents from the "Dick and Jane" first reader, complete with the housedress and home with the white picket fence. Also they were not too old, and good-looking.
    Mentally healthy and not alcoholic goes without saying.

    As it turned out that they, but especially the mother, failed on every one of those fantasies. The mother had a high school education, if that, she was crude, dishonest, mentally ill, agoraphobic and paranoid and physically and emotionally abusive. She was also hugely obese. The father was a little better, at least he had a college degree, but he drank to avoid dealing with his creepy wife, and was a very short skinny old fellow, old enough to be my father. They made an odd couple, my son was nothing like them, tall and good-looking and brilliant, more like his bio father who has a doctorate, and me. There was also a bio daughter, much older than my son and according to him just like the mother. So much for the "perfect" family. The father died when my son was 21, and he cut himself off from that family shortly thereafter, He did not even go to the mother's funeral when she died some years later. He would have been better off with me and my family. Another adoption that should never have happened.



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