By Christy Crowe Hughes
THE CONCEPT OF adoption is very old—it is part of our earliest Judeo-Christian myths (Moses for example). Although it is an essential social mechanism for taking care of vulnerable populations of children, adoption is fraught with deep shame and trauma that affects all three parties in the adoption “triangle”: the birth parents, the child, and the adoptive parents. This shame and trauma are very difficult to talk about, and so most of us silence our pain. Ultimately, our silence becomes a prison. It isolates us from those we love and damages our health. Of the over 20 adoptees I’ve interviewed in my research, all have said that they have felt utterly alone in their adoption journey—that no one gets it. Moreover, my siblings and I are all adopted, and yet it was not until six months ago that we began discussing what adoption has meant for us. When I first spoke with my brother, he said, “I can’t believe we have never talked about this before.”
The antidote to this silence, this shame, is the telling of our stories—especially the difficult ones. With this article, I hope to bring some adoption stories to light; to show how shame and trauma infects each person in the adoption triangle, which I hope will help us connect more compassionately with each other.
American Adoption History
IN THE EARLY 1900s a slow shift began: from taking care of parentless children collectively (such as in orphanages and foundling hospitals) to taking care of them individually—through foster care and adoption. At that time, it was rare for babies to be placed with foster families; instead, prospective parents would usually choose to adopt an older child for a variety of reasons. Anne in Anne of Green Gables, for example, is adopted by Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert because they need help on their farm, not because Anne needs a home. She is nearly sent back to the orphanage because they don’t believe she can handle the labor. Fortunately for Anne, Marilla has a change of heart, but most similarly situated children during this era were not so lucky.
In 1917, Minnesota became the first state to seal adoption records away from the public. Many adopted children were born to unwed mothers, and the state was hoping to shield them from the shame of “illegitimacy.” Further, adoptee birth certificates were altered to reflect a “rebirth” into their adoptive families. In other words, the children were given falsified—or at least legally fictional—documents.
But adoption was still considered a last resort in the early to mid twentieth century. Both science and culture militated against it. For example, it was a commonly accepted eugenic theory that children who were born to unwed mothers came from poor stock. “Illegitimacy is the result of biological, psychological and social causes following definite scientific laws,” declared Amey Watson, chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Parenthood.1 Prominent American psychologist Henry Herbert Goddard warned that placing illegitimate children in “good families” runs “the risk of contaminating the race by the perpetuation of mental and moral deficiency.”2 Adoption was a “crime against those yet unborn.” Following these concerns, social workers were tasked with weeding out “genetic lemons” to prevent their “defective germ-plasm” from being “mated with normal stock.”3
Adoption was also seen as a potential cure for “female weakness”—infertility. Some psychologists believed that infertility was a psychological condition, and that placing a baby with an infertile mother would relieve her psychosis, allowing her to conceive and carry her own biological child. But adoption was expedient only after all other treatments had failed.
In the 1950s, adoption practices shifted toward early placement largely because of John Bowlby’s research demonstrating the harmful effects of depriving an infant of maternal care and attachment. Simultaneously, during what is now known as the “Baby Scoop” era, millions of unwed mothers were encouraged to, and often manipulated into, giving up their babies as penance for their sexual misconduct.
It was not uncommon for race to be altered in adoption records to make an infant easier to place. One adoptee I spoke to was adopted in the early 1970s through a private agency in Utah that wanted to place her with a mixed-race couple that was white and Japanese. She was raised by her adoptive parents to take pride in her Japanese heritage and language, and it was not until she took a dna test as an adult that she discovered that she is 50% Filipino, and 0% Japanese.
The 1980s saw a decline in birth mothers who were willing to relinquish their babies blindly, which led toward open adoption practices which have since become the norm. Open adoptions allow birth parents to select adoptive parents through adoption agencies, and typically provide limited contact between birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees.
Today, adoption has largely moved from the public sphere to the private, both domestically and internationally. It’s becoming a business—an industrial, capitalist solution to an age-old problem. As Lemn Sissay put it, “The government (and I will insert that in America, the market) is the farmer, the adopted parents are the consumer, the birth mother the earth, and the baby the crop.”
LDS Adoption History
THE HISTORY OF adoption in Mormonism begins early on when John Murdock offered his newly born twins (their mother having died in childbirth) to Joseph and Emma Smith, whose own twins had died shortly after birth. This is how adoption was usually handled within the Mormon community—through verbal agreements. In 1919, general Relief Society board member (who later became president) Amy Brown Lyman established the Relief Society Social Services Department; one of its duties was to oversee adoptions.
In 1969, as the Church moved towards Correlation, the priesthood took control of the department and changed its name to United Social Services, which later changed to LDS Social Services and then to LDS Family Services. Through these institutions, the Church financially subsidized LDS couples seeking to adopt, and provided LDS birth parents the assurance that their children would be raised LDS and sealed in the temple to their adoptive families. However, as of 2014, the LDS Church no longer facilitates adoptions.
As in the United States generally, children of color were more difficult to place in LDS families until about the last 10–15 years. Most white couples did not want to adopt outside their race, and the LDS Church put a limit on how many white babies an adoptive family could receive (usually two). After meeting that cap, transracial adoption was an option. So, while white infants were placed within a few days of birth, infants of color often lived in foster care for 1–9 months before being placed. White male infants were the most expensive to adopt, followed by white female infants; children of color were far less.
“We want to paint it as a beautiful picture—that it’s not messy—that we were just delivered to our adopted families by a stork,” Adoptee R said, “We want it to be seamless and beautiful. And really when I look at my court records I see how much of a transaction it was. There was a monetary amount assigned to my life.”
Adoptee P described what is was like for her to be a mixed-race adoptee in a large, white family in the early 70s:
I wondered about my birth mom a lot. I didn’t have a good relationship with my adoptive mom. And I never felt like I belonged in my family or community. I grew up in Utah County and it was very white. There were no brown kids. I was keenly aware of the fact that I wasn’t blond, that I didn’t have pale skin or perfect teeth. Everything about me made me feel worse about being adopted.
BIRTH MOTHERS ARE the first side in the “triangle of shame” I will explore in this article. Before open adoption practices became common, most unwed LDS mothers were considered an embarrassment to their church community and were quietly sent away from their homes to give birth (often alone), then relinquish their babies and return home. Many never told their fathers, siblings, later spouses, or other children.
One adoptee I interviewed had a close-up view of this process during the 1970s:
My parents fostered many children through LDSFS, and some of these placements were for teenage mothers who intended to place their children for adoption. I observed that being pregnant out of wedlock was a very shameful thing—so shameful, in fact, that you had to go into hiding. You had to leave your family and friends to go live with a foster family, assume a fake last name, stay out of the public school system, and no one could know where you had gone or why you had disappeared. When you had your baby, few people were allowed to see or touch it. The baby was even kept separated from the rest of the babies in the nursery so it could not be seen from the hallway observation window. One young woman stayed at our house for a week or two after giving birth before going back to her parents’ home. She was in her bedroom a lot—crying and crying. Social workers came to visit. They went into her bedroom and shut the door and talked to her. Overall I was left with the impression that my birth was probably a sad, sad time for someone.
Adoptee B said she learned from her birth mother years later that during delivery, her birth mother had been knocked out with anesthesia (a common practice in the 50s and 60s). When she awoke, her baby had already been placed in temporary foster care. For over fifty years, this birth mother did not even know her child’s gender.
Adoptee F was born with a serious heart condition; her birth mother left the hospital not knowing if her baby had lived or died.
Adoptee J observed, “We are told our whole life how deadly of a sin sex outside of marriage is, and that’s how I was created. And the only thing we were told about our birth moms is that they are sinners.”
For LDS birth mothers, no matter what they do, no matter how much they “repent” for their sins—even if they become temple-worthy—they are sealed off from the children they placed for adoption—not just in this life, but for eternity. Theirs is a sin that can never be made completely right.
This is just some of the shame birth mothers have had to live with.
MANY LDS COUPLES turn to adoption because they are unable to produce children of their own. Infertility is difficult for any couple to tackle, but in the LDS community, with its focus on genealogical lines and forever families, it is especially fraught. Infertility can cause great strain on a marriage, from trying to get pregnant—with all its timing and invasive measures—to learning how to cope with the loss and shame of feeling so different from your ward members and neighbors.
I, myself, struggled with secondary infertility for seven years before being able to have my two sons, and I can tell you that it challenges a woman’s sense of self and value to the core. I, too, have cried out with Rachel of old, “Give me children, or else I die” (Genesis 30:1). Because the LDS community implicitly ties a woman’s worth to her ability to multiply and replenish the earth, women who are unable to bear biological children often feel that they have failed both their husbands and God.
By the time a couple arrives at adoption, they have usually suffered through a protracted ordeal of fertility procedures, miscarriages, and perhaps even the loss of a baby. Adoption is their last hope of achieving the family they’ve always desired. Many feel broken, grieving over the loss of their own biological bloodline. They may enter the adoption process still carrying unresolved grief, which can last the rest of their lives, affecting their relationship with their spouse and adopted children.
For example, Adoptee B shared:
About twelve years ago I was visiting my adoptive father in the hospital after he had surgery. I think the pain meds may have contributed to him being more open about his feelings than he had ever been, and he confessed he had never really felt that attached to his [adoptive] children. He said, “When [the oldest] was born, I didn’t want to give him my name. I kept thinking Mom and I would have children of our own, and I wanted to wait to pass along my name.”
This parental grief and resulting emotional disconnection, even if never expressed outwardly, can greatly interfere with the bonding and attachment process of an adoptive family.
Many adoptees become withdrawn or angry during adolescence, particularly if our grief and trauma has not been addressed. Our prison of silence becomes intolerable. This anger often focuses predominantly on adoptive mothers who become the stand-in for the birth mothers we feel have abandoned us. Adoptee K said, “We learn at a young age to protect ourselves, and I had lots of trouble trusting women.” Adoptee H shared an entry from her adolescent journal in which she was expressing her anger toward her adoptive mother, “I bet my mom hated me since the day I was born! And probably said while looking down at me, ‘What an ugly face.’ I don’t feel love. I wish I could die. It’s better than being here. I am trying to find a way to run away.”
This anger from adopted children can be especially difficult for adoptive mothers who already feel inferior because of their infertility, increasing their feelings of shame and inadequacy, and adding strain to their marriage. Their original grief may be retriggered: the child that was supposed to heal their wounds is now rejecting them.
Some adoptive parents feel their old grief resurfacing when their adopted children tell them they want to search for their birth families. It feels like a slap in the face—like they’re being told that they aren’t good enough parents. They may feel that their claim to the titles “Mom” and “Dad” are being threatened. When Adoptee J told her dad that she wanted to search for her birth family, he replied that he might as well “kill himself,” a manifestation of the tremendous pain, grief, and shame he was struggling under.
I have to insert here that a few of the adoptees I spoke with confided that their adoptive parents chose to adopt not for altruistic reasons but for the social capital they would gain in their LDS communities. I want to assume that is rare, but it does happen.
ADOPTEES ARE THE only involuntary participants in the adoption process. As infants and children, we had no say as our lives were forever altered by the legal documents and temple sealing ordinances. We got no vote. Though much of the time we are placed in a two-parent home, and receive more financial and educational opportunities than we would have had otherwise, the fact is, for the adoptee, trauma cannot be avoided.
We know from countless studies, especially those of John Bowlby, that babies know their own mothers—that the bonding process begins in utero. Mothers read to their babies while they are still in the womb, they ask for their babies to be placed on their chest right after birth. That closeness and interaction is now considered essential to the baby’s development and well being. Lack of this bonding and attachment has adverse effects on a child’s development.
According to the findings of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, the loss of a biological parent is a deep childhood trauma. Some experts call losing a parent the primal wound, relinquishment wound, or abandonment wound which often leads to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. It is traumatic for infants to be separated from their biological parents; it leaves a permanent imprint on their chemical and psychological makeup.
This is the first trauma an adopted child experiences—being separated from its mother—and the separation occurs almost immediately after birth which means, as Paul Sunderland points out, that the child has no pre-trauma self.
Experiencing such a childhood trauma increases one’s risk for chronic disease, addiction, depression, suicide, and social and emotional problems. Children exposed to trauma are more likely to experience additional trauma later in life, including being a victim of violence and/or rape. They are also more likely to become pregnant as adolescents.
We want to believe that adoption is “all about love”; that it is a big Band-Aid that can cover up the grief of each member of the triangle. But our biology says otherwise. And as adoptees, we know this all too well. We want to believe that we are special or chosen, but deep down we feel only abandonment. And now we know that this is a normal response to trauma. Even if an adopted child is brought into a stable, loving home, we need to remember that he or she has missed out on essential elements of attachment and bonding, and without intervention, they will live the rest of their lives in a post-traumatic state.
The second trauma that adoptees experience is the denial of the first trauma. Most adoptive families are elated about the adoption, and adoptees are taught to join the happy dance. We are given a script that tells us we are just fine with our adoption, never dealing with our first trauma. This reality fracture causes dissonance in many adoptees. They’re supposed to be delighted, but something feels wrong. Adoptee T described it this way:
I love my adoptive mom. She always told me that I didn’t come from her body, but that I came straight from heaven. I felt love from her and connected to her. But I always had this hole inside—like there was something missing. I used to hide under the sink in the bathroom. I just wanted to hide—just having this big emptiness inside of me, but not understanding it at all. My adoptive parents never addressed it, but they love me and they never abandoned me. It’s really hard to even put into words.
Sometimes adoptees will insist that they experienced no relinquishment trauma—in fact, I used to say that too! Adoptee A expressed it well, “You read all the stuff about adoption trauma, and I kept saying, ‘that’s not me, that’s not me.’ That was totally me. I was angry. I was so angry.” At times adoptees will say, “I’m sorry you had a bad experience, but mine was great.” Through research as well as reflection on my own motivations for insisting that adoption has no ill side effects, I’ve come up with a theory about why trauma denial occurs:
- We learn at a young age to disassociate from our own reality. This became very evident as I interviewed adoptees: frequently their first responses to my questions would be from the third person perspective of either their adoptive or birth parents. Over and over again, I would have to ask them to respond from their own viewpoint.
- Because adoptees had no voice in the adoption process, we often feel like our lives are out of our control. Saying that we love being adopted is an attempt at regaining control.
- Some of us feel that since we were adopted into a stable, loving home, we don’t have the right to perceive any downsides to our situation.
- Most importantly, we are unspeakably afraid of losing our connection with our adoptive families. The wound we experienced as infants was a life-threatening one: without care, the human infant knows it will die. We learned as quickly as possible how to adapt to our new environment, how to join the happy adoption dance—our lives literally depended on it.
As I prepared to present these thoughts at the Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium, I had moments of severe panic and anxiety. I had nightmares of being excommunicated from my family and community. I felt at times that if I shared this paper, I would surely die. I put extensive work into preparing—instead of presenting from an outline—because I knew if I had to connect my voice to my emotions and experience, I would chicken out. Silence has been my home. I know that my feelings are not reality, but that doesn’t change them.
There are other side effects of adoption as well. At an early age, adopted children learn that, unlike our peers, we have no birth story. We feel like we came from nowhere. Adoptee T said “I sometimes feel like an alien.” We don’t know whom we look like or what kinds of hobbies we might want to pursue. We are isolated from anyone that shares our dna. Adoptee H said that as a child she would scan the faces of women at grocery stores wondering, “Is that my mom?” When we look in the mirror, we don’t know if our butts are too big or if big butts just run in our families. We just don’t know.
Sometimes we hear our adoptive parents or siblings refer to us as their “adopted” family—not their real family. Other times we hear people reassure our parents that now that they’ve adopted a child, they’ll surely be able to have one of their own. Apparently we are only here to prime the pump.
Sometimes we may sullenly resist filling out our family history sheets at church. Ancestors are complicated. Perhaps we claim our adoptive family line, but we want to know where we come from, too. Adoptee D asserted, “That’s not my family tree. It feels like a lie to say that person was my great-grandma. I’d be doing somebody else’s family history.” When we’re asked in church if we are from pioneer stock, we don’t know which line to claim as our “real” line. They’re both real.
We may develop chronic stomachaches or headaches; we may be diagnosed with add/adhd or depression. We may act out of abandonment rage at home or school; or, fearful that abandonment is just around the corner, act the part of the perfect child. We may be uncomfortable with touch and affection, refusing to ask for a hug even if we need one. If we hear that our birth mothers loved us so much they gave us away, we may internalize the idea that love means abandonment and thus guard ourselves as best we can from love. We may plan escape routes, survival tactics—if our loved ones die or leave us, we reassure ourselves, we will be all right without them. We may feel like running away, especially as children, because that’s the example our birth parents set for us. And then, in church, we hear that having a baby outside of marriage is the biggest mistake you can make, and we realize that we are somebody’s worst mistake.
As adolescents, some of us may rebel, looking for acceptance and love in destructive ways. Adoptee T said, “I tried to self medicate by constantly looking for love through sex at a young age.” Many of us have babies as teenagers, and some place them for adoption and start the cycle all over again.
Over half the adoptees I interviewed were involved in abusive romantic relationships at some point in their lives. One adoptee was raped at 16 by a man twice her age. She somehow found the strength to turn him in to the police, but over the course of the investigation, people in her family questioned the legitimacy of her claims and made her doubt her decision to press charges. “It didn’t take much,” she said, “because I was used to doubting my reality and feelings.” She went back to the rapist and apologized for telling the police. He convinced her that the only way she could make amends was to sleep with him.
Adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide. We are greatly overrepresented in addiction treatment programs. The kids are not all right.
If we somehow find our way into therapy as teens, our therapists often just do not understand us—after all, many of us come from good homes with good parents. I, myself, began therapy as a teen and my adoption was never once discussed; it was perceived as a non-issue.
As adults, many of us end up in therapy for relationship troubles. We do not trust our spouses and friends. Adoptee R shared, “I’m always wondering if there is a hidden agenda. That’s second nature to me. I want to say that I trust that my husband will be there no matter what and forever. But I don’t. I hate that I don’t.” We blame ourselves. We’ve always blamed ourselves. We are the bad babies that our first mothers didn’t want to keep.
We feel that we need to be perfect—the perfect daughter, the perfect spouse, the perfect parent, the perfect neighbor—or else we will get thrown out of the pack. We feel that we were created for other people—not for ourselves. Though we usually look put-together and happy, we often feel empty inside.
When we become parents, we don’t know if our children look like us or not. We don’t know if we’ve given them an inheritable disease. We hope they will give us the biological ties we’ve never had. Some of us smother our children with our love while others become detached. We live in extremes.
When we want to search out our birth families, we may be accused of being callous and cruel. We aren’t supposed to care about our own biology. But we worry about our medical history. We tire of telling the doctor, “I don’t know, I’m adopted.” We are anxious and depressed. We worry all the time. We feel everything is going to go horribly wrong.
And even if we do reunite with our biological families, the experience is usually more emotionally jarring than we expect. After all, we’ve been parted our entire lives. Occasionally we discover that our birth parents were married, or that we have full-blooded siblings, or that our birth families did not want us because we are mixed race. Worse yet is when we find that our birth mothers weren’t coerced—that they were choosing between abortion and adoption. Some birth parents want money from us. Often our biological family wants us to tell them that we’re elated by their relinquishment of us—in other words, we are asked to join the happy adoption dance yet again.
During the interview process, I heard some horrific accounts of abuse—physical, sexual and emotional—within adoptive homes. As one adoptee put it, “I got a different life, but my birth mom gave me to strangers. There was no guarantee I was going to a better life.”
God and faith often gets muddy and we worry about our placement in the Universe. We wonder why God’s plan for us included abandonment. What did we do wrong? Were we destined for this?
Now you have caught just a glimpse into the everyday life of the adoptee.
BEING A MEMBER of an adoption triangle is difficult. Each brings his or her own difficulties, traumas, and grief. The saying goes, “we’re only as sick as our secrets;” this article is a first step in ridding ourselves of the secrets and the shame we have inherited.
But how do we begin the healing process? First, adopted children need to be allowed to grow up. When we reach adulthood, we would like to be called adult adoptees, not children. Room needs to be made for our voices and challenges. Adoptive parents may feel like we do not feel their love. They may feel overwhelmed by our endless emotional needs. But remember that running deep inside an adoptee is pain, trauma, and grief. The more you acknowledge that, the more you let us know that it is okay to be ourselves, the more we will trust you.
By the same token, adoptive parents and birth parents need to give themselves room to encounter their own grief and disappointments. Adoptive parents, adoptees, and birth parents need trauma-informed care and post-adoption services. Counseling (with therapists trained in adoption trauma) must become an integral component of the adoption placement package. We need more group therapy for adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents to talk about the lifecycle and grief process that comes with adoption. What we are experiencing isn’t pathology—it is a normal response, and it needs to be talked about.
Second, we need to change the way we talk about adoption. For example, let’s drop the use of the word “gift” as it relates to adoptees, even if it is grounded in good intentions. It implies that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. We do not want to believe that we were ever trash. Please know that when you insult our birth parents you also insult us—that’s who we came from. Neither do we want to feel like objects wrapped under the Christmas tree—as if we have to be a gift for our adoptive parents forever—as if we will never get to own our lives. Even if we love our adoptive parents, we do not love being adopted. That doesn’t mean that you have failed us or that we do not consider you our parents. Instead of telling us that God sent us as a gift to you, we would like you to simply say, “I’m so glad you’re here.”
Third, please accept that adoptees have two sets of “real parents,” and that wanting to reconnect with our birth families is usually part of healing from relinquishment. We want to know where we come from. For some of us, learning about our genetic history is a matter of life or death. I spoke to two adoptees that likely would have died before the age of 45 had they not contacted their birth families and discovered that they needed to start screening for hereditary diseases. When we meet our birth families, it is usually the first time we have laid eyes on someone who shares our dna and bears visual similarities. For me, it was also the first time in my entire life that I felt like I had a right to exist—the same as everybody else.
Finally, I would like to change our foundational image of the family. Instead of talking about our family tree, let’s talk about our family orchard. Rather than a twig being grafted to a branch, let’s talk about the new tree in our midst. We are a group; we support one another. Each tree has its own roots, branches, and fruit. We have plenty of precedent for this reconception: Joseph and Julia Murdock Smith, Emma and Joseph’s adopted twins, were sealed to both sets of parents—biological and adopted—after their deaths. This is the beginning of an orchard. If we think back on the story of Moses and even Jesus, we know that children can have a destiny to fulfill in both their adopted and biological families.
For myself, adoption has been a net positive, and I feel like my life has value despite the trauma I have experienced. But shame and denial have been cruel taskmasters that I have spent decades escaping. In my escape flight, I have missed much of the love and connection that not only could be mine, but that I desire. Thank you for sharing this interval with me and for being a witness to these stories. There is a little less shame in the world right now because of your willingness to be here, to listen.
- Amey Eaton Watson, “The Illegitimate Family,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science: Social Work with Families 77 (May 1918), 103.
- Henry H. Goddard, “Wanted: A Child to Adopt,” The Survey 27, no. 2 (14 October 1911), 1003.
- Watson, “The Illegitimate Family,” 113.