After the plenary sessions, the conference had some surprising moments. For example, one panelist spoke passionately from her personal experience about the pain that birth mothers feel when they don’t know what happened to the children they gave birth to, and how she has helped to advocate for the opening of adoption records. Then she revealed, almost in passing, that she is the mother of a famous rock musician. One who happens to have written a semi-autobiographical song about the pain of having his mother reveal that his father was not his biological father only after his biological father’s death.
The most pervasive impression was one of unresolved trauma. There were adoptees who felt exploited by their adoptive parents and the adoption industry. There were adoptive parents who had adopted children who had acted out in ways that had clearly hurt them. There were birthparents who felt that their babies had been taken from them for a profit-driven system intended to benefit the wealthy. It can be stressful to be in a room so full of pain. At one point, I found myself wondering whether adoption was doing any good for anyone if everyone seemed so wounded.
Then I had a small epiphany. I may be new to the adoption discussion, but I am familiar with other issues along the reproductive spectrum. The sources of the problems they described were the same as sources of pain and trauma around other reproductive decisions: stigma, secrecy, lack of information, and lack of input from directly affected people.
My most important takeaway from the conference was this: adoption is not a “solution” to other reproductive issues. It is often cast as an “abortion alternative,” or as a “backup option” for people who are unable to conceive. It is neither.
One woman, an adoptive mother who is also a counselor for people dealing with infertility, spoke frankly about her husband’s experience of facing an unwanted pregnancy prior to the legalization of abortion. Unready for marriage, his high school girlfriend became one of the “girls who went away” and ended up placing the baby in a closed adoption. Thirty years later, his son found him, which was welcome, but also a reminder that a baby placed for adoption will grow into a person who has a right to know where they came from. The days of “adoption genetics,” where children were matched with families who looked similar to them so that nobody would ever have to know that they were adopted (including the adoptees!) are over. Adoption doesn’t just require that a woman carry a pregnancy to term, it requires her to consider long-term, potentially life-long consequences and relationships. It is something that may be a great solution for many women, but which is entirely dependent on voluntary and fully-informed consent — and even when fully voluntary, may bring up complex feelings that can change over the years.
And while adoption can be a great way for people who cannot bear children to form a family, it is not a balm for the sense of loss that people may feel due to an inability to conceive or pregnancy losses. Moving straight to adoption without fully processing the fertility issues can set up adoption (and by extension, the adoptee) as runner-up option to the “real family” the parents wanted. Adoption can create a loving family just like any other, but it also presents some unique challenges, like navigating relationships with birth parents and children potentially wanting to know more about their biological parents and why they were placed for adoption.
The end results–of becoming a parent or not becoming a parent–are the same, but adoption bears consideration as an option in its own right rather than as an “alternative.”