The mismatch in expectations versus reality for adoptees and non-adoptees is obvious. To expand adoption’s relevancy, this ongoing longform series provides a high-level view of adoptees’ current perspectives. I’ll attempt to uncover why adoptee writing stays relegated to niche groups or newsletters; why adoptee mistreatment and abuse makes ripples only amongst those affected; and what we can do to simply care. By moving away from adoptee-as-child terminology and welcoming non-adoptees into the conversation, we can begin taking their experiences seriously.
There exists a group of people, foreigners within their own families, who form kinship from strangers’ blood. Adopted as babies and children and teens, they mature into adulthood yet remain forever frozen as society’s adopted children.
It doesn’t matter how assimilated adoptees become, into their new families or into new cultures if immigrating from another country. For some reason, they’re referred to — even by government representatives — as children. Adults adopted as a result of wartime conflicts, like Amerasians of the Korean War or the Vietnamese left behind after that war, have clearly aged into adults. Many, like Lynelle Long, become activists who meet with country officials to voice their concerns with the practice. Despite their accomplishments, though, they’re still viewed as the children sent away.
Why are we categorizing a subset of our adult population this way?
Adoptees have known two mothers, two lives, and migrated within two worlds, sometimes jarred violently from a womb to a stranger’s waiting arms. Adoptees survive this and develop into mostly capable adults, but then have their frequently traumatic experiences buried under childlike descriptions.
There is a reason for this stasis.
Society still devours happy endings. Adoptees are the ultimate humanitarian symbol: Presumably unwanted, a willing family took a child in and saved them, imbuing an aura of childlike wonder around them. Refugees and orphans become a parent’s act of charity and love. What could be better than that?
But admitting the adopted child grows up means acknowledging that we may have objectified a human being. To remedy the mistake, adoptee experiences that don’t align with our expectations are discredited.
It’s time to #JustListen.
The Curious Phenomenon
Ending the story once an adoption’s finalized creates a curious phenomenon: We tune out the object of fascination, hearing from them only what validates our values.
In an era where hasty generalizations are eschewed, the population most impacted by adoption — adoptees — remains largely overlooked.
Some adoptive parents make cutesy videos about their adoption announcements, garnering thousands of views, shares, and outpourings of financial and emotional support. (Note: I do not support that video. At all.)
Once the object — the child — is obtained, the story ends. At least for the adoptee.
The parent’s journey continues. Their struggles raising a child with predictable attachment and other behavioral issues become the parent’s burden, not the child’s. Here the parents are at an advantage, getting to tell their story before the child has the vocabulary necessary to speak out.
The adoptee doesn’t get the opportunity to speak, at least not until they’re older, when their disgruntled blogs and tweets and Facebook statuses are overshadowed by their parent’s love and selfless devotion. By then, the child has become trapped in a sort of suspended animation; always adopted, yet expected to accept — without question — their circumstances.
Yet — and here’s where it’s really curious — many kids, especially adolescents, experience turbulent, ragey years. As a natural reaction to the dichotomy of budding independence yet still dependent upon parental financial and emotional support, teens rebel. But adoptees, already hampered by origin issues and (for transracial adoptees) racial identity confusion, act out even stronger, filtering frustration from a place more primal than simple teenage rebellion.
They’re expressing grief. Deep, traumatic grief, couched in abandonment issues that manifest themselves as relationship difficulties, drug or alcohol abuse, or — in some cases — suicide.
And even so, reports focus on how much the parents struggled with the child’s behavior, how much effort was wasted on someone who was selfishly unreceptive to love.
When any child has serious troubles, it’s a tragedy for that child and the family. When the adopted child has problems, it’s personal. It’s a direct insult and a bitter truth: Love isn’t always enough. That truth manifests as resentment on a parent’s and greater society’s behalf; after all, if a practice so rooted in love and selflessness could be so easily dismissed by the “saved,” it’s easier to blame the victim than address the problem’s roots.
The Invisible Minority
There’s another reason we need to pay attention to adoptee voices.
Adoptees are the ones with first-hand experience in a system that took away their control, but no one seems to hear what they’re trying to say.
They live and work alongside you, but you’d never know their secret. They’re part of a population with life stories that began with true uncertainty and unwant. They encompass all races and hail from a plethora of countries.
They began their lives with loss and gains, asked for and about but never just asked.
Still, adoption remains an uncomfortable topic for some, an insult for others, or, in its extreme, a divine act proposed by God. Even as adoptee activists write strongly-worded missives against the practice, create catchy hashtags (#BeingAdoptedMeans and #JustListen are the popular ones), and maintain well-trafficked blogs, they only garner mass attention when something ugly happens.
Take, for instance, the South Korean adoptee who was deported then committed suicide in his “home” country. Or the recent article about the three-year-old girl murdered by her adoptive parents. Obviously these incidents belie any happy ending, though some are still inclined to believe these are one-offs in a largely beneficial system.
When adoptees speak out about the practice — mind you, they’re not doing it as a reactionary measure but in addition to these tragic events — they’re ignored or challenged:
If this were any other group clamoring for attention, I believe they’d be much more successful. Instead, it remains easier to cling to myths and maybes about a practice than systematically change our opinions. And when adoptee protests are drowned out by kitchsy videos and GoFundMe requests by prospective adoptive parents, adoptees are seen as ungrateful bitter jerks.
With minority status, perhaps their activism will be taken more seriously; rather than being viewed as ungratefuls rebelling against their saint-like parents, they’ll hopefully emerge into mainstream conversations as a marginalized group long misunderstood by stereotypes and stigmas.
Curiouser and curiouser.
As families change shape and form, as reproductive technologies and the definitions of motherhood and fatherhood blur, adoptees cannot and should not be overlooked in these discussions.
After all, adoptees asserted their space in a society that still prioritizes biological relations. Adoptees, perhaps, are society’s pariahs. They don’t deserve that status. Adoptees were among the first to rewrite our country’s perception of the traditional family, yet are assigned passive roles. It’s the notion of the adopted child that keeps them ignored.
Part Two of this series will look at America’s role in creating adoption insults and America’s historical relationship with the traditional family.
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12 thoughts on “Society’s Perpetual Children: An Introduction to the Adoptee Condition (Part One)”
As a child that should have been removed and wasn’t, I identity with the feelings of many adoptees for, obviously, different reasons. I certainly understand the longing for things to have been different. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if those who created a child were able, ready and willing to be good, responsible, capable parents? Pregnancy is preventable in most cases.
If we cannot change the past we can still change our perception through educating ourselves and listening to those who were never given choices…children and adults with the experiences.
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Sorry for the response delay and thank you for your support. Your situation is unfortunate since it highlights a failure of social work and child advocacy. I totally agree. We need to listen to each other in order to make a change.
Thanks so much for sharing,
So well-said here! Thanks!
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Paige, thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment! Glad you enjoyed this. It’s fun to write, since I think non-adoptees could always use some extra resources.
Have a great day!
I am an adoptee. Recently I was asked by a coworker in a conversation with a child about which parent he looked like, if I looked like my father or my mother. My response was I look like neither. I am adopted. The other party looked subtly surprised and I found myself filling in for her mishap, saying I look like some of my cousins. She said she knows someone who is adopted and he looks like his adoptive parents. As I reflected on this exchange feelings of marginalized grief arose. Why am I held to this idea of the importance of looking like someone when it doesn’t apply? I did a google search and came across this article. It was really helpful. Thank you.
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Hi Elaine, Thank you so much for reaching out. I really, really dread these convos and it highlights our society’s ongoing relationship with family myths. As time goes on, as society becomes more progressive in some ways, it seems that the family is a timeless source of confusion–probably because we’re all trying to justify our own weird issues.
I’m so glad you enjoyed this article and took the time to reply. I found myself filling in, too–awkwardly, considering I’m a transracial adoptee so it really made zero sense. You’re not alone.