If you type #NAAM2020 into the search bar of your favorite social media platform, you might be surprised at what pops up.
Some adult adoptees have decided to “reclaim,” or “flip the script,” on National Adoption Awareness Month (November), originally created as a time to recognize children in need of permanent, loving homes. What began as a week of awareness, variously credited to Michael Dukakis, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, eventually blossomed into an entire month during the Clinton administration in 1995.
Now, a group of social media warriors and mavens have dubbed it both “National Adoptee Appreciation Month” and “National Adoptee Atonement Month.”
As a member of the aforementioned population, the irony is not lost on me. Any time humanity mixes vulnerable lives, moral judgment, human compassion and money, complications ensue. Adoption has been no different.
With 120,000 children waiting to be adopted in the U.S., the need for ethical, highly trained full-time workers dedicated to their well-being is obvious. The fact that such professionals should be paid a livable salary is undeniable.
But at the crux of the money question lies the tension between finding homes for children who need them and acquiring babies for people who want them.
As adopted persons have come of age and learned more about adoption history, we are mortified at stories of the suffering of first mothers and commoditization of our population.
For example, the Irish government is even today seeking to seal the records of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes, settings for the now infamous Magdalene Laundries, in which unwed pregnant women became indentured servants and were stripped of their newborns.
I recently attended a digital conference in which adults adopted from Colombia as infants in the 1970s disclosed that — like Spain under Franco, but on a smaller scale — many women were told that their babies died during childbirth, when in fact they were stolen and sold internationally to adoptive parents. One Colombian agency apparently falsified records and gave every baby it sold during each year the same surname. America is not exempt from ongoing fraud and baby-selling scandals. Wherever big money changes hands, corruption follows.
Adoptive parents tend to be either sanctified as saviors carrying out God’s mission to care for orphans, or vilified as narcissistic baby stealers, praying that somewhere a young girl unable to raise her baby will become pregnant and choose their sincere, compelling profile from among thousands of competitors. Her loss becomes their gain, and society assumes that everyone wins and things work out in the end.
The truth is that every adoption begins with an incalculable loss, and adoptive parents are, for the most part, regular people with love to give.
Most parents by birth and adoption love their children deeply. As humans, we are wired to do so. Love provides. Love nurtures. Love heals. Love forgives. But love is imperfect, and sometimes even in the best adoptions, love alone is not enough. Insight and education about attachment theory and brain science are essential as well.
Are adoptees oppressed? Yes and no, in my opinion. On the one hand, the stigma of illegitimacy, and accompanying shame and secrecy that have followed orphans and “bastard children” through history is a heavy psychological burden for many. Being separated from one’s mother, even with the best of intentions, is trauma.
Combine that with the fact that in dozens of states (thankfully excluding Colorado since 2015), adult adoptees are still denied direct access to their original birth certificates and adoption records, the systemic message is clear: Truth and transparency have yet to triumph over secrecy and shame.
On the other hand, for the vast majority of us who were not abused in our adoptive families, and did not bounce through multiple foster homes carrying our belongings in a trash bag, it’s hard for the casual observer to see much resembling oppression. Advocates for systemic change are sometimes labeled as complainers and “ungrateful,” and admonished with pearls of wisdom like, “At least you weren’t aborted!”
Arguably, most adoptees today comprise the most loved, well-fed, well-educated oppressed group on the planet. Adoptee voices are being heard like never before. Award-winning films like “Lion,” and books like Nicole Chung’s “All You Can Ever Know” have deeply touched the general public and offered insight into our experiences.
We are now doctors, attorneys, engineers, HVAC experts, filmmakers, musicians, actors, memoirists and playwrights — and legislators and lobbyists working to change antiquated, unjust laws. We have found our voices, we are speaking out and people are listening. For that, I am deeply thankful.
Adopted life is undeniably complicated. It comes with unique challenges — even gut-wrenching tragedies — but most of us turn out OK, living here at the ambiguous intersection of money, love and oppression.
Richard Uhrlaub, M.Ed., is president of Adoption Search Resource Connection. He was adopted and raised in Denver by devoted parents and connected with birth family members in 1995. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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