“You’re so lucky that your birth mother chose adoption,” the man at church said to me with a smile.
I didn’t ask how he knew that I was adopted—everyone knew that I was adopted as soon as they saw me with my white parents. I don’t remember how old I was; old enough to understand what he was really saying. You’re lucky to be alive. I wish I could say that I always found statements like this monstrous. They did make me uncomfortable, for reasons I couldn’t have expressed then. But I’d heard such things so often that I believed them myself.
Was adoption my birth mother’s “choice”? Growing up, that is what I was told—everything I had in life, everything I knew, flowed from that one far-reaching decision. A deep reverence for my adoption had been passed down to me since I was still toddling, and at its foundation was the assurance that it was my birth parents’ clear and loving choice for me.
People who are not adopted sometimes try to project their beliefs and agendas onto adoptees; to say what our families and lives must represent, and how we ought to feel about them. A while ago, someone told me why I shouldn’t care about my birth parents at all: Having a baby is just biology. They gave you up for selfish reasons. They only spent a few minutes with you versus the parents who spent a lifetime being REAL parents to you. But whether people disparage my birth family or (as is far more common) praise them for their selflessness, a common thread is that many seem to want to view adoption as a solution, a story of redemption in which all parties get what they need and everything works out as it should. They expect me to confirm this, to express gratitude, so they tell me I am “blessed” because “a good Christian family took [me] in”; I am “lucky” to have been raised in a country “where girls are valued.” Occasionally, someone will throw in a comment about how glad I must be that my birth mother “chose” adoption.
Except I don’t think that either of my birth parents has ever said, We chose adoption. What they chose, in fact, was a name for me. Their other children were expecting them to bring me home. Only after I was born very early did they change course—for a number of reasons, including the fact that they had no health insurance and did not believe they could afford to raise a medically complex child—and give me up.
I slip into using that phrase, give up, partly because it is the one my adoptive parents always used. I know that some disapprove. Birth parents don’t give up their children, I’ve been told, they place them for adoption. They make an adoption plan. I’m sure this is the case for many, but ever since I learned more about my own adoption, I have struggled to refer to my birth family’s experience in these anodyne terms. My birth mother did not carefully, intentionally make an adoption plan—nor am I confident that she fully understood what the closed adoption would mean, because a few years later she tried to contact me. When I found her as an adult, she told me that relinquishment wasn’t her decision; she had been pushed into it. I never wanted to give you away.
I cannot know how true this is—my birth parents have their reasons for wanting to remember what they remember, believe what they believe, about my adoption. But both have said that my birth father was the one who insisted on it. For him it was no deliberate plan or placement, either, so much as it was the sole escape hatch in sight. I was struggling in the hospital. The family was struggling at home. Their many crises went unseen, unaddressed by the social worker who talked with them, in their second language, about adoption. He couldn’t think of anything else to do.
If something is your only choice, can you still consider it a choice at all?
Given all I know now, I’m convinced that I wouldn’t have been better off with them. And yet my birth mother’s claim that she was opposed to the adoption, that she only went along with it under pressure, is one I cannot help but find deeply distressing. For all his certainty about the adoption, my birth father has told me he will always feel ashamed of giving me up—he still allows most of his family to believe that I am dead because he cannot bring himself to tell them the truth. I have tried to imagine how it must feel to carry such painful secrets and memories, and it is almost too overwhelming to contemplate. It took me decades to acknowledge my own trauma as an adoptee. It took only a few moments of speech with my birth parents to see theirs.
My adoptive parents were good and loving parents. They were not encouraged to consider the reality of the family I came from. They just wanted a child. They didn’t invent the system that fell far short of addressing my birth family’s profound problems and needs, and it’s worth noting that they, too, could have been better supported—say, if anyone involved had told them they would need to talk to their Korean American child about race, or explained that love and default assimilation would not be enough to help me know who I was, or warned them that I might one day feel a need to learn more about the people I came from.
After all these years, after much practice, perhaps I should find it easier to interrogate my own adoption; to reflect on all the potential outcomes and might-have-beens. The truth is that it is all but impossible for me to envision or appraise a life other than this one. I don’t regret the way things turned out. I love my adoptive parents and grieve for them now that they’re gone. My life as their daughter is the only one I know.
Wishing that my birth parents had more agency, more support, more options, is not the same as wishing I had grown up with them, or wishing my known life away. Sometimes I wonder: What if their family hadn’t been in crisis when I was born, and for many years after? What if their choices hadn’t been so constrained, and their needs had been given as much weight as my adoptive family’s wants? What if they had been able to decide on adoption together and feel more at peace with it? What if they could look back on it now without shame?
When I try to conjure up this superior world—a fairy tale of sorts, in which my birth parents might have freely chosen adoption—my imagination inevitably stalls. Without so many unmet needs, without illness and abuse, without all the fears and obstacles they were facing, their backs wouldn’t have been to the wall. They would have had an actual choice, and there would have been no adoption at all.
Adoption is no straightforward lost-and-found, abandoned-and-saved narrative, no matter how badly some may want it to be. Relinquishing a child is a complex and desperately difficult decision with lifelong consequences, and many who make it still do so principally because they lack the money, resources, or support they need in order to keep and raise their children.
Those who claim that abortion is unnecessary because adoption and “safe haven” laws exist are making a cruel and misleading argument. It is misleading because adoption is primarily a parenting choice; as sociologist Gretchen Sisson points out, citing her research on pregnancy and adoption decision making, “Most pregnant women are not weighing abortion and adoption as if they are equally likely or substitutes for each other.” It is cruel because no one should be forced to remain pregnant and give birth against their will, let alone do so knowing that their only non-parenting option is to then part with their child.
Even in the best of circumstances, adoption begins with separation and undeniable loss; with trauma that can reverberate throughout the lives of adoptees and birth parents. For certain people in certain situations, it may well be the best option available. But we shouldn’t pretend that it is possible or right for every pregnant person who cannot or does not want to parent, or consider it a great outcome if more people who wouldn’t otherwise birth and relinquish a child for adoption—who don’t believe it is a good decision for them—do so only because they lack other safe and supported options. A “choice” urged on those without other options, and without bodily autonomy, is a choice in name only. It is callous and gravely irresponsible to advance adoption as a solution to “the burden of parenthood” without acknowledging that it comes with significant burdens of its own.