Coming Out with “The Adoption Constellation”

Me and my then-new family, shortly after they adopted me. May 1986.

I grew up like most other kids, except for the first six months of my life, which to this day is a mystery to me. At some point, I was placed for adoption through the Our Lady of Victory Catholic charity and unwed mother’s home in Buffalo, where I waited to be claimed as someone’s daughter. My parents, Terry and Emma McHugh, also adopted my sister Amy. Growing up was a very “normal” middle-class suburban life. I did theater, my sister did sports. We went apple picking and made strawberry jam. We cut down Christmas trees on my father’s family farm, and had Thanksgiving dinner with my aunts. We adopted a dog and a cat, and we tried our best at having hamsters and a guinea pig.

Some things people don’t see are the awkward questions I would get asked on the playground once people realized I was adopted. “Who are your real parents?” And like a good student I answered “My real parents are the ones who are raising me. Do you mean my biological parents? I don’t know who they are. It was a closed adoption.”
The follow-up question was harder for me to answer: “But don’t you want to know who they are?” The truth was, yes, but also no. I was happy with my family — but something always felt out of place. I wanted to know where I got my raspy voice, my thick hair, and whether or not I was actually Irish like my “real” parents. My sister’s adoption was semi-open, meaning that when she was 18, she would have the option of reaching out to her family to learn more about them. Also meaning that she could answer some of those basic questions that I couldn’t. Perhaps it stands to reason then that her curiosity about her natural parents wasn’t piqued until she became pregnant with her first child.

Unless you’re a fellow adoptee, it’s difficult to understand the subtle ways in which we experience moving through the world differently, and how our unique upbringing can affect our mental health, and even our physical health if we’re not given our full medical history (which is common for closed adoptions). Even as an adult, I still have other adults asking me about my “real” parents, being completely unaware that this language is considered offensive in our world. The message in that question is that we are displaced and don’t have a family. That our being taken in was some sort of charity, and not a mutually beneficial act of love. That my family isn’t my family unless we are related by blood. Considering how loved I have felt by my family, I’ve wanted to challenge this notion for some time. I’ve wanted people to start thinking to themselves, “what is family? What bonds us together in this way?” My argument is that it has nothing to do with blood, and everything to do with love.

My time at Newmark J-School, and why I’m writing this now.

I’m currently a graduate student at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism pursuing my MA in Engagement Journalism. As engagement journalists we aim to connect with communities and collaborate with them in a way that is beneficial to them. Unlike traditional journalism where the focus is often on sensational headlines, our focus is impact. I chose this program because when I reflected on all of the projects I’ve done in my life — documentaries, a PSA, non-profit work, photography — the intent was always to have a positive impact. Throughout this program, we are tasked with choosing a community to work with, and knowing that I would want guidance in working in a space that deeply affects me, I decided now was the time to start what I felt was my life’s calling: expanding public perception about what a family can look like.

For the last few months, I’ve spent time getting to know people from all prongs of the adoption constellation. This includes adoptees like myself, natural mothers, adoptive mothers, therapists who specialize in working with those affected by adoption (who are also often in the constellation themselves), an adoption agency counselor, queer natural parents whose partners have to adopt to have the same legal protections that they do, as well as non-gestational parents (NGPs). One thing that I’ve noticed is a sentiment planted in my mind by Ellyn Wyman-Grothem of the “Queer Birth Project” support group in the Twin Cities: coming out as a natural parent (or more commonly known as “birth parent”) is like coming out as queer. As someone who has had the experience of coming out as bisexual, this really resonated with me. Unless something relevant comes up in conversation, I generally don’t tell people that I’m adopted, even though the older I get, the more it affects me.

In May of 2019 I had a breast cancer scare. I had a lump in my right breast grow about 1.5cm in six months. I had a few weeks of existential reckoning while waiting for my biopsy results to come back. Thankfully it turned out to be a benign fibroadenoma, which is mostly non-threatening. The tricky thing is, if I were someone who has the BRCA gene, having the lump removed would be necessary so that it would be easier to find a potentially cancerous lump in the future. My adoption being closed, I have about 3–4 sentences on each of my natural parents’ medical history and that’s it. I knew my maternal grandmother had cancer, but I didn’t know what kind, and I didn’t even know if it was fatal. My insurance company wouldn’t approve of me getting the BRCA gene test because there’s no “proof” that I’m at risk for breast cancer, since I have no history at all. My choices were to pay $200 for the BRCA gene test out-of-pocket, or do what my gynecologist recommended, which was pay the same amount for my full genetic scope through 23andme. What never occurred to her was that this process might also find me my natural parents.

While I’ve wanted to look for my natural parents for some time, it’s not something that I’ve wanted to do on a whim. After speaking with a number of natural mothers and fellow adoptees of different age ranges, I have learned that reunion is not something to be taken lightly, as it can bring along with it a lot of trauma for any of the parties involved, depending on the circumstances of the pregnancy and adoption.

A bit of history regarding mid-century adoptions.

During the Baby Scoop Era, which is the period between WWII and Roe v. Wade, there was a huge spike in adoptions from women at unwed mothers’ homes. There are a plethora of reasons why and no two stories are alike, but there were a few things happening in mid-century English-speaking countries (most notoriously the US, Australia and the UK) that contributed to this. I’ve chosen to focus on this community in America so that is what I will speak to now. There was little-to-no sex education for young people in the 1950s. It was mostly spoken of in terms of “family life education” — meaning childrearing and having healthy families — but nothing explicitly spoken of regarding the act of sex. So, naturally, without sex education, there was very little education on contraceptive methods. The birth control pill for women was being researched during the 40s and 50s, and even after approval by the FDA, it was spoken of as useful for things other than a contraceptive (regulating periods, eczema, etc.); and it wasn’t available to unmarried women, because as a birth mother from this era told me, “good girls didn’t do that.” It wasn’t until 1972, shortly before Roe v. Wade (which gave women the legal right to access abortions) that the pill became available to single women. So as a result, before 1972, there were higher rates of unwanted pregnancies amongst young, unmarried women — and according to a number of Baby Scoop Era birth mothers I’ve spoken to, it was social death to be an unmarried pregnant woman.

At the same time that there were all of these unwanted pregnancies, there was a lot of social pressure for married women to have children. For couples that couldn’t conceive, the women were the ones who were blamed.

According to Psychology Today, women who weren’t able to conceive were “‘suppressing’ their true femininity.” Without the advancements there are today in treating infertility, more women were looking to, and also pressured to, adopt.

According to an article about the history of infertility, “in the mid-20th century, doctors who believed that female infertility was a psychosomatic condition and recommended adoption as a “cure”.

Combining the lack of sex education and birth control access for single women with the pressure to conceive children put onto married women, organizations, especially Catholic charities, formed to try to save unwed mothers from societal shame and meet the demand for couples looking to adopt babies. According to the “Catholic Mothers for Truth and Transparency” organization, which formed to strengthen a case to unseal birth certificates in Connecticut this past year, women who were victims of this era were shamed and coerced into placing their children for adoption. In their letter to advocate for unsealing birth certificates they state,

“Only when we began to embrace the truth — the truth that we were coerced by shame and humiliation to give up our children — only then could we forgive ourselves and work to repair the damage left in the wake of our trauma.”

Psychological effects of adoption.

According to Robert Hafetz, an adoptee and MS/MFT who specializes in studying and working with those affected by adoption, said that for a long time children were considered “blank slates” and would become products of their environment, so that the earlier they were adopted, the better. This has since been discredited and it has now been shown that when a child is taken from their natural mother at birth, they experience a sense of disconnectedness from their own identity. This can cause mental health problems to surface in adoptees as they get older. Without getting to experience genetic mirroring, which is to see our likeness in our caregivers as children and babies, as adoptees we miss out on a key component to our development. This is why in Hafetz’s work as a therapist, the goal is reunion with the natural parents. He has found there to be a great deal of healing for both parties, and a lot of mental health problems in adoptees are improved. This is why he as well as others I have spoken to have been active in the movement to allow adoptees access to their original birth certificates, effectively ending closed adoptions. After decades of work, New York state just granted this access in 2020 and Connecticut did just this past year.

My own parents have told me that it wasn’t their choice as to whether my own adoption would be closed or not, that it was my birth mother’s decision. They were also told that closed adoptions were better for the child and birth mother alike and given just a few pamphlets as to how to parent an adopted child, with zero continued support after the adoption was finalized.

I then started to wonder, how are birth parents faring after the adoption is finalized? Do they receive any continued care, financial support or mental health support? What happens when and if they experience postpartum depression? What happens if they regret a closed adoption arrangement? In seeking the answers to these questions, I’ve discovered that being a natural parent today, while less stigmatized socially, is often not much better than during the Baby Scoop Era.

The business of adoption.

While most people think that the adoptive parents are paying for all of the bills — so the natural mother doesn’t have any expenses — when working with an agency, natural mothers have to pay agency fees as well. The revenue generated through private adoptions (directly with lawyers) and adoptions done through non-profits is an estimated $19billion. This includes second-parent adoptions, such as step parent and non-gestational parent adoptions (the parent that doesn’t carry the child in a same-sex relationship). According to adopttogether.com (which has been echoed by adoptive parents I have spoken with), domestic private agency adoptions can cost up to $45,000, and private adoptions aren’t much cheaper. According to American Adoptions, the money is going toward legal expenses, agency employees and natural mother’s medical expenses. At the same time, adoption lawyers make upwards of half a million dollars in paid salary.

Since Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, and birth control and proper sex education arguably started to become more widely available, there have been fewer infants available for adoption. On the same token, within the last two decades, treatments for infertility have advanced, so there have been less parents looking to adopt. So the ratio of infant-to-adoptive parents is about the same now as it was during the Baby Scoop Era; therefore, adoption remains a business based on supply and demand. To increase the supply, natural mothers are still being coerced. However, according to adoption support group leaders I have spoken to (who wish to remain anonymous), the coercion tactics take on a more classist flavor than downright sexist. Women are now told that they are unfit because they do not have enough money to raise a child properly, or that they are too young and inexperienced, and are often given no support.

If single, pregnant women received financial support, if workplaces gave longer paid maternity leave and their jobs were guaranteed to still be there when they were ready to return; if daycare was offered in the workplace or covered under social services; or even if there were adequate breast-feeding areas for woman at work or simply if the wage gap were closed, how many women would still choose to place their children for adoption?

Problems we’re facing today.

Even if the social support were there and therefore far fewer women were to place their children for adoption, where does this leave people whose only option for parenting is to adopt? One might assume fostering-to-adopt, and being willing to adopt an older child is the answer. However, according to the Federal Children’s Bureau, in 2020 15,016 children were in foster care in New York State. Of those, only 669 children were eligible for adoption. The circumstances that put older children in foster care are most often not parental surrender; they’re usually children taken by the state because their parents have been found to be unfit for parenting in some manner. Some of the reasons why are drug abuse, poverty, and mental health. Most natural mothers want to get their children back, so the children stay in foster care until that happens, or until their parent’s rights are terminated and they are freed for adoption, or they age out of the system.

So adoption agencies are still facing an issue where they have more parents looking to adopt than children available; and everyone loses in this scenario. Adoptive parents spend years on waiting lists and tens of thousands in fees to adopt, natural mothers are coerced into placing their children for adoption with little financial support and no mental health support following the birth, and adoptees find themselves feeling displaced either having to juggle an open adoption scenario learning to have a relationship with both their natural and adoptive parents, or a sense of identity loss and abandonment in navigating a closed adoption.

Looking ahead.

After speaking with many members of this community, it seems clear that everyone is suffering from the same thing: shame. Hafetz says that this is because we blame ourselves for what has happened to us, and the support group organizers I’ve spoken to have said that this is a common emotion that comes up in their groups. According to Brene Brown, who addresses the topic of shame in her book “Daring Greatly,” we eradicate shame by speaking openly about what causes this feeling in us and receiving acceptance. But right now, many of us are in hiding, furthering the effects of shame. So consider this article my public “coming out” as an adoptee. An adoptee who is both lucky enough to have ended up in a loving and supportive home, but nevertheless has suffered from unresolved grief, hypervigilance and a sense of displacement. According to the members of this community that I’ve spoken to so far, there is a strong desire for public understanding of all the complex and potentially dark aspects that can accompany the business of adoption. There seems to be a feeling that this may lead to more members of the community being willing to come out of hiding and share their stories, which may lead to not only desired legislation changes and social support, but also to better mental health.

So this is my call-to-action to you: when you think of family, what comes to mind? Are you closer to your cousin than your sibling? Does your Thanksgiving table involve friends as much as it does people you’re related to? What privileges do you think your family was afforded to be able to raise you? I think the more we ask ourselves these questions, the more we can start to connect with those around us in a heart-centered way and rethink and appreciate what family means to us.

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Engagement Journalism MA candidate at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY; with a focus on audio and video.

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Amanda Kari McHugh

Amanda Kari McHugh

Engagement Journalism MA candidate at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY; with a focus on audio and video.

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