Adoption: Not a default setting
The legal right to an abortion in the United States tilts once again precariously on the precipice toward the great dark abyss. And once again, because these debates intersect and often are paired, adoption is back to the point of a rolling boil in social media circles, in newspapers and on television. This is because US Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, mother of seven, two of whom are adopted from Haiti, sashayed her way into the question of adoption while hearing a case from Mississippi about abortion. She asked whether “adoption rather than abortion would ‘relieve the burden of parenting.’” In this question she seems to have fully revealed her hand. She has also managed to stir great passions among the adoptee community, far and wide, about adoption itself and our regard for it.
Abortion is a legal option and should remain so. But adoption is not a default setting to abortion. Neither should it be regarded as an automatic, fail-safe, fix-all alternative to any question about how to assume responsibility for a child. We need to permanently adjust what ails the practice and narrative of adoption, which happens to be a lot.
The reality is adoption has actually harmed millions of children over decades because children have been treated as commodities and experiments. We infantilized birth parents. We’ve villainized them in some cases. And we’ve decided that the white establishment, who work in and manage the lives of children in organizations and institutional settings all over the world, affecting numerous ethnic, racial and indigenous communities, know better. They don’t.
We know; we, the great, vast diaspora of adoptees, me included, know that the lives of children and their futures are still being compromised and mishandled without a thought for both the child and the birth mother. The mother is often rendered “incapable.” The children lack agency. And as for those who believe that adoption is always a selfless gesture, a love-induced solution to a problem, they have no clear understanding about the repercussions and consequences of the decision to give up a baby. Thank you to writer Gabrielle Glaser and her groundbreaking book, “American Baby,” for bringing the nefarious side of adoption, through one gut wrenching story, from the darkness and shame, to the light of day. That book and that author have changed the conversation and we need to keep talking.
“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.” This iconic quote by Ernest Hemingway from For Whom the Bell Tolls cuts me to the quick as I consider my own teenage birth mother at the very moment, at that very second when she made the decision that would forever alter her young life and mine. With hand to pen and paper, she signed me away, whether by encouragement or force or emotional surrender and sheer exhaustion, she never was given the chance nor any honest and open conversation about her choice and what the unintended consequences of her decision might be.
Adoptees have, over and over, heard both the “you had a good life” argument and the cheery “you were so lucky” rote sentiment. Both of these may be true for many of us, but they have nothing, whatsoever, to do with a mother who makes the profound and painful decision to hand over her flesh and blood to strangers. And they have nothing to do with an adopted child who grows to be an adopted adult and feels in varying degrees, for different reasons, and at different times, severed from their past, however brief it may have been, and about which they deserve to know fully. Who we come from and why is vitally important and necessary for our growth, development, and psychological well-being in the long term.
I was one of 4,000 Greek-born adoptees who were exported from our country of origin between 1948 and 1970. Some of us were politically-motivated adoptions. Some were legal adoptions. Many were done by proxy. Some of us were stolen babies. Some of us were sold and commodified by doctors and lawyers and priests who acted as intermediaries. Some were separated from siblings. Some of us were ripped from twins and identical twins. All of us were taken from our mothers. Some of us were taken from both parents.
No one ever thought about us, until now; about what happened to us, why it happened to us, and what we feel and think about it. Thank you to Gonda Van Steen and her book “Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece: Kid pro Quo?” for bringing us out of the shadows. This book is creating ripples that will turn into waves for change in Greece and maybe for all international adoptions.
Compared to adoptee communities from China, South Korea, Viet Nam, Guatemala, and other countries around the world, we were among the first (likely even the very first) and oldest ethnic communities that provided children, en masse, to childless couples; to Jews after the war, who could not find Jewish children after the Holocaust, to Greeks who wanted Greek babies and to non-Greeks, who knew that there was a glut of children in Greece, after two wars, for the taking.
We are a small group, but now a mighty group that is aging and becoming more vocal and mobilized about what happened to us. In most of our cases, our adoptive parents have died. And now time is running out for us; for reunions, to meet birth parents and family who remembered us, who loved us, who missed us, who remembered what happened, and can recount our stories. We seek restorative justice in all matters of identity, which means easy and open access to our birth certificates, all our records, our personal histories, and we want our citizenship, in our case, to Greece, restored because it was stripped from us.
We were stripped, too, from our mothers, from their embrace after emerging from the very well of their beings, underneath their hearts, completely dependent on them for life itself. And in an act of cruelty, we were quite literally stripped from their breasts, often immediately after birth, which were filled with the warm, sweet milk that was individually meant and created for each of us. We were weaned too soon. Should we have been weaned at all? And if so, how so?
After weeks of speaking publicly about adoption, and on television and in print interviews, writing about it, too, in Greece, I got to thinking about CJ, my beautiful, loving, and troubled golden retriever. I “get” her. I understand her to my core. She is one of my best friends and a constant companion. She was and is emotional, she was difficult to understand, and it was a struggle to raise up my puppy into the calmer and more peaceful adult dog she is today.
I chose her from a litter of nine. When I met her, she was tiny, adorable, and pudgy, the way golden babies tend to be. A ball of fur, just weeks old, she tumbled around on stubby, tiny legs, fighting like her brothers and sisters to get to Mama’s nipples. They needed their mother. They needed her for sustenance. They needed her to teach them right from wrong as she carried them around by the scruff of the neck, a low-pitched rumbling growl when they got out of line, a snap at them to pipe down when there was too much whining and yelping and crying. She was there for them until she wasn’t anymore, taken from her pups just after five weeks.
CJ was weaned too soon and it took months to get her right. She was incorrigible. Difficult. Obstinate. Ask anyone who tried to work with her. When was this puppy weaned, one of the best trainers in northern California asked me? At five weeks, I answered. Way, way too soon he said, shaking his head. It was no wonder she struggled. Our previous golden, Sedona, was weaned after three months. What a difference in disposition and confidence!
Further, it occurs to me how we treat puppies. For those who adopt purebred dogs, we get their papers. We know who their mother and father are. We know their dispositions and whether they were “champions.” We know the kennel they came from and the condition of the kennel. We know the breeder. In fact, there is a long interview and discussion with them. They interview you about the home and then there’s a questionnaire about whether you will be suitable. For a dog. The same is true for those animals that come from shelters. There is a lengthy process and sometimes the dog comes to “test” the home and other animals they may be cohabitating with. If it doesn’t work, there is no placement. The point is there is an awful lot of consideration for the animal.
Don’t you see that we handle the separation of animals from their mothers better than we do with human babies and their human mothers? Infants tend to be immediately ferreted off from the person who created them, from the person who carried them, nourished them before they even laid eyes on them, held them? How cruel it is to take a tiny human being from the mother who could feed and tenderly cuddle their offspring until and unless there is an informed uncoerced solution, that comes from the mother herself, who may realize she has to do something else. And then to prepare for it, to prepare the baby for it and to counsel that child as it grows about where they came from, how they came to be, and why they were placed with new parents. And wouldn’t it be great if birth parents were fully involved in that process in order to give the child the best chance at life and at growing to understand why their life was altered? This needn’t be confusing and we must take more time than we do to solve the problem, stigma, and often heartbreak caused by adoption.
I have explained, over and over again, that my adoptive family (which was wonderful by the way) and my birth family are not mutually exclusive. They are separate, but the continuum of one to another has comprised my identity, which is still not fully formed, and I am in my 60’s. Will I ever know? Further, I just learned that my birth mother died last year after I searched for her my whole life, wanting a reunion of some kind, mostly just to talk, to get answers, to see for the first time who I came from, and to finally know someone who looks like me. My sadness about that is real and cannot be overstated.
She, my birth mother deserves my attention and care, even though she can’t see me or hear me. Never will. Why? Because in her name I have to advocate for those other mothers who will come after her. Abortion couldn’t have been an option for her. Adoption was her only alternative and since it was, she needed care. She needed love. She needed support and a place for she and her baby to figure it out. In the end, she may have made the same decision, but her decision could have involved the strangers her baby was going to. She did not deserve to be shooed away from her offspring at a critical time when her offspring needed her most and in every way.
In the case of my mother, she was shamed to the point of changing her name and her identity. And when I was born, no one could stomach dealing with a teenage mother and her child who was “exogamo,” born outside of marriage. She wouldn’t be able to handle it, they told her, and so the state would, except that it didn’t.
The answer for so many adoptions, like mine, was to marginalize the birth mother for life, and to ship the children off; stripped of their culture, their language, their religion, their identities, and in thousands of cases, their race. This happened to millions of us. And birth mothers and their children are not necessarily better off for it.
When it comes to adoption, social workers and lawyers and doctors and those who run agencies that care for mothers and children need to take direction from those who have lived the experience and have managed the consequences. It is not fair that pronouncements about adoption come from on high and down to us, the great unwashed. We’ve had enough of those “well meaning” people who want to make decisions for us because it makes them feel better about “solving a problem,” which they know absolutely nothing about. Adoption still carries a stigma. We need to both adjust the narrative around adoption and speak about the people who are, differently.
Because that day will be just one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come depends on what we do on that one day. The lives of so many mothers and their children deserve the wisdom of that sentiment and the respect of a fighting chance to make decisions that do no harm.
Mary Cardaras is a documentary film producer, a writer and an Associate Professor in Communication at California State University, East Bay. She is a proud Greek, an adoptee and adoptee advocate fighting for universal restorative identity justice for all adoptees around the world and for those children born through anonymous sperm donation. She is the author of Ripped at the Root. Her forthcoming book, Voices of the Lost Children of Greece: Oral Histories of International Adoption, 1948-1964 will be published by Anthem Press in 2022.