From Chapter I (“Out of the Shadows, into Our Lives) of Part I (“Don’t Whisper, Don’t Lie—It’s Not a Secret Anymore”)
My son was three years old and my daughter had lived on this Earth for just two months when I met Sheila Hansen. She’s a tall, soft-spoken woman who laughs easily and exudes warmth when she speaks; she has the kind of comfortable self-confidence that immediately makes you think she’d make a loyal friend and a good mother. On that muggy July day, sitting in the conference room of a church in southern New Jersey, she told me a story that chilled me to the bone and forever altered the way I think about my adopted children, about birth parents, and about the country in which I grew up.
In 1961, Sheila was a twenty-one-year-old government clerk in Louisiana when she told her boyfriend she was pregnant. He responded by giving her the name of a doctor who performed abortions. The procedure wasn’t legal at the time, but everyone knew you could get one if you wanted to. Sheila didn’t want to. As frightened and confused and alone as she felt, the one thing she knew for sure was that she wanted to keep her baby. …
Not until 8:45 P.M. on November 30, 1995, when her thirty-four-year-old son telephoned her after a determined search, did she learn she’d given life to a boy. “All I did after we hung up was cry,” Sheila told me. Based on what she had endured, I expected she would feel only contempt for adoption, but she is wiser than that. While she knows the process is seldom as simple as people would like to believe, she thinks everyone can ultimately benefit if it’s done right. Besides, Sheila likes the way her firstborn son turned out (she went on to marry and have another boy), respects his parents, and appreciates the loving home they gave him. “But I’ll tell you this,” she says, wiping away a tear but faintly smiling at her optimistic conclusion: “The system we had didn’t work; thank God it seems to be changing.”
After a long period of warning tremors, adoption is “changing” like a simmering volcano changes when it can no longer contain its explosive energy. It erupts. The hot lava flows from its core, permanently reshaping not only the mountain itself but also every inch of landscape it touches. The new earth becomes more fertile, richer in color. The sensation of watching the transformation, of being a part of it, is an awesome amalgam of anxiety and exhilaration. The metamorphosis itself is breathtaking. Before our eyes, in our homes and schools and media and workplaces, America is forever changing adoption even as adoption is forever changing America.
This is nothing less than a revolution. After decades of incremental improvements and tinkering at the margins, adoption is reshaping itself to the core. It is shedding its corrosive stigmas and rejecting its secretive past; states are revising their laws and agencies are rewriting their rules even as the Internet is rendering them obsolete, especially by making it simpler for adoptees and birth parents to find each other; single women, multiracial families, and gay men and lesbians are flowing into the parenting mainstream; middle-aged couples are bringing a rainbow of children from abroad into their predominantly white communities; and social-service agencies are making it far easier to find homes for hundreds of thousands of children whose short lives have been squandered in the foster-care system.
It’s not just that adoption suddenly seems to be appearing everywhere at once, as if revealed by a cosmic sleight of hand. Society’s acceptance—and even embrace—of it is also growing. The new climate allows birth parents like the actresses Mercedes Ruehl, Roseanne Barr, and Kate Mulgrew, the singers Joni Mitchell and David Crosby, along with thousands of men and women unprotected by famous names, to finally ease their torment by disclosing their secrets and meeting their children. It leads celebrities like Hugh Jackman, Angelina Jolie, Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, and Rosie O’Donnell to proudly announce the arrival of their adopted children, further raising the profile of the process and accelerating public understanding that it’s another normal way of forming a family. And it allows adoptees to learn that they aren’t “different” in any negative sense, though they’ve been treated that way in the past; rather, they’re part of a big, successful community whose members range from baseball legend Jim Palmer to former President Gerald Ford to Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs to rap music pioneer Darryl (DMC) McDaniels. …
Every historic phenomenon begins with a specific group and then sweeps through the entire population. That’s what is happening in America today, complete with the trepidation and triumph that accompany all cultural upheavals. The emerging new realities undeniably are replete with problems and paradoxes. They are raising new issues for families and creating new dilemmas for the country. But they also are more sensible, more humane, and more focused on children’s well-being than the realities being left behind.
Adoption is at once a marvel of humanity and a social safety valve. It permits the infertile among us to share the deeply fulfilling, profoundly joyful experience of raising children. It offers a positive option for people who, for moral or economic or personal reasons, believe they can neither undergo an abortion nor parent a child. Most important, whatever it might accomplish for the adults in the picture, it provides a systematic opportunity for children to grow up in stable homes with loving parents.
The revolution was long overdue, and it already is having a penetrating impact. It is advancing the ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity that is a hallmark of twenty-first-century America, and it is contributing to a permanent realignment in the way we think of family structure. It is a revolution reflected in our national and state politics, in our newspapers and on the World Wide Web, even in the ads we watch on television. And it promises to help heal one of our most virulent national diseases: the withering away of children in foster care.
Americans can feel something happening around them, and even to them, but most haven’t identified the revolution for what it is. They assume, as we all mistakenly do about so many aspects of life, that only the people directly involved in adoption are affected by it. Americans are too busy or distracted to consider why they haven’t been aware of the adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents in their midst (and they certainly wouldn’t talk about it if they were), yet suddenly they see us everywhere they turn.
Of course, we were always there. But our existence was carefully cloaked, just as the history of adoption itself has been written, and hidden, in the shadows. Sadly, for too many generations, this wonderful and vexing process diminished nearly everyone in its embrace, even as it served their needs or transformed their lives.
Too many of adoption’s ostensible beneficiaries, adoptive parents, spent decades deceiving those they cherished most; they often didn’t reveal their children’s origins at all or insisted they share the truth with no one. Adoption’s most essential participants, birth parents, were dehumanized; they were forced to bury their grief and humiliation within themselves, unable to share their burden with even their closest confidants. And this domestic drama’s most vulnerable players, adoptees, the only ones with no say in the decision that defined their existence, were relegated to second-class social and legal status; in perhaps the most insidiously demeaning act of all, even very young adoptees were made to understand that exploring this fundamental aspect of their beings was taboo.
Not a very healthy state of affairs for an institution that was supposed to help people, which adoption most often has done despite its flaws. But now the revolution is upon us. Adoption is emerging into the warm, if sometimes harsh, light of day. It is changing rapidly, radically, and for the better. It’s not quite a caterpillar shedding its cocoon, emerging as a flawless, beautiful butterfly. Light reveals imperfections, after all, and sometimes it even causes them. Still, the darkness was a far gloomier place to be, and problems that we see are easier to deal with and resolve than those that remain hidden. …
I remember the moment it dawned on me that we all might be in the midst of a phenomenon bigger than just a sociological blip caused by aging, infertile baby boomers seeking alternative ways of forming families. As West Coast bureau chief for the Boston Globe, I was covering the O. J. Simpson murder trial at the time. Dozens of us reporters sat shoulder to shoulder in a small pressroom on the twelfth floor of the Los Angeles courthouse. I was typing my daily story, on deadline, when the interruption came.
“This is awful,” said Diana, a computer specialist and the only non-journalist in the room. She was standing right behind me, rustling a newspaper and pointing to a story in it. I turned around and asked what was wrong. Diana showed me the offending article. It was about the Baby Richard case, in which an Illinois man won custody of his biological son from the adoptive parents with whom the four-year-old boy had lived nearly all his life.
“Imagine how I feel,” I replied. “I have an adopted son.” (We hadn’t adopted our daughter yet.)
“Really?” said the Chicago Tribune reporter sitting at my left elbow. “I’ve got two adopted kids.”
The Time magazine correspondent to his left looked amazed. “I’ve got two adopted kids, too,” he said. Diana, wide-eyed with disbelief, whispered: “I’m adopted.”
I was surrounded, and so are we all. Suddenly—or at least it feels sudden—adoption is being transformed from a quiet, lonely trip along America’s back roads to a bustling journey on a coast-to-coast superhighway. The infrastructure has become so extensive that it has made all of us—not just adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents—into fellow travelers. We should do all we can to make this a smooth ride.
Copyright © 2011 by Adam Pertman
Adam Pertman is the Executive Director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. His book, Adoption Nation – How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America was published by The Harvard Common Press