The Book Club

Adoption and Classism

Dear Adam,

First of all, I need to express how fabulous the cover of Barbara Melosh’s Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption is. It’s a contemporary photograph of two little boys—one pudgy, tow-headed, and white, the other lanky (despite an adorably protruding paunch) and black. Both boys wear homemade superhero costumes of long johns, galoshes, and tablecloth capes and similarly defiant expressions on their faces. Arms around each other, the pair—brothers, we take it—illustrate the state of adoption today: boldly out in the open, frequently multiracial, expanding and complicating our idea of what makes a family.

Would that Melosh’s book had as much humor and spunk as its cover image. But to her credit, if her academic account of the history of adoption in the United States—drawn chiefly from 400 cases on record at the Children’s Bureau of Delaware—accomplishes one thing, it depicts in detail the long road we’ve traveled to get to this photograph. Since the early 20th century, where Melosh begins, American adoption practices—as well as society’s perceptions of adoption and its effects on birth mothers, adoptive parents, and adoptees—have evolved tremendously, if sometimes in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back fashion.

Since you and I are both coming at this from a professional angle (as authors on the subject) as well as from a personal one (as an adoptive father and an adoptee, respectively), in a sense we reflect Melosh’s dual perspective, as historian-slash-adoptive parent. Wearing both my hats, then, I found one of Melosh’s more compelling points to be an issue that my birth mother and I have chatted about: adoption’s relationship to class.  

In the pre-Roe v. Wade ‘60s, when I was born and relinquished, adoption was a middle-class phenomenon. Girls from lower-class backgrounds were less likely to give children up for adoption, as their families more often absorbed the children into the clan, to be (co-) raised by grandmothers or other elder female relatives. Upper-class parents could afford to send their pregnant daughters off to foreign countries for abortions, explaining away the extended absence as a European tour or some such. For middle-class girls, like my birth mother (although, being Jewish, she was in the vast minority), adoption was the most realistic solution to an unwanted pregnancy—a way to cleanse (or, to use Melosh’s word, “rehabilitate”) oneself from the sin of premarital sex, to keep the transgression a secret from the neighbors, and to provide the child with a stable family—and therefore, a better opportunity for a successful life.

What I didn’t know, and what’s really interesting, is how the stigma experienced by birth mothers shifted. By the mid-1970s, as extramarital sex and single parenthood became less taboo, young women were criticized not so much for out-of-wedlock pregnancies, but for giving up their children. Before this, birth mothers were advised by external sources—parents, doctors, social workers—that adoption was the “best thing.” After 1970, although out-of-wedlock births continued to increase (surprisingly, I think), the number of adoptions dropped dramatically—from 89,000 nationally in 1970 to 48,000 five years later. (This is the level where domestic adoptions remain today, Melosh approximates.) This trend moved in step with the tide of discourse on nature vs. nurture—which I look forward to discussing with you—as it moved from the theory that our identities are completely predetermined to the idea that we’re born as tabula rasas whose personalities are formed by our environments and back again.   

This renewed respect for the “inalienable bond of biology” is reflected in books like Adoption Triangle (1978) and in organizations like Concerned United Birthparents, which are basically anti-adoption. Theirs is an extreme and rigid stance—and, arguably, a regressive one dating back to the early 20th century, when child-welfare workers resisted placing children for adoption, doubtful that “adults could accept as their own children not born to them.” Amazingly, for all our openness about adoption, there still are people walking around today who maintain this, in my opinion, antiquated attitude about family. Did you find this as irritating as I did?

Melosh, on the other hand, is quite impassive throughout her narrative. While her research is exhaustive and text is fact-packed, her book includes scant interpretation or analysis of information, let alone opinions about her findings. As I read, I scribbled emphatic exclamation points and question marks in the margins—for example, where Melosh describes a theory posited by Nancy Newton Verrier in The Primal Wound (another well-known anti-adoption book): “When adopted babies and toddlers cry … it means they are mourning their birth mothers.” !?!? But Melosh herself—who, remember, is not only an academic, but an adoptive mother—dryly moves from one point to the next with barely a ruffle of response. She limits her own story to two places: the introduction, where she mentions her son’s “altered” birth certificate (i.e., the one with her and her husband listed as parents, with no mention of adoption); and a paragraph toward the end, where she describes telling an adoption-discussion group that her now-teenage son didn’t seem curious about his biological origins. What she was struck by, she recalls, was the a priori consensus among the “triad” members present that “all adopted persons longed for reunion.” These personal touches were some of the strongest moments in the book, and I wish there had been more of them. This makes me all the more eager to share my reactions—personal and professional—and to hear yours!