The Profound Effects of Shame
Upon the Adoption Triad

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC, LADAC, ACRPS

     Shame is associated with all aspects of adoption in our society in several ways. The most obvious is the shaming message that society has traditionally given to a young woman who becomes pregnant while she is unmarried. This is, after all, positive proof that she has had sexual relations, for whatever reason, without being married. Our society is ambivalent about sex in general, and does not look with favor on this evidence that a woman has been sexually active, whether by choice or rape. Many societies disapprove of pregnancy outside of marriage, for different reasons, the most common being that she is now “used,” and of less monetary value to her parents, particularly her father. Some Moslem countries kill the young woman, even if they know she was raped, because “she brought shame to the family.” We may want to deny these attitudes in our day and age, but we retain such customs as the father “giving the bride away,” as if she were his property, with his signing over title to the husband. There is also a newly emerging custom of young people (mostly young girls) signing a pledge that they will not have sex before marriage, and having the father give her a ring to signify this, a ring which she promises not to remove (like a chastity belt?) until she is married. Not only does this show black-and-white thinking (one time and she is ruined, whether she is fifteen or thirty), but is simply a new way of stating that she is someone else’s property—her parents’ until marriage, and then her husband’s, or maybe she is the property of the whole society, which has the right to look at her hand and know the status of her body. We do not see young men receiving such rings, and although some of them may sign these pledges (usually done in a group setting where a lot of young people are in a heightened emotional state), society knows that there will be no such positive proof of his sexual activity such as pregnancy.
     It has even been recently suggested that a return to a greater message of shame concerning unmarried pregnancy, or sex outside of marriage, and lack of financial aid for anyone giving birth outside of marriage, would actually cut down on the occurrence of such births or sexual activity, and on the abortion rate. One needs only to check birth and marriage records clear back to colonial times to see the fallacy of that reasoning.
     Young men who become birth fathers may receive slightly different shaming messages and their personal safety may be threatened by the girl’s parents. Certainly the future of the relationship with the birth mother may be ended by force, or pressure, or if they marry under pressure, the marriage may be short-lived. Although we have a stereotype of birth fathers not caring, the truth is more often to the contrary—many of them spend many years in grief, guilt, and shame. Some birth fathers, of course, were never even informed of the pregnancy, and yet may be shamed by others for not taking responsibility.
     The message that birth parents should carry this shame, when verbalized by those who are in authority, which apparently includes radio talk-show hosts, and who have not ever been birth parents, is not unlike the racist attitude that one should be, or feel, inferior and ashamed because of one’s skin color, ethnic background, or even size. The feelings that birth parents may experience when they hear these judgmental remarks, again and again, over the years, are very much like the feelings persons experience when they hear their religion, their color, their background, or their sex devalued, ridiculed, or accused of being inferior and not trustworthy.
     Birth parents are shamed for searching for their relinquished offspring, or for wanting to search, and are often told they have no right to knowledge of a child they “abandoned and rejected,” yet are condemned if they have not spent every waking hour regretting their relinquishment. They are expected to be immediately available to the adoptee, but have previously been told to tell no one, not even their spouse, about the pregnancy. It’s hard to have that both ways. Even the proposals to open sealed adoption records in various states would grant that right to adoptees but not to birth parents. To a birth parent, that says “You still don’t count.” Books discussing adoptees’ feelings and issues may imply, or even openly state, that birth parents did not care, were shameful people, would reject the adoptee “again,” an assumption that relinquishment equals rejection in each and every case.
     Persons who make these statements about birth parents have no idea what that person has experienced, not seeing their child grow up, not knowing if he/she is safe, happy, loved, or even alive. Even in an open adoption, there is still a feeling of sorrow at not being able to raise one’s own child, and usually this person also experiences negative remarks about “giving away one’s own child.” Quite often the person who blithely makes these harsh judgments has no idea how many birth parents they know, and to whom they may be speaking.
     Most of the time, in today’s society, these people will emphasize that they do not mean to shame adoptees or adoptive parents, only the birth parents, who, from their viewpoint, “deserve it.” In former times, people did not even pretend not to be shaming the adoptee, who was labeled “bastard” or “illegitimate,” implying that the individual was somehow not legal, not whole, not genuine, not deserving of existence. There has also been a recent move to bring back these terms as way of lowering the birthrates for unmarried mothers. While most people will not admit to such attitudes, they do continue to use the term “illegitimate child,” and by condemning birth parents, they are giving the message to all adoptees, “You came out of a situation that is so distasteful, it is unspeakable; your parents were shameful and uncaring, and conceived you in a shameful manner.” Wouldn’t most adoptees take such remarks to imply that they, too, were shameful, defective, and not really desired? To deny that adoptees will take this message is to deny that they have their own feelings and perceptions. The attitude of many people remains that adoptees are second choice at best, in spite of all the stories about “being chosen” and “being special.” “Special” is the same cloying euphemism applied to the developmentally delayed, a diagnosis that few families accept with much joy.
     Adoptees, like birth parents, are shamed for searching or for wanting to, the reasons given that “you don’t want to reawaken that woman’s shame after she’s tried to ’reform’ and put her past behind her,” or that to even have a desire to search means the adoptee is “ungrateful” to the adoptive parents, or that it is a sign of “instability.” Adoptees are expected, not just by adoptive parents, but by society at large, to be grateful and largely silent, like dogs rescued from the pound. They are shamed if they are not like the adoptive parents in every way possible, and even more so if they have traits perceived to be like those of their birth parents. They are also shamed for expressing any negative feelings about being adopted, even such mild comments as, “I wish I could know my other mother.” Adoptive parents who support and encourage their adoptees to search for, let alone have a relationship with, a birth parent, are considered strange, perhaps courageous, but also somehow disloyal to the idea of “adoption is forever and your previous existence didn’t count and wasn’t real.”
     There is even more denial that society means to condemn adoptive parents; indeed, they are often touted as heroes (although if they happen also to be birth parents who had relinquished, that would tend to erase the hero) and few people really stop to consider that the adoptive parents may have their own issues of grief over infertility, since society expects people to be fertile at certain times and in certain ways and numbers. They may have issues of shame about their infertility if they had previous sexual relationships, particularly if such a relationship resulted in birth or abortion. Many people still act as is adopting a child is some sort of consolation prize, “since you couldn’t have children of your own.” Adopting older, disabled, biracial, or intercultural children seems to add to the heroic status in some people’s minds, or may be seen as simply foolish. Clearly, many consider these children not even second choice, but third or less. Furthermore, adoptive parents who are not “first choice” (young, blond Anglo couples with plenty of money and social standing) are often offered only these “less than desirable” children. These prospective parents would include those who are older, darker, poorer, single, gay, disabled in some way, those who have been divorced, and those who might be in some chemical addiction recovery, or who have even been treated for anything that could have possibly been labeled “mental illness.” Depression might be the exception to that, since it could be attributed to sadness over infertility, and is also now considered endemic to our society. Many agencies would still not even consider anyone who falls into any of the above categories. Aside from the shaming messages given to such persons, adoptive parents receive many other shaming messages. At times, they are told, “It’s God’s will. This is your burden to bear,” as if the speaker has inside knowledge of God’s will for that person. Or they might be told, “You must have done something wrong, and God is punishing you by not allowing you to have a child, but you can be redeemed by adopting one.” In this case, adoptive parents would presumably get extra redemption points by taking one of those “less desirable” children mentioned above.
     Adoptive parents also receive messages about the children they do adopt, that the child is second choice, inferior, came out of undesirable origins, has “bad blood,” or is not to be trusted as he/she grows up, lest “the birth parents’ genes show up.” A remark was made less than three years ago to this author that “adopting is a pig in a poke. They are cute when they’re little, but who knows what kinds of problems will show up later on? I know these kids can’t help what their parents were like, but it’s just too big a chance.” The speaker had no idea at that time that this author was one of “those parents,” and, having not yet been a parent, that person had no idea what problems might show up in her own genetic children later on. The statement was also made in the presence of someone who adopted a child very shortly after that.
     Shame is alive and well regarding adoption, for all members of the triad. How do we combat these shaming messages and keep from absorbing them? How do we learn to speak up and be proud of ourselves? Many of us hesitate to offend others, even though we have been offended by thoughtless remarks, and sometimes statements that are not merely thoughtless and ignorant, but are very deliberate and malicious. Members of the adoption triad need to support each other, and become more assertive about pointing out the inaccuracy and the damaging effects of these remarks. Sometimes in our own adoption triad circles, we forget that society in general has not come as far as we have. Comparing shaming messages to racist statements may startle the judgmental speakers, and may be an accurate simile. Just as none of us can truly know what it’s like to be part of an ethnic, religious, or other minority of which we are not a member, neither can persons who have no adoption connections truly understand the feelings of members of the triad, but they can be expected to respect us and treat us with dignity, as whole and deserving persons and they can be expected to educate themselves about adoption issues, because everyone has some connection to adoption. This will happen only if members of the triad become assertive, speak up, and share their stories.

Excerpted from the October 1999 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 1999 Operation Identity