What Does “Traditional” Mean?
How Stereotypes Harm Us All

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

     Close your eyes for a few moments and picture the word “traditional.” What kind of mental image do you get? When we hear or read the word “traditional,” most of us have a mental image of people dressed in Victorian styles, sitting on old-fashioned furniture, being sedate and polite. We may even picture people sitting in church, with (of course!) American colonial or gothic architecture. This word “traditional” carries such powerful emotional weight that the accompanying messages are “proper,” “correct,” “always been this way,” and “should not be questioned or changed.”
     Now, close your eyes again and imagine the term “traditional adoption.” What do you see? Applied to adoption, the middle-class Anglo assumption is that “traditional” means a closed adoption through an agency by an Anglo, middle-class, married, heterosexual couple, probably blond or at least quite light, and they are adopting an Anglo infant, relinquished at birth by a single, teenaged birth mother in hiding, and the child has possibly been in foster care for some time before the heavily investigated and highly approved, affluent, and infertile adoptive parents receive the child they have “chosen.” If this sounds like just too many stereotypes put together, remember that it is exactly the mental picture of adoption that our society in general carries in their heads. This stereotype is so strong, so culturally embedded, that in carries overtones of sanctity and eternity, as if this is and has always been “how adoption is done.” Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.
     This “tradition” is of very brief and recent origin in the long history of humanity and of adoption. It has existed primarily in Anglo, middle-class, U.S. culture. It has never been the norm in most other countries and not in African-American, Hispanic, Native American, or other non-Anglo sub-cultures within the U.S. Furthermore, there have always been private adoptions, intra-family adoptions, adoptions at birth, informal adoptions, and foster placements at all stages of a child’s life. We also have a “tradition” in the past of orphanages (even though many of the residents had at least one parent living), “foundling” homes, orphan trains, and since at least World War I, adoption of children from Asia, Europe, and Latin America.
     Ancient Roman laws and customs form the basis of many U.S. adoption laws, along with some Greek customs, rather than English common law, the more usual background of U.S. laws. Adoption was not legal in England at the time the U.S. was formed, because the laws of primogeniture, concerned with inheritance of money and property, and titles of nobility, were so important in Great Britain at the time.
     Nevertheless, poverty, homelessness, and famine in Great Britain led to exporting large numbers of children to Australia, Canada, and the U.S., with or without families’ knowledge or approval, if the children did have families. These children were sent out as excess population, so England would not have to feed, shelter, or clothe them, and so that the receiving countries could use them as free or cheap labor. This is well-documented, as are the orphan trains, where children, even toddlers, were shipped across the country, without much adult care, put on display at stopping points so that adopters could look them over, choose those they wanted (either the most attractive or those who appeared best suited for farm or factory labor), and the rest shipped on to the next “market.” In a recent article in the St. Joseph, MO, News-Press, an 84-year old woman recounted the story of her mother coming from New York City on an orphan train, all the way to Savannah, MO, as a very little girl. There was a collective shame about this ordeal on the part of the children, the adopters, and the country as a whole, resulting in no one talking about it for many years, until recently. Although this “tradition” lasted from the 1850s to nearly 1930, and no doubt many loving adoptive relationships did result from it, it also led to exploitation of every sort imaginable, untold trauma to the children, and for many, to their families in the U.K. or the U.S., from whom they were taken. The trauma was, in many cases, passed down several generations. In the same article, the adoptee’s daughter states that her mother was ridden with guilt and shame over her adoptive circumstances, a secret she kept hidden much of her life. “Mother never told us she was adopted,” she said. “You were teased and ridiculed as an orphan.” In fact, her birth mother had placed her in the Protestant Half Orphan Asylum in 1907. She later came to Savannah and asked her to move to California with her and her new husband, which she did not do.
     As to the “tradition” that all adoptions should be through an agency, where the “experts” know how to “match” adoptive parents and children, and where no information, or only fragmentary and possibly false information was given concerning the child’s birth family history (and even that was to be withheld from the child, even into adulthood), this “tradition” is less than a century old. Some of it comes from the older “tradition” of foundling homes, where newborn infants were secretly dropped off by frightened, shamed young women and then “found” by the people running the home, or dropped off on a doorstep and found by the residents of that home. This really did happen, though probably not as often as scary children’s stories might indicate. Sometimes, there is some documentation, the birth mother, having milk, might hire herself out as a wet nurse to some rich woman who either was told her own milk was inadequate, or who declined to nurse her baby. In some cases, the “wet nurse” may have been the birth mother of the “found” child! There is Biblical precedent for this in the story of Moses, and we now hear of Chinese women becoming the caretakers or foster mothers of what may actually be their birth children. Desperation leads to many things, including finding a way to still be connected, secretly, to one’s child.      There is no doubt, however, that many of our so-called traditions about adoption in the U.S. came about with the rise of social work as a profession and the desire to regulate it and be acknowledged as having expertise and authority, and it conveniently coincided with the creation of the U.S. Social Security Act, which required persons to have birth certificates to document their birth dates in order to receive benefits. Until then, most people, being born at home, did not have birth certificates. Records and documentation became culturally, perhaps even morally, important at that point. Hence, the “amended” birth certificate for adoptees, to establish the adoptive parents as the parents of record and to give the adoptee legal standing, and possibly to relieve them of embarrassment, since officials might see the birth certificate. It was never to protect birth parents in any way whatsoever, nor were they promised Confidentiality, anonymity, or compassion of any sort.
     Given the Victorian and post-Victorian attitudes concerning sexual behavior and pregnancy itself (both in and out of marriage), these legal procedures seemed to benefit adoptees, but, in fact, served largely to reinforce the message that the birth parents were so shameful they could not even be identified, and the adoptees, having this dreadful origin, must also be inferior, tainted, or contaminated themselves. If you doubt these cultural attitudes, ask older people what the prevailing attitudes was, not only about adopting a child (“Never know what they came from,” “taking a chance,” “might be like the woman who had her,” but the attitude about one’s own biological offspring marrying someone who had been adopted. “What will their children be like? What if there’s a dread disease or something defective in their background we don’t know about? What if the of the parents was crazy, alcoholic, not all white?” Fill in the blank to suit the fear or prejudice. The point is, these stereotypes, assumptions, and fears are not just a thing of the past. They exist today, spoken or unspoken.
     When “traditional” means deceit, lack of information, lack of affirmation, and lack of contact between adoptee, birth family, and adoptive family, everyone suffers. When “traditional” meant that pregnant girls got sent away to “hones,” or disowned by their families, when others were forced into marriage in adolescence to “cover up” their premarital conceptions, when disabled children were relinquished to institutions and not spoken of again, everyone suffered.
     In other cultures, there are other traditions connected with adoption, sex outside of marriage, and children not being raised with their parents. For instance, to some, “tradition” might dictate that women who are raped (even beyond women who have sex of their own choosing) are killed as “honor killings” by their won fathers or brothers. In Ireland, many young women were sent to “aundries,” where they worked for years in servitude, either because they produced a child or because someone reported they were promiscuous. In some cultures, the father is considered to own the children, so if he dies, his extended family owns the child and the mother has no rights to her own child. These are all “traditional” customs! In our own culture, in past years, it was established tradition to place all newborns who had been relinquished (whether by choice or even forgery) in foster care for some time, while the baby was “tested” to make sure he/she was “normal” before placing him/her with adoptive parents. In many states, it was illegal for foster parents to adopt their foster child, and even later, foster parents, including those who were serving as foster parents for teenagers, were encouraged not to form any emotional attachments to foster children. Even now, in treatment foster care, those foster parents may only be allowed to serve as foster parents, and if the child becomes “available” for adoption, they will go to another family, because the treatment foster parents are needed for that role.
     I have recently read in several adoption support group newsletters about Positive Adoption Language and Respectful Adoption Language. These articles seem to have been written by persons who are professional adoption workers, or, in one case, an infertility specialist. I see no documentation that these persons are triad members. Some of what they propose in terms of changing the terms we use is valid, although I fail to see how “birth mother” is a disrespectful term. I was thrilled when that term became known; before that, we weren’t called anything! However, using the term “traditional” instead of “closed” adoption seems not only inaccurate, but an attempt to gloss over what a closed adoption really is. One such article recommends we not use the term “reunion” when birth parents find their relinquished son or daughter, but use the term “meeting” or “make contact,” because, according to the article, if they don’t already know us, it’s not a reunion. I found this recommendation offensive, personally. A “meeting” is something I schedule in my appointment book, and “making contact” sounds very mechanical, not joyful or satisfying in any way. “Reunion” means brought back together. We were, after all, together for nine months.
     There is an extremely entrenched, though often unspoken, tradition about adoption. We cannot separate adoption from poverty, including threatened or implied poverty of the birth mother. Poor parents have “traditionally” not been considered for adoption, and, at least in the past, children were removed from homes for no other reason than the parents’ poverty. It happened on Indian reservations until recent years, but it also happened all across the U.S. in previous years. Even now, in Great Britain, there is a scandal about social workers being offered incentives (bounties, if you will) for finding children to remove from homes, or for getting a birth mother to relinquish at birth for being “unsuitable.” This has resulted in an increase in adoption rates, which was the motive behind this scheme, but it has also resulted in many parents losing their children against their wills. In international adoptions, poverty is still really the reason children are available for adoption, as painful as that is for all of us to admit. The countries in which these children are born also feel cultural shame about not being able to take care of their children, and after some years of having their children adopted by people in other countries, usually come up with more restrictions about who can adopt, and ultimately quit allowing foreign adoptions entirely.
     In the foster system in this country, children who are being neglected or abused by middle-class or wealthy Anglo parents are far less likely to be removed from their parents and placed in foster care, and ultimately adopted, than are children from homes perceived as poor. Yet, as therapists and as survivors of abuse, many of us know that abuse and neglect happen in middle-class and wealthy homes, too. Single parents are more apt to lose their children than married parents, and poverty is a large factor in that, also.
     In previous decades, such as the ’50s,’60s, and even the ’70s, the fear a single young woman faced in being pregnant was not just embarrassment at being pregnant outside of marriage, it was the reality that she could not financially support a child by herself, even if she had a college education, and the very real possibility that her family would cut her off both emotionally, socially, and financially. There was also the social poverty of having no family to support her and probably no other young people that she knew in the same situation. In fact, the more educated and the better off her family was financially, the less apt she was to have family support or knowledge of other single parents.
     At the same time as the connection between poverty and adoption, we have the link in our culture between poverty and shame. There is great social shame about being poor in this country. Many people tend to believe that people who are poor have somehow brought it upon themselves by their behavior, or that God has decided, for whatever reason, that they deserve to be poor. Some religious theology reinforces these attitudes. Therefore, people would seek to hide the fact that they are poor, or that a family member is, or was. This may be part of the shame of having been a passenger on an orphan train, the social phenomenon in the past of sending poor children (not all actually orphans) across the country on trains, to be chosen, or not, by prospective families. At the same time, there is some deep-seated guilt in some people about having more materially than others, which may cause them to hide the fact of their wealth! Again, in international adoption, those children are available (or made available) because of the parents’ poverty and even their native nations’ poverty, and adoptive parents may have some guilt or sadness about being able to adopt these children, at the same time that they are thrilled to do so, and they deeply love the children. This may be part of the reason that some (but by no means all) would rather pretend, or at least not deal with the fact, that the children are adopted. Combined with our cultural attitude that infertility carries some association with shame (again, like poverty, people tend to believe it was caused by someone’s behavior or by God’s lack of favor or overt disfavor), there is a deep, even unconscious association of adoption with shame and guilt for many. In the current time, single women who adopt, particularly those adopting from countries where poverty and war (a leading cause of poverty) have resulted in the children being available, may be more open in dealing with the fact of adoption, and in doing their best to maintain the child’s cultural ties both in this country and by returning to the child’s country of origin. They may, in fact, celebrate the very fact that the child is adopted, because they are happy that they were able to adopt. After all, in the past, the “tradition” was that only married couples were allowed to adopt!
     There is no doubt that nearly all adoptive parents deeply love their children. That makes is all the harder to think, sometimes, that they are not the only parents. Parents do not like to think of their children as suffering in any way, much less suffering the loss of parents. So we have developed this “tradition” of saying that the adoptive parents are the only real parents, often stating “the real parents are the ones who stayed up with the child at night,” etc. It is not easy to face the fact that this child may be missing, consciously or unconsciously, the birth parents, and grieving for them. Parents don’t want to see their children in grief. They don’t want to picture the birth parents also grieving, wishing they had the privilege of staying up at night with that child. If, however, they are able to admit to their own loss in not even knowing the birth parents (or, even in open adoptions, not knowing them well enough), they may be able to truly identify with the children’s grief and be able to grieve along with them, which actually is more likely to lead to lessening the loss in time. Talking about it, possibly opening the adoption, or in the case of international adoption, returning to the child’s country of origin and helping them reframe their loss into developing their full identity, is healthy. A recent article concerned an adoptive mother taking her daughter back to Africa, where the girl at first felt sorry for the children she saw, but did not identify with them. After being there several weeks, she began to see them as part of her own identity and determined that she would do whatever she could to change their situation, including insisting her parents also adopt a boy she had come to know in an orphanage. To reframe grief and loss and put it into perspective, instead of not acknowledging it and therefore having the ghost of grief always present, takes time and skill, but it can be done and it leads to richer relationships in the long run.
     In order to better understand all the dynamics of adoption in its many forms, we must face the fears and misconceptions that have led to what we call “traditions” about adoption, the stereotypes based on fear, and the grief we all feel at really acknowledging the losses involved in adoption. When a parent loses custody, whether at birth or as late as adolescence, and whether by the parent’s decision or by the court’s, there is unspeakable loss for both parent and child. Children in the foster system, facing the possible permanent loss of connection to a birth parent, and possible adoption by new parents they may or may not know, there is terror, grief, and feelings for which there are no words. Even if the parents have been abusive or neglectful, and even if the foster and adoptive parents are absolutely wonderful, there is horrendous loss. However damaged, there is a bond between those children and their birth parents, which must be acknowledged and honored. This may be difficult for some kids to face, and may be very difficult for professionals to see or understand, because they are thinking of the child’s unfair treatment. Yet, if this bond is not understood and honored, they do a disservice to the child, and to the adoptive parents, also. Further, if the children are at all able, they will maintain that bond one way or another. If not allowed contact with the parent in some way, they may run away, or at the very least, idealize the absent parent. Recent cases in this state have exemplified this. In one case, the children, a sibling group, ran away, possibly to find the birth mother. They had been adopted only the year before. The adoptive mother, understandably upset, said, “But we loved them as if they were our own,” and on another day said, “I loved them even though they were adopted.” Her qualifiers to “love” gave her away. It is imperative that we quit thinking that “traditional” (in other words, “right” or “proper”) means no further contact with birth parents, no matter the age at adoption, or no matter the circumstances.
     Whether it’s the orphan trains of the past, the Internetand “adoption picnics” or the foster system today, we must stop seeing children as commodities to be manipulated or parceled out, we must stop seeing birth parents as the cause of problems or the producers of a desired product, and we must stop seeing adoptive parents as saints, rescuers, or avaricious purchasers of hapless children. If that’s the “tradition,” the stereotype, we need to change the tradition and get rid of the stereotype. Instead of focusing merely on “Respectful Adoption Language,” we need to focus on respecting all the persons involved in adoption.


Fessler, Ann. The Girls Who Went Away, Penguin Press, New York, NY, 2006.

Howard, Sally. Finding Me in a Paper Bag, Gateway Press, Baltimore, MD, 2003.

Hutchinson (KS) News. “Prison Mothers: Polish Women Imprisoned Under Stalin Remember Torture, Loss of Their Children,” January 6, 2008.

Parkhill, Nancy. Healing the Adoption Experience, Bookman Publishing, Martinsville, IN, 2004.

Pavao, Joyce Maguire. The Family of Adoption, Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1998, 2002.

St. Joseph News-Press. “Woman Spreads Story of Orphan Trains to Help Preserve History,” December 29, 2007.

Southwest Daily Times, Liberal, KS. “Home Is Where the Separation Ends,” January 20, 2008.

Wegar, Katarina. Adoption, Identity, and Kinship, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 1997.

Excerpted from the April and July 2008 editions of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2008 Operation Identity