An overview of adoption

motherThis year, thousands of parents throughout the world -- more than 60,000 in the United States alone -- will welcome an unrelated child into their families. They will call these children "their own" and love them with the depth and intensity characteristic of mothers and fathers everywhere.

Some of these children will come into their families within days of their births. Some will be older, having lived in foster families or with birth relatives. Some will come alone, and others will make the journey with their siblings. Many will come from China, Russia, South Korea and other parts of the world. Some will have lived in orphanages or on the streets. Some will arrive with names they've had for years. Some will have letters and photographs of their birth relatives. Some will not even know their true birth date.

Though adoption agencies no longer try to "match" a child's hair coloring or complexion with that of the adoptive parents, some children will seem so much like their adoptive parents that people will find it hard to believe they are not genetically related. Others will be of a different race or ethnic background than their new families.

Many of those children adopted this year will know the names of their birth parents, and an increasing number will grow up having some contact with them -- letters, phone calls, video visits or actual physical interaction. Some will form lifelong relationships with their birth relatives that mirror those of an extended family.


Even those children who grow up not knowing much about their heritage can anticipate learning more later, as laws change to make original birth records increasingly more accessible.

Not so many years ago, it was thought that adoption was a simple solution to a triumvirate of problems: infertile couples wanted a child, birth parents needed someone to raise their child, and the child needed parents. All that was necessary was for adoptive parents to provide love.

Today it is widely accepted that adoption is not simply a legal process and social institution, but is another way of forming family relationships. And family relationships are anything but simple. Love is an essential component, but it is no more the only requirement for a healthy upbringing than water is the only requirement for life.

What we know today about the experience of adoption comes to us from birth parents, adoptees and adoptive parents who have told their personal stories; from sociologists who have looked at the relationships in adoption to determine their unique (not "second-best") characteristics; and from psychologists who have examined the minority of adoptive relationships that have been problematic. Not only have these sources given us a wealth of information about the complicated but deeply rewarding world of adoption but the insight gained from them has dramatically changed the way adoption is practiced today.

To see how adoption has changed over the past century, click to A Recent History of Adoption. For a personal account of what growing up adopted was like in the 1940s, check out True Parenting.

Lois Melina is the author of Raising Adopted Children, Making Sense of Adoption and The Open Adoption Experience.

Other articles by Lois Melina

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