A Recent History of Adoption

About 30 years ago, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first described the stages people experience when they grieve. Her contributions have become so accepted that it's hard to remember that not long ago people were expected to "get over" the death of a loved one in six weeks. Birth mothers were told that they would soon forget about the child they had carried for nine months, and that they could return to their former lives virtually unscathed by the experience of relinquishing a child for adoption.

Today this seems heartless, and obviously false. However, it is important to remember that the same advice was given to widows and widowers, veterans who had lost buddies in the war, women who miscarried, and children whose parents died. The long-term emotional trauma of death wasn't recognized. Losses other than death were barely acknowledged as losses.

Birth mothers did not forget, but the culture did not support their talking about their losses any more than it supported returning World War II veterans' talking about their losses. Eventually, birth mothers began to speak about their experiences. Their stories were accepted in an atmosphere where grief was better understood.


The sorrow of those adoptees who had lost their birth parents and historical connections was also validated. And it became clear that for the adoptive parents, infertility was a painful loss that didn't heal simply because a child was adopted to take the place of a biological child.

Many of the changes in current adoption practice developed as a direct result of this fuller understanding of loss. Adoptive parents were counseled about their feelings regarding loss of fertility and about not being threatened by the natural interest adoptees would have in their origins. Birth parents were treated more compassionately before and after the relinquishment.

Eventually, people began to believe that it might not be necessary to sever the ties between the adoptee and the birth family.Open adoptions came into being. State legislatures began to open the original birth records to adoptees.

Our understanding of loss and grief also had an impact on transracial and international adoptions. It became clear that adoptees who did not grow up with close contacts to their own racial community or country of birth also experienced losses. More resources became devoted to helping adoptive parents appreciate the complex identity issues children face when they are not only taken out of one family and placed in another but taken out of one cultural group and placed in another.

You might think that because of the losses experienced by adoptees, adoptive parents and birth parents, these individuals and families would be at greater risk for social or emotional problems. What we seem to see, however, is that while some members of the adoption triad do experience some distress requiring professional treatment, when adoption is handled openly and everyone has an opportunity to express their honest feelings about their experiences, adoption -- and the adoptees themselves -- can be highly successful.

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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