Trying to get it right
A LITTLE RAY OF SUNSHINE is the story of two mothers—Harlow Smith, who, at seventeen, placed her newborn for adoption; and Monica Patel, the woman who adopted Matthew and raised him. When Matthew chooses Cape Cod for the family vacation, he has a little surprise in store…he’s going to meet his birth mother without a word to anyone beforehand. Surprise!
Adoption is a complex, multilayered, lifelong emotional experience. Like a lot of people without firsthand knowledge, I had a somewhat rosy picture of adoption. How wonderful! A baby is coming into someone’s family, a family who desperately wants this child and can provide security and love! How lucky these parents are to have hit the baby lottery! How lucky the baby is! How heroic the birth mother must be, letting her baby go to parents who are more equipped for parenthood than she is.
That’s a pretty naïve take, isn’t it? Hopefully, there’s often truth in those blanket statements, but nothing in life—especially humans—is that simple.
In order to give an accurate portrayal of adoption from all viewpoints—adoptee, birth mother; adoptive mother; extended families—I realized I had a lot to learn. I list my resources in the acknowledgments of the book, but one of the most compelling sources was the podcast Adoption: the Making of Me with hosts Sarah Reinhardt and Louise Brown. Sarah and Louise are friends, both adopted, and on their podcast, discuss books about adoption, interview adoptees on their show and talk about the many layers of the adoption experience. They’re warm and funny and honest, and were were kind enough to sit down with me and chat. What follows are the highlights of our wonderful conversation.
Kristan: Thank you, ladies for joining me today! I would love to have you introduce yourselves and your podcast.
Sarah: Sure! I'm Sarah Reinhardt, the cohost of Adoption: The Making of Me. I’m here with my beautiful friend, Louise. We are baby scoop* adoptees; I was given up for adoption, not because my birth mother wanted to give me up, but because it was kind of a forced adoption.
Louise: And I'm Louise Browne, here with the beautiful Sarah Reinhardt, my cohost and friend. I'm also a baby scoop adoptee. That’s the era from the late mid to late 40s up until Roe v. Wade. My biological mother did choose to put me up for adoption, but I say that loosely because she was young and had no means. There weren't a lot of other options in 1968. So here we are with our podcast, and thank you for having us!
* From Wikipedia: “The Baby Scoop Era was a period in anglosphere history starting after the end of World War II and ending in the early 1970s, characterized by an increasing rate of pre-marital pregnancies over the preceding period, along with a higher rate of newborn adoption.”
Kristan: A LITTLE RAY OF SUNSHINE centers around a birth mother who, as a 17-year-old college freshman, puts her baby up for adoption, or “places” her baby for adoption. I thought, “Wouldn't it be fun for her to meet her son unexpectedly?” So he tracks her down when he’s almost 18… just walks into her place of work, a bookstore on Cape Cod. She instantly knows who he is—it's like an electric jolt to her system. He’s looking at her a little funny and she looks at him and she just knows.
Back when she was pregnant, Harlow felt she couldn't raise him, or maybe shouldn't raise him, with the limited resources available to a 17-year-old girl. Even though her parents might have helped, she thought it was in the baby's best interest to go to a home where he would be raised by two adults and not worn-out parents (she’s the oldest of five) and a teenage mother (her).
I also write from the point of view of Matthew's adoptive mother Monica; and Cynthia, a woman whose mother placed her up for adoption in the early 60s. Cynthia has a very different view on adoption than most adoptees.
In researching this topic, I of course went to Reddit, where you get a lot of unfiltered conversation. I found your podcast mentioned, listened to a few episodes, and I was like, “Oh God, I've got this so wrong.” (I had a very naïve take on the emotional impact of adoption for everyone involved.) In Season One, you were talking about the book The Primal Wound and how true you felt that was— that every kid who is put up for adoption has been traumatized in some way. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Sarah: Yeah, relinquishment trauma. Babies aren't blank slates, and that was definitely the perspective (adoptive) parents were told, which probably made it a lot easier to take a baby that isn't your own.** You spend nine months in utero hearing your mother's voice and heartbeat. This is all you know— the smell, the feel, the sound—and then to be taken away from that is trauma.
Louise: Yeah, I’m definitely in line with what Sarah said. We’ve also come into learning more about it, because when adoptees meet each other—like when Sarah and I met—we were like instantly friends. Like, “Oh, you're adopted, I'm adopted.” The reason we do that is because right away, we understand each other. There’s some stuff that you can't say like to the general public (about adoption). In the best of circumstances and the worst, we (adoptees) all have these connecting patterns, and it's really stems from the relinquishment, as Sarah said. Especially back in our era, the baby scoop era, there wasn't any conversation about it.
Sarah: But I don’t think there’s any even now. We had a young guest on the show recently. He was born in 1994 and his adoptive parents weren't told anything about the trauma of it all. So yeah, I don't think that narrative has changed.
Louise: There’s a quote in The Primal Wound documentary…I forget the therapist’s name, but she says adoption is the only trauma where the victim is expected to be grateful. That’s a big story for adoptees— “Oh, you're so lucky!” Which you can be…or you can’t be. Lucky, grateful…you have a lot put on you as a baby.
Kristan: That’s a huge expectation, that you’re lucky to be adopted. That was one of the refrains I came across in researching. In most cases, you picture this couple who really wants a child and and they've been screened and vetted and background checked, and they're absolutely prepared to be parents, as much as as you can be. They’re just extra wonderful. The kid hears, “You were chosen.” There’s no talk about trauma or missing your birth mother or the idea that she might have wanted to keep you.
Sarah: I just want to state there are situations in which a biological parent cannot take care of their children. I guess I take more issue with the erasing of identity. The prospective parents are thinking that this baby is a blank slate with no regard to anything else. Louise and I heard a story the other day that was really unsettling about someone who had adopted two children of a different race and wasn’t even acknowledging their race and put them into a Jewish school.
Kristan: Like, you’re mine now. You didn’t exist before.
Sarah: Yeah. Also, if you do have altruistic motives for adoption, why do you need an infant? Why is this search for an infant so important?
Louise: Yeah, our foster care system is full of children who need homes.
Sarah: And those parents might be able to get it together, too.
Louise: It’s about education, too, because in our era, everyone kind of had the story they were told. Hopefully, we’re trying to change the conversation so that people do talk to each other and find out what people would need to do (to adopt) and have a better foundation for adoptees. That’s the purpose of our show: to lift the silence of the adoptee.
Kristan: In LITTLE RAY, Monica and and her husband Sanjay, the adoptive parents, go to the classes, talk to the psychologists, get pre-adoption counseling. They make sure that their child knows plenty of other adopted kids. They read The Primal Wound, and do everything they can to prepare… and it's still hard. This baby is still somebody they don’t know. Later, much to their surprise, they have a biological daughter, and it’s a completely different experience…they love each child equally, but differently.
Another thing I wanted to explore in the book is the importance of the biological connection to adopted children. Especially the connection to the biological mother, and the myth that it’s going to be so great when you finally meet.
Sarah: Yeah, it’s usually the mother. Often, she makes the decision solo; the father's name isn't even on the birth certificate. It’s the first stop in finding out your truth.
Kristan: And we're taught to think it’s going to be such a great day.
Sarah: Right! For everybody, because that's what we see in TV or in a book or movie. But it’s not the end of the story. It’s really the beginning of a different story.
Kristan: I wanted to talk about the fact that adoptive parents are just people. They’re just as unprepared as anybody is to have a child and they might be adopting for the wrong reasons, like some kind of virtue signaling, or the idea that “I have to have a child in order to be complete and so it's all about me and my feelings.” But that experience is a lifelong commitment…unless it's not.
Sarah: I know a woman—she's a fairly famous writer I did a workshop with her years ago—and she was in the midst of adopting two girls from Ethiopia. International adoptions are a lot harder now, but these were sisters coming from a traumatic situation. I want to say they were six and eight or so. She had them for about 9 months and returned them, as it were.
Kristan: I'm a fiction author and I don't live the experiences of my characters, but I try to make my books as authentic as possible. Part of that is is talking to people who have walked the walk. I really enjoyed writing this book and this subject. I believe that adoption is hugely important as an option, but I also think it's been handled really poorly for generations, whether you were scooped out of an orphanage as my uncle was, and one of the characters in the book was, and had her identity completely erased, or even if you’re a woman who is clear that she doesn’t want to raise her baby, that adoption is the absolute right choice.
Sarah: Can I touch on that? There have been a lot of studies about that. Mostly, when it comes down to right around the minute that women are giving birth, most women don't want to give up their babies. It’s circumstances that make you think they have to choose adoption. But most don’t. But it's not a very high percentage of people who want to give up their baby .
Kristan: That’s a really good point, Sarah. If we had the resources for a 19-year-old girl to have the financial support and healthcare and community support, then maybe she would say, “Yeah, I hadn’t planned this, but I would keep my baby.” But I think there’s this pressure, especially when you're a teenager, that says you’re not capable of handling this, and the heroic thing, the noble thing, is to place the baby for adoption. And it can be, but that’s one of those myths, too—your birth mother was so brave and so heroic and you might not know this experience ruined her. You’re told a certain mythology about how great it all was. One thing I tried to do is capture the the longstanding pain of the birth mother. She knows that her child is is out there somewhere and she loved that kid. I think in most cases, you (the birth mother) loved your little passenger. Birth mothers too have a primal wound. They’ve lost that bond, even when it's an open adoption and you get to visit and stuff. It goes both ways, for the child and for the mother.
Sarah: I'm not even sure that’s easier, an open adoption. None of it's easy and as of yet, there haven’t really been good solutions.
Kristan: There’s a line in my book where the biological mother is talking to her son and she says essentially, “All the decisions were right, and all the decisions were wrong. I felt I did the best thing at the time, but I was 17 years old, so what did I know about life?”
Louise: And a lot of what you know as a young women is what’s told is good for you. There’s pressure from adoption counseling, too, especially for young women.
Kristan: My husband and I thought about adopting; a teenage relative was having a baby, and we said, “Well, we have a toddler and a baby on the way, and we'd love to have another. You could be part of the baby's life and stuff. But we have a home and we’re adults, so if you want, we’ll adopt your baby.” She decided to keep him the day he was born, and I think she made the right decision.
Sarah: Exactly. She made the decision the day he was born. I was actually was at dinner last week and unbeknownst to me, this woman I had just met told me she used to work for an adoption attorney. She was on the side of the (adoptive) parent and was saying, “Well, my my attorney was really good, he only charged a flat fee because the options can be up to $60,000.” So you got this this pregnant person and these prospective parents who’ve swept in and are paying all the bills and all this stuff, and now the pregnant person is not in the position of power.
Kristan: Another thing you talk about a lot, and something that seems to be true across the board for every adoptee, is that you deserve to know where you came from. There’s this practice of hiding your information. I know you have non-identifying information—like, your mother was blond and had blue eyes. That seems to be a very powerful belief—that adoptees have the right to know their history no matter what the circumstances. That was another thing I wasn’t knowledgeable about when I started writing the book. I felt like it should be up to the birth mother to decide if she wants to meet. What if this child who knocks on your door was the result of rape or incest? Would you still want to meet? But listening to the stories on your podcast and from other sources, it seems to be so important to the adoptee to have that information.
Louise: It’s your genetic hole. I think people feel very incomplete I I had probably the best of circumstances when it comes to an adoption—a loving family. People are like, “You had the best family!” and I did. But I had that hole, too, like, who am I? Then when you asked, you were just sort of shut down. What blew this open, of course, is genetic testing, which went around a lot of adoption laws. People can find out now by sending in DNA, and you do feel grounded. You get caught up in your family's story, the family who’s raising you. But you kind of know deep inside that's not really me, who am I? So I think every every person should have the right to know who they are. Something we learned along the way was that before adoptions became a money sort of thing—I'm talking a long time ago, like the 1930s and prior—(heritage) was very much told to the adoptee. It was a big thing to know your lineage and people always shared that. When it became a closed, money sort of thing, then all sorts of different narratives happened, it did switch.
Sarah: In other Western countries, they have different policies, too. There’s also less adoption in other Western companies because there’s better resources for…well, a whole host of things, better support, better healthcare, better sex education.
Kristan: I do think that in every adoptee’s story, even just to see a photo of a biological relative, there’s that profound moment when you say, “Wow! That’s my chin.”
Louise: Or in A.M. Homes’s case—whose book we’re reading on our podcast— “there’s my ass, walking away from me, on my father.”
Kristan: My uncle, who was adopted, met his half brother, and for the first time in his life, he saw someone who looked like him. It was really important and really powerful for him.
Sarah: In my case, my birth mother went on had more children. I got to meet her and got close to her and my sisters. But they had a shared history, a whole life, years without me. So in my case and in many other adoptees’, you don't really fit in in either place. You’re a little bit out of place in the family that you were adopted into, you don't look like anybody, but then when you do meet the birth family, then you don't really fit in there either because you’ve had all this different nurture.
Louise: You have the genetics but not the time spent.
Sarah: I think adoptees are kind of floating in our own universe.
Kristan: Does that ever resolve, do you think, or is that just a fact of your life?
Louise: I think it’s more the information of how you find out about yourself and the ability to know who you are. You said something about knocking on the birth mother's door. Not everybody's going to go do that, nor are they always welcome. It’s more just having the ability to have the conversations openly and not having to hide. Many adoptees have to hide finding their family from their other family. It’s like having an affair almost, because no one is just being open and honest. When people sit down at the table and can all talk, and there's more love and more openness. The narrative of adoption is so big in our country but very few adoptees are asked about the narrative of adoption. And birth mothers are left out of that often too, the two parties who are absolutely a part of the triad,
Sarah: There’s a definite motivation for keeping this story about how wonderful adoption is and how noble it is.
Kristan: Is there's a message that you want people to know about adoption, and this is in very broad strokes from the point of view of an adopted person, what would it be?
Sarah: Believe us when we tell you we've it’s trauma. The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ) doesn’t recognize relinquishment trauma, and I wish they would, that it would be recognized as trauma. Some people have called it complex PTSD, and I do think that's a good label for it, because it's complex, but it is definitely trauma.
Kristan: As part of my research, I talked to a psychologist for her perspetive. Like Nancy Verrier (author of The Primal Wound), she had adopted a baby and had a biological baby. I asked her about the theory of a primal wound and she said, “It’s bullshit. Babies can’t even see the first few weeks of their lives.” I said, “Do you think your son wonders about his birth family?” and she said, “No. He really doesn’t.” But I remember someone on your podcast said he didn’t want to hurt his adoptive family's feelings by wanting to talk about his birth mother.
Louise: Yeah, of course, I didn't want to hurt mine. I love them.
Kristan: Right. It’s hard to say, “I'm lonely in a way that you can't fix.”
Louise: Shutting down is the problem here. Nancy Verrier said it was hard for her (to understand her adopted daughter’s experience), and she thought, “Let me explore what this is.” That’s when I think healing begins, when you can just have the conversation in openness. The shutting down is the problem in my opinion. (A kid) may not have questions right now, but who knows about wanting conversations in the future? The problem is not being able to talk about it.
Kristan: This is a very personal question and you don't have to answer it, and I won’t include it in the interview without your okay. Did either of you consider adopting a child?
Louise: Oh, we just talked about this! I did. I considered adopting a child because my ex-husband and I didn't conceive easily. And I was like, oh, I want to adopt, not because I wanted to give back or anything, but because I understood how the baby might feel. But we didn’t adopt. At that time, I hadn’t uncovered my own issues about things. Now I'm glad that I didn’t take that route. It wasn’t right for me. But I did think about it.
Sarah: I never thought about it. I knew I wanted my own baby**. I wanted to connect to somebody on the planet.
Louise: I wanted that too, but I didn’t know if I would have it. I will say, many adoptees we've spoken to—I'm not speaking for all adoptees— but when you have your own child, men and women, it’s like, “Oh! That’s big. That’s very powerful.” Because this is the first person you're related to, and it brings up a lot of things.
Kristan: I asked my uncle if he ever felt the pain of being adopted. He said, “When I saw my daughter being laid on my wife's chest. I thought, that’s what I missed.” His case was that a doctor came to his birth mother’s house to deliver him, and left with him a few hours later to bring him to Catholic Family Services.
Louise: When you think about that, it makes me so sad.
Kristan. Oh, yeah. But so beautiful for him to finally be able to say, “This baby is mine. Those are my genetics. She’s part me!” So I understand the urge for an adopted person to have a biological baby when you’re not related to anyone you know.
Sarah: It’s the only connection on earth, for me, anyway. I felt untethered until my son was born.
Louise: Untethered. That’s the perfect word for it.
Kristan: Well, I love what you ladies are doing and I appreciate it so much. As a person outside of the community, it's so enriching to hear actual stories and not just cling to that shiny story of “you're so lucky because you're adopted.” I think you're doing a really good thing by bringing all those stories together.
Sarah: And thank you, really, for doing your due diligence and hearing the other side of it, the lived experience of it. You’re doing a service, too, to the adoption community by doing that well.
Kristan: I'll definitely send you an early copy. If you hate it, you don't have to tell me.
Both, laughing: No, no, we would never! It’s so nice to meet you and get to do this.
For more insightful, open and compassionate conversations about adoption, visit Adoption: The Making of Me.
To order your copy of A LITTLE RAY OF SUNSHINE, click here.
** Sarah and Louise sometimes reference children as “my own” or “not their own.” They are living the adopted experience, and it’s clear they’re talking about biology and genetics, not love or commitment.