I’d Be an Adoptee Teen Mom All Over Again

A relinquishee’s take on Relinquished, a new book by sociologist Gretchen Sisson: “Thirty years later, would I still make the same choice to keep my baby? Yes, I would.”

Just before the release of Gretchen Sisson’s Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood, an advanced reader copy of the book landed on my doorstep. I couldn’t wait to dive in, but a 10-hour car trip convinced me to buy it on Audible rather than wait to read it—and boy, am I glad I did. It is a mind-bending analysis of the adoption industry’s practices to lure and persuade mothers to relinquish their children with the failed promises of “open” adoption.

I knew I had a doozy of a book when a simple Facebook profile pic of me holding it generated 50-plus likes and about-that-many comments—several of which came as part of a heated debate around who should write books about adoption and false narratives about first mothers. Inside those comments, the old stereotype of the “troubled” drug-addled teen mom reared its ugly head—but first mothers and adoptees jumped in to set the record straight.

One commenter expressed dissatisfaction with someone outside the community writing a book and making money off the lived experiences of first mothers and adoptees. That complaint was also addressed, with the majority recognizing that mainstream America needs to hear from both the community and scholars with the statistics to back their facts, which Sisson certainly has in this book—fascinating statistics, contradicting, and in my opinion crushing, the historical first mother tropes and teen-crisis narratives that drive the $30-billion adoption industry today. 

A 10-year study of birth mothers and analysis of the outcomes of their open adoptions, Sisson’s book posits that most birth mothers don’t want to relinquish, and would not do so if they had limited financial support. After the Dobbs decision and before the upcoming election, Sisson’s timing could not be better.

This analysis of relinquishment in America, the predatory practices that drive it, and the regret of first mothers who succumb to it, will spark debate across the aisles about what is needed to address the ballooning and highly unethical $30-billion baby industry. Additionally, as Sisson notes, family policing is sustaining demand, as traditional baby markets decline.

The devastating first mother narratives in the book led me to reflect on the choice this black-market “adoptee” made while standing pregnant in my birth mother’s shoes.

Pregnant at 18, I wonder if mine was not a subconscious attempt to stand in my own birth mother’s shoes, to right the wrong, to better understand her choice somehow. Would I make the same decision? I found out I would not.

I want to thank Gretchen Sisson for a book that silenced the little whisper in my head, still wondering if my daughter would have had ‘a better life’ otherwise.

Back then, in 1989, I thought it was a given: I would never put my baby up for adoption. No one could ever force my hand.

When open adoption was taking root, I couldn’t imagine living life with both an unknown mother and child in the world, but being a paperless baby sold on the street also weighed heavily on my decision. My full-of-promise adoption story was not so shiny.

The couple who drove off with me that day, having been denied for being older, not well-off, and likely biracial, had desperately skirted the system, yet they would never receive a legal adoption or birth certificate for me. To this day, I believe hiding in plain sight with me and the fear of raising a baby no court had called their own led to my “adoptive” mother’s alcoholism, and my “adoptive” father’s 650-pound morbid obesity, both of which equaled financial struggles for our family. 

Supply will meet demand one way or the other, and as Sisson’s book underscores, adoption today has become a market-driven system. 

Still, decades later, the “best moms choose better lives for their babies” marketing narrative used to sway mothers to relinquish continued to haunt me. Had I been selfish to make my child grow up in a single-parent home, on food stamps?

Sure, I went to college, but my 6-year-old daughter, a latchkey kid, slept at the neighbor’s while I swung around a pole to pay for my sins, for being dumb enough to get pregnant, smart enough to get into the University of Texas, and nowhere self sufficient enough to pay for it all.

Even with student loans and the Pell Grant, we went hungry. What life could adoption have offered her? I’d asked back when I was still in “the adoptee fog” of things. Had I been able to see all those hard times coming, would I have made the same choice?

At the time, my 32-year-old boss/baby daddy said he’d help me, and my adoptive parents were eager to help raise my baby. My father hadn’t died yet, and it was their support that made it seem possible to keep her.

But I was blind to the holes in the precarious net I imagined would catch me. I just knew nobody was going to take away my baby. If you ask me today, I would not change a thing. But had I known what lay ahead, I would have been shaking in my boots. 

Thirty years later, would I still make the same choice to keep my baby? Yes, I would.

I want to thank Gretchen Sisson for a book that silenced the little whisper in my head, still wondering if my daughter would have had “a better life” otherwise.

After a full book binge between New Orleans and Texas, I was fully prepared and excited to be part of a full house attending the United Adoptees Zoom Conversation with Gretchen Sisson. Here are a few takeaways: 

12 Gretchen Sisson Quotes from a Discussion with Adoptees United

The commodification of children in adoption: 

“I think any world in which children are commodified, you cannot have ethical adoption. I think as long as children are commodified, you cannot get to a place where it’s truly ethical.”

The importance of building supports for families: 

“What we need to build is a world that values family connection, right? What we need to build is a world that supports families … as well as limiting the scope of the family-placing system, right? But the way to limit that scope is by building out these supports.”

The intersection of private adoption and the family policing system: 

“I think that what’s happening now is that actually the private adoption system and the family policing system are becoming increasingly close together, because poverty is really such a determinative characteristic in who is targeted for family separation, both in the public and the private system.”

The changing demographics of relinquishing mothers due to family policing: 

“In the 2020 sample, I had far more women of color that participated. And when I looked back, I also collected data on about 8,000 adoptions that occurred between 2011 and 2020 and found a far higher representation of women of color participating in that system than we had found in previous generations.”

The historical newness of modern adoption practices: 

“It’s important to remember that the way adoption is practiced today is fairly historically new. … We’ve only been doing it this way for at the long end, 150 years. And the ways that we have found to care for children and families in other ways predate that dramatically, particularly in indigenous communities and communities of color.”

The evolution of mothers’ feelings about their adoptions over time: 

“I will say that the reason why I wanted to go back and interview [natural mothers] after 10 years was because I noticed this pattern in my original interviews in the 2010 data, that mothers who were closer to their adoption … felt more positively about their adoptions … And so that’s why I wanted to interview the same group of people 10 years later. … The more time they had between where they were in the adoption, the more critically, the more cynical they were about the role that adoption played in their own lives and the lives of their children.”

The importance of first-person narratives in the book: 

“Part of the reason why I included the first-person narratives … I thought that [first mother voices] were so important to The Girls Who Went Away that I tried to bring that structure into it.”

The role of adoptee activists in shaping the conversation: 

“I draw on a lot of adoptee activists in the book who have already been doing other work in the reproductive justice movement that are now surfacing their needs as adopted people within that space, and saying, now it’s time to consider what this means.”

The marketing of adoption as a solution to abortion: 

“And the whole narrative was that they [relinquishing teen mothers] were better parents than their peers [unrelinquishing teen mothers] who were parenting. That by virtue of relinquishing their daughter, they had demonstrated that they were more mature, more responsible, more loving in a lot of ways. … And it really made me want to understand the way that we perceive adoption as like a panacea. We don’t need to invest in these families over here if they should just be giving their babies to other families, right?”

The importance of understanding adoption as a market-driven system: 

“You have really, really, really high demand for babies and children. You have really low supply and I’m using this market language … because I think it’s important to understand the ways that it is a market-shaped system.”

The limitations of open adoption: 

“I’ve done a lot of these interviews, right? And I think that even if they are just anecdotes, right?… Like, even if one of these stories is true, three of these stories is true, then there’s still a pretty damning indictment of how the overall system is working.”

The importance of considering the emotional experiences of relinquishing mothers: 

“Few relinquishing mothers felt that their child’s adoptive parents considered their emotional experiences…”

How You Can Help

If you have yet to get this book, get it today. After you read it, please leave Gretchen a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Also, please consider contributing to Adoptees United, the organization that made this event possible, and which runs a special program gifting DNA kits to those who cannot afford them.

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A baby-scoop era “adoptee” and advocate for adoption reform, Patricia Knight Meyer writes and speaks publicly about her experience growing up as a paperless black market baby. She speaks at adoption conferences, blogs at www.myadoptedlife.com, and admins several online groups, including the Adoption Constellation Search and Reunion Support Group on Facebook. Her reunion video with her birth father has 287,000 YouTube views.