My son was three years old and my daughter had lived on this Earth for just two months when I met Sheila Hansen. She’s a tall, soft-spoken woman who laughs easily and exudes warmth when she speaks; she has the kind of comfortable self-confidence that immediately makes you think she’d make a loyal friend and a good mother. On that muggy July day, sitting in the conference room of a church in southern New Jersey, she told me a story that chilled me to the bone and forever altered the way I think about my adopted children, about birth parents, and about the country in which I grew up.
In 1961, Sheila was a twenty-one-year-old government clerk in Louisiana when she told her boyfriend she was pregnant. He responded by giving her the name of a doctor who performed abortions. The procedure wasn’t legal at the time, but everyone knew you could get one if you wanted to. Sheila didn’t want to. As frightened and confused and alone as she felt, the one thing she knew for sure was that she wanted to keep her baby.
Not until 8:45 p.m. on November 30, 1995, when her thirty-four-year-old son telephoned her after a determined search, did she learn she’d given life to a boy. “All I did after we hung up was cry,” Sheila told me. Based on what she had endured, I expected she would feel only contempt for adoption, but she is wiser than that. While she knows the process is seldom as simple as people would like to believe, she thinks everyone can ultimately benefit if it’s done right. Besides, Sheila likes the way her firstborn son turned out (she went on to marry and have another boy), respects his parents, and appreciates the loving home they gave him. “But I’ll tell you this,” she says, wiping away a tear but faintly smiling at her optimistic conclusion: “The system we had didn’t work; thank God it seems to be changing.”
After a long period of warning tremors, adoption is “changing” like a simmering volcano changes when it can no longer contain its explosive energy. It erupts. The hot lava flows from its core, permanently reshaping not only the mountain itself but also every inch of landscape it touches. The new earth becomes more fertile, richer in color. The sensation of watching the transformation, of being a part of it, is an awesome amalgam of anxiety and exhilaration. The metamorphosis itself is breathtaking. Before our eyes, in our homes and schools and media and workplaces, America is forever changing adoption even as adoption is forever changing America.
This is nothing less than a revolution. After decades of incremental improvements and tinkering at the margins, adoption is reshaping itself to the core. It is shedding its corrosive stigmas and rejecting its secretive past; states are revising their laws and agencies are rewriting their rules even as the Internet is rendering them obsolete, especially by making it simpler for adoptees and birth parents to find each other; single women, multiracial families, and gay men and lesbians are flowing into the parenting mainstream; middle-aged couples are bringing a rainbow of children from abroad into their predominantly white communities; and social-service agencies are making it far easier to find homes for hundreds of thousands of children whose short lives have been squandered in the foster-care system.
Every historic phenomenon begins with a specific group and then sweeps through the entire population. That’s what is happening in America today, complete with the trepidation and triumph that accompany all cultural upheavals. The emerging new realities undeniably are replete with problems and paradoxes. They are raising new issues for families and creating new dilemmas for the country. But they also are more sensible, more humane, and more focused on children’s well-being than the realities being left behind.
Americans can feel something happening around them, and even tothem, but most haven’t identified the revolution for what it is. They assume, as we all mistakenly do about so many aspects of life, that only the people directly involved in adoption are affected by it. Americans are too busy or distracted to consider why they haven’t been aware of the adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents in their midst (and they certainly wouldn’t talk about it if they were), yet suddenly they see us everywhere they turn.
Of course, we were always there. But our existence was carefully cloaked, just as the history of adoption itself has been written, and hidden, in the shadows. Sadly, for too many generations, this wonderful and vexing process diminished nearly everyone in its embrace, even as it served their needs or transformed their lives.
I remember the moment it dawned on me that we all might be in the midst of a phenomenon bigger than just a sociological blip caused by aging, infertile baby boomers seeking alternative ways of forming families. As West Coast bureau chief for the Boston Globe,I was covering the O. J. Simpson murder trial at the time. Dozens of us reporters sat shoulder to shoulder in a small pressroom on the twelfth floor of the Los Angeles courthouse. I was typing my daily story, on deadline, when the interruption came.
“This is awful,” said Diana, a computer specialist and the only non-journalist in the room. She was standing right behind me, rustling a newspaper and pointing to a story in it. I turned around and asked what was wrong. Diana showed me the offending article. It was about the Baby Richard case, in which an Illinois man won custody of his biological son from the adoptive parents with whom the four-year-old boy had lived nearly all his life.
“Imagine how I feel,” I replied. “I have an adopted son.” (We hadn’t adopted our daughter yet.)
“Really?” said the Chicago Tribune reporter sitting at my left elbow. “I’ve got two adopted kids.”
The Time magazine correspondent to his left looked amazed. “I’ve got two adopted kids, too,” he said.
Diana, wide-eyed with disbelief, whispered: “I’m adopted.”
I was surrounded, and so are we all. Suddenly—or at least it feels sudden—adoption is being transformed from a quiet, lonely trip along America’s back roads to a bustling journey on a coast-to-coast superhighway. The infrastructure has become so extensive that it has made all of us—not just adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents—into fellow travelers. We should do all we can to make this a smooth ride.
Adam Pertman is Executive Director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, the pre-eminent research, policy and education organization in its field. Pertman – a former Pulitzer-nominated journalist – is also the author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming Our Families – and America, which has been reviewed as “the most important book ever written on the subject.” He also is the Associate Editor of the scholarly journal Adoption Quarterly. Adam appears regularly in the media and has been on programs including “Oprah,” “The View,” and “Today.” He is a member of the Council on Contemporary Families, the Editorial Advisory Board of Adoptive Families magazine, the National Adoption Advisory Committee of the Child Welfare League of America, and the Advisory Board of Orphans International Worldwide. Reprinted from the book, Adoption Nation,with permission. Copyright © 2011 by Adam Pertman.