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ARC • The Adoption Reader, ed. Susan Wadia-Ells

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

I shouldn’t read reviews of a book before I read the book, because when I do, I end up reading the book in light of whatever criticism I’ve just seen. I know I shouldn’t do this, but I do it anyway. Sometimes this isn’t a terrible thing, giving me specific issues to look for and think about as I read; more often, I find myself thinking, I don’t know why that reviewer thought X; I don’t see it that way at all.

This is one of those books.

The first review I saw on Goodreads—written by a hopeful adoptive mother—characterized it as “not one of the better adoption books” and then painted each section with broad strokes: the first mother stories were “pretty dated”; the adoptee stories were “bitter.” And as I read the book, I kept thinking this reviewer and I couldn’t possibly have read the same book.

It’s true that the first mothers primarily wrote about pregnancies and placements that happened decades ago—long before I was born— and “babies” who are, in many cases, nearly my parents’ age. I don’t know that this dates their stories, though. The experience of being a first mother, I imagine, is simultaneously universal and unique; any story written (or told) by any first mother about her experience will at the same time be one to which every first mother can relate and one to which no other first mother can relate.

I imagine many readers—or at least readers on my side of the triad, or those with no personal connection to adoption—would see the stories as dated in the sense that we no longer live in a society that forces women to hide their pregnancies, to go away, to give birth in secret, to relinquish their babies and then to return to normal life, never looking back. And it’s true—“We don’t do things that way anymore!”—but…still, we live in a society that, while it pays a great deal of lip service to autonomy and choice, far too easily operates under the assumption that the “best” choice for a young woman facing an unplanned pregnancy—especially if she is single and almost certainly if she is also poor and/or uneducated—is adoption. As a society, we may no longer shame women into hiding their pregnancies, going away, and giving birth in secret, but we do still subtly push women in the direction of adoption; in this way the choice is still not entirely free and autonomous.


I confess to being more interested in the first mother and adoptee stories in this book than I was in the adoptive mother stories. Perhaps it’s because I know that my experience is my own—similar to that of every other adoptive mother, yes, but also unique in my approach to that experience—that I don’t feel the same need to try to understand the experiences of other adoptive mothers the way I am compelled to try to understand the experiences of first mothers and of adoptees.

Of course, each first mother’s experience and each adoptee’s experience is also uniquely her own; there is no “typical” experience that can be deconstructed for greater understanding. But at the same time—just as with the adoptive mother experience—there are parts of those experiences that are universal, and some understanding can be gleaned from those universal experiences, and maybe that is what I am looking for in reading them.

Maybe I’m just looking for women who aren’t much different from me, but for our individual perspectives in this experience. Strangely—or perhaps not so strangely—I found this more often in the stories of first mothers and adoptees than I did in the stories of adoptive mothers. This is the one point on which I agreed with the Goodreads reviewer—I found I didn’t relate as well to the adoptive mothers featured here, not necessarily for the reasons she highlighted, but their stories felt foreign to me just the same.


My single complaint about this book is the unequal representation of the three broad perspectives: Thirteen essays are written by adoptive mothers, and nine each are written by first mothers and adoptees. I guess this isn’t a tremendous difference, but our experience is the one most often highlighted in popular culture, it was disappointing to see that inequality reflected here. The quality of the essays included, though, and the diversity of experience and the depth of feeling—the whole spectrum of feeling that comprises the reality of adoption, not just the shiny happy feelings illustrated on Web sites and brochures—chronicled here make this collection well worth reading.

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