“It is so often framed as a “reproductive choice,” but I think it’s better understood as an expression of resourcelessness and constraint.”

By Rebecca CarrollFebruary 29, 202413 Minutes

America loves an adoption story. It’s got all the feel-good elements we love to romanticize: A baby is born to parents unable to care for it, a hopeful family is given the gift of an unwanted child, and everyone lives happily ever after. But the truth, many experts say, is that the institution of private adoption in America is mired in dysfunction, exploitative practices, and systemic inequities—and in far too many cases, almost no one lives happily ever after. 

This dysfunction is what interests Dr. Gretchen Sisson, a qualitative sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of a new book called Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood. Through over a hundred interviews with American mothers who placed their children for adoption between 2000 and 2020, Sisson’s book aims to debunk myths around an institution I’ve thought a lot about myself: As a transracial adoptee whose memoir, Surviving the White Gaze, is cited in Sisson’s book, I was eager to sit down to talk with her about the politics of adoption. And so, an adult Black woman transracial adoptee meets a white woman sociologist on Zoom. Here’s what happened. 

Rebecca Carroll: You chose to interrogate the institution of adoption through the experiences of birthmothers—why? 

Gretchen Sisson: The question that brought me to the work in the first place was understanding how women end up choosing adoption. “Choosing” is a loaded term, but how they end up on the path to relinquishing their children, and what the circumstances are around that. 

And what were your main findings?

I think the two most important takeaways are, first, that adoption does not offer any meaningful alternative to abortion access. Not only are people who need abortions generally uninterested in adoption, but people who relinquished for adoption usually wanted to parent their children. Adoption is so often framed as a “reproductive choice,” but I think it’s better understood as an expression of resourcelessness and constraint. Rather than an “empowered option,” it is often a reflection of a lack of power. And, second: that adoption generally does not serve relinquishing mothers well. The grief, trauma, and disconnection of adoption belie the idea that it is unambiguously “beautiful”—and nearly all mothers came to a place of critique and cynicism that acknowledged this, with many carrying complex feelings around regret and loss.

You write in the book about how, in popular culture, birthmothers are generally portrayed as either happily moving on or becoming pathologically dangerous. Were there depictions that birthmothers you spoke with felt accurately reflected their experience?

Many of the mothers were drawn to The Handmaid’s Tale. The entire history of Handmaid’s Tale is very complicated, and I don’t want to gloss over that, but that [book] resonated most for them. That one, this extractive child-taking was acknowledged as a loss within the context of the show. And two, that the forces that were separating [birthmothers from their children] were driven by these regressive, religious, racialized, patriarchal ideas. 

There is a real dearth of stories told from the perspective of adoptees, and so I’m curious to know how and when you chose to include insights from adoptees in a text centered on birthmothers.

The place where I draw the most heavily on the words and work of adopted people is where I’m talking about transracial adoption. And that’s because the white birthmothers of biracial children that I interviewed had so little sense of what their children were going to need as people of color. I needed to account for the fact that I was only telling part of this story. Sometimes, we’d get halfway through the interview, and I’d ask, “Is your child white? Is your child biracial?” And they would say, “Oh, yeah. He is half Latino, but he looks white, so it doesn’t matter.” 

The birthmothers you interviewed for the book are primarily white. Was that a specific choice?

My 2010 sample was almost entirely white women because when you look back at the last set of good data from the ’90s, the people who [were] participating in private adoption systems were white women. There were virtually no Black or Latino women participating in the private adoption system at that timewhich doesn’t mean that they were protected from family separation. Their families were just being separated within foster care and family policing systems. But [as of 2020], we’re seeing far more participation from women of color, and particularly Black women, in the private system than 20 years ago.

Did you discover any glaring differences in feelings around the choice to relinquish between Black women or women of color and white women?

Mothers of color who were relinquishing, particularly Black mothers, thought about race very deeply. They would say they weren’t going to relinquish their child unless they could find Black adoptive parents [and] if they couldn’t find Black adoptive parents, they would need to make other concessions. So it might be, “Well, at least these white adoptive parents have already adopted a Black child, so he is not going to be the only Black child in the household.” 

One story I share in the book is about a woman who was a transracial adoptee herself from Central America, so she’s a Latina. She was raised by white parents. She had a daughter whose birth father was Latino and she ended up placing her daughter with a Southeast Asian, Indian-American family because those were the only non-white parents that the agency offered her. And so, she thought, “This is still a transracial, trans-ethnic adoption, but at least she’s not with white people.”

When it comes to Black children in white homes, it’s white folks choosing the standard of everything—beauty, education, food, acceptable behavior. Were you able to have that conversation with any of the white birthmothers who had relinquished children of color?

When I did follow-up interviews, they were much more aware of it because they’re mostly in open adoptions, and their relationship with their child made them have to be more aware of it. Were they particularly attuned to the extent to which the entire system of adoption is predicated on a racialized idea of family? No. A few of them did, but that was not the norm. There was one mother whose child was Black/white biracial, and she wanted a biracial couple to adopt and couldn’t find one. So she chose a gay couple that lived in New York City. That was her concession, but she was like, “I still feel like I failed him. I wish I could go back and talk to my younger self and be like, ‘No. Don’t give up. Don’t accept this from the agency. Go to a different agency. Fight harder for this.’”

And how do you think celebrities have played a role in marketing transracial adoption?

I think that’s huge. You see Madonna and Angelina Jolie with their well-publicized transracial adoptions in the early 2000s. I think those narratives are important: Yes, we can love people who don’t look like us. [But] it entrenches this idea of transracial adoption as a symbol of progress that wasn’t attuned to what adopted people needed. And it sold the idea of adoption as white saviorism—that the way we’re going to take care of African children is by extracting them from their countries and bringing them here, rather than focusing [freeing these countries] from the conflicts and economic and geopolitical instabilities that drive the exporting of children

Angelina Jolie with some of her children. (L-R) Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, Zahara Jolie-Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, Maddox Jolie-Pitt and Knox Jolie-Pitt. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)

How do you think we got from white folks saying, “Let’s go to Africa and steal Black folks and make them slaves,” to white folks saying, “Let’s go to Africa and buy Black folks and make them our children”? 

I talk about enslaved mothers as relinquishing mothers, and I think their closest corollary and counterpart in modern society are mothers who lose children within the systems of family separation. Because I view child welfare and family policing as a system that is about punishment in a way, similar to what Black women have always faced in the United States. The common thread for me is that we don’t recognize any value in preserving Black families. 

As an adoptee, reading your book was a lot. And I wonder, even in the best-case scenario, is it an institution that we should uphold?

I do talk about people who take a reform approach to adoption, who want to explore the idea of ethical adoption. There are policy proposals out there to change the marketing of adoption. I think that there is value there. I’m glad that there are people working in that space. 

What is ethical adoption? Is that a thing?

As I mention in the book, there are aggressive marketing tactics being used towards vulnerable pregnant people to sell adoption to them. There are unscrupulous players trying to insert themselves into a system purely for making a profit, and regulating that is ethical. But are we reforming the system to make it actually serve people? Or are we reforming the system so that we feel better about it, but it’s still deeply harmful? What’s more exciting to me is thinking about what family preservation looks like. And that’s not just about policies that support families and provide a meaningful social safety net, but it’s about [questioning] the idea that the only way to support and care for children is within these legalized parenting relationships. What advocates are arguing for is a more expansive idea of how we provide care for families and children outside of the legal transfer of parental rights.