On Being Adoptee, Part 1: "On Adoption As Trauma"


Editor's Note: Coinciding with Multi's Compass: Navigating Multiness Conference,"On Being Adoptee" is a three-part series dedicated to bringing light to the experiences of transracial adoptees at Swarthmore, and around the world. Part 2 can be accessed here. Part 3 can be accessed here


A Preface to the Series “On Being Adoptee”

As three seniors preparing to graduate we want to give testament to our experiences as transracial adoptees at Swarthmore, and in the world. We write for ourselves and for our fellow adoptees. We write to bring to the forefront of Swarthmore’s collective imaginary the importance and reality of our mixed race experiences. Together we bring Chinese and Guatemalan heritage, calling Delaware, Connecticut and Massachusetts home. We are Italian, Scottish, Hungarian, Jewish, German, Irish, Catholic, Lithuanian, and “American.” We have gone to private and public schools, we have traveled the world; we are athlete, poet, photographer, dancer, actor, artist. We study science, humanities, and social science. We are queer, we are womxn, we are man. We are not quite all, but we are multitudes. We are adoptees.


Our stories have something to offer to commonly accepted understandings of race, ethnicity, nationality, and the family. In our lives the nuances, complexities and confusion of race are revealed. Notice how our stories intersect, overlap, and diverge.We intentionally seek to bring a critical lens to international adoption, interrogating the relationships between domestic and international adoption, kinship, capitalism, and historical heteropatriarchal forces among others. Hear how we bring in the personal, the political and learn from us. We hope to renegotiate and critique the meaning of “White” or “Person/Womxn of Color.” In telling our own stories we provide perspectives that are knowingly controversial and often unheard. From the vulnerabilities of ourselves we want to call forward a reflexivity from you, reading this, to question the more general power of origin myth, of family cultivation and recognize universal processes of identity construction. We present you with three perspectives on transracial adoption, specifically choosing not to produce a singular publication. The purpose of these pieces is for you to listen. These are pieces of ourselves, to be understood in conversation with each other, but to remain respected on their own.

We want this to be a start, an opening into a conversation we’ve been having amongst ourselves for the past four years. Understand that we don’t come to this publication lightly. We ground ourselves in intention using this as a starting point to further collect and cultivate a better Swarthmore on the forefront of including, validating, voicing and exploring the transracial adoptee experience all too often forgotten, erased or pathologized in the monoracial fabric of our lives.


Part 1

On Adoption as Trauma

The above painting, created by Meghan Kelly, depicts her own adoption narrative.

The above painting, created by Meghan Kelly, depicts her own adoption narrative.

by Meghan Kelly 

*The names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of the people in it.


I’m scrolling through the Facebook page, “Is Adoption Trauma?,” and I see that someone has posted the following:

            Dear Birthmother,

We are more equipped to raise your baby than you are. We have more money and more love to give. You can fill a hole in our lives by ripping one in your heart. And you will do it because you are desperate. You are a pawn on our chess board, and you do not matter.

            The Parents Your Child Deserves

While this post seems on one hand simplistic and generalized, I cannot help but see the truth in it. As much as my (adoptive) parents love me -- and believe me, they love me immensely and I love them immensely -- they participated in this narrative. My parents, especially my mother, used to tell me half-jokingly, half-seriously, that if I were not adopted, I would have been working in the rice paddies in China. Or at age 10 I might have been one of the nurses my mother saw caring for orphaned babies like me at my orphanage. But I was told that in being adopted, I was saved; I was given a new life that my birth mother could not give me. I did not have the language to interpret this narrative years ago, but I know now that the white savior complex most certainly plays a role in adoption, particularly the adoption of people like me, who were seen as innocent Chinese baby girls, supposedly thrown away by China’s One-Child Policy and cultural preference for sons.

I was told, in an ironic twist of the excerpt above, that my birth mother cared for me deeply, but had to give me up, and thankfully my adoptive mother was there to hold me and care for me. I was told this as I woke up every morning and stared at a poem hanging up in my room, called The Legacy of an Adopted Child, which expresses beauty in the birth mother-adoptive mother relationship. I never would ask about my birth mother, for fear of insulting my adoptive mother, and even now I hesitate. But it’s been 21 years and sometimes I wonder about my birth mother. Why did she give me up? What were the circumstances surrounding my birth? What trauma did my birth mother experience?

As an adoptee, I have lost my connection to my birth mother and my birth father -- though, in my head, I think particularly about my birth mother, the one who carried me in her womb for 9 months. The only connection I have with this other human being who gave me life is my belly button -- a true birthmark serving as evidence of the fact that I was born to a womxn whom I never knew. My belly button is a visible reminder of the umbilical cord that vitally connected me to her -- before it was severed and the red thread of our interwoven histories was broken.

The body knows what the mind does not, and even though my mind knows that I am safe, that I was adopted, that I was and have been and will be granted privileges as an adoptee that those left behind in the orphanage may never receive, my body still knows that something was lost that first birth-day. My body knows that within a span of 15 minutes, I was chosen out of 4 babies to be adopted, and that in that same short window of time, I could have been unchosen. Perhaps even now, I may be unchosen. Not necessarily by my adoptive parents -- I think their love for me is boundless -- but the fear of not being enough, of not deserving another chance at life, still lies somewhere in the dark recesses of my brain.

And I now see the potential for these painful narratives to be reincarnated for my three-year-old adopted cousin, Yue Mei from Taiwan. When her mother, Felicia, was in the throes of complex adoption paperwork, she told me that the agency said Yue Mei’s mother wasn’t fit to be a mother, and Felicia suspected the mother may have been a prostitute. I saw again the stripping of personhood and agency from Yue Mei’s birth mother that I saw from my own.

And when Yue Mei’s adoption process stalled and I mentioned to my aunt that I might like to study adoption, she told me that I should study why it was taking so long for a caring, loving womxn like Felicia to “get” a daughter. In other words, I was being asked why it was taking so long for Felicia, the “deserving” parent, to rip Yue Mei from the “backwardness” of whatever Taiwanese future she otherwise would have had. This kind of discussion, with its prioritization of predominantly White, wealthy, Western desires, combined with its sexualized commodification of the Asian female adoptee, makes me recoil from adoption processes. I used to think that I would adopt a child when I got older, to “save” someone just as I had been “saved,” but now I am not so sure. What I am sure of, though, is the need for the centering of adoptee narratives, rather than the centering of adoptive parent narratives.

Don’t get me wrong; I love my parents. But I am more than their stories. I am the Meghan they know and the Meghan they never knew, the one whose home was an orphanage for four months. To me it still seems a bit strange to claim that I carry trauma as an adoptee, but the more I consider my personal history and the ways it affects my daily interactions, the more I think that I can claim trauma as much as my parents claim me as their daughter.