When Adoptees and Birth Mothers Clash

My pain trumps yours. That’s what it feels like when an adoptee hears a birth mother say she can’t be honest because it hurts her too much, that she can’t talk about it because it hurts her too much, that she can’t listen because it hurts her too much.

My pain trumps yours. I’m willing to bet that’s what it feels like when a birth mother hears an adoptee say she can’t stop asking because it hurts her too much, that she can’t keep quiet because it hurts her too much, that she can’t let it go because it hurts her too much.

Many adoptees need to know the truth of their beginning to feel whole. Not all, but many.

Many birth mothers need to never speak about what happened to feel safe. Not all, but many.

It hurts me to witness birth mothers fighting against adoptees, adoptees fighting against birth mothers, each claiming the greater pain, the greater trauma, when they were together decades earlier at the moment that altered them both forever.

We are each entitled to our pain.

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41 thoughts on “When Adoptees and Birth Mothers Clash

  1. We are, but I think there is still the expectation from adoptees: you are the older person here, you are the responsible party and it is more your job to attend to me than to attend to yourself. Maybe it isn’t, but I can see that.

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    1. Yes, that’s a good point. I do think many adoptees have that expectation that a parent will act like a parent and care about how their child is feeling.

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  2. As an adoptee I went on line and bore witness to the pain of Mothers who babies were adopted, I watched video… followed the appologies, that are going around on line reciently and read some books. I did this so I would have some idea of what my mother went through. It breaks my heart. I’m a mom so I can very well imagine the pain she experienced. I don’t need her to tell me I let her know she did nothing wrong. However I do not go to visit her because she needs to keep secrets (there is 1 more brother out there) and I will not participate in lying to the family

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  3. This is so tough–whose pain is greater? Whose pain trumps whose? There’s also that issue of secrets and lies–which should be respected? The desire for secrecy or the desire for openness?

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    1. The problem with secrecy is that it only covers the pain, it does not heal it. And, it creates new pain by forcing others into silence and denial.

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  4. It is very sad that this is even an issue. No one should compare pain like this. After my mother lost her battle with cancer, I had someone say to me that the loss of their father was more painful than my loss of my mother. This persons father had died suddenly of a heart attack. My mother died nine months after doctors found her cancer. It hurt to have someone say that to me after I’d watched my mother suffer through the surgery, chemo, pain, and finally the acknowledgement of her impending death. It was very dismissive, but it would have been just as wrong for me to tell him that the loss of my mother was greater than the loss of his father.

    I find the argument of whose pain was worse between adoptees and first parents very similar to what I just described. It isn’t right that either should claim they had the greater loss. The loss is just different and not to be compared. It’s like comparing apples to oranges.

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    1. I’m so sorry for your loss.

      I agree with you that losses should not be compared. Everyone involved in an adoption has lost something and carries pain.

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  5. Such a simple observation with myriad consequences! We have a birth, and a separation. How each mother and child come to terms with it varies immensely. Of course there is pain on both sides. No denying it. And yet some mothers seem able to accept their children and their questions, and deal with their pain as *separate* from their child. Then some mothers visit their pain on their children because looking inward is perhaps too painful for them. “If only, if only, that child would let sleeping dogs lie!” And then some adoptees, when found, are overwhelmed or angry and visit their pain on their mothers, unable to process their grief, or perhaps to discuss it openly.

    No matter what, it’s complicated.

    These conflicts will always turn to tragedy when they transform into Pain Olympics. Suffering is not a competition; there is no winner, no Laurel Crown. Who’d want such a thing?

    Trauma and damage, I believe, make it incredibly difficult for some mothers, and some adoptees, to listen to one another’s needs. Lack of communication, of empathy, of seeing each other as flawed human beings is the true tragedy of that initial, shared event you describe. Lack of ability on one or both sides to say “I’m sorry” for transgressions. Lack of ability to be accountable, both in the past and now.

    Yes, we are entitled to our pain. But what will we do with it, and what is our mettle? Shall we try not to inflict *more* pain on loved ones, while stuck in an anger vortex? Sometimes, one side just is wrong and abusive at a particular moment. Saying, “She’s in pain” isn’t a good enough excuse for what some people do.

    I see where you are, and I am there. I wonder where we go next.

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  6. A very recent comment by the Queen Bee of an organisation for mothers indicated that the view is alive and well and being promoted that adoptees think they suffer more than mothers. There is no competition, the damage of adoption is apples and pears.However adoptees suffer the loss and damage all their lives whereas mothers suffer from the time the idea of adoption appears in their teens or early adulthood.Fact.

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  7. Great post. I personally don’t think it matters who suffers more: we both suffer and not just from the relinquishment/adoption, from many other factors play into how much trauma (or lack thereof) we each endure. My first mom is not interested in my pain . . .at least she’s never asked. I don’t ask about hers either. It is a superficial relationship, one in which she feels perfectly entitled to keep my paternal heritage a secret. It’s kind of a shame but adoption separates and sometimes that relationship cannot be put back together. Kind of reminds me of Humpty Dumpty.

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  8. Karen: This is a wonderful post. For years, I blamed my birthmother for everything not right in my life; finally I accepted responsibility. There is so little to be gained by dwelling on what happened in the past. And yet, it is human to “keep score,” to compare pain, to want life to be fair. Right now, as an adult adoptee at the grandmother stage of life, I’m trying to help an adult son get his life together. It seems to be a losing battle and I’m burdened by a sense of failure. My birthmother couldn’t be there for me and now, though I’m trying desperately, I’m not able to financially help my adult son re-launch his life. The cycle seems never to end. I’m taking a philosophical approach, that we come into this life to learn lessons, that every problem is an opportunity. Some days this works for me; at other times it feels like treading water. Hearing the struggles of other adoptees gives me strength. Thank you for providing a gathering spot for us to support one another.

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    1. Hi Elaine, I’m so glad to see your comment here. Yes, at some point we must own our lives and make them what we want them to be, regardless of external opinions. I’m sorry to hear your son is struggling. I know how difficult it is to not be able help as much as we want to. I hope he will find his way, and I wish you peace.

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  9. This is a very good point. As a birth mother myself, with an open adoption with my birth son, we have discussed all these issues while he is growing up. And his parents do not speak for me. They allow me to explain to him in my words. However, I do know that for some birth mothers, it may have been rape or incest that caused the pregnancy by their father, uncle or fill in the blank ____ . So for these women, they were young and very afraid. They do not want to relive this trauma. If this WAS the case, I do believe that the birth mother’s pain trumps. She was raped or sexually abused, she was most likely shamed by family and the adoption home for unwed mothers because she could not tell the truth and then, even though it may not have been under good circumstances, she still had to grieve the loss of a child she carried in her womb. And now, many years later, she probably still holds on to that pain, and maybe, just maybe, she wants to spare her offspring of knowing the truth for fear that it may cause more emotional trauma. But to the birth mothers, my suggestion is to release it. The truth will set you free. Our society has done a disjustice to our women (especially birth women), while allowing the birth dads to walk away freely without accountibility. We should start focusing more on “why did my birth parents” instead of “why did my birth mother”.

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    1. I do understand why some women would not want to relive the trauma they experienced. However, I also know from an adoptee perspective how lost one feels when she doesn’t know where she comes from. There is pain on both sides. How can we measure this pain? I don’t think we can. I don’t think it’s fair to assume that one is greater than the other. I also don’t think it’s fair for one adult to withhold facts about another adult from that person, for any reason. Knowing the truth, no matter how awful it may be, is better than the agony of wondering and not having answers. Once the truth is known, we can begin to move forward rather than being trapped always looking back.

      The idea that birth fathers have been allowed to “walk away freely without accountability” is also a dangerous one, because it assumes all situations are the same and they are not. Many birth fathers do want to know their children. Many birth fathers would have raised their children if they had only been given the chance. Fathers are routinely denied their rights, even today.

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      1. I do agree that we cannot measure one over the other’s pain. And yes, the truth is always best. As for “many” birth fathers would have raised their children is an uneducated assumption. It is closer to “some” rather than “many”. The truth is “many” fathers walk away, thus causing the women to chose abortion, single parenting or adoption. For me, the father of my birth son gave me money to have an abortion. After I decided to not proceed with that choice, I decided to place him for adoption. Then when the adoption agency sent him papers, he refused to sign them before our child was born. I called him from the hospital to let him know our child was born, hoping we would say, I’ve changed my mind, let’s raise our child but he didn’t. So I signed the papers a few days later. I have a wonderful open relationship with my birth son. However, now his birth father’s says he didn’t agree to let his son be adopted and says he never signed any paperwork. So the truth becomes tainted. I know the truth. We have more single parent mother households then single parent father households. Some people want to make hero’s out of father’s who take responsibility. Why should we make a hero out of someone who is supposed to be doing a job. A child requires parents. Preferrably two. Adoption effects so many involved. And many times, everyone is telling an expecting mother what she should or should not do. And if she is young, all these voices can influence her decision greatly. Again, everyone’s pain matters. Every voice should be heard. Every story should be told. Every truth should be known.

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      2. I’m not following how my assertion about birth fathers is an “uneducated assumption” but yours that “it is closer to ‘some’ than ‘many’ is not? If you have statistical data on this, please share it. 🙂

        Fact: Fathers “walking away” do not force women to have abortions or to relinquish their children for adoption. The women themselves make these decisions.

        That’s not to say that women do not feel pressured to make decisions they may later regret. I do agree with you that too many young women are wrongly influenced against raising their own children.

        I’m also not following your logic regarding your son’s father. You say he refused to sign papers agreeing to the adoption, then you imply that he’s not telling the truth about not wanting his son to be relinquished. It seems to me that if he didn’t sign the papers, he truly did not consent to the adoption.

        There are many times when a father’s rights are not considered. Women choose to not tell men they have even fathered a child. Women choose to abort children over fathers’ objections. Women choose to relinquish children for adoption over fathers’ objections.

        I can tell you that if I couldn’t be raised by my birth mother, I would have rather been raised by my birth father than by adoptive parent strangers. The two parents vs. one parent issue is irrelevant to me.

        These are my perceptions and opinions based on my own life experience.

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    2. I too was raped many different times many different men, in large part because of the holes in my by adoption so I understand tthe mothers pain of being raped. And I disagree that mothers of origin get precedence because of their experience. I wish my mother had continued with therapy and reached some point of resolution.

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  10. The pain of one never trumps that of another, whatever the circumstances. Pain is pain, suffering is suffering. While we continue to believe its ok not to tell the truth and that adult adoptees don’t deserve the truth, adoption will be the mess it is. If a mother has conceived through rape or incest and finds it too painful to tell, let another do it who can. Adoptees must be given the opportunity to process the truth about themselves however painful and difficult.We are adults not childtren to be protected from the hard facts of life.

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  11. First let me apologize for stating uneducated guess. That sounded derogatory which was in no way intended to say to you that you are uneducated. I’m truly sorry.

    Here is some information that I found:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_parent

    And just to clarify on my story. It went like this:
    Birth Mom: I’m pregnant.
    Birth Dad: I don’t want anymore kids.
    Birth Mom: Maybe I will raise him myself.
    Birth Dad: You need to have an abortion.
    Birth Mom: If you want me to have an abortion, you pay for it.
    Birth Dad: Here is the $400.00 for the abortion.
    Birth Mom: Made appointment.
    Birth Mom: Cancelled apointment day of
    Birth Dad: Are you still pregnant?
    Birth Mom: yes, I’ve decided to place him for adoption.
    Birth Dad: Okay.
    Birth Mom: Hi, our baby was born last night. If you want to come up and see us, we will be here for another day.

    No visit from birth dad, no call from birth dad.

    I brought my son home with me and then agreed to sign the papers two days later.

    We have created a society that does not hold men and women to the same level of accountibility and it is just not fair.

    I hope you find all the answers you need that brings you peace. You deserve it.

    And just for the record, I was born out of wedlock in 1963. My mom had two choices. Raise me or place me? She did raise me. However, my life was filled with shame and tormoil and I was the only child of my mother’s five kids who was born out of wedlock and the only one who didn’t carry my father’s last name. My step father hated me. My biological father was sentenced to life in prison when I was four. So even when our birth parents choose to raise us, life doesn’t always turn out for the best. But by the grace of God, I’m still standing.

    Wishing you everything your heart desires.

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    1. I agree with you that being raised by our birth parents does not guarantee an easy life, but neither does being raised by adoptive parents. There are many examples of both positive and negative outcomes either way.

      I also wish you peace.

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  12. I read this and can relate. Troubling for me as a birth mother is how my daughter holds on to her need to blame me for so much pain in her life. We have been in reunion for over 20 years and she continues to be self destructive and when things fall apart it is me who she blames for the pain that began with her conception. How can a loving relationship exist midst with such an insatiable need to pin all poor choices on adoption?

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    1. Ominone, thanks for reading and commenting. It’s impossible for me to comment on what may or may not be going on in your relationship with your daughter, however I will say that it’s difficult for those who aren’t adopted to understand how adoption permeates every aspect of our lives. It’s not simply a one-time event that took place when we were children. We will never not be adopted.

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      1. I have read a great deal on the subject of adoption trauma and have attended many conferences and workshops to further my understanding. I truly feel I am as aware as a person who has not actually experienced adoption can be. Being a birth mother has its own enduring pain that is not generally understood – I do get it that one cannot “know” without walking the walk. That said, when an adult child has been told hundreds of times how sorry her bmom is for the trauma she has suffered… When that birthmother has given over and over and over again to try to mitigate the damage..When that child has also attended dozens of conferences and workshops on adoption issues for all members of the triad…when the child is highly intelligent and has been in therapy for years….when does it become something else that causes her at age 45 to blame her birth mother for all the pain in her life since conception… When does she cease to blame all of the terrible choices she has made on being adopted? When does she stop punishing behaviors that are cruel? When does she take any responsibility for her own actions? I am deeply troubled when people use adoption or any other trauma as the excuse for their unwillingness to grow… Just saying, this movement can cause unintentional harm to the adoptee and others in her life if it is leaned on too greatly.

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      2. For many years, I blamed my birthmother for everything that was wrong or had been disappointing in my life. It was only when I accepted responsibility entirely (blaming neither nature nor nurture) that I could start living a more authentic life. Reading my old angst-filled diaries (40 years’ worth) and turning them into the book The GoodbyeBaby-A Diary about Adoption: That experience helped me realize that what happened was over and it could not be undone. I’d finally become strong enough and insightful enough to “keep the best (of the past) and ditch the rest.”

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      3. I have a better understanding now of where you’re coming from. First, I think it’s wonderful that you have spent so much time learning about and trying to understand your daughter’s viewpoint. I truly hope that she has done the same for you–I know from my own experience with my birth mom how difficult it is for us to see the each other’s side sometimes. In fact, I feel as if my birth mom and I are the reverse of your situation. I’m much farther along the path of healing than my birth mom is, and it’s just as frustrating for me to deal with the consequences of her being stuck in her own pain and grief as I’m sure it is for you to deal with your daughter’s behavior. One thing I’d like to say is, remember that you can only control your own actions and reactions. I hear that you want to be able to “mitigate the damage” but in reality, you can’t. The damage has already been done, and there is no way to undo it. Each of us is on our own journey of healing, and for some it will take longer than for others. Unfortunately, some people do get stuck at a certain point and are unable to move forward. I can’t make my birth mom process her pain and grief any faster, nor can you hurry your daughter through her own process. Unfortunately, I have had to set boundaries with my birth mom in order to not be continually hurt by her words and actions. You may need to do the same if your daughter is behaving cruelly toward you.

        As far as the adoptee viewpoint, I’ll tell you where I stand at the moment, and maybe it will help in some way. I don’t use the word “blame,” but I do recognize that my being adopted is the root cause of many bad choices I’ve made in my life. I feel that because I grew up without any genetic mirroring and because I ended up in a family with very different personalities than mine, I ended up having very low self-esteem. I began from a very early age trying to please everyone around me so that I would fit in with them and they would like me. This meant I hid my true nature from just about everyone. When I became an adult, the result was that I struggled forming meaningful relationships and I also chose a career and lifestyle that did not suit me. In my late twenties, I had a near breakdown and luckily ended up seeing a psychologist who set me out on the right path. I’m 44 now, and I’m still working to get everything in my life on track. I’ve gone through periods of anger, depression, and grief. I feel like I’m finally coming out of it now. I finally feel like I’m becoming a strong, self-confident person, who knows who she is and won’t compromise in unhealthy ways. It has taken a very long time and I’m still not done healing. And I know, too, that no matter how healed I am, the pain and grief will always be there, and may still be triggered in the future. I’ve accepted that this is my life and I try not to get caught up in imagining what could have been anymore, because that thinking will suck me back into the grief. But it has been very, very difficult. I want to say also that, even though I recognize my being adopted is a major factor in how my life has gone, I’ve never felt anger toward my birth mom nor have I blamed her–however, all adoptees do not feel the same way. Each individual and circumstance is unique, although there are certainly commonalities.

        I’m not a therapist or adoption professional in any capacity, so I can’t really give you advice per se. I’m just one adoptee trying to come to peace with my own situation and trying to advocate for other adoptees and our collective well being. I’m not sure what you mean by “this movement” that you say may cause harm to the adoptee. There certainly are movements to reform the institution of adoption and to restore adoptee’s rights to their own birth information, and I do support those initiatives. But when we speak about our pain and grief, that is not a movement–that is the expression of what we deal with and try to work through on a regular basis.

        I am glad that we’re having this conversation, and I do hope it helps in some way.

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      4. Thanks for suggesting the book Elaine – I can see that is available from Amazon so I will definitely order it and add to my knowledge, your experience.

        By “movement” I am not talking about adoption reform, or open records – I am a strong advocate for both. I am talking about looking at one’s adoption as the focal point for all the problems an adoptee has – I feel it is a reductionist theory and may cause many adoptees to overlook many other root causes of the problems in their lives. We all know many many people who have troubled lives and are not adopted. They struggle to understand why they have low self-esteem and self destructive behaviors in the absence of adoption. Is it not entirely possible that many problems are pinned on adoption that are actually caused by another trauma in her life or due to an undiagnosed mental illness such as borderline personality disorder?

        It is important to recognize that adoption causes trauma. I can see that… But I also think there is much more to it…perhaps they inherit a genetic predisposition to depression? Instead of calling it that, it is pinned on adoption. Depression caused by brain chemistry disfunction can wreak havoc in lives of the adopted and home raised alike. My therapist reminded me that much of social science is theory and there is a lot of hurt caused by reductionist theory. As an example he said for decades the theory stood that cold and detached mothers were the cause of autism! How horrible for those mothers! I feel we have to be very very careful about this – awareness of and sensitivity to the issues a child experiences and the lifelong feelings caused by the experience of adoption is very important primarily because we can validate the feelings and get support for our loved one when they recur- but I fear that other very real issues are being mislabeled adoption syndrome – Somehow the notion that one can never be “not adopted” frees some adoptees to sink into victim hood rather than look for other explanations for their self-destructive behaviors and more importantly, to see that they are not consigned to this terrible place forever by virtue of something that cannot be undone.

        Thanks for at least considering another perspective.

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      5. I do agree with you that every person must take responsibility for his/her own life in order to find peace and fulfillment, no matter the circumstances. And certainly, for adoptees as for anyone else, there may be other things going on that contribute to whatever struggles a person is going through. For example, I believe that I do likely have a genetic predisposition for depression. However, that does not preclude the role of adoption in shaping my life, although I do think that my personality is such that I interpret my life one way, whereas another adoptee’s personality may lead her to interpret her life in an entirely different way. We are all influenced by our biology as well as by our environment. I agree with you there.

        I find myself bristling at some of what you’ve said here, though, mostly because these theories and diagnoses are coming from people external to the experience of being adopted. Of course, if there is real illness involved, it should be treated. But beyond that, I think it’s most important to listen to the adopted person herself, to hear how she interprets her own life experience, rather than trying to assign responsibility to one thing or another on her behalf. I didn’t come to the conclusions I have about my own life because of any therapist’s opinion or any book’s hypothesis or any group’s persuasion. I examined my own life over the course of many years and methods, including talking with others and writing about my experiences. I never even talked about adoption with the therapist I saw, only about my issues with relationships and self-esteem. I wish now that I had talked to him about being adopted, though, because I think he probably would have been an even greater help to me if he had known my whole background and how I felt about it. That’s the key, I think, how an adoptee feels about her own adoption. There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer, and there is not a right or wrong way for an adoptee to feel or think about her adoption.

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  13. HI,i have an adopted sister that i have been trying to trace for over 30 yrs.Its hard knowing that she can contact me if & when she feels like it but i cant contact her ! I feel that there is a big part of my life missing,i was brought up an only child.I shall never give up my search .Have left letters with the adoption society that she was adopted thru. Dont think theres much else.I just wait & hope that one day she will get in touch.

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  14. Thank you for this. I feel the same way. I love what my very good friend and fellow birthmother said one time when talking about adoptees coming into our adoption search support group meetings saying, “My parents would die if they knew I was here.” She very calmly assures them that nobody has ever died from this, and nobody has ever died from the truth. That helped me so much, and it’s absolutely true!

    Your truth is just that: Yours. And you’ve every right to it.

    I think the thing I hate the most is indulging in my own pain, but it can’t be helped. But you know what? I really couldn’t even start to acknowledge and deal with my own pain until I started listening to adoptees, and the pain they experience and have to work around. That’s when it hit me, ‘Oh crap! Oh, Lord! What have I done?’ And that, really, was the catalyst that allowed me to begin to process my pain – which is no more but certainly no less valid and real than the pain, the trauma, and the damage that adoption brings to all of us whose lives have been impacted by it.

    I welcome you and others sharing your pain. I NEED for you to share it – even if I have to wince through it. Your birthmother needs it too, whether she thinks she can handle it or not.

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    1. Thank you. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your comment. I agree–all of us affected by adoption should be free to express our feelings about it, and validating one person’s experience does not invalidate another’s. I have also learned a lot about my own adoption by hearing the viewpoints of all of my parents, as well as by listening to the stories of other adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents. We are all in this together.

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      1. Yes. We definitely are all in this together. And discovering this, I hope it’s okay to say, is really the only thing thus far that I’ve been able to find to redeem this whole reality of living my part of the adoption triad every single day. And everyone I encounter who is willing to speak up and willing to work for change helps give me strength to keep digging and looking for a way out for present and future generations who are at risk of being the next potential casualties.

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