Joan Lawrence, “The Truth Hurt Our Adopted Daughter,” 1963

In this excerpt, an adoptive mother challenged the consensus that children must always be told the truth about their adoptions. Her story suggests that it was not simply the fact of adoption that made telling problematic, but the combination of adoption and illegitimacy, still so shameful as to be literally unspeakable in the early 1960s. Few people at the time openly advocated lying to children, but a fair number of parents probably did, believing that their first and most important responsibility was to protect their children from pain. Today, parents are still expected to tell—and most surely do. But there is also much more sensitivity to the potential problems associated with adoption. It was the link between adoption difference and difficulty in her daughter’s life that prompted Joan Lawrence to question the rule that children must always be told.

“What was really wrong with me? Why did they give me away?” our eight-year-old daughter cried out one evening. My husband and I were stunned at the heartbreaking revelation. Despite our love and reassurance, our Amy was deeply troubled.

We had adopted Amy when she was just a few weeks old. By the time she was three, she had been told about this joyous event. She loved to hear us tell how we had waited and waited, how we had cried with joy when we heard the news that she would be ours, how her grandparents came racing out to the midwest from the east coast because they were too impatient to wait for us to bring her for a visit. When we talked about it, Amy would say, “Tell the part where Grandpa says, 'Oh, what a remarkable baby!'”

As she grew older, she continued to delight us. . . . But then, we began to see that something more than the ordinary problems of childhood was bothering Amy.

The story of how we got her was no longer enough. She became more concerned about her real flesh-and-blood parents. Though she seemed to have accepted our views—that real parents are the people who love and take care of you—nonetheless her thoughts turned increasingly to “the time before I was yours.” I have since learned that this kind of doubt and wondering is characteristic of adopted children at about this age.

Then Amy began to have problems in school. Her teachers told us that she lacked self-confidence, that she often looked sad and alone in the classroom. She couldn’t concentrate; she had trouble in reading, and she got behind her class in arithmetic. . . .

When she would ask us questions about what happened to her parents and why they had given her away, my husband and I continued to say what we had been saying all along—what we thought was the right thing to tell her. We said all that mattered was that Amy was ours. There must have been a good reason for her mother to give her up, but we didn’t know or care what it was. The main thing was that we loved her and she was our little girl. . . .

Actually, Amy had been given up for adoption for the most common reason—she was born out of wedlock. Naturally, we didn’t want to, and couldn’t, explain that to her. But when we said, “They gave you up for your happiness,” how could she have figured out good reasons for that? Why shouldn’t her first parents have been happy to keep her? In posing these questions, we felt a greater appreciation of our daughter’s dilemma. . . .

One night she herself brought out an album of baby pictures for us to look at together. We looked at the adorable baby she had been and it was then she cried out, “What was the matter with me? Why did they give me away?” This was what had been disturbing her. Nothing she had ever heard from us could change what to her seemed the only reason for her parents to give her up.

I was too shaken at the moment to do more than reassure her that she had been perfect in every way. Later, my husband and I. . .decided to tell Amy that her parents had died. This was the only explanation, we concluded, that her young mind could grasp. We would explain that we hadn’t told her when she was younger because she might not have understood about death. . . . When she no longer needs the concept of death to explain her adoption, we feel sure Amy will forgive our lie.

This is the story of our personal experience. Perhaps it will be of some help to other adoptive parents whose children may need the special kind of reassurance Amy did. I know there are many respected adoption agencies who maintain that it is always best for a child to be told the truth. From our own experience, however, we have learned that children often draw mistaken conclusions about truths which they are too young to understand. We have talked to many other adoptive parents and have heard similar stories. . . .

From the extreme of considering adoption an almost taboo subject, we seem to have gone to the opposite extreme of insisting that adoption is almost synonymous with natural parenthood. With the best intentions, we may have minimized the differences between natural and adoptive families to such a degree that the inevitable, special problems of adoption surprise and frighten us.

Adoption is a healthy and meaningful way to create a family. And like all worth-while endeavors it has its challenges—and satisfactions.


Source: Joan Lawrence, “The Truth Hurt Our Adopted Daughter,” Parents' Magazine and Better Homemaking, January 1963, 45, 105-106.

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
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