Martha Vansant, “The Life of the Adopted Child,— 1933

Adoption narratives written by adoptees themselves were rare during the first half of the twentieth century. In this report, the author informally surveyed nine acquaintances who had also been adopted around 1900. Her stories of success and failure reinforced the professional consensus about telling. The anecdotes about adoptees who never were told, and turned out badly as a result, suggested that a fair number of adoptive parents kept the fact of adoption secret for a very long time, or even forever.

Roger and Mary and Jack, Alice and Harold, Hermione, Jane, the sisters Marie and Monica, and I myself were all children together—children who started out in life inauspiciously, who were gathered up by society and redistributed among those who wanted us instead of being left with those who didn’t. Where are we today? . . .

One or two of us are doing credit enough to our families, notably the gay and pretty Alice, and Roger, who fitted into a family of “real” children with surprising success. Several others, particularly the sisters and Jack, are making their own way in the world, and so am I; though our parents are not particularly impressed over the means we have chosen. But Mary, through no fault of her own, is an anxious and unhappy person, Harold is almost the stock example of a failure and a drifter, Jane is a flourishing prostitute, and Hermione is dead.
What was the matter with us, anyway? . . .

Some time ago I inquired of several adoption agencies whether they had any information on the adult lives of the children they had placed; and as none had any real material on the subject I determined to find out what I could for myself, by looking up the histories of the adopted children I had known. I wanted to discover how much the fact of adoption had to do with the adult success or failure of each one. I could only conclude, from what I found out, that it had almost everything to do with it. . . .

The danger that threatens an adopted child is not his uncertain heredity, his obscure background or doubtful legitimacy, but the fact that his foster-parents take him ready-made, and then expect him to grow and evolve according to specifications which they set down as definitely as they select his sex or the color of his hair. When in any way he disappoints them, the trouble begins. . . .

Jane. . .was five years old at the time of her adoption, and she was taken by neighbors of my family, so that I saw her many times. . . . Jane had brains, good looks, and a way with her which won over governesses and tutors, who were inclined to spoil her. Her parents on the other hand were strict, as they had determined to make her into an impossible creature, gay but sedate, lively but content to keep her liveliness exclusively for them.

Jane came to adolescence very early, and began to run around with boys in a perfectly natural fashion. . . . Adopted children, with their uncertain parentage, were notably immoral of course, so Jane was warned, scolded, and beaten for doing what other girls of her age were allowed to do.

One day, when she was tired of so much opposition, and protested more than usual about being kept from the amusements that others enjoyed, the parents’ patience gave out and they told her that she was not behaving as a child of theirs, and indeed was none, but the true daughter of her mother, who had never been married. This was meant as a moral lesson, but it was such a shock to Jane that it resulted in her running away. . . . Her career as a prostitute had begun, and the family cast her off. . . .

I have never understood why people supposed that a child would not love them or be devoted to them if it knew it was not their own. I really believe this idea is caused by the latent fear on their part that they may not love the strange child. They transfer the doubt over to the child, and suppose he will not love anyone to whom he does not belong by blood.

In my own case, I never thought for a moment that I was the child of those who brought me up; and yet I loved them devotedly, as least as much as their own children love them. They had the sense to tell me about my real origin so early that I took it quite for granted, and never felt that there was anything odd about my situation. I knew that both of my real parents had been related to my foster-parents, and that the latter had disliked my father and been devoted to my mother. The qualifies of both were talked about so much in my presence that I soon learned the reasons for their feelings, and also discovered why I had been taken into the new family.

It was not from love but from a sense of duty. The more I happened to resemble my mother, the more comfortable life became for me; and the more I indulged in any of the interests of my father, the more difficult it became, so that quite naturally I fell into the habit of suppressing whatever in me was like my father, even to his hobbies and his taste in colors or in things to eat, and making the most of whatever endowments I had from my mother. . . .

I grew up among several sisters and brothers who were “real” children of the family, and who were, it is true, better treated than I was. But at least I knew why, and with a child’s lurid imagination I pictured to myself what might have happened if nobody had taken me in, and so I was grateful. My foster-parents were wise, and I really loved them, and I cannot feel at all sorry for the early responsibilities which were mine, nor think I had a hard time, as children’s times go. I wanted all along to grow up and make my own way in the world. I never wanted to keep on being a child. And my foster brothers and sisters have had a harder time of it in the world than I have, for they did not discover until they were grown up that the world is a rough place.


Source: Martha Vansant, “The Life of the Adopted Child,” American Mercury, February 1933, 214-215, 217, 219-220.

Page Updated: 2-24-2012
Site designed by:

To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3699
About the Project and the Author
© Ellen Herman