Last week, the New York Times chronicled the dramatic case of two babies switched at birth. Two decades ago, two mothers came home from a hospital in southern France with the wrong daughters. As the girls got older it became increasingly clear that they had little biological resemblance to their parents. Indeed, the father of one girl left her mother because he was suspicious of the girl’s origins.
When one of the mothers found out the truth and tracked down her biological child, the two families met. They spent time together—it turned out they were not living far from each other. Eventually, though, they agreed to raise the children who were not their own:
“I realized that we were very different, and we didn’t approach life in the same way,” Ms. Serrano said. “My biological daughter looked like me, but I suddenly realized that I had given birth to a person I didn’t know, and I was no longer the mother of that child.”
As painful as this episode has been for all involved—the hospital just paid out millions in damages—it did seem like there was an underlying message about the power of nurture versus nature. When given a chance to go back to their biological families, the girls and their families all decided that was neither feasible nor desirable.
Perhaps this outcome seems obvious, but there has recently been some public handwringing by adults who were adopted as children—people who sound like they wish the whole thing could be reversed. And while there is good reason to consider the problems they had growing up, one also wonders whether they would really change things if given the opportunity.
A piece in the Washington Post by Shaaren Pine called “Please Don’t Tell Me I Was Lucky to Be Adopted” chronicles the struggles of the author who was born in an orphanage in India but raised by a well-off family in Massachusetts. “Can you imagine being the only person in the world you know you’re related to?” she asks, describing the deep depression and suicidal tendencies she has felt since adolescence.
And a New York Times piece by Juli Fraga offered a startlingly similar message. Fraga, whose best guess about her origins is that she was “abandoned on the street in Korea” or that her mother had died, writes, “Countless times, well-meaning friends, relatives and acquaintances told me I was ‘lucky’ to have been adopted, ‘lucky’ even to live in America.” But she suggested that those people were all disregarding the “grief” she describes she felt in being disconnected from her biological family.
These women are not alone. The literature on the outcomes of adoption, even for those not involved in transracial adoptions, is often depressing. According to a 2000 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, “adoptees were about twice as likely as nonadoptees to have received [mental health] counseling.” More worrisome, according to a 2001 study in the journal Pediatrics, “attempted suicide is more common among adolescents who live with adoptive parents than among adolescents who live with biological parents.”
Pine seems to capture the tension that is at the heart of so much of the literature about modern adoption. Which is to say, adoption often seems to result in serious emotional problems for adoptees. But the alternative in most cases would be much worse. Whether they would have been raised by neglectful or even abusive parents, or placed in an institutional setting for lack of a family who wanted to take them in, these adopted children really were luckier than many of their peers. And while these women may wish to draw attention to the difficulties that adoptive children face, one hopes that they don’t discourage other families who are willing to take in a child with nowhere else to turn.