Adoptees Disrupting Adoption Narratives is a series of as-told-to pieces written and curated by Prism’s editor-at-large, Tina Vasquez, featuring five adoptees—Tiffany HyeonBrooks, Mezekerta Tesfay, Nicole Eigbrett, Rachael Murphey, and Rev. T Sheri Dickerson—and one personal narrative essay by Kimberly Rooney 高小荣. They share in their own words what being an adoptee means to them and how current narratives around adoption are inextricably linked to family separations, settler colonialism, and white supremacy. They also delve into how adoptee-led discussions are necessary for the sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice movements. You can find the series in its entirety here.
CW: mentions of family separation, infanticide, suicidality, and racism
In Somerville, Massachusetts, Nicole Eigbrett is known for her organizing work helping low-income and immigrant renters fight displacement and gentrification. This work is deeply personal, she said, rooted in her own yearning for community and a sense of home.
“As a queer adoptee, the philosophy I bring to organizing is that I think about how we can make sure people feel like they belong and have the safety—both materially and emotionally—that they need,” the 30-year-old told Prism.
Massachusetts, and Somerville in particular, is in the midst of a gentrification crisis and “‘crippling’ housing deficit” and as someone who fights for tenants’ rights, Eigbrett said that the losses often outnumber the wins. Rather than feeling defeated, her organizing work has reified her belief that a different world is possible and worth fighting for. This belief now extends to how she sees the adoption system.
In 2018, Eigbrett’s activism entered a new phase when she shared her adoption story on a very prominent stage: a Facebook live event with The New York Times. It was one of the first times she publicly discussed the nuances and complications of transracial and transnational adoption. A lot has changed since then. Eigbrett has cut ties with her adoptive family, and she’s come to embrace the belief that so much of how the adoption system operates needs to be razed to the ground.
The organizer recently spoke to Prism about her evolution as an adoptee, coming “out of the fog,” and the work she is doing to heal from adoption trauma. Here she is, in her own words:
When I’m first introducing myself, I often say I’m a transracial and transnational adoptee because my identities as such have really shaped my life and the path that I’ve taken.
I was raised in a politically conservative household. I have two older, white adoptive parents, and I’m one of six children: three are biological children, and three are adopted. My adoptive siblings were born in El Salvador, and I was born in Nanning, China, in the fall of 1992. According to my state-issued records, I was abandoned a day or two after my birth, and I was brought to an orphanage. I was placed in the care of a British foster mom who was a Christian missionary. By December 1992, my adopters arrived in China with multiple prospective adoptive families and spent nearly three weeks and thousands of dollars finalizing the process. I was in the U.S. by January 1993.
In the U.S., I grew up in a small, rural, homogenous town in the Northeast. To give you some insight into how things were: My adoptive family used to love to tell this story about how when I was 4 or 5, I’d tell people that I was adopted and that it didn’t matter that I looked different from the rest of my family because I knew they still loved me. And honestly, this lack of racial identity held mostly true until high school. I was in this halo of whiteness and colorblindness until I was on the receiving end of racist insults—a harsh reminder that I would never just “be white” like everyone else.
Things started to really change for me when I went to a liberal arts undergrad school. That was my first exposure to activism and being more civically engaged through a women’s resource center on campus. As a young person new to feminism and reproductive justice, I didn’t know a lot about it, but I immediately felt compelled to start learning and showing up.
Academically, my major was global studies, a mixture of political, economic, and cultural theory with a globalized lens. I suddenly had this new language and framework for how I could understand myself and identity, situated in these larger social and historical constructs. During my junior year, I took a class called postcolonial feminist theory. There were only six of us in the class, all women, and I had an amazing, inspiring professor. It was so valuable to me to have that globalized context of what feminism and social change looks like outside of the U.S. context, outside of the white context.
Going into college, I knew I wanted to study languages, including Mandarin, because that meant I would be able to study abroad in China. At that point, I had never returned to my country of origin since I was first taken, and my adoptive family never offered me any authentic connections to my cultural heritage. I saw this as my only way there. So as I was taking Mandarin classes that fall, I decided to do my feminist class research on adoption and infanticide in China.
Even before I left for China, the research was immensely challenging. It was the first time I started digging into the implications of the one-child policy in China—what was lost and the violence that was caused because of it. This policy led to my existence and my adoption. Honestly, doing the research was a traumatic experience. I was coming face-to-face with the data, images, and stories about the way young mothers were forced not to give birth or give birth to babies who were murdered or forcefully abandoned, or trafficked to state-run orphanages. I started to understand: This could be my origin story.
What’s particularly difficult for many adoptees from China is that you may never know your full story. There’s the truth, and then there are lines that the state orphanage and adoption companies feed to adoptive parents. A lot of us just have to come to a place of acceptance that we may never know the truth of how we came to be. Knowing that conceptually and then really being faced with the reality of what happened by doing research that is wrapped up in my identity and my experiences felt devastating. There were many nights where I would break down and cry. We tend to talk about bodily autonomy as it relates to abortion. But doing this research helped me understand that the state can strip people of their bodily autonomy in different ways, all of which are violent and traumatic.
At this point, I’ve met few transracial adoptees who didn’t hit some kind of breaking point with their adopters and family. I think white saviorship that’s very prevalent in adoption needs to be viewed with much more skepticism and scrutiny. Adoption is fundamentally a system and industry that profits off reproductive violence, family separation, and what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “organized abandonment” by our government and institutions. But as a result, there are many, many white, middle, and upper-class families who feel like it’s their calling to “rescue” poor children or children of color from other countries. And that’s not even addressing the religious element that often motivates adopters, as well.
Personally, I’ve had a real evolution on these issues. Especially in the last decade, I started to view the narratives I was fed about adoption much more critically. I began truly speaking for myself, rather than letting others decide my story. I think my adopters started to feel threatened and even resentful about the way I started to view my adoption. I felt like my adoptive family saw me in this permanent, infantilized state where I would always be the little girl who told strangers it was OK that I looked different—not the queer, Asian-American woman I was becoming and who was ready for actual emotional safety and belonging. It created a lot of conflict because my adoptive parents had a very clear idea of who they wanted me to be, and that person was obedient, subservient, and just grateful to have been saved from China.
This winter marks three years that I’ve been estranged from my adoptive family. I was in therapy even before this, and I started group therapy in the last few years. I’ve come to the realization that it’s emotionally abusive to expect and demand that I would only express gratitude and a sense of debt for my adoption and my existence. That’s a damaging mentality to be raised in. It’s hurt me in terms of the way I build relationships and connect with others. It’s going to take a long time to heal and unlearn a lot of this, along with other emotional and psychological abuses.
There were years where I made many good faith attempts to talk to my adopters about racism, gender, and sexuality and the different ways I was thinking about my adoption. I invited them many times to cross that bridge and start learning. They refused, and at some point, I just had to decide that I wasn’t going to let myself suffer anymore. I couldn’t be my full self with them, and keeping the peace would mean just having to accept their harmful beliefs, actions, and behaviors. I couldn’t do that anymore. After one of my adoptive parents’ biological children tried to publicly shame and harass me online for my beliefs about adoption, I decided to cut contact with my adopters. Early in the pandemic, I also cut ties with the remaining members of my family.
None of this has been easy. I’m still processing so many things about estrangement, including feelings of guilt and regret. But also affirmation. Frankly, I’ve felt relief that people who called themselves my family aren’t holding me down or hurting me in the same way anymore. I owed it to myself to create my own sense of love and security within my chosen family and community. I feel free to be me, but there’s a lot of grief and feelings of loss too.
Oftentimes in adoptee circles you’ll hear the phrase “out of the fog.” It’s when the veil of “I should just be quiet and be grateful” finally falls away. Some adoptees still embrace that perspective well into adulthood, and that’s OK. Everyone is on a different journey, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that not every adoption has a happy ending. Adoption fundamentally begins with trauma because of the separation that happens between the birth family and the child. There is a lot of research about how these kinds of family separations cause lifelong physiological and psychological trauma. I think a lot of adopters—and our culture more broadly—have a hard time accepting that. The adoption industry, and the governments and nations that are complicit actors, are largely to blame.
At the family level, I also think it’s important to talk about the ways that adoptive parents are assessed as being prepared to adopt a child. They might have the social markers for being stable or economically prepared, but that doesn’t mean they are emotionally prepared for a transracial adoptee. Being Chinese and being raised in a very white, homogenous household and community was difficult for me. It was incredibly isolating. I had no models or representations of what I could become, and my adopters weren’t invested in offering that to me. They were actually told by the Christian adoption agency to raise me as if I were one of their own; that is, with a racially colorblind mentality. As a kid, white friends would straight-up say, “You’re basically white, right?” You’re 13, you just want to fit in because there is literally no one else that looks like you, so you’re like, “I guess?” And I swallowed jokes like this through college. Looking back on that is really painful. Survival required assimilation.
I still have a lot to learn, but right now my journey has led me to be in the adoption abolitionist community. I recognize myself as part of a global community of people who have been displaced, stolen, and colonized. I want to work toward a world where adoption is no longer necessary. Until we reach that point, I think there needs to be more stringent standards around how we vet adopters, especially when it comes to white families adopting children of color, domestically or internationally. Do these adoptive families come from racially integrated communities? Are they going to make sure their adopted child has racially competent therapy, access to role models with their backgrounds, and connections to their cultural roots? The love of an adoptive family does not replace these things.
Adoption has been incredibly normalized in this country, so rarely do you find people who aren’t adoptees interrogating the historical context of transnational and transracial adoption, or the imperialism, colonialism, and state violence that makes adoption possible. As a transnational adoptee, I cannot unlink adoption from the U.S.’ global white supremacist imperialist project; from the foreign policy and the wars that lead to destabilization in other countries; from the profit-making adoption industry that followed. Everyone just wants a happy story, which often means that in order for the little brown child to be embraced by their new white family, their family and story of origin had to be erased. It assumes that the birth parents did not deserve or were not allowed to raise their child, and wouldn’t receive rehabilitation or the resources they needed to be a thriving family. This is all a form of white supremacy.
Just recently Canada and the U.S. began to acknowledge how widespread boarding schools were for Indigenous children. Less than a century ago we had state-sanctioned cultural genocide through family separation, and in 2022 we now have a Supreme Court case where the adoption of Indigenous children, tribal law, and sovereignty are up for debate. Black children and families are also deeply impacted by the U.S. family policing and separation system, leading to irreparable trauma from a broken foster care system and cycles of incarceration. These violent histories continue, but so many people still aren’t connecting the dots on the role that adoption plays in all of this.
This is why adoption trauma is so prevalent in our community. Adoption trauma is in all of us, whether or not adoptees are ready to admit it or share it with others. When I first shared my story publicly a few years ago, my adopters had such a strong reaction to it. There was confusion, a “Why are you talking about this?” kind-of-thing. But then there’s also gaslighting. When I get pushback for talking about adoption trauma—especially as it relates to transracial and transnational adoption—they often say something like, “I heard from another adoptee, and they don’t agree.” Or, “I know an adoptee, and they don’t talk about things like this.” I always think: Is the adoptee 7 years old? Are they a child of color? Do they feel safe talking to you? Where are they in their journey? Do they even have the language yet to articulate what they’re feeling? Again, it’s the continued trope of infantilized and voiceless adoptees. Adoptees are perpetually children who should have totally uncomplicated feelings about their adoption.
What’s been a powerful tool in processing my adoption trauma is therapy and plugging into an adoptee community of people who are around my age and were also adopted from China. But also just being around other adoptees. First, I found a community on Facebook and through #AdopteeVoices on Twitter. Then I connected with adoptees in my area in person. It’s healing to feel understood and to know you don’t have to explain everything. In Boston, we’re fortunate to have an adoption-specific therapy organization. I’m part of a group that meets pretty regularly, and we have a trained therapist who’s an adoptee herself. It’s been amazing, and I wish that every adoptee had something like this because we deserve to find belonging and liberation.
When I moved to the Boston area at the end of 2016, I also found a community of radical, queer pan-Asian organizers and activists who became friends through the Asian American Resource Workshop (AARW). This was the first time in my life I felt seen and embraced in the Asian diaspora as a Chinese adoptee. I was finally able to interrogate and form my own racial, economic, gender, and political identities in a supportive, loving way. To become the person I wanted to be without the pressure and manipulation of my adopters. Then, I developed and facilitated workshops to help other Asian Americans do the same. I still call AARW my political home and credit much of who I am as a person and community organizer today to my experiences organizing with them.
I’m part of a growing community of adult adoptees who are screaming at the top of our lungs for people to listen to us because we don’t want the adoption system to keep harming adoptees. We believe there can be better alternatives, but it’s agonizing how few actually want to hear from us. For far too long, everyone else has been speaking on behalf of adoptees and making decisions about what our rights and privileges should be when it comes to family formation, or things like accessing documents about our birth. Adoptees are rarely given their own voice, but I believe we are slowly reclaiming our collective power as a community.
We are hearing a lot about adoption right now, but it’s not actually about adoptees. It’s about the violent connections between abortion, racism, classism, ableism, misogyny, and religious morality—and adoption becomes the forced solution. When we don’t center adoptees’ voices in these conversations, we’re losing a segment of the population that is inherently the result of policy violence around reproductive rights, caregiving, and family systems. Adoptees are not a monolith. We’re a diverse community. We obviously don’t all feel the same about these issues, but when you exclude us, you’re shutting out impacted people who hold the experiences, and therefore the solutions, to these intentionally broken systems.
We are the children of parents who, for whatever reason, could not access abortion or birth control—parents whose circumstances made them relinquish their child. So much of the trauma that adoptees live with could have been prevented if these were attainable options from the start. I cannot tell you how many people think it’s OK to say to adoptees, “Aren’t you glad you weren’t aborted?” It’s completely shocking to them when adoptees like me say, “You know what? I would have been OK being aborted, because it would have meant my birth mother was able to make the decision that she wanted to make.” They don’t expect that. I want for my birth mother what I want for all people: bodily autonomy and the societal resources to make the decision that’s best for them.
There are statistics about the high rate of depression and suicidality among adoptees. I think it’s because of the way all of these systems bear down on our existence, coupled with adoptees feeling isolated and fearful they’ll be rejected if they’re honest about what they think or feel. It’s tragic when we hear about a death in the adoptee community. Online, adult adoptees just kind of ask ourselves how we could have made things better, but we also know that the root causes are embedded in generations of violence.
I know I said this before, but the world I fight for is one where adoption isn’t necessary. As an abolitionist, the world I envision is one where our communities and the state provide the resources that all families need not just to survive, but to thrive. That means universal health care—that includes mental health care and sexual and reproductive health care. It means fully funded schools where young people receive comprehensive sex education. It means treating housing as a human right. To some people, I’m sure these sound like overly idealistic goals, but these are worth fighting for.
Our elected officials don’t have the political will to enact most of this, but I truly believe we can build toward this world together. I see clearly how my personal liberation is tied to our collective liberation. I’m inspired and driven by other adoptees who have taken their experiences in the adoption system as a motivator to become organizers, activists, researchers, and speakers whose work shows us that another world can be possible.