The Work of Being an Adoptee is not Always Visible

Adoption can be a lovely final adjustment for a child who has no other options. Too often, though, the image we have of the waif in need is just not reality. The situation we imagine from a hundred years in the past: a young child, clearly alone in the world, dirty, bedraggled and scrounging for food, is rarely the situation for the modern day adoptable orphan. Adopted children do face situations that most of us who grew up with our birth parents don’t think about in our daily lives. Those situations are often not what we think. 


Adoptees are often not orphans


Children that are truly alone in the world are more rare than you might think. Back in 2008 Unicef put out some numbers about how many worldwide orphans there are to much criticism. Most of the orphans counted into the worldwide number had at least one living parent. Also, many children worldwide who are parentless are taken in by close family members.(1)  Even the children who populate orphanages are often sent by parents who are overwhelmed seeing to the needs of other siblings. Orphanages in other parts of the world provide food, clothing, housing and education to children who wouldn’t have access to those things at home. The children’s presence in the orphanage doesn’t equate to their alone-ness in the world. (2)

In America most infant adoptions take place with consent of the mother and potentially the father, not in their absence. (3) Children adopted from foster care often have a birth mother and possibly a known birth father who exist and are living their lives elsewhere. Just because birth parents have lost custody of their child doesn’t mean they aren’t there. (4)

What that means to an adoptee is that the people they wake up and see every day are not the whole story of who they are. There are other humans out there who they may run into, who can tell them things about themselves that they don’t know. Maybe there is a health condition those other people could be aware of. Maybe the adoptee’s genealogy contains an interesting surprise they won’t ever know, but birth family are privy to. This reality weighs on adoptees differently. Some, especially those who have memories of their birth family, may have trouble shaking the weight they feel from a family out there somewhere they feel connected to. Others will only feel a pang of curiosity periodically as they go about their lives doing the routine activities of growing up. (5) This connection is something that people who haven’t been adopted often can’t comprehend and don’t understand.


Adoptees feel like parts of their lives are missing


Sometimes the lack of baby pictures for a school assignment is an obvious spotlight on what isn’t there in an adoptee’s life. Sometimes the feeling is more subtle. Maybe a mirror shows an adoptee a wisp of hair that won’t cooperate with gel or hairspray and they wonder if their birth mom had the same problem.(6) The loss of their genetic family can be an issue for any adoptee, no matter how lovely their adoptive experience may be. (7) Some adoptive parents struggle with the insecurity they can face knowing they are not the only parent of the child they are raising.(8)   Denying the reality that there are phantoms in an adoptees past that hover, sometimes for their whole lives, doesn’t make them disappear. Sometimes there are shadows that disappear when you look at them. Sometimes adoptees eventually meet with actual birth family members they know and incorporate into their lives on a regular basis. Either way, adoptees are often aware that something is missing, and have a feeling of loss related to it. 


Adoptees feel like they don’t belong


Whether Adoptees look like their families, don’t know their birth families, or don’t have any living members of their birth families, they can feel like they don’t quite fit in.(9) That uneasiness is a common issue as teens try to define themselves outside of the families they have lived with their whole lives. There is an added level of uneasiness when you know you weren’t born into the family you lived with all those years. You may feel you have more legitimate grounds for those feelings. There may be physical differences you notice from your adoptive family. Maybe you yearn for some freedom of expression that seems foreign to the family you grew up in. It could be that your family eats meat, but you feel like your body works better when you avoid it. The gap between who you are and the people surrounding you can be more poignant and real when you are an adoptee. (10)


Sometimes adoptive families are able to see those differences, celebrate them, and make their adoptive child feel as whole as possible in their circumstances. Eradicating that feeling of being different completely is between hard and impossible. (11) It can be the case that adoptees don’t feel a full sense of belonging until they embrace their own biological child.(12)  Even then the sense of belonging can be elusive. 


There is a space between who an adoptee is and the world that surrounds them. They may feel alone in a crowd the way you do, or with an added emptiness you will never understand. No matter how much an adoptee’s family tries to surround them with comfort there may be a piece of them the love of their adoptive family can’t fill. The caution that comes with this truth is that adoption should never be taken lightly. Adoption might be the answer if the situation in a child’s birth family is dire. There is also the possibility that with some appropriate support keeping a child in their birth family may spare them a life of longing to fill an emptiness adoption gave them. Sometimes it is impossible to say what the best path is for a particular child so social workers make their best guess in the moment. 


Realizing that sending a child from one home to be raised in another does not fix all the problems in an adoptee’s life is a thought that needs to become mainstream. Adoptees all over are telling us there is more to thriving than having their own bedroom in a suburban single family home. (13) Adoptees can thrive if we acknowledge all the issues they need to heal from at each stage of their lives. 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

Listen to the Podcast:

An Australian Adoptee Shares Her Story


  1. “Orphan Statistics Explained.”, 23 Feb. 2011,

  2. Price, Tom. “80-90 PERCENT OF CHILDREN IN ORPHANAGES ARE NOT ORPHANS.” Catholic Relief Services, 31 May 2017, .

  3. Prebeck, Esq., Nicole. “Consent to Adoption: What Biological Parents Need to Know.”, 16 Nov. 2022,,lose%20their%20ri.

  4. “Child Welfare and Foster Care Statistics.”, Annie E. Casey Foundation, 26 Sept. 2022, .

  5. “Factsheets for Families.”, Child Welfare Information Gateway, Oct. 2019, .

  6. Carlis, Tracy L. “The Adult Adoptee’s Search For Self.”,

  7. Babakhan, Jen. “I Was Adopted—Here’s What Everyone Gets Wrong About Adoption.” Reader’s Digest, 28 Nov. 2022, .

  8. Foster, Ashley. “Why Adoptive Parents Shouldn’t Fear Birth Parents.”, 18 Apr. 2018,

  9. Merritt, Michele. “‘It’s equal parts beautiful and tragic.’ The profound loneliness of being adopted.”, 1 Aug. 2020, .

  10. Radke, Haley. “Dear Adoption, I’m Keeping a Secret .”, .

  11. “Belonging Matters—Helping Youth Explore Permanency.”, Child Welfare Information Gateway, Sept. 2019,

  12. Grieco, Hannah. “Finding the missing piece: What happens when adoptees become parents.” The Washington Post, 1 May 2020,

  13. Reynolds, Jason D., et al. “Displacement, Identity and Belonging for Ibyangin: The Personal Journey of Transracial K acial Korean-Born Adoptees ean-Born Adoptees .”, 7 Feb. 2016,


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