Truth in Adoption: I Was the Skeleton in the Closet

For the duration of my childhood, I was raised with the belief that my birth was “the skeleton in the closet” and that I was to never ask about it. I was simply told two different stories during my childhood. The stories were never discussed, just stated.

The first story was told to me when I was a child of about four or five years old. I remember it clearly. My mother came up to me, knelt down on the floor and said, “You are adopted. Your mother had too many children so she gave you to us”. Then, my mother kissed me, got up, and left the room. My little world was shattered. My mother wasn’t my mother. She just told me I had another mother. Even a five year old knows that mothers love their children, so why would my mother just give me away?

The second story, told to me by my adoptive mother when I was about ten years old, went something like this, “Your mother died of cancer just three months after giving birth to you. Your father thought it best that you live with us”.

What is a child supposed to do with that information? I felt a huge hole in my heart, but did not know it was grief. I stuffed my feelings down inside me, just as I stuffed inside the information stated to me when I was five. What does a child do with the statement “your mother had too many children so she gave you to us”? I was too numb to realize that “too many children” meant that I had sisters and brothers. I was raised an only child, so I longed for siblings to play with, but I dared not think about it too much for if I did, then  I might actually acknowledge that I had siblings out there somewhere.

Then there were parties for the children (adoptive cousins) who were my parents’ God Children. A fuss was made: a card, a cake, gifts for the God Children from my parents to the God Children. These children were my cousins, so it was just another party for kids. But when I asked who my God Parents were, my adoptive mother said, “We don’t know who they are.”


She knew, but she did not want to tell me.

I sat there at a party for my parents’ God Daughter and stared at my mother. It was clear I was to never talk about the subject again.

For those of you who think that this is the way it was done in the 1950s and 1960s, think again. To dismiss the importance of the cruelty done to me by washing it away with a blanket statement to excuse the problem because of the social time it happened is to tell me that the issues don’t need to be brought up now: “For God’s sake, it is over and done with.” “Don’t live in the past.” “Get over it.” “It’s the way it was done, so let it be.” “Things are different now.” Are they? Are adoptive parents more careful with their adoptees’ feelings and facts of life? I doubt it.

What was said to me as a child stayed with me, creating lasting impressions. These statements haunt me now in the form of traumatic flashbacks. These, and other comments and exchanges, created the PTSD that I must live with now.

Oh yes, here’s one other snappy comment made by my adoptive mother to me when I was a child. My mother was angry with me because a neighbor’s child, my playmate of about eight years old, told her mother that I said I was adopted. The mother then reported the news to my mother, who retaliated to me with fierce anger.

“Joanie,” she yelled, “Other people don’t need to know our skeletons in the closet!”

I was filled with shame for telling another child that I was adopted. I was ashamed of myself, but did not know why I deserved to feel this way.

So, today, as the pro-adoption crowd proudly goes on with their happy “National Adoption Awareness Month” of November, I would like to begin by warning adoptive parents everywhere not to make the same mistakes that my adoptive parents made.

There will be more mistakes discussed here in the days ahead.

~ ~ ~ Joan M Wheeler, BA, BSW, born Doris M Sippel, author of Forbidden Family: A Half Orphan’s Account of Her Adoption, Reunion and Social Activism, Trafford Publishing, Nov 2009.