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Education & Outreach


An Interview With Dr. Gretchen Sisson, author of Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood.

This week Torie had the honor of sitting down with Dr. Gretchen Sisson to talk about her newly published book Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood. Sisson is a qualitative sociologist studying abortion and adoption at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at University of California, San Francisco. Her research was cited in the Supreme Court’s dissent in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and has been covered in The Washington Post, The Nation, and All Things Considered, among many others. She is a compelling new voice in the conversation about reproductive justice, abortion, and adoption, highlighting and centering the experience of women who relinquish infants for private adoption. Join us at her Activism in Adoption talk to hear more about her decades-long research study and how the findings can inform our approach to adoption. 

What is your connection to adoption? How did you get into a place of adoption research?

People ask me this all the time: are you a birth mother? Are you an adoptee? And I'm not. I came to my adoption research from working in other areas of reproductive health and justice. I initially started doing my adoption research when I was in graduate school, while I was interning at an organization called the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy. We were doing a lot of work with pregnant and parenting mothers, to change the Boston Public Schools pregnant and parenting student policy, and increase support for young families across Massachusetts. This is when the show 16 and Pregnant started on MTV, and, as you can imagine, the young mothers that I was working with were very interested in the show and how these stories about young mothers were being told. This show, by design, was intentionally stigmatizing teen pregnancy and young parenthood. That was the idea, to make teen motherhood look so terrible, that teens would take greater measures to protect themselves from getting pregnant. There was this one story arc on Catelynn and Tyler, a couple who relinquished their daughter, Carly, for adoption. Afterwards, they were held up as this poster couple for adoption. In the frame of the show, they become better parents because they had given up their daughter. That was really compelling to me, because the young parents we worked with were literally lobbying at the state house asking for what they needed to care for their children, and they were 16 or 17 years old. These are the young mothers that we're stigmatizing? The ones who were fighting for themselves, their families, their children? And society just tells them, Oh, if you just give your child to this middle class family, that's better. 

But there were a lot of other parts of my work that were coming together at the same time. The Girls Who Went Away had come out a few years earlier, so I was already thinking about adoption in the context of that history. I was also volunteering at the Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund in Boston, so I was hearing these stories of people who wanted to get an abortion, but couldn’t afford it and didn’t know what to do, so we tried to help them figure out how to afford it, to take control of their reproductive lives. I was also working on my master's thesis, which was looking at infertility and how couples were making decisions about what to do when they are faced with infertility and they're trying to build their family. In all of these areas, this idea of adoption as a panacea kept popping up. If we just take the babies from these families and move them to these other families, then we don't need to provide insurance coverage for infertility treatments. We don't need to invest in vulnerable and young families. We don't need to make abortion accessible or affordable. We just introduce adoption, and the “problem” is solved. That's when I started wanting to look at adoption much more in depth. 

I started doing my interviews in 2010, and then I re-interviewed a lot of the women in 2020 to see how their feelings about their adoptions had changed over time. This work came from wanting to more closely examine how adoption functions in our conversations about reproductive justice, what it actually means to support families, what it actually means to empower people to make the choices that are best for them, their children, their families, their communities.

Can you touch briefly on some of the trends or patterns you saw in how women perceived and experienced their adoption?

When I started the interviews, some of the women who were in pretty recent adoptions – who had relinquished in 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006 and were just three, four or five years out from their adoptions – spoke really positively about their adoption experience. Whereas once you got further down the line, everyone was super critical. So my question was: is adoption getting better and that's why people with more recent adoptions are happier? Or, does everybody just feel more negatively about their adoption over time? That's why I wanted to follow them and see if their feelings were the same 10 years later – and the answer is no. No one felt better about their adoption. Ten years later, most of them felt much worse. There were maybe one or two that were fairly consistently positive. They still had plenty of critical things to say, even if they were happy.  I interviewed one woman in 2010, and her son had just turned one. She felt like she had the best adoption ever. She had a very close relationship with her son's adoptive parents and talked about how her son had a picture in his nursery of her, how she was invited to his birthday party and his christening and all these first year milestones. And I asked her: What do you think adoption should look like? And she said, Like mine! Then ten years later, I said, This is what you told me ten years ago. Does that still feel right? And she said: This adoption should never have happened. It was a complete 180. She still had a good open adoption, but her relationship with his adoptive father was really tough. Her relationship with adoptive mother was still good. She was very close with her son, he would come over and spend some weekends at her home with her and her new husband. But her son was neurodivergent,  and had some challenges that she felt his adoptive parents really struggled with. She felt that actually she could have been a better parent for him in meeting those special needs than his adoptive parents were. The man she had ended up marrying, her husband, had some neurodivergent tendencies. So he and her son were very close. He would have been a great stepfather to him. The circumstances of her life had changed and had changed very quickly. About a year after our first interview she got married, and, while she knew those first few years of parenting could have been tough, she realized that she was married, and financially stable, and able to give her son those things she wanted for him.

The question of regret is also harder for women who have gone on to have other children. When I asked them, how do you feel about the choices that you made? Many of them wish that they had been able to parent or had been in a position where they felt that they could parent. They felt like they made the best decisions they could have at the time. But they end up sort of feeling like their children are mutually exclusive. They'd say: If I had been parenting this child, maybe I wouldn't have met and married this partner and had these two or three other children. And so when I asked them if they wished they had chosen something different, I was asking them to choose between children. As one woman put it, I wish I could have all my children with me. I don't know what life would look like to make that happen. So I can't say that the adoption was the wrong decision. Because I love the life that I have, the partner I have now, the children that I have. I know my daughter is healthy, pretty happy, has a decent connection to me and knows that I'm always here if she needs me. If there was a way to snap my fingers and have all three of my daughters in one place. I would choose that.

Birth parents often wonder if they could have done something differently and I think for some of them that guilt is too scary of a place to go. I hear from some adoptees who say, Well, my birth mother doesn't want to have anything to do with me. Obviously, that's really painful to hear. When people ask me, Did all the women that you spoke with want to be in relationships with their child? Did you talk to anyone who didn't want to have anything to do with their kid? The trauma of the relinquishment and the complexity of the relationships between a birth parent and an adoptee makes it very hard to navigate. So all of the women I spoke with theoretically wanted a relationship with their child. But for some, it was too painful. Some of them said, I want to have a relationship with my child, but I cannot have a healthy relationship with my child's adoptive parents. Many of them talked about it like a sentence, and said, I have nine more years until my child turns eighteen and I can reach out to them directly.  I think that it's important to know there's a theoretical desire to have a relationship with their child, but it's being actively prevented by something. And then there are other people who are able to have communication or relationships of varying meaning. They don't always necessarily get what they want. 

Watch for part II of our interview with Dr. Gretchen Sisson, and don't forget to register to see her Activism in Adoption talk on Wednesday, March 27th at 11am CST.  In the meantime, you can learn more about her work by visiting her website, or find her on Instagram or Twitter/X. She is an active member of the Women Donors Network, and served as a member of the founding board of directors for WDN Action. In her work at WDN, she is a co-founder of the Abortion Bridge Collaborative Fund. The ABC Fund is a movement-led, rapid-response, trust-based philanthropy effort to address the post-Dobbs needs in abortion provision and protection across the country. Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood was released on February 27, 2024, and is available at the bookstore of your choice. 

Thank you for recognizing the importance of post-placement support: