Interchangeable, Replaceable: A Reality for Adoptees?

We adoptive parents are often taught (and teach) that adoption is win-win: a child who needs a family gets one, and an adoptive family who wants a child gets one. And that’s often true. My own family was formed through adoption, and I love my children more than I  can say.

The story goes on, though, and this is where it gets complicated. For us adoptive parents to win, someone had to lose. Through poverty, illness, or a complicated (perhaps temporary) situation, someone had to agree to hand over their child, to lose their child, possibly forever.

That’s a painful reality for adoptive parents to face. It’s even harder, I would guess, for adoptees and for first parents.

Mila Konomos, a Korean adult adoptee (who loves and is loved by her adoptive family), has written a powerful, insightful essay about the loss, the complexity of it all. It’s called “I didn’t need my biological mother–I just needed a mother.”



Adoption, Mila writes, too often suggests that adopted children are supposed to never look back. “I was supposed to be so grateful to have a family that losing my family was supposed to be a negligible event with very little effect on my life or identity.”

Adoption, she continues, “is built on the presumption that families are interchangeable or replaceable, that parents and children are interchangeable, and that ultimately, family has nothing to do with flesh and blood, or DNA and biology, but that it’s all about proximity, exposure, and amount of time together.”

She challenges us adoptive parents: “If the bond of one’s own flesh and blood ultimately doesn’t matter, then how much less of a bond, of a commitment, does friendship or marriage carry with it?”

Take time to contemplate that, as it is a hard-won and very real insight.

It’s a painful one for adoptive parents to consider. We go through a lot to adopt a child, we prepare to love them before they arrive, and we do our best to love them deeply when they are in our family. (Most do. I recognize this is not a universal truth.) It’s hard to think that we became parents of a beloved child because someone else had to give that child up. And it’s so important that we think long and hard about that truth.

Yes, of course, there are cases where the first parents were abusive toward, neglectful of, or dangerous to their children. I’m not arguing that adoption plans aren’t needed in this world. I’m joining Mila on the journey of acknowledging that adoption is rooted in loss.

I’m reading with eyes wide open her statement that “If you believe that…your role in a relationship is disposable, then you behave in such a way that those friendships and relationships don’t last, which you then use to confirm that indeed relationships do not last and that you ultimately do not matter.”

For some (not all) adoptees, that’s a complicated, lifelong challenge. I think of a baby who at four months learned to stop crying to have needs met, because those needs were not met in a loving way. I’ve seen this challenge manifest in an adult adoptee who, while charismatic, bright, and loved, often pushes his adult relationships to a messy end, in a self-sabotaging and self-fulfilling effort to prove that relationships don’t last. I’ve known adult adoptees who struggle with trusting that others will love them and not leave, who choose not to love so they can avoid being left, avoid being replaced.  Again.

Mila concludes her essay by saying that adoption has taught her “that family is inconsequentially interchangeable and replaceable. I’ve had to spend my adult life trying to unlearn this lesson and its implications, because I realize that ultimately (was) wrong. I realize now that flesh and blood connections absolutely matter, and when they are severed, there are serious psychological and social consequences.”

What’s the takeaway from all this? To me, as an adoptive parent, it’s this:

Listen to adopted children, and let them grieve the loss of their first family, in all the manifestations that grief can take. Talk about, wonder about, write letters to, connect with their first parents in whatever ways are appropriate for your family. I remember how one of my children used to weep hot tears on Mother’s Day, not being able to recall deeply important memories. We can’t always remove the pain, and it’s hard knowing that our actions are intertwined with the pain. Sometimes our best help is to let those tears flow, and not try to make them disappear right away.

Listen to adult adoptees, whether they are in your own family or they are writing and speaking out in various forums. Mila speaks of her struggles, and also of the love of her husband and the joys of her two young children. There’s a big picture here. It’s valuable.

As adoptive parents, may we revel in the joy of parenting, and become comfortable with the reality of loss and grief. But not too comfortable. May we be willing to lead or to follow, as needed, to help our children–whether 10 years old, or 16, or 30–understand who they are, where they came from, why they may feel replaceable, even as we could never replace them.

Adoption is not an end. It’s merely a part of a path that can be alternately convoluted and smooth, with very few signs to guide us. We can’t change the past, and we must not deny its realities. We must keep moving forward, together: adopted persons, adoptive parents, and first parents. That is the only way that we can effectively improve adoption policy and practice, and outcomes for children. Adopted children grow up! May we adoptive parents be their allies, always.

Please read Mila’s post carefully, wherever you are in adoption. This video of her reunion with her Korean mother is also evocative and valuable. Many thanks to Mila, and to other adoptees who share their journeys with open hearts.




16 thoughts on “Interchangeable, Replaceable: A Reality for Adoptees?

  1. Adopting really isn’t for everyone. The most challenging task of my life, in developing my own character, has been to accept my child’s losses and sit with her. Sit with it. Refrain from minimizing, inflating or attempting to fix those feelings to make them more comfortable for me.

    Even adopting an infant who has been in family care, adored, never neglected, with a healthy attachment capacity, requires of us APs that we accept our child as she is, a survivor of a trauma, not as we may wish she were. This is harder than it sounds.

    Those were the factors the adoption industry hammered on, before we cut the first check, to persuade us that the placement would go smoothly because of them, and our adoption would be perfect. They didn’t mention the rest of the story: The adoption of a healthy infant who has been fostered in a loving family home will be just great! ….for us, the APs.

    • Alex – such wisdom! I wish I could bottle it! I’m interested in your book. I tried to write about your experience in Orfan (a novel), too, because I had seen in my private practice the absolute horror in adoptive parents when, (faced with grave illness or death), they came completely unhinged when the reality hit. NO PARENT has control over everything that might hurt their child. I think it hits adoptive parents harder because they have been promised the role of “savior”. When they can’t deliver, the guilt is magnified.

  2. When we started on our adoption journey, another AP said the first thing I need to recognize and acknowledge is the child’s loss of being taken away from their first family. I’d never thought about it before and am grateful to have that seed planted so early on. And now I wonder….is acknowledging that grief and loss enough or is there more to be done as an AP? (My guess is more, but what?) I read these comments and am so sad because I feel your pain as empathically as I can. I don’t want my child to experience that same pain, but I can’t take away that loss and I don’t want to deny or invalidate it.

    • I can only speak my own truth to that question: I was blessed by the lightning bolt of a life-threatening illness when my kid, adopted as an infant, was 12. What I saw–in the flash of light from discovering that in fact adopting as a 28 yr old didn’t guarantee my presence for my child through her young adulthood–was that she had to have some way to connect, some thread tying her to her birth family.

      It’s a long story, so I wrote a book about it, but to summarize: Our children have survived one trauma, and deserve our support in resolving that trauma by integrating the past into the future.

  3. thank you thank you thank you from this adoptive mother of two, open adoption all the way, yet we are in a harder developmental stage than we’ve recently been useful with both kids turning 18. being human demands so much awareness yet so many people don’t exercise it. being an adoptive parent, an adopted person, a birth parent — all these, too, require eyes wide open, yet not all can do it. it’s messy and still we return and engage the messiness, or wait, holding the space until others join us.

    • Well I am grateful to have adoptive parent perspectives, I still have trouble with why not mentoring? Openness way better than hidden, still I wonder about the power struggles & the tears & the children’s needs. Recently upon meeting up with cousins, Aunty & Grandpa, my younger 5 year old grandson posed the question with an air of incredulity “how could you have given away Aunty Sandy” Grandpa’s gut wrenched, Aunty replies “he didn’t” Finding my voice I reply its a story we still are struggling to understand, we want to tell you.
      Adoption snipets, My Uncle an adopter, three older natural & three younger adopted…..since I was a young boy, I paid close attention…..definitely there are issues building families this way, he thinks its wonderful, my cousins well I have always loved them of course, and have their confidence, much has been shared with me over the years, all rainbows & unicorns no. My grandmother adopted, her story of unknowns.
      So tragic adoption silently siphoned my child & lured the mother & child from me…..I know more even now, the insidious business of adoption….I cry for mother who ran from her family, and felt the need to bear alone. No way I would have let adoption be the choice. I think adopters really want so bad, they can’t see what their doing. I read their blogs a lot, filled with their joy, their reasons & dismissive logic, walled off, taboos a plenty for them.
      Knowing my daughter, is priceless, painfully expensive.
      Thank you all who share the narrative of adoption, whether I like it or not.

  4. I am thankful for Mila’s post and for this one. I was adopted at birth and finally after 50 years found my parents. They were both deceased. I was never able to have children. I have no idea what it is to have a “blood” bond and am tired of so called well meaners saying things like – Dead? oh well didja get pictures? I have been married to a wonderful loving man for 31 years – which by all reports is a miracle for an adoptee- and he is my only proof connection exists. I turn to these websites to help me through the grief and the never ending crushing silence I experienced through my adoption. And the now forever silence from my parents.

  5. Of course there are those adopters who simply have no empathy, neither for the loss their adopted child experiences and especially not for the loss of the first family experiences. Those kind of adopters seem to be out there in droves. Maybe I am just jaded by the ones I know, as that certainly has been my experience. So my ultimate question is: is that love then? Or something else more likened to ownership? If they cannot appreciate the tremendous loss of that child her family feels or vice versa, can they really appreciate the child as she is? I have always wanted to ask another adoptive parent her take on it, particularly one who actively seeks understanding and empathy as you clearly do.

    • “If they cannot appreciate the tremendous loss of that child her family feels or vice versa, can they really appreciate the child as she is?”

      always her mother, such powerful words. I think I felt them right to my core.

      I’m an AP and, in my opinion, no, without appreciating the crushing loss experienced and felt by both adoptee and first family, I don’t think it’s possible to really appreciate the child as she is.

  6. I’ve been married five times. At the slightest hint of discord, I walk away. I’ve given away three houses; I don’t even know how many cars; I’d hate to know how much money. I don’t care. I always say, “I’ll make more. It’s a small price to pay.”

    And it is. I’d rather die than be left again.

    • I can only say I can’t relate to the circumstance but I can relate to the pain. For as little as it may mean-I pray for all of us lost and stolen’s. I hope you may find peace.

      • Thank you. A couple of years ago, I finally found my mom, and shortly after, started working with a good therapist. Both have made huge differences in my life. I don’t know that I’ll ever truly find peace, but my current marriage is healthy, and I feel pretty strong and aware. That’s more than I ever thought I’d have.

      • I would like to hear more discussion from adoptive people about returning children to parents with temporary issues. Why should we all have to pay the price for an adoptive parents success. Infant adoption can be so cruel to mothers, there subsequent children, the fathers, grandmothers etc etc. I find it amazing what gets left out of the adoption cost quotient, as if it doesn’t matter, or that it’s ultimately about the child’s needs. Immediate needs, long term needs, life time needs. What’s the term used by government? Ageing out? We need alot more love helping each other, all this emphasis on building an adopted family turns my gut. Mentoring, so many mothers today, remain isolated & lonely, still being treated like a baby factory, awaiting someone else’s joy to have there child permantly taken and being forced into a role of gratefulness that they gave. Lost father, not on my child’s bc, finding out by a quirk of chance, my daughter’s 9 month older sister was given up to adoption. Finding the lost love four years later only to have the tradedgy compounded by loosing my child too….so much to understand…I shake my head…..where is the love for child when the roots don’t matter to be questioned, explored and aknowledged? Two half sisters whose broken bonds make them at odds with one another, one experiencing sharing a new loss of father now with divided attention and little bond towards sister. The other loyal to strangers, who kept the child in loving darkness, ohh yea no longer a child, a twenty eight year old mother now. The cousins found clamour for when do we get to see our Aunty & cousin. For me, the father, I am grateful to be in the adoptive household, not a joy so much when I visit, I have shouted, cried & screamed so much over the years, making sure no one hears so that their disturbed.

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