An Interview with Rebecca Wellington

The professor looks critically at America’s — and her own — history of adoption.

An Interview with Rebecca Wellington

This is an exciting time for critical adoption studies, with several important books published within the last six months. Add to the list Who Is a Worthy Mother? by Rebecca Wellington, notable because the author is an adoptee. Framing the scholarly investigation with her own story, Wellington provides an accessible study of American adoption that clearly illustrates the governmental policies and cultural attitudes that have created today’s inequitable and unjust system that takes from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged to give to the most privileged.

You hold a doctorate in education history and are a professor of education. Why did you write a history of adoption in the United States?

If you had told me six years ago that I would write a book about the history of adoption in America that weaves in my personal story, my response probably would have been, “Hell, no!” This history is far from my academic research, although I have come to see some interesting connections around assimilation. But I did not seek this book out; it demanded to be written.

Two things — birth, then death — pitched me onto the trajectory of writing this book. In 2010 and 2011, my two daughters were born. To this day, they are the only two people I know who I am biologically related to. Their births were hugely transformational for me, fundamentally altering a belief I had held all my life that adoption is insignificant and giving birth to a baby and then giving it away is easy. Five years after my second daughter was born, the same year I completed my doctorate in education history, my sister died of a drug overdose. She was also adopted, and she had relinquished a baby for adoption. Her death really broke me and pitched me into a space where I had to find answers about my adoption. And I couldn’t find anything because my birth records are still sealed by the state of California. So I decided to start researching everything I could about the history of adoption in America as a way to get some answers. And from there, the book was born!

The subtitle is An Intimate History of Adoption, and you intertwine your personal adoption story through a deeply researched report of the evolving practice of adoption in America. Why did you include your own story?

While I was researching adoption history in America, after the death of my sister, I was also doing grief therapy. My therapist suggested that I write about my childhood and growing up with my sister as a way to work through the trauma of her death. So I was simultaneously reading and writing about the macro-level policy of American adoption, and also writing really personal stories from my childhood. And the two stories began to intersect in so many ways! The research helped me make sense of many of the things I had heard and experienced growing up as an adoptee. When the editors at University of Oklahoma Press came to me with an interest in my writing, they explicitly said that they wanted both in the story: the personal narrative and the history.

Why did you dedicate the book to your sister and your daughters?

The biggest hurdle I have faced in processing my sister Rachel’s death is the enormous amount of regret I feel in not understanding her struggles while she was alive. She was like a trickster, the mad woman in the village square who’s constantly calling out the insanity of her situation but nobody’s listening to her because everybody thinks she’s crazy. And yet she is the truth-teller. Rachel was that in our family, calling out the insanity and dysfunction, much of which stemmed from our adoptions, and yet everyone, myself included, ignored and discounted her. This book is, in part, my apology to her for not listening, sharing with the world her truth, demanding that we all hear it finally.

I also dedicate this book to my daughters because, in many ways, they saved me. I describe them in the book as my two anchors, tethering me to my past and my future. It has unequivocally been the greatest healing joy of my life bringing them into the world and raising them, and now watching them set off on their own journeys as teenagers. They are brilliant, beautiful, brave, and wise, and I am so incredibly proud of who they are.

Among other subjects, you examine the sordid history of family separation in America, babies and children taken from enslaved, Indigenous, immigrant, and poor white families; the way society is rigged for and against certain mothers; and the downsides of intercountry and transracial adoption. After reading your book, my view of social workers will never be the same. From your research, what were some of the surprising things you learned about adoption?

All of it surprised me! All of it! I found it horrifying, shocking, disgusting, disturbing. But most of all, I was outraged that I hadn’t known this history. I teach history, and I was clueless! This was especially disturbing. I love disruptive history. My focus as a historian has always been to tell the stories of those who have been deliberately silenced. I have always known intellectually as a historian that historical amnesia, historical ignorance, and silence perpetuate a lot of abusive practices, policies, and ideologies. And as I delved into the history of adoption — my history! — for the first time in my early 40s, I knew that for us as a nation to work our way out of abusive practices around adoption and reproductive autonomy, practices that target especially vulnerable women, we had to wake up to this history. We need to know this history in order to move forward in a different direction.

What are some of your foundational texts on adoption?

These are the first histories and narratives I read and fundamentally transformed me: Motherhood So White by Nefertiti Austin; Against Their Will by Kevin P. Begos, Danielle Deaver, John Railey, and Scott Sexton; Somebody’s Children by Laura Briggs; American Baby by Gabrielle Glaser; Bitterroot by Susan Devan Harness; and Seven Core Issues in Adoption and Permanency, edited by Sharon Roszia and Allison D. Maxon.

What is your hope for the future of adoption in America?

I write, “The history of adoption in America is defined by deceit, lies, and policies that weaponize ‘bad’ women’s fertility as a commodity to be used against them. Our society continues to dehumanize mothers deemed bad, particularly poor mothers and mothers of color, which then justifies policies and practices that strip women of their fertility autonomy and parental autonomy. As long as adoption practices depend on the dehumanization of people involved in the adoption transaction, it will continue to traumatize our nation.”

We still very much live in a societal paradigm of bad vs. good mothers. This binary pits women against each other, validating and elevating those who fall under the “hegemonic mother” umbrella — cisgendered, heterosexual, white, middle-class women. We need to blow apart this binary. This is a big ask and takes a lifetime of work. But I think it starts with:

  • Ensuring reproductive autonomy for all women so that they have resources and choices without coming to an absolute crisis of having no option except to relinquish a child (or worse, being forced to relinquish).
  • Complex systems of support for all mothers. This involves our society valuing all women and mothers.
  • Support systems that understand adoption is traumatic for all the members of the adopting triad [even] when adoption is the best course of action for both the birth mother and the baby.
  • Abolishing sealed-birth-records policies. Knowing our past and our roots is a human right.

[Editor’s note: Rebecca Wellington, Alice Stephens, and Grace Yung Foster will discuss Who Is a Worthy Mother? at Loyalty Bookstore in Washington, DC, on Wed., May 29th, at 7 p.m. Learn more here.]

Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People.

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