Grief and forced adoption

This article was updated on 16 March, 2023. It discusses forced adoption in Australia.

Next week will be the 10th anniversary of then prime minister Julia Gillard’s apology to victims of forced adoption in Australia.

As we’ve often said, there are other sources of grief besides death. Our Good Grief! writer Sandra Moon shares a source of grief in her life – being adopted in “a vacuum of silence”. She discusses the pain caused by forced adoption practices. Today most jurisdictions have policies of ‘open adoption’ which allow greater connection between children and their birth families. More honesty creates less of a need to “bury our deepest pain and deepest desires.”

Sitting in the bath as a pre-school child with my mum I asked, “Did I come out of your tummy?”

“You came out of another lady’s tummy” she answered. I can’t remember any further discussion that night or of adoption later as I was growing up until my late teenage years and then briefly.

But subconsciously even right back to that moment in the bathtub I must have been curious as to my birth origins as P D Eastman’s book Are you My Mother? was on high rotation for my bedtime reading.  In it a baby bird finds itself lost, so relentlessly asks many different animals if they are its mother.   

Most adoptees were raised in such a vacuum of silence, our well-intentioned parents – many unable to have children of their own – told by the often church based adoption agencies to never discuss the issue and simply raise us ‘as if’ we were theirs. As if that would make everything okay.

But for myself and many adoptees the lack of acknowledgement and understanding forced us to bury our deepest pain and deepest desires. It is a disenfranchised grief that we endure at being denied the fundamental right to be cared for by our family of origin.

For me the healing journey began eight years ago on March 22 2013 as I watched then Prime Minister Julia Gillard address the nation with an Apology to Victims of Forced Adoption practices. She described this part of our nation’s history as a story of suffering and unbearable loss. She acknowledged the injustice of denying parents and children their basic rights in practices described as “unethical, dishonest, and in many cases illegal.”

“To each of you who were adopted or removed, who were led to believe your mother had rejected you and who were denied the opportunity to grow up with your family and community of origin and to connect with your culture, we say sorry. We apologise to the sons and daughters who grew up not knowing how much you were wanted and loved. We acknowledge that many of you still experience a constant struggle of identity, uncertainty and loss and feel a persistent tension between loyalty to one family and yearning for another.”

As a child of forced adoption practices, I related directly to the sense of loss, fear of abandonment, challenges of reconnecting with family and the difficulty of accessing records that she mentioned.

In this incredible moment of history for tens of thousands of Australians and their families I finally felt my experiences were validated, acknowledged and understood. Through my tears I looked at the sea of faces in the crowd and recognised the younger faces of adoptees side by side with their birth parents stuck, like me, in their grief. History had heard us and history had acknowledged us in this life changing moment.

Sandra attended the Without Consent exhibition on forced adoption in 2015 at Canberra’s National Gallery.
Sandra attended the Without Consent exhibition on forced adoption in 2015 at Canberra’s National Gallery.

This was a turning point in healing in our lives. As part of the apology the government pledged specialist counselling and support along with an exhibition at the National Museum in Canberra dedicated to this terrible part of Australian history.  I jumped straight away to access the counselling by adoption specialists at Wattle Place Forced Adoption Services. Second only to the apology it has been a force of healing and change in my life as I grapple with my grief and family connections and disconnections.

For some fortunate adoptees and birth parents they have found their happy ending like the bird searching relentlessly for its mother in the much-loved book I read as a child Are You My Mother? For others, like myself, the path to a happier ending and resolution of our grief began with the apology and for that I will forever be thankful. 

Check out the Forced Adoptions History Project at the National Gallery.

Discover how Wattle Place can help survivors of forced adoption here.

And if you fancy a great read from the point of view of an adoptee I highly recommend Tree of Strangers by Barbara Sumner. You can also listen to the podcast Two Lucky Bastards on Spotify as Lance Lukin and Sande Ramage discuss the book chapter by chapter.

And of course, another significant historic moment this week is ANZAC Day. So do read back on ANZAC Day last year as it was during COVID-19 captured by Margaret on the Good Grief blog. 

2 thoughts on “Grief and forced adoption”

  1. Thank you Margaret. As an adoptee, very grateful that you have found the words to articulate what I often find difficult.

  2. Hi Sandra – thank you for all of the articles you’ve recently written about Australia’s Adoption history and your lived experience as an “adoptee” (I hate the word). The voice of the adult is essential if we are ever to be understood as trauma survivors who’ve had the legal construct of an Adoption Order forced upon us. I am currently completing my PhD – an applied theatre project with fellow “adoptees” in VIC – seven stories interwoven together – growing up in isolation from all knowledge of our kin – to the same story of search to find and then achieve reunion with our mothers – all of whom were without any choice – coerced by the very existence of Adoption legislation – ‘a peculiarly 20th century phenomenon’ (2010 Senate Inquiry).

    I write to you now because as a theatre maker (Theatre and Performance doctorate) my focus is on the performative power of adoption language – that is, the dominant narrative which has constructed the ways in which society and indeed “adoptees” themselves commonly perceive Adoption. I have a few concerns about language I would welcome the opportunity to discuss with you. I am interested in why you’ve chosen to claim your original name by deed poll (it seems – am I right?) and by your use of the words ‘children’ when referring to adult “adoptees” and the term “first mother” – a distinctly American and pro-adoption term, which I suggest is highly offensive to Australian mothers of loss to adoption and indeed, to me. I argue qualifiers are not required unless referring to adopting mothers. As a fellow adoptee – a hopeful writer – a scientist of human behaviour and analyst of language, I am offended by this American pro-adoption language creeping into the Australian vernacular AFTER it has been established that mothers of loss to adoption are, by definition, MOTHERS. While it is true that our adopting Mums did not give birth to us they are in reality and by definition “adopting mothers” and therefore the only relationship requiring a qualifying term for readers or listeners.

    I would also welcome the opportunity to speak with you about the work of Adoptee Rights Australia as a committee member, and why we need to work together to ensure we are not promoting Adoption from OOHC. An Adoption Order (AO) should not require a change of legal ID – it should not require a child of 12 to determine their name because this open another can of worms in the Adoption arena. How much is a child coerced by their prospective adopters to “adopt” their familu name? Is it not yet another kind of coercion in plain sight to suggest a 12 year old may CHOOSE to change their name when they may do so thinking this is the way to please their adopters? A legal name change should only occur IF the “adopted” individual needs to be protected – disappeared as if in a witness protection program. In NSW state legislation has made forced adoption legal – using the old ‘without consent if necessary’ mantra – meaning children are being taken and adopted under what can only be seen as closed record adoption – right? A forced/without consent AO should not exist and must be renamed/legislated as a Protection Order not an Adoption Order. As you’ve cleverly identified adults should be given the legal right – the ‘self-determination’ in adulthood – to DISCHARGE their AO and claim their original BC as their legal ID. A change of name by deed poll doesn’t give the “adoptee” legal connection to their kin nor does it provide family historians with the ability to reinstate those of us who were severed from our kin without our consent to our rightful place on family trees.

    Thank you again for using your voice and position on our behalf.

    If you’re interested in speaking with me or with the Committee of Adoptee Rights AUS (ARA) we would welcome the opportunity to be heard.


    Alison Ingram


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