baby-in-handI first met my daughter in the lobby of the Westin Camino Real, the grandest hotel in Guatemala City. The night before, my husband Walter and I had soothed our nerves running on the treadmills in the fitness center, where a polite attendant handed us plush white towels and spritzed the equipment with a flowery disinfectant. Afterward I wrote a series of letters to our daughter. Because children adopted from overseas usually have little information about their history, parents are advised to document the trip as best they can, creating what is known as an “adoption story.”

Reading the journal now, more than two years later, it feels so self-conscious. “We’ve been waiting so long to meet you-almost seven months!” the first entry reads. “Ever since you were seven days old and the agency emailed us your beautiful photos, we’ve wondered what you will be like. We fell in love with you that minute!” Gone is any sense of the surreal. Walter and I already had two biological sons; now we were jetting into a Third World country with the sole aim of leaving with one of its daughters. (Wanting a girl, we’d opted for the sure bet that adoption offers.) I mentioned, but didn’t dwell on, the brutal poverty outside our hotel windows, focusing instead on how my sons were looking forward to meeting their little sister.

There is one section of the journal, however, that jumps out from the boilerplate. “I feel so sad for the pain your birth mother must be in since she is not able to raise you,” I wrote. “But I believe now that I am your ‘real’ mommy.” Reading those words now sparks a flash of shame. Because even though my daughter was, as is required by U.S. immigration law, legally classified as an orphan, she had two Guatemalan parents who were very much alive.

I remember being comforted by the Guatemalan social worker’s report on the case; the baby’s mother, Beatriz, (the names of Beatriz, my daughter and her foster mother have been changed) had evidently made an informed choice to place her for adoption. Or at least that’s what I told myself.

The truth is that I didn’t know Beatriz. And I was secretly relieved this was so.

People have been parenting children not born to them since the dawn of time. But adoption as an irrevocable severing of a child’s relationship with her biological family is largely a European and American practice. “In the vast majority of the countries where children are adopted from, the Western notion of adoption doesn’t even exist,” says Hollee McGinnis, policy and operations director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research and advocacy organization. “Informal adoption and kinship care have always existed, but our form of formalized adoption by nonrelatives is very, very new.”

Until 1945 (and in some states much later), most adopted Americans and their parents had legal access to birth certificates and related court documents. Adoption agencies even facilitated contact between adoptees and birth relatives. The push toward secrecy and sealed records took hold in the postwar culture, when adoptions were increasingly run by social workers. Confidentiality was thought to shield both mothers and children from the stigma of illegitimacy, and it allowed parents to hide their infertility even from their own children-birth certificates were simply changed to list the adoptive parents. (This practice continues today. My daughter’s American birth certificate lists her birthplace as Antigua, Guatemala, but gives us credit for the one thing we most certainly did not do.) Young pregnant women were rushed into homes for unwed mothers, where social workers told them they’d forget about their babies once they signed the adoption papers.

But they didn’t. In the 1970s, a psychology professor named Lee Campbell realized that she was suffering from mental health problems brought on by being forced to “surrender” her infant son when she was a high school senior in 1962. Campbell wrote a letter to the Boston Globe in 1975 asking what were then called biological mothers to contact her if they were interested in talking about their experiences.

These women founded Concerned United Birthparents, one of a handful of organizations that advocate for birth families. (The use of the term “birth parent,” coined by Campbell, is controversial. Some parents believe it relegates them to breeder status; alternate terms include “natural parents,” “first parents,” “surrendering parents,” or simply “parents.” I call Beatriz my daughter’s “Guatemalan mother” because it feels somehow more factual, although to be honest I have never referred to myself as her “American mother.”)

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