Book Review: Adoption Unfiltered

Book Review:

Adoption Unfiltered: Revelations from Adoptees, Birth Parents, Adoptive Parents, and Allies

by Sara Easterly, Kelsey Vander Vliet Ranyard, and Lori Holden

reviewed by Pact Staff

If you’re seeking to move past the “fairy tale” and deepen your understanding of the profound impact adoption has on everyone it touches, consider adding Adoption Unfiltered: Revelations from Adoptees, Birth Parents, Adoptive Parents, and Allies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2024) to your reading list. Unlike other books about adoption written by and for adoptive parents, reinforcing their privileged position in the adoption constellation, Adoption Unfiltered is co-written by an adult adoptee, a birth parent, and an adoptive parent, and aims to address all members of the adoption constellation. The voices of a (somewhat) diverse group of adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents and adoption professionals are woven throughout. In an accessible, non-academic tone, Adoption Unfiltered provides a thorough overview of the complexities and traumas inherent in adoption.

In an attempt to invert the typical hierarchy of adoption, Adoption Unfiltered begins with a section devoted to the adoptee perspective, written by Sara Easterly; the second section, by Kelsey Vander Vliet Ranyard, focuses on birth parents; and the third, by Lori Holden, on adoptive parents. All three authors contribute to a final section on hope and healing.

Some important caveats: The authors are all white cisgendered heterosexual women, none parenting adopted children of color. They have educated themselves about racism in adoption, and respectfully (if somewhat tentatively) address the issue throughout the book, quoting from their interviews with people of color, but this is not a definitive text on the intersection of race and adoption. The only direct mention of adoptive parents of color is a passage that refers to barriers preventing Black parents from adopting, without clearly articulating how systemic racism ensures that the needs (and dollars) of white prospective adopters are given priority. The section about adoptive parents includes a passage on the complexities of transracial adoption (with a focus on inter-country adoption), but does not explore the unique challenges of adoptive parents of color whose racial identity is the same as their children, even though the authors interviewed a few individuals who fit this profile (primarily for the section on adoptees). There are also passages that don’t reflect the perspectives of LGBTQ+ families (for example, infertility is not the only reason individuals or couples pursue adoption).

Adoptees unfiltered

In “Adoptees Unfiltered, ” Easterly reminds us of the challenges inherent in all adoptions, including the impact that an expectant parent’s stress can have on an unborn child, and the separation trauma that every adopted child experiences. She explores the pain that adoptees often feel (and hide) as they’re growing up, and the ripple effect of adoption on their behavior, mental health, and physical health. She makes the important point that popular parenting strategies such as “cry-it-out” or time-outs may not be appropriate for adoptees struggling with abandonment issues. The adoptees she interviewed discuss common experiences such as the pressure to feel gratitude, and the struggle to process feelings of grief, powerlessness, shame, and isolation—often while trying to be a “perfect” child. She describes coping behaviors that adoptees develop, ranging from indiscriminate affection to resisting closeness and backing out of relationships, and explores why adoptees are more likely than non-adoptees to struggle with suicidal ideation and addiction.

Easterly has studied with the child psychologist Gordon Neufeld for years; she cites his teachings on attachment repeatedly and at length, almost like gospel. The concepts shared are illuminating, but for authoritative statements such as, “There is no experience that has more impact upon us as humans than that of facing separation,” more context or corroborating sources would be helpful.

Easterly includes a chapter on “Religion’s Pain Points for Adoptees;” Ranyard and Holden have chapters on religion as well. The relevance of this material will depend on the role of religion in your life or your adoption experience. Easterly and Ranyard both chronicle their own personal struggles with the Christian faith in relation to adoption.

Birth parents unfiltered

Ranyard’s “Birth Parents Unfiltered” is perhaps the most illuminating section. As she points out, birth parents are only gradually feeling more comfortable sharing their narratives with a public that has judged and stereotyped them. While many past accounts of birth parent experiences are from the Baby Scoop era (1950s-1970s), Ranyard provides a chilling look at contemporary adoption practices. Unethical, barely-regulated, for-profit adoption professionals pay big dollars to appear at the top of Google searches conducted by expectant parents who are seeking—and likely will not receive—honest information, pressure-free counseling, and post-placement support.

Ranyard emphasizes how healing it can be for parents who have relinquished children to connect with others who have done the same. “Birth Parents Unfiltered” has the potential to provide this type of support for birth parent readers, letting them know they’re not alone. There are also valuable insights for adoptive parents and adoptees, helping them see from a birth parent’s point of view. Ranyard describes birth parents’ vulnerability to post-partum depression, PTSD, complicated grief, and feeling emotionally “stuck” at the age of relinquishment in relation to their adoption experience.

Pact promotes open adoption; we firmly believe that it helps adopted children thrive. Over many years of helping families navigate open adoption, we’ve learned that it can be complicated for all involved—birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees. The idea that open adoption solves all the challenges is yet another fairy tale. Ranyard describes how “[o]pen adoption….creates new, unprecedented pain points.” She writes candidly:

“Birth parents can be difficult….We are not always reliable and many times we aren’t where we want to be in our lives, causing us to feel internal humiliation about showing up.”

Ranyard’s perspective invites readers to reflect with compassion on the traumatic root causes of the tensions and disruptions that sometimes arise in open adoption. Importantly, she acknowledges a truth that can hamper honest examination of open adoption as it plays out in real life:

“Writing about open adoption while currently participating in an open adoption is very frightening. I know that I do not have the power in this relationship and that anything I say…is subject to misinterpretation…I don’t think I will ever breathe easy when speaking about the challenges of open adoption, for fear of upsetting the other parties in my own….”

Both birth and adoptive parents speak in confidential spaces about how hard open adoption can be, but they are understandably reluctant to share these experiences publicly. There is a pressing need for more research on this topic, creating opportunities for anonymous participants to speak frankly, so the practice can be approached with greater understanding and skill.

Adoptive parents unfiltered

In “Adoptive Parents Unfiltered” Holden, who wrote the the respected guide The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole (2013) in collaboration with her daughter’s birth mother, reiterates her commitment to openness in all adoptions, even when contact is not possible. She shares the Open Adoption Grid she created to measure the openness in any adoption, as well as the Inclusive Family Support Model, a further iteration developed by adoptees of color Angela Tucker and JaeRan Kim.

Extended family and friends often don’t understand the benefits of open adoption; Holden urges adoptive parents to resist outdated notions of “either/or” when addressing the fraught question of “Who are the real parents?” and instead choose a “both/and” mindset that embraces all of their child’s history and connections. She encourages adoptive parents to address and heal their own insecurities so they can create deeper, more resilient relationships with their children, and reviews common challenges adoptive families face, including post-contact meltdowns, turbulence in adolescence, mental health crises, and delayed launches into adulthood.

After reading Ranyard’s candid discussion of the struggles birth parents experience in open adoption (echoing the revelatory birth parent narratives in Gretchen Sisson’s recent Relinquished), we hoped Holden might pick up the thread and discuss the sometimes-fraught relationships between birth and adoptive families from an adoptive parent perspective. Her earlier book included a chapter “Reality Check: When It’s Not Easy”— we would have welcomed an update based on the learnings of the past decade. Again, honest discussion of these issues may be hindered by adoptive parents’ wish not to alienate their children’s birth parents, as well as the need to protect their children’s privacy.

In “NOT Adopting Amid the Cultural Backdrop of Pronatalism, ” Holden draws on testimony from individuals who identify as Childfree Not by Choice to posit that prospective adopters may feel not only the internal pressure of their desire to parent, but the external pressure of a society that treats parents as more valuable than non-parents. For readers weighing whether to pursue adoption or not, or those grappling with the possibility that their quest to become parents may not be successful, this chapter may provide some fresh perspectives.

Final thoughts

The book concludes with two chapters of advice and encouragement from Easterly, addressed to parents and adoptees respectively, and a final chapter by all three authors on needed adoption reforms. Pact supports almost all the proposals, though we question whether requiring legal representation for birth parents would make adoption prohibitively expensive for prospective adopters with lower incomes, many of whom are people of color.

Adoption Unfiltered can be read in its entirety for an overview of adoption from multiple perspectives, or read selectively on specific topics. Not surprisingly, reading it from cover to cover is a slightly uneven experience, since each author has her own writing style, and approach to incorporating interview material. Adoption Unfiltered has the admirably ambitious goal of being many things for many people. With inclusivity as its stated aim, we’re disappointed that the perspectives of adoptive parents of color—who make up the bulk of the clients in Pact’s placement program and all the participants in our Adoptive Parents of Color Collaborative (whose motto is “Yes, we do adopt!”)—have once again been left out of the conversation.

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