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Listen to First/Birth Parents: A Review of “Relinquished”

Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood 

by Gretchen Sisson

(St. Martin’s Press, 2024)

reviewed by Michele Rabkin

Relinquished by Gretchen Sisson is essential reading–and will likely be deeply unsettling for adoptive parents and professionals who facilitate adoptions.

Sisson has spent over a decade researching the experience of women in the United States who relinquished their children for domestic infant adoption. She conducted multiple in-depth interviews with over 70 first/birth mothers (most of whom are white, but some of whom gave birth to children of color). Her focus is specifically on parents who “voluntarily” placed their children, as opposed to those whose children were removed into the foster care system. She makes clear that this is not a book about adopted people, though she does draw on the research and advocacy of adoptees in her work.

Through careful research and thoughtful analysis, Sisson dismantles many myths about adoption that exist across the political spectrum. She demonstrates that most expectant parents are not making a choice between abortion and adoption, but between either abortion and parenting or adoption and parenting, and pointedly asks: Why couldn’t the resources that are poured into supporting adoption instead be directed towards helping people parent their own children?

Each chapter features extended first-person narratives from women who relinquished their children, and almost every one recounts the second thoughts they felt about adoption as soon as they gave birth, and the regret and anguish they experienced after following through with placement. Many discuss the disconnect between their hopes for open adoption and the reality as it unfolded over time, how the “honeymoon period” immediately following placement devolved into disappointment and disillusionment.

Sisson shines a light on unethical (and outright illegal) adoption practices, stretching back to the early history of this country and continuing to the present day–your blood will boil as you read how parents have been tricked, pressured and rushed into relinquishment. She explores the political, economic, cultural, and religious forces that have shaped societal attitudes about adoption, and makes a powerful case for including adoption in the reproductive justice movement.

Relinquished asks those who identify as feminist to consider how they have or have not supported the empowerment of women in precarious situations who wish to parent their own children. It asks those who care about “family values” to consider why it is important to permanently sever the connection between a single mother and her newborn child. And it asks those who have benefited from adoption to sit with the difficult truth that their own desires were fulfilled via the suffering of others, and to consider whether they are ready to support an “abolitionist” world in which adoption becomes vanishingly rare.

Michele Rabkin is an adoptive parent who serves as a communications consultant to Pact.

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