Category Archives: adoption as portrayed in literature

“What if?” Kate Atkinson asks

What if I take this path?
photo by author

Choose your own adventure

What if I’d taken that path instead of the other? Kate Atkinson’s novel “Life After Life” is a grown-up choose-your-own-adventure book. Atkinson takes the story down one path, then backs up to the fork in the road and chooses another. Ursula, the main character dies at birth, strangled by her umbilical cord. But a few pages later the story re-boots and Ursula lives. Thus, the forward and backward motion of the story gives us a variety of possible outcomes for many of the characters. And what happens to each of them in the  different versions of their stories changes the trajectory of the other characters’ lives as well.

Birthmothers ask, “What if…?”

Izzie, a birthmother, enters the narrative like THIS. But in another version of the plot Sylvie, Izzie’s mother, raises the baby. In yet another, the baby is adopted, and Izzie lives a life designed to cover her pain and regret. And other possibilities are played out too.

The structure of this novel is unique, and the exploration of outcomes as they turn on life’s lynchpin moments is powerful and poignant. “What if?” the reader is forced to ask over and over again.  As I read this book, I asked that question about my own life too. For me, and maybe for other birthmothers who went on to have other children with someone different from the relinquished child’s father this feels like a Sophie’s Choice. If I’d kept my son, it’s unlikely that I’d met the man who became the father of my daughters. It’s complicated–just like Atkinson’s novel. But, what birthmother hasn’t asked, “What if….?” And adoptees ask the question too. This essay from the Los Angeles Times tackles the question from an adoptee’s point of view.

A Birthmother in a Novel

One of my granddaughters–the one my mother called “that little girl.”
When you give away a child, you also give away your grandchildren.

Izzie in Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life”

The baby would be adopted as swiftly as possible. “A respectable German couple, unable to have their own child,” Adelaide said. Sylvie tried to imagine giving away a child. (“And will we never hear of it again?” she puzzled. “I certainly hope not,” Adelaide said.) Izzie was now packed off to a finishing school in Switzerland, even though it seemed she was already finished, in more ways than one.

from “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson

Reading from the birthmother’s perspective

Izzie, the shamed pregnant girl, in Atkinson’s book seemed to be a minor character in the beginning. She’s the sister-in-law of Sylvie, one of the main characters.  Now I’m a quarter of the  way through the book, and Izzie has reappeared, years later after giving up her child. I can’t wait to see how she is. Will people speak of the baby and her past? Will she? And is Adelaide, Izzie’s mother still alive? Has her attitude about Izzie and her baby changed? Will we meet the lost baby?

I always read from the birth mother’s perspective. It’s impossible not to.

My real-life story

In my own story, with my own parents, the baby was never mentioned again. After the birth of two subsequent children I couldn’t stand the silence. I couldn’t stand living my big lie–that I had two children, not three. I couldn’t stand my unacknowledged grief.

When I called my mother and told her I was going to search for my son, who was by then 20 years old. “You’re going to get hurt,” she said.

“I’m already hurt,” I said.

So I searched. And I found him. Many things have happened since then. My mom lives with me now. She’s gotten to know my son and his family. She’s still talking about how much she enjoyed “that little girl” who came to stay for a week this summer. My son’s daughter. To think we might never have known her. But that’s how adoption works. Grandmothers lose grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Babies are handed off to new parents and are never heard of again.

Adoption in Literature

Rumpelstiltskin by Warwick Goble from Pook Press


I’ve been fascinated by adoption in literature ever since my mother read me Rumpelstiltskin. The miller’s daughter escaped relinquishing her son in the end. But the possibility of separating mother and child terrified me. It was a very close call for the miller’s daughter and her baby.

The Greeks and Shakespeare

I read Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. the summer between high school and college.The complete set of Greek tragedies was given to me by my foster mother–the woman the adoption agency placed me with. I was in a farmhouse, hidden away, deep in the Iowa countryside, awaiting the birth of the baby I would give away. All of Oedipus’s troubles began because he was taken from his mother, I thought. What will become of my boy? As a theatre student, I found more adoption stories in Shakespeare. Cymbeline. Pericles. A Winter’s Tale. And in the novels of Charles Dickens.

Great House

Currently, I’m reading Nicole Krauss’s novel, Great House. It’s a complex story with several threads. The character of Lotte is mysterious. We learn she has a tragic past. But her husband does not know how tragic, exactly.

She struggled with her sadness, but tried to conceal it, to divide it into smaller and smaller parts and scatter these in places she thought no one would find them. But often I did–with time I learned where to look–and tried to fit them together. It pained me that she felt she couldn’t come to me with it, but I knew it would hurt her more to know that I’d uncovered what she hadn’t intended me to find. In some fundamental way I think she objected to being known.

Later in the book, Lotte develops dementia. She’s around 75 by then. One day she escapes from the nurse who’s tending her at home. Lotte goes into the courthouse, finds a magistrate, and says that she’d like to report a crime.

“What is the crime?” the magistrate asked.

“I gave up my child”, Lotte announced.