Skip to Content

The road to the modern adoption era has been a difficult one. If you’re facing an unexpected pregnancy, you may be wondering about past generations of birth mothers, the struggles they experienced, and what their adoption may have been like.

Get Started

The History of Adoption

What You Need to Know as a Prospective Birth Mother

All of us in the adoption community are incredibly lucky that adoption has become what it is today.  Women during the modern history of adoption have the freedom to choose just about everything in their adoption plan, ushering in an era of choice, respect and love that didn’t always exist.

But, what did adoption used to be like? How did the prospective birth mother handle placing her child for adoption, even when she knew she might not see them again?

Looking at the history of adoption, there are a few separate adoption eras: adoption before the first modern adoption law passed in 1851, adoption until the mid-20th century, and adoption as we know it today. To help you better understand what your adoption may look like today, you first need to learn about some of the issues that a birth mother might have faced in decades before.

Adoption Before 1851

It’s difficult to imagine through today’s modern lens, but adoption history throughout the 19th and the early 20th centuries did not favor unmarried women. Children born to unmarried mothers were considered to be socially inferior to their “legitimate” peers. During this period of adoption history, the belief that “illegitimate” children created serious social and public health problems was a widespread epidemic. We, of course, know this to be untrue today but, back then, illegitimate children were scapegoats for all kinds of problems in society.

If a woman realized that she was pregnant while she was unmarried, rather than facing the negative stigma associated with illegitimacy, she may have decided that adoption seemed like the better alternative. Just as they have through similar periods in the history of adoption, women in this time who placed their children with another family did so out of love for their child. Due to certain reasons — such as poverty, illness, and a lack of resources — for many mothers facing an unexpected pregnancy, adoption may have seemed like the best option.

Unfortunately, it was unlikely that a birth mother in this period would be able to get to know her child after she placed them for adoption, as closed adoptions were the norm. Confidentiality was recommended by almost every adoption professional, minimizing the negative impact associated with illegitimacy. For adoptive parents that continued to struggle with infertility, misplaced shame and guilt prohibited the adoptive parents from telling their children that they were, in fact, adopted.

Confidentiality also affected the families of the birth mothers during this period of adoption history.  In the eyes of the birth mothers’ parents, adoption gave their daughters a chance to lead normal, married lives with their future spouse, who often had no idea of her adoption history.

The unfortunate stigma of illegitimacy put unmarried women facing an unexpected pregnancy in a dilemma. If a woman kept her child, both of them would be treated as social outcasts. But, if she placed her child with another family, the likelihood that she would be able to see them again was incredibly low, especially when it was near impossible to find her child later in life.

The Adoption of Children Act

Up until this point, there were no laws during the history of adoption to protect children who were adopted. That all changed in in 1851 with The Adoption of Children Act. First passed in Massachusetts, this act strove to enforce adoptions that were in the child’s best interests.

However, child welfare didn’t immediately improve after the Adoption of Children Act was passed. Between 1854 and 1929, orphan trains were prevalent during this period of adoption history. These trains would take children from eastern cities to the Midwestern families. However, when children were placed on these trains, officials usually did not properly keep track of their families. Lower-income families used these orphan trains as a way to provide temporary caretaking for their child, not knowing the harmful things that could befall their children with this path. Not every adoptive family had their child’s best interest at heart. Many adoptive families took children into their home purely for profit and labor.

International and Proxy Adoptions

During the 1950s, early international adoption took the form of proxy adoptions. At this point in adoption history, U.S. citizens could designate a proxy agent that would act as their go-between for a foreign adoption. This was justified as a method to help “Americanize” children from another country in need of a home. Proxy adoptions mainly took place with children from Asian countries.

Unlike children born in the United States, children from another country did not experience the same quality of legal protection. Many families considering a proxy adoption did not have the education and resources needed to raise children from another country and often were unable to provide the children any insight into their culture or heritage as they grew up.

Benefits of Adoption Today

Adoption history has changed significantly over the last century. While adoption still has its challenges, modern adoption professionals continue to work to right the wrongs made in early adoption history, especially towards adoptees and their families. Here are just a few of the important milestones that helped usher in the modern adoption era:

Modern Adoption

After learning about all this history of adoption, you may be worried about what to expect as a prospective birth mother. Don’t worry —the modern adoption community is thriving more than ever and continues to evolve in the best interest of all involved, especially birth parents and adoptees. Adoption is much safer than ever before for your well-being and for that of your child. Your adoption plan doesn’t have to be made in secret, unless you want it to, and you can choose to have an active, open relationship with your child as they grow up with their adoptive family.

Children that grow up during the modern adoption era know their open adoption story and are able to embrace what makes them unique. And, now, transracial adoptions are more common than ever before.

As the adoption world continues to grow and improve, we can keep working toward a new era of adoption history where adoptees, birth parents, and the adoptive family continue to be celebrated.