The Ancient Mariner of Adoption Reflects on His Work


Joanne Thalken
Focus on Adoption magazine

Spending a few hours with David Kirk, author of the books Shared Fate, Adoptive Kinship, and Exploring Adoptive Family Life, is a remarkable experience.  He has lived through so much in his life and has much to say about politics, religion, sociology, and, more personally, what it means to be Jewish, a father, and an adoptive parent. He is one of those people who can make meaningful connections between events and experience, effortlessly. He is opinionated, very political, and full of passion, energy, and humor—he jokes that his friends call him the ancient mariner of adoption.

At the age of 86, his life is also full of reflection on his past. We spent much of our time talking about his career and research—these reflections contain much insight into changes in adoption. Many parents starting their adoption journeys now have little knowledge of just how much has changed.

David started his research in 1950, as a student at Cornell University. He had spent two years doing his master’s degree looking at Japanese-American relocation camps. Having fled Germany during the war, he analyzed his experience as an “involuntary migrant,” one who did not wish but was forced to leave his country. He became interested in the migration of Japanese-Americans because of this—finding parallels between their experience of being forced into camps and his own experience as a Jew. He was, at that time, about to adopt his first child, Francie, and he started to reflect on his new little daughter’s experience of the world in a similar way.  He had looked for information on adoption everywhere, researching and visiting many libraries, and found little useful information. He states, “I was going to become an adoptive parent—what did I have to learn? What did it mean for me to have someone enter my kin group—to become grandchildren to my parents? I could find nothing.” This realization, that there was nothing he could read to help him to understand the unique way he and his wife were to become parents, was devastating.

He started thinking about adopted children and their place in the world and came to the realization that he could position them too as “involuntary migrants,” forced, through no will of their own, to live with strangers, to enter a new kin group. He became so involved in studying adoption that he started shaping his doctoral research, looking at public attitudes towards infertility and illegitimacy, the two main factors that made for adoption then. He states: “In the summer of 1953, when I started to analyze the data, to put it all together, a terrible thing happened [to me]. I might never have returned to adoption studies. I realized I was not a real parent in the outlook of other people in the community. It was bad enough for men, but for my wife, for women…. Early in Shared Fate, one learns how society looks at women who cannot bear children. We had two children now—I did not want us to endure that kind of an atmosphere. I just wanted to be a parent. In my mind I started to suppress my own data.” The results of his research horrified him—the knowledge that he was not seen by society as a “real parent,” that he was seen as second-best, and that he and his family would suffer such prejudice throughout their lives.

His work in adoption was so new that he found few people in the academic community who understood it, and he was so devastated by the overwhelmingly negative attitudes he found in his study, that he was very close to leaving the work and going on to something new. He started taking an interest in other areas. By chance, a professor from Quebec read his thesis and came to Cornell to visit him and invite him to continue his work in Canada. He accepted a position at the McGill University School of Social Work as its sociologist—although still not focusing on adoption at this point.

His fate was not to leave his adoption work. At the first US conference on adoption in Chicago in 1955, he was invited to read a paper on public attitudes towards adoption and infertility that become a part of the heritage of the child. There was so much interest generated by his presentation that he was convinced to continue with the work. Private and government adoption agencies offered funding and the assistance he needed in finding a sample group of adoptive parents. He decided to confront prejudice against adoptive families and began his work towards change, teaching adoptive parents constructive ways to understand their experience.

He also continued research into how the attitudes of other people affect the family and ultimately the child. A critical point in the research came when he pretested a questionnaire with a group of adoptive parents. Among other questions he asked, “Has anything untoward ever happened to you or your child simply because people knew your child was adopted?” At first people appeared to be ignoring the question and flipping the page. He states, “Then a woman in the group started to cry and the other couples looked at me with daggers in their eyes. In desperation, I told a story about a night when our little daughter Francie was in hospital getting her tonsils out, and a wonderful nurse who knew us greeted us in the hallway. She said, ‘Ruth, you are just like a real mother now.’ In front of those other adoptive parents, I asked my wife how this had made her feel. She replied with one word ‘Awful.’ Then I turned to the woman who was wiping her eyes and asked, ‘You were crying—why was that?  She said ‘Because the same thing happened to me.’ This opened a flood of talk in the group, and everyone began to share their experiences. It was the first opportunity for me to hear other adoptive parents acknowledging their position as marginal families—rather than maintaining the myth that there was no difference between them and parents whose children were born to them.”

Dr. Kirk went on to spend decades in his work on adoption, work that influenced adoption practice, adoption law and adoption education internationally. He says that many who read Shared Fate when it was first published in 1964 said he was undermining adoption because he wanted the image and understanding of the natural parent in the adoptive family.  Commenting on current adoption practice, he stresses that he did not mean he wanted birth parents actively involved in their children’s lives to the extent they are often now in open adoptions. Though he encouraged his children to find their birth parents, he made it clear to them that the contact was to be theirs rather than his and that the birth relatives would not become part of his kin group. He refuses to use the term “birth family” and prefers “underground kin.” He calls himself a “conservative sociologist” and feels symbolic lines of the family must be maintained in order that people not get lost.

As someone who is parenting two children with much openness with birth family, I had difficulty understanding this perspective. Dr. Kirk’s work has been so influential. It is ironic that he is not accepting of a phenomenon that is, to some degree at least, a product of his own work.  Although he is respectful of a child’s right to search for birth family, he believes society is accepting of totally open adoption at great risk. He is happy to be the “old man out,” as he calls himself, where this is concerned. Even though our opinions differed on many subjects, I felt privileged to spend time with someone who has achieved and changed so much in adoption. All of us, as adoptive families, owe our ability to share our stories, understand our differences, and feel openly proud of our families, to people like him.