Shared Fate: A Theory of Adoption and Mental Health, 1964

Source: Courtesy of H. David Kirk

H. David Kirk in 1999





This influential book was the first to make adoption a significant issue in the sociological literatures on family and mental health. Its author, H. David Kirk, was an adoptive father of four. Born in Germany in 1918 and educated at the City College of New York and Cornell University, he directed the Adoption Research Project at McGill University from 1951 to 1961. This project eventually compiled data about the attitudes and experiences of 2000 adoptive families in Canada and the United States, most headed by infertile couples. What he learned was that “role handicap” characterized the experience of adoptive parents. Adults who failed to have children naturally were labeled abnormal and experienced discrimination. Adopting other people’s children, Kirk found, did not relieve their pain. The agony of infertility followed them into parenthood.

Two choices existed for handling the strain, according to Kirk. Adoptive parents could believe in the promises of matching and pretend to be something they were not. Or they could own up to their deprivation and make common cause with their children and their children’s birth parents. Kirk called these two options “rejection-of-difference” and “acknowledgment-of-difference.” Adopters who made the first choice escaped social stigma by claiming they were just like biological parents and avoiding the dreaded task of telling their children about their adoptive status. Adopters who made the second choice had to live with doubts about their own authenticity, but they cast their lot with children whose hold on belonging was as shaky as their own. Difference was the “shared fate” of adoptive parents and children. Acknowledging it was less comfortable but far better for everyone involved.

Shared Fate was important for two reasons. First, it analyzed adoption as an important social institution rather than as an arrangement made by individuals seeking to solve a range of personal problems. Second, it promoted a decisive shift in the world of adoption away from simulation and toward diversity as the foundation for family-making. As a new adoption reform movement dawned in the late 1960s, matching was criticized, along with policies of confidentiality and sealed records. The denial of difference no longer seemed natural or wise, as it had earlier in the century. The struggle with difference, also at the heart of therapeutic adoption, emerged as the single most defining feature of the adoption experience.

It is obvious to most people that adoption is a different way to make a family. Kirk elevated this common sense observation to the level of social theory. Bringing difference into the open made it more urgent than ever to know whether difference was just difference or whether difference caused damage. Psychopathology studies suggested that difference was detrimental and that adoptees were prone to behavior problems and emotional disturbance because they were adopted. Kirk protested this pessimistic conclusion, but Shared Fate had provided significant momentum for a wave of thinking about the risks of adoptive kinship for adults and children. The notion that adoption was fragile primarily because of its emotional defects was fairly new, but the notion that adoption was an especially hazardous and inferior form of kinship was not. Danger has been an enduring theme in modern adoption history.


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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
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