Kim Mcbreen was adopted by a Pākehā couple who were told they were getting a Pākehā baby. It wasn’t until her 30s that she met her Māori birth father. Here she writes about the impact of a Pākehā adoption system that disconnected Māori like her from their whānau and whakapapa.
I’ve always known that I’m adopted.
My parents must have told me when I was young because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know. It wasn’t strange or secret. It was as normal as anything else. They had a nice line about adoption — something like, most babies are born into families but they got to choose my brother and me.
It was the 1970s, the middle of New Zealand’s closed stranger adoption era. From 1955 to 1985, the state was pushing it as the solution for unmarried women who were pregnant and for married couples who couldn’t have children.
Around 80,000 babies were adopted. Because of shabby practices, we can’t know how many of these babies were Māori, but I imagine every whānau has been affected, and has lost precious children.
Closed stranger adoption relies on legal make-believe to protect adoptive parents — the child’s connection to their birth parents and whānau legally disappears. Everyone acts as if the adopted children were born to their adoptive family, and everyone knows we weren’t.
The adopted child grows up with no way of reconnecting to birth families or finding out anything about them. The birth parents and their whānau have no way of reconnecting to the child.
I was a pale-skinned, dark-haired baby. My adoptive parents are both Pākehā, and they were told they were getting a Pākehā baby. Over time, that became less believable to me, but not to my parents. I could be all sorts of things, they would explain. I could be from the south of France, I could be from all sorts of places. All of them European.
The Adult Adoption Information Act 1985 made it possible for adoptees to apply for our original birth certificate once we are 20 years old, which meant we might be able to find our birth parents.
My file was two single-sided pages — my original birth certificate and a social worker’s report. It answered no questions about my ethnicity. The descriptions of my parents read to me as code for “not white, but should pass”.
Still, the social worker’s report says a lot. Half the page is the sorts of facts that go on birth certificates. That part of the form is sparse. Just large capitals floating in a sea of white space.
The remaining half is about my birth mother and father. It’s two columns of tightly packed handwriting, all the description the social worker could fit.
Their ethnicity (mother full European, father presumed full European), and a physical description which includes that she tans well (and her weight, because why not?), and that he has olive skin, black hair, brown eyes and European features.
Also there are the sports they played, what jobs they’ve had, how much education. Their parents’ and siblings’ jobs (because class matters).
So much information crammed into two narrow boxes for what reason? To be archived, never to be looked at again?
The headings show the state was interested in recording only the most basic facts. The way it was filled shows a social worker adapting the headings to tell a story of a typical middle-class Pākehā family with child — reminders for the sales pitch to prospective parents, I guess.
The adoption story is focused on mother and child. My parents talked only about my birth mother. My birth father’s name isn’t even in my file. So, I’d thought only about her.
I met my birth mother when I was 20 and we’ve been in and out of touch. She is Pākehā, which didn’t fully answer any ethnicity questions. And she’s lovely, but we haven’t really connected. Mother and child is such an intimate relationship. Where do two people start when they’ve never known each other?
I was in my 30s when I got serious about having kids. They would need to know their whakapapa, and that made finding my father more urgent. I found him before I started trying to get pregnant because I didn’t want my children not knowing.
Why did it feel so important to do it for them but not for me?
After I talked with my birth father, I had to tell my parents. It felt like I was “coming out” to them as Māori.
I went through all the coming out stuff — I planned the conversation so it would go well. And then they forgot and I had to do it again. And my dad wanted me to get genetic testing. I already had all the answers then, but I guess he didn’t like them.
All my life, I’d been in Pākehā-defined spaces — home, school, the sports I played, uni. I tried not to get attached to the possibility of being Māori. I stayed away from Māori groups and spaces because it felt fraudulent, wrong, to get too close.
It wasn’t until I was a postgrad student, knowing that my birth mother is Pākehā and nothing of my birth father, that I took a few cautious steps towards te ao Māori. Māori networks were reaching out to me, asking me to join in, get involved, “sit with us” at the pōwhiri. It was welcoming, but it felt dangerous to accept, and wrong not to.
Some wise friends involved with the Māori students’ association helped. I could hang out with them. They gave me a legitimate reason to be around without being in or out.
If I was open about not knowing, and Māori groups were inviting me in anyway, why did it feel wrong to accept?
Because it’s what I’d been taught. Every time I showed interest in Māori things, I got: “You know you’re not Māori, right?” It came exclusively from Pākehā. It puts those of us who couldn’t or can’t know our whakapapa in impossible positions. For whose benefit?
Even when I’d found my birth father, registered with my iwi and was learning te reo at Te Wānanga o Raukawa, I’d still sometimes get that reaction from Pākehā friends. “You’re not really Māori.” Also, they’d wistfully say: “You’re so lucky.”
Yep, adoption. I’m living the dream.
But adoption only ever made sense to Pākehā. Yes, my mother was too young to look after a child and her parents didn’t want to, but there are many possible solutions. Why wasn’t my father’s whānau asked? Why was no one else in my mother’s family asked? Why wasn’t my history recorded and shared with my new family?
That’s not lucky. Most cultures would recognise it as abusive.
The reality of only learning my whakapapa as an adult is that it will never feel real. I could give all the story: “I’m from here, but I grew up there. My whānau is this, but I grew up in my adopted family.”
But people will ask where I’m from and try to connect to me. “Oh, you must know so-and-so?”
”But they live right there.”
”I don’t know. I didn’t grow up there.”
”But they must be a cousin, an aunt?”
”I don’t know. I don’t know anyone.”
I don’t have a real relationship with my iwi. I don’t even know what that would mean. I’ve never lived there. I don’t know anyone.
It feels like I’m making it up. How can I come from a whānau when I know only a few names? How can I claim to be from a marae where no one knows me? It’s uncomfortable and it will always be uncomfortable.
We grow up with our whakapapa in a Schrödinger’s box, both Māori and not Māori, neither Māori nor not Māori. I lived that for so long, I’ll never shake it.
It’s only luck that I have answers. I have adopted friends and family who don’t know their whakapapa, who may never know it. I see how it hurts people, how hard they’ve worked to find out anything. Every dead end feels like another rejection.
I see people making it worse. When anyone says whānau or iwi shouldn’t include people until we prove our relationship, or we need to work for it, to prove our commitment before we’re welcomed in, it’s so smug and self-serving. It hurts people who had no power in their adoption.
When anyone asserts what it means to be Māori without thought for people who can’t meet their criteria, they’re hurting people. Anyone who won’t recognise adopted people as whānau, or only legally adopted people, or only whāngai, or not whāngai, or demand proof, a blood test, whatever.
You have to know your whakapapa, or belong to a whānau or marae. One minute they’re talking about how whakapapa connects us all, and the next they’re warning you about someone who isn’t a whanaunga by blood. Blood.
That’s colonisation right there. It’s all based on insecurity — you’re not defensive and jealous of other people’s identities if you’re confident about your own.
Iwi membership brings this up hard. Does it need to feel like we’re begging to get into an exclusive club? Adopted people can be shut out of our iwi or our whānau’s iwi. That’s just doing the colonisers’ mahi for them.
My birth father reckons when adopted people take the risk to reach out to our whānau, we deserve a soft landing. Someone to say: ”You’re here! We didn’t know it, but we’ve been waiting for you! What do you need?” Because it’s scary and painful. We don’t know what happened. Did they want me? Did they know? Do they want me back? Have they tried to find me?
It’s hard for whānau to guarantee a soft landing. But iwi, especially post-settlement iwi, have no excuse. A welcome mat and some empathy would be appreciated, a guide would be great.
A dream lots of adopted people have is that we’ll find our birth parents, and there’ll be this instant connection. We’ll make more sense in this family. They’ll see all the dark, shameful pieces of us and love them. Recognise them. Celebrate them in a beautiful family mosaic.
All those years we thought we couldn’t sing, our voices were made for our birth family. We are the harmony they’ve always missed. We’ll fit. And maybe our imaginary birth family will take the pressure off our real families, and we’ll fit better there too. (Or maybe that’s just me.)
We’ll have a whole other family, and our kids will too. All the problems created by adoption solved.
Can I manage another family or two? Even if it goes perfectly, that’s a lot of extra commitments. Have I ever had the personality, energy or skills for so many relationships — my birth mother and her family, my birth father and his whānau, my six siblings, my actual family that I grew up with?
All those people, everyone’s feelings — guilt, grief, suspicion, envy, jealousy, fear. Growing up in a nuclear family didn’t prepare me to manage even one family worth of relationships.
A friend of mine found her birth parents and spent her 20s building real relationships with them and her whānau. I spent my 20s coming out, struggling through a PhD, working overseas. And now we’ve got kids and so much less time.
I didn’t know where to start learning about my whānau, marae and iwi. That’s why I went to Te Wānanga o Raukawa where I’d have to do assignments about them. It seemed easier to go to my whānau and say: “This is for an assignment. Can I interview you?”
I don’t know if adoption is part of feeling like an outsider, but it doesn’t help. I include being Pākehā in my mihimihi. A few people have told me not to, that I’m either Māori or Pākehā.
But I’m both and neither. I’ve had more experience in te ao Pākehā, but I’m still not at home there. And I don’t feel completely at home in tikanga Māori spaces.
Now my kids are inheriting my disconnection. Until a friend talked about the effect on her children, I hadn’t considered that. It’s gutting to think about it. I can teach them their pepeha, take them to their marae, but I don’t have relationships.
I would be a better parent if I connected with my birth father’s whānau in Australia, my birth mother’s family in Auckland, my children’s father’s whānau in Waikato, spent time at our marae in Murihiku, on top of keeping up with my partner’s and my families.
But even before Covid, I didn’t have enough holidays, time or energy. My kids are enrolled with our iwi. We talk about our whakapapa and I hope real relationships will come. I know it’s not enough, but what can I do?
It’s part of colonisation. Adoption was supposed to be a tidy solution to a tangle of problems from Pākehā thinking — unwed mothers, unwanted illegitimate babies, childless couples.
Other, more humane practices were pushed aside. Babies were understood as clean slates, as long as all ties to our mothers were cut. We were as if born to our adoptive family. All the loose ends tidied away in sealed files.
But it hasn’t been tidy for lots of us.
I’ve been told enough times that I should be grateful for my adoption, that I’m lucky. This is the first time I’ve written about it. And it’s hard. I don’t want to hurt anyone, especially not my mum or my birth parents.
My childhood was fine. I love my mum. But I don’t feel lucky to be adopted. I’m not grateful to be part of that experiment.
Secrets always create problems. Adoption has created problems that adopted people can’t solve by ourselves. The only solution I know is talking about it, even though it doesn’t feel safe.
My adoption created a mess, and I don’t know how to clean it up. Its effects don’t end with me and my parents. They ripple out into future generations. My children will be stuck with it, maybe their children too.
And it’s not just that ties to my birth whānau were taken from me — I was taken from them. I wasn’t a child to my birth parents’ whānau or a sibling to my brothers and sister. I won’t be a real aunt to their children. They might miss out on my children as well.
We have been disconnected. Cast adrift. That doesn’t feel like something to be grateful for.
Kim Mcbreen is Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe, Ngāi Tahu and Pākehā. She is a kaimahi at Te Wānanga o Raukawa, and part of a project team to understand whāngai and the adoption of Māori. She lives with her partner and two children in a small coastal town and dreams of community.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.