Blood and Water: American Adoption Stories- Karen Duffy (1989, 1994)

Source: Duffy, Karen May. “Adoption Interview: 1989, 1994.” E-mail interview by author. November 20, 2016.

(Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.)

Karen had always known she wanted to adopt children.

Growing up in the 1960s, she spent most every summer on her family’s cattle ranch in Nebraska playing with her many cousins. A few of her cousins were adopted and this was, as Karen would say, “a non-event.” Adoption was common in the Gesierich family. The Gesierichs were open about and positive toward adoption and this made a lasting impact on Karen’s life.  

“I remember when I was pretty young telling my mother that I wanted to adopt children and then [afterward] have some of my own,” says Duffy.

Karen was married for four years before her first child came into her new family, adopted, despite efforts to conceive naturally through fertility treatments. 

“I felt very driven to be a mother,” Duffy says. In those four years of marriage she felt personal as well as external pressure to start a family. Every Mother’s’ Day she would stay home from her local Sunday church meeting (at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) because it was too painful to remember both the absence of her mother (who had passed away in the first year of Duffy’s marriage) and Karen’s own inability to bear children.

When it became clear that the fertility treatments were not effective, the decision to adopt “came easily and naturally” to Karen and Matt because of Karen’s childhood wishes to be an adoptive mother and the positive exposure she’d had to adoption throughout her life.

Karen’s first child would be her son, Kyle, born Fall of 1989. “We found out about 5 months before Kyle was born that his birth-mother,” a fourteen-year-old girl who (due to her family’s embarrassment) had been sent away from her home in the midwest to live with extended family in Washington State, “was planning on letting us adopt him. People would tell us it was probably not going to go through– that she would change her mind– but I was confident that it [the adoption] would happen and it did. We went directly to the hospital and took him home when he was only 17 hours old.” The Duffys never met Kyle’s birth mother. 

Just like that, Matt and Karen were parents. Four years later, they ached to have a second child, so they registered with LDS Family Services– an organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Adopting through an agency was more difficult that privately adopting a baby. It involved lots of paper-work, waiting, and (most nerve-wracking) home studies: 

“Home studies were trying… Knowing that incompetent, irresponsible people have children every day but feeling the pressure to prove you are equal to the task of parenting was challenging.”

Despite these challenges, a prospective birth mother contacted the Duffy family of three within a year. The young mother had given birth to a baby girl the previous day, and she wanted to meet Karen and her husband. The LDS Family Services representative made sure to specify to Karen and Matt that this new mother “wasn’t sure what she was planning to do.” With hope in their hearts, the Duffy family drove to Seattle. “We… met her, went home and they said they would “let us know.” We were not confident Maddie’s birth mother would choose adoption or us. Kyle was 4 by now and we didn’t want to confuse him with getting a crib or anything ready just to put things away when things didn’t work out. Thankfully, We got a call on Thursday to come pick up our baby girl. We felt that she was ours immediately, it was love at first sight.”

Because the Duffy’s didn’t have prior notice they were, in Karen’s words, “completely unprepared. No crib, clothes, formula, diapers, anything . Luckily we were experienced parents by this point and knew the essentials we would need. Things came together pretty quickly. I can still remember sitting on the floor holding her while her dad, Grandpa and Grandma hung wallpaper and decorated her nursery all after the fact.”

“I don’t remember anyone discouraging us from adopting,” Duffy, states, but “I also don’t remember asking for anyone’s opinion.”

Despite her resolute spirit and lack of need for outside approval, there were a few women whose remarks about Karen’s adoptions struck her.

There was a lady in our church who was very bitter that her daughter had given a baby up for adoption. One of the women in our ward felt it was necessary to go over to her house and prepare her for the fact that we were adopting a baby girl because she feared an outburst from her. She then came over to our house and let us know she was very happy for us, so it turned out to be a non event.”

A week after the adoption of baby Maddie, Karen’s sister in law asked “if I felt like I was babysitting. That surprised me– because I didn’t think of it that way at all. I still remember that, so it must have really shocked me. No. It didn’t [feel like I was babysitting]. I felt like a mother. Mother of a newborn baby who I was already totally attached to.”

Later, when Karen was pregnant with her only natural-born child, a woman from church asked Karen if they “were worried because our two adopted children were so darling and maybe our own baby won’t turn out as cute.”  How does Karen feel about this looking back? “People are strange” is all she can say.

Having her first natural-born baby after adopting two was a different experience, says Karen, but less different than many may be inclined to believe. Her third child required the biggest adjustment.

With Parker I was a new mom with a baby and two small children and I was recovering from 9 months of pregnancy and a long labor. After my other two children there were emotional adjustments, but physically I was great! This time I felt exhausted emotionally and physically. Although that didn’t last long I would say that made the biggest difference.”

One of the most difficult things about raising adopted children, early on at least, was having to report back to adoption agencies and birth parents. The feeling that people were “checking up on” Karen’s parenting– on her family– did make Duffy feel more like a babysitter despite normally feeling like a “real” parent. “These children were ours,” Duffy says. It was unsettling for Karen and Matt when LDS Family Services policy made it feel like that wasn’t the case.

Karen did keep up on her responsibilities dictated in the LDS Family Services adoption agreement for her daughter. She sent pictures regularly for Maddie’s birth mother as well as letters informing her of Maddie’s growth and development. Karen has always felt an incredible debt of gratitude toward the birth mothers of both of her adopted children. “Their decisions helped instill a drive in me that I wanted to do the best I could to bring their child up healthy and happy so their sacrifice wasn’t wasted. I wanted them to feel like they had made the right decision and given their babies the life they wanted them to have.”

Does Karen feel her experience with her two adopted children would have been different had they been born to her naturally?

“I don’t think there would have been much of a difference at all except I might have more instinctive  knowledge of them genetically. Perhaps a better idea of how to fix Maddie’s curly hair or treat her stomach issues. A more instinctive way of handling Kyle’s ADD, instead of having to figure everything out on my own. However, I faced something similar with Parker (birth child) and his [health problems], learning how to cope with something unfamiliar, so ultimately I don’t think there would be that much of a different experience… One difference I would say is I have to be cognizant that they have other people in the world that care about them as well: their birth [families]. I was always very careful to never say anything negative about their birth families so they could have a positive relationship with them as adults if they chose to.

“I felt like I bonded easily with both of my “adopted” children. The reality is that I don’t think of them differently from my birth child and neither does their dad, they are simply our children. Our children are each a miracle to us.”

Karen’s advice to parents seeking to adopt is two-fold:

  1. When you decide you want to adopt, tell everyone. You never know who in your area may be seeking to put their child up for adoption– and adopting privately is much easier and faster than adopting through an agency.
  2. Tell your child he/she is adopted from day one. Karen learned this lesson as a child in Nebraska and implemented it in the lives of her children. “We always said, ‘We are so glad we adopted you!’ or ‘We feel so blessed we got to adopt you!’ so that our children never had to ‘find out’ they were adopted– it was just the way things were and we as a family were so grateful for it!” In doing this, according to their children, Karen and Matt completely avoided their kids having negative feelings about being adopted (like feeling they were given up because they were unwanted or that they were somehow inferior to their younger brother– feelings that people with little experience with adoption often assume are givens in the lives of adopted children).


Karen’s story as a mother is a window into the way both motherhood and adoptive motherhood were viewed in the 1960s (in the case her extended family) and the 1990s when she raised her two adopted children. An analysis of her experience is most striking in comparison with the stories of other adoptive mothers in other periods of American history– as we will discuss elsewhere in this blog series.

Karen and Matt Duffy still live in Washington State and recently celebrated their 30th anniversary. Their three grown children are currently attending colleges spread across North America. They enjoy volunteering with their local church congregation and spending time with Matt’s parents– who also loved and accepted their adopted grandchildren as wholly their own.


6 thoughts on “Blood and Water: American Adoption Stories- Karen Duffy (1989, 1994)

  1. It’s interesting to read about how parenthood comes into question when individuals decide to adopt. While the woman who was the subject of this post felt like her children were just as much hers as her birth child, it was her peers that struggled more with it than she did it seems–which is a pretty interesting observation.Perhaps this is why many people who adopted in the 1950s chose to keep their adoption a secret.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Certainly. I have been struck in my research at how much policy surrounding adoption throughout American history has focused on what *society* will think of the mother having gotten pregnant– or on what *society* would think if anyone found out one’s child wasn’t “theirs” and very little on what is ultimately best for the child itself– at least until very recently. There is totally a trend right now to be honest with one’s children about adoption– but I think that is only because now it is seen as less of a ‘failure’ to have to adopt.


  2. That was so interesting! I am amazed that Karen and that 14 year old were both shamed for their behavior. Can you imagine criticizing someone for accepting a batch of cookies you baked for them? What a cool story about overcoming social barriers and doing what is best for the child. I also loved that Karen addressed the longing to be a mother. It shows that no matter your circumstance, you can be whatever you want to be.


  3. Thanks for sharing this personal story. I can totally relate! If you haven’t checked it out yet, look at Ellen Herrman’s Kinship By Design–a great history of adoptions in America.


  4. In the beginning of the article, Karen had mentioned growing up around cousins that were adopted and it being a “non-event”. Why do people who do not spend time around adoptions find it much harder to see it as a non event, let alone as something positive?

    Liked by 1 person

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