Me, my mother, and my new baby sister, brought home 1 week
prior, circa nineteen seventy*mumblemumble*.
prior, circa nineteen seventy*mumblemumble*.
(That is to say, pretty much never.)
Adoption is always a part of me, but has been actively on my mind more than usual recently, for a few reasons. A few days ago, a blog post that's mostly about egg donation but also gets into the virtues of adopting really got my attention. Then there was the startling and emotional reveal from Oprah that she had found a half sister who had been relinquished for adoption in secrecy (along with the news that Oprah herself had given birth as a teenager; the baby sadly passed away). And finally, a film project currently being produced about adoption by my own "birth sister" has sparked some very thought-provoking discussion.
I read a timely post a few days ago by Christie Haskell, a blogger I respect and like very much, entitled "DNA doesn't make a family". Simple statement, yes? But even seeing the title and the opening lines, even before reading the rest of the post itself, my gut was protesting. No, DNA alone - whatever that could possibly mean - does not equal Family.
But DNA is almost always more than just DNA.
I understand the importance of the nurture portion of the equation. It's what my parenting decisions are based on, in fact. But the ability to make statements like the above is a luxury that only non-adopted people* can make. If DNA did not matter, there would be no such thing as genealogy, no such show as "Who Do You Think You Are", wherein various celebrities are taken on a globetrotting tour of their lineage. Who could ever possibly care about their ancestors if all that mattered were the actions of the people who raised them, period, black and white, end of story? If DNA made absolutely no difference, ancestry would be of no interest to anyone.
Even beyond the ancestral threads of DNA, though, the core experience of adoption is also more than merely biological, animal, anatomical.
The writer of the post in question, Christie Haskell, who publishes on The Stir at CafeMom (and again, also rocks as a person, as a writer, and as an advocate, for the record), opens with this: "Both of my kids are biologically mine and my husband's. There are times I've actually felt guilty that we had our own biological kids instead of adopting, especially knowing how many children out there need homes." I admire Christie very much, and the bulk of her post turns out to have more to do with egg donation than adoption, but adoption is part of the discussion, both in her writing and in the ensuing comments section, and in that discussion I see some very common sentiments about the moral merits of adoption that, based on my experience, I view somewhat critically.
In case you don't know my background, in a nutshell: I was adopted when I was three days old, have had a generally good relationship with my parents, and am fortunate beyond belief to have been able to not only reunite with, but also develop a close relationship with, my birth mother. And not just with my birth mother, but also with her family, including her children, my half-siblings. My younger sister was adopted when I was 4 years old, at two weeks of age.
Recently, the eldest of my birthmother's children, Kate, started filming a documentary about adoption as a class project. It tells the stories of three women, all of whom have had adoption play a significant role in their lives, from three different angles. There's me, the daughter who was relinquished. There's my birth mother, who gave her baby away when she was 16 years old. And there's my sister's friend Ashley, who is currently pregnant and is looking into an open adoption for her baby. (She also interviews the midwife who will be attending Ashley's birth.)
Before we go further, I implore you to listen to this excerpt of Ashley's interview. Yes, it's 95% just her talking, but this is one extraordinary person in an extraordinary situation - I was hanging on every word. Prepare to be equally heartbroken and blown away by her sorrow and her insight.
So, returning to the post that got my own wheels turning. During my own interview process, both on film and in outside discussions, Kate and I spent some time discussing the Standard Public Narrative of adoption, the one where adoption is an inherently virtuous act, where adoptive parents are the shining armor benefactors, the baby is lucky to be rescued from what would surely be a terrible fate, and the birth mother is, if anything, an afterthought - an afterthought who is often commended for her courage and/or thanked for her sacrifice, but ultimately doesn't really count. Because DNA doesn't make a family.
I could go on and elaborate on why this is a problematic paradigm, but what I'd end up doing is just parroting much of what someone else already wrote (and blew my mind in the process). Instead, I'm going to quote an old post of mine which includes excerpts from her piece. Be warned, her language is very strong, and she makes this clear by the title itself, "Adoption Sometimes Gets All Fucked Up". Not for the faint of heart, but if you can, I strongly encourage you to read this if you've ever had any thoughts about adoption, from any angle. Starting with my commentary:
I hope that sheds some light on why I bristle a bit at simplistic sentiments extolling the virtue of adoption that ignore the significant pain that is its very source (all experiences being variable). To mention this pain is frequently being, at best, a party pooper, and at worst, in my case, an ungrateful, angry adoptee.
I just happened to read a blog this week that shook me to my relinquished core. It was written in response to the recent scandal wherein an adoptive mother "returned" her behaviorally difficult child to Russia, with the note: "To whom it may concern: After giving my best to this child, I am sorry to say that for the sake of my family, friends and myself, I no longer wish to parent this child."
The blogger, Fugitivus, talks more specifically about international adoption, but also about the larger issues that accompany any adoptive scenario, and tackles them with insight and anger and empathy and perception and pulls no punches whatsoever, including 'polite' language: Adoption Sometimes Gets All Fucked Up 101 (consider yourself warned on the cussin').
This is NOT an easy read (in content OR length). But it's an amazingly, *brutally* honest one, full of difficult truths. But I am so grateful that someone is willing to lay some of this stuff out there, stuff I've never seen anyone acknowledge before. And simply as a person who has sometimes thought some of the very things that she reveals to be privilege at work, I am humbled and all the more grateful for having had that privilege called to task. I can own up to it. One snip, though I encourage you grab a coffee and read the whole thing with an open mind:For our modern, legal concept of adoption to exist, families must be broken. Adoption is not, and can never be, a best-case scenario. It relies upon the worst-case scenario having already come to fruition. From there, you’re working with what is instead of what should be. That should be will never go away. For the entire lifetime of everybody involved in adoption, that should be exists, and it hurts. What is can still turn out to be wonderful, beautiful, incredible, but what is will never be what should be. It is that should be that necessitates education, sensitivity, and trigger warnings, because it never goes away.This really resonated with me. There's an incredible pressure that many adoptees feel to only express gratitude for their situation, with the implied belief that their birth parent was an undesirable person from whom you have been rescued (open adoption is changing that somewhat, in many cases). Expressing any feelings of grief or loss marks you as an ingrate, an "angry adoptee", as Fugitivus mentions, and is seen as questioning the benevolence of one's birth parents. Sometimes even curiosity is unacceptable. Identity is the very definition of multi-faceted: biology is certainly not the only thing, but it is a very real piece of it, and absence of its knowledge can be felt as a loss. Yet wondering about the biological piece of your identity is often viewed as a slap in the face to the adoptive parents. How dare you want to know about these other people? After all we've done for you. Nurture is the only thing that matters, nature plays no part. We're your REAL family now.
When a story like this arrives, the impulse is to compare it to the opposite and compare it to more of the same. The news drags up stories of other Families Gone Wrong, and Families Gone Inspiring As Hell. A false dichotomy is implied: there are adoptions that go right and adoptions that go wrong. But the truth is, behind every adoption is a family that went wrong. . .
My main point here is to warn everybody against coming up with – and expressing out loud and in public – black and white assumptions about how good or bad adoption can be. Adoption is not easily judged as good or bad, because adoption itself is a symptom of something else. If the origin of adoption is the destruction of a family, then nothing that comes from that can be explicitly good. At the point where adoption is a viable option, we have already failed to do our best, and all alternatives are an equal failure of the village that should have been raising this child.
To be more concrete, avoid sentiments such as, “You would rather zie should have…” As in, “You would rather he stayed in the orphanage?” or “You would rather his adoptive mom be arrested?” or “You would rather he be in American foster care?” There is no perfect option; they are all painful, and they are all wrong, because none of them should have to be options.
She's not saying that adoption never turns out wonderfully, not at all (she addresses that further here, in a post about the above post); my own story has MUCH that is wonderful, make no mistake - but she's talking about it in ways that step outside of what have become the only acceptable storylines about adoption in our culture:
I also understand the desire to keep adoption a positive narrative. There are so many kids in the world who need homes, and putting some of the uglier sides of adoption out there diminishes their chances of finding any home. Of course, I don’t believe in any home for children — I believe in the right home, the permanent home, and I don’t think that home can be found if the pill is sugared so much it’s not a pill anymore. So, it’s a perspective I understand, but now that I’m not a member of the adoption industry anymore, it’s not a game I’m willing to play.
There is the pain of the mother relinquishing her baby, due in the majority of cases to her circumstances, not out of lack of love or desire for the child. And there is also the pain of the baby - more difficult to quantify, since babies cannot speak to tell us exactly how this affects them, but you only need to look as far as this blog and the internet circles we all run in to find reams of writing on the precious minutiae of how birth affects the baby. Skin to skin, immediate contact, rooming in, initiation of breastfeeding as soon as possible and desired, low intervention - it's all stuff I believe in and advocate and promote.
For so many adoptees (though again, doors are now being unlocked by open adoption situations), none of the above could ever happen. Is this nature being violated, or nurture? I'd say it's both, actually; that how our babies are born is where nurture becomes an extension of nature. In fact, I posit that birth is, potentially, where the synthesis of the two factors begin - and BOTH matter. What does that mean for adopted babies, many of whom were whisked away from their mothers within seconds, literally never to be seen again? It means that nurture must become all the more important, and this has so much value, but I don't think this means we should pretend that the primal wound, the separation of the dyad, didn't happen or doesn't matter.
Point out that it would be better if babies could remain with their mothers, in an ideal world - and people will seriously say "But what about all the wonderful infertile couples out there who can't have children of their own?"
Really think about that. What is being said here? What is being implied, however unintentionally? I know no one in this day and age could actually consciously believe that some women should have to breed on other womens' behalves, in some sort of Handmaid's Tale dystopian nightmare. Nor that babies should have to endure separation from their mothers simply because they are a desired commodity. But that statement diminishes the experience of the biological mother and baby in favor of the couple who wants a baby for themselves.
To reiterate something Fugitivus states but I feel is worth repeating: This is not to say that adoptions don't make wonderful next-best-things in many cases. They do. They did in my case. But I think it's important to respect, deeply, the source and the history.
There needs to be a follow-up to this post. I set out to address all my thoughts in one fell swoop, but as I've already meandered all over the place, I best not try your patience with the next part. Coming up: During my interview for Kate's documentary, she asked me two questions that had me stumped. I rambled on and improvised, but they both deserved much more than I was able to come up with on the spot.
1. You say that in an ideal world, adoption wouldn't have to exist. What would that ideal world look like?
2. What do you think Ashley's baby would say to her, if she could?
To be continued.
*Some adoptees feel differently, too - I don't claim to be the spokesmodel for all of us. But I do know and have read enough about our experiences to be familiar with certain common threads.