Wednesday, January 26, 2011

When DNA isn't just DNA

Me, my mother, and my new baby sister, brought home 1 week
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.

Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom from Neil Ransom on Vimeo.

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 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.

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.
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.

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.
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.

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.


  1. I don't disagree with ANYTHING you said. I know my post was short and made some simplistic statements that are much more complex, but a lot of that comes from (what I feel is) a restrictive character limit. I often ...write lots of details, only to have to go back and delete (or my editor removes) things that they feel detract from the main point. In the bit where I mention that I couldn't be an surrogate because of the act of bonding during pregnancy and handing over the baby, I can very much understand how a birth mom is still a very solid member of a family as well, and I think that's a very good point.
    In my husband's situation, which I mention at the end, his birth father signed him over after a year... a year in which he had absolutely no concern for my husband, no interest in being involved, and over the years has been in contact with extended family and never once expressed any interest in even seeing pictures of my husband, much less having a relationship. So his situation is not that of the type of birth mother I think you're discussing, and I had to gloss over to make my point.
    I mainly did want it to be about egg donation, and also please remember I don't necessarily write my own headlines either.
    I hope that clears things up. *hugs*

  2. I watched the movie Juno again a few months ago, after being pregnant, naturally birthing, and breastfeeding my daughter. I was SO SAD at the end when the baby is born. I couldn't help but think (even though it was a movie!) that the baby wouldn't be skin-to-skin and wouldn't be nursed by his mother, the one who nurtured him for so long. That is a very sad part of adoption to me. I haven't thought enough about the other issues that you mention to make any good comments, but it is a lot of good food for thought! Nothing is ever as black-and-white as it is portrayed in the the media or popular opinion.

  3. Christie, see how much you rock? Really, your post was a springboard for thoughts I'd been juggling around for a while. This is really complex stuff here - I've thought about egg donation myself, in fact, and even surrogacy.

    sara, OY, don't get me started on Juno. I actually really, really like Diablo Cody, I think she's a super-snappy writer, but that depiction of adoption had some issues, to say the least. Not to say every woman who relinquishes a baby has to be portrayed as hysterically miserable - in fact, in the comments on Fugitivus' post, a birth mother weighed in with her experience, which was not terribly traumatic or difficult, and that's completely valid too - but I think it's also safe to say that there is significant emotional impact for the majority. Juno wept for about 25 seconds of screen time and was back to her quippy self the next day.

  4. Anne! Wonderful post & I'm looking forward to part deux.

    You weathered my roundabout/unanswerable questions with grace and insight. Many thanks. Many thanks.

  5. I attended a birth as a doula a few years ago for a young mom who had made an adoption plan...being the advocate for the mommy/baby chad that I am, it pained me to think of all the biological imperatives which this sweet baby might miss out on. Thankfully, the birth mother (also an adoptee, interestingly) was on board with a low intervention birth, open communication with her baby during the preg and birth, skin-to-skin, and not bathing the baby until she met her forever family. Her adoptive mom even planned to breastfeed with relactation and SNS. I will send you the complete birth story...I have birth mom's permission to publish it, too <3

  6. ** That is suppossed to read: mommy/baby dyad...thank you,darn autocorrect feature **
    I have been sitting on this story for several years now...thanks for motivating me to get it posted! Actually, this birth experience is what prompted Sir Hubby and I to have T-Bird--which, of course, is our amazing homebirth story which appears in Birth:It's Positive!

    As a parent educator, I also took several trainings on adoption...but from a professional learning about the laws, paperwork, and the sociology of it all. The training made a cursory attempt to address the notion of a peaceful transition for the baby, but left A LOT to be desired. I know my understanding is incomplete and always will be since it is something I can only participate in from the outside.

    And BTW, the Handmaid's Tale was a HUGE influence on my ideas about my own fertility...glad to see you mention it.

  7. This is a wonderfully written post. Much to say but I won't. Great post though.

  8. Justine! I'm so excited to read this birth story. I knew you had done this, but never got the fully-fleshed-out whole story. What a wonderful way to come full circle as a doula - talk about continuity of support.

    Maria, thank you!

  9. Fellow Adult Adoptee here just chiming in to show some support :-) Ironic is that I was just thinking about this topic a few weeks ago, officially annoyed with the "biology doesn't make family" comments often directed at adopted people (not that those who say those things mean to make someone feel that way).

    Lots of things make family: biology, the law, nurture, and “because I said so.” For so many, those things are combined into one family and one set of parents and they never have to give it a second thought. I consider it a privilege for people not to have to figure these things out or have others demand that they place their various ties with others in a hierarchy or discount some family members from mattering at all.

    I have two moms that I call “mom.” I consider both families to be equally my family. It took me about 25 years to do this because I didn’t think I was allowed. Any person should be allowed to do the same, no matter what people they choose to claim as family or not. Even if their definition of “family” differs from mine :-)

    If nurture is the only thing that makes a family then I only have two family members: my mom and my dad. I am legally related to loads of other Adoptive Family members who did not nurture me (or whom I barely know and/or rarely see) and I question how legal ties to those one barely knows somehow are superior to ties I have with those whose DNA, features, and heritage I share. It’s only when adoption (and donor conception) are involved that importance is places on some people over the others, regardless of how the individual [adoptee or donor conceived person] feels themselves.

    DNA and biology are so much more than just DNA and biology. As you’ve mentioned here, the Original Mother does quite a bit of nurturing and the continuation of that bond after birth is extremely important. As you’ve mentioned the PW, which I also agree with, an infant expects that bond with the mother who has thus far been nurturing it to continue after birth.

    In donor conception, surrogacy, and adoption, all of the adults involved need to consider the rights, future needs and wants, and adulthood of the child being created/adopted. These things too often seem like the perfect solution to infertility, but adoption and parenting are not about what is best for adults, it is about what is best for children. While a woman who donated an egg may not consider the person conceived and born from that egg her family, the individual who was conceived may view her as his or her mother. I know from listening to the voices of the adopted and donor conceived that it is extremely painful to view someone as family (which yes, the donor conceived often do and do absolutely value DNA) only to be rejected or be told someone else does not feel the same way. Likewise, they’re told “you had a good life, get over it.” Easier said than done. Having a good life does not replace a loss or make living a different life than most others in society that embrace nature and nurture all in one less difficult.

    So many people say they admire Adoptive Parents and I, although there are a few Adoptive Parents I know that I am fond of (including loving my own) I can’t help but wonder if the specific admiration is deemed as being due because of their adoptive status? Because they take in a child that isn’t theirs? The “unwanted” stigmas the adopted carry? I was neither unwanted by my mother nor callously left and rather than expecting me to be thankful I was adopted, they’re thankful they had a chance to parent.

    So many babies have been surrendered to adoption because of policies and practices, that since the 1930’s in the U.S., has made parenting hard, impossible, or unfavored for certain woman: such as those who are young, poor, and/or unmarried.

    I’ll get off my soapbox and stop rambling. My feelings are allll over my blog if anyone cares to know further lol.

    I see you’re in PA, check out

    Thanks for this post ((hugs))

  10. what a great post, thanks for writing it.

    i'm currently 7 mos pregnant with my first baby and we've also talked about adopting sometime in the future. i have a niece that was adopted and although she's a happy little girl who loves and is loved by her adopted family, there are (or especially were, when she was younger) clear incidents that have made me think repeatedly 'she just knows someone is missing', ie. her birth mom. now, carrying a baby in my body for the first time, i feel it all the more strongly - i am most definitely nurturing this baby. the baby knows me by now and i know this baby. it's heart-breaking to think about but i want to be real about the truth and not try and sugar-coat it.

    also, your comment about right after the baby being born being where nature and nurture connect? absolutely right on. love that.

    thanks again ~

  11. "Lots of things make family: biology, the law, nurture, and “because I said so.” For so many, those things are combined into one family and one set of parents and they never have to give it a second thought. I consider it a privilege for people not to have to figure these things out or have others demand that they place their various ties with others in a hierarchy or discount some family members from mattering at all."

    That's some truthiness right there. Also this: "I know from listening to the voices of the adopted and donor conceived that it is extremely painful to view someone as family (which yes, the donor conceived often do and do absolutely value DNA) only to be rejected or be told someone else does not feel the same way. Likewise, they’re told “you had a good life, get over it.” Easier said than done. Having a good life does not replace a loss or make living a different life than most others in society that embrace nature and nurture all in one less difficult." YES. Thanks for all this, Amanda.

    andrea, I really appreciate your perspective here! And congratulations on the upcoming little one!

  12. I agree with and can relate to so much in this post! I grew up in a family of 3 bio kids (of which I am one) and two children who were adopted as newborns. Adoption has always been a part of my life. Almost two years ago I became an adoptive mom to my DD.

    My DD was a "safe surrender" baby, and as a result we have no contact with the birth mother. It absolutely breaks my heart that my DD did not get to spend her first hour skin to skin with her mom, but lying in the cold waiting to be rescued. It breaks my heart that her birth mother has no way to know how happy and healthy she is. As happy as I am that she is my daughter, I'm sad that she does not get to be raised by her birth mother.

    Knowing that adoption comes through loss it was that much more important to me to breastfeed my adopted baby. In so many ways she was cheated. It felt it was the least I could do to make it up to her. Here is our story:

  13. Incredible, Teglene! Thank you so much for sharing this. What an amazing full circle.