by my Mother – retired social worker, adoptive parent, voracious reader
How many times have I looked at my daughter over the last seventeen years and been thankful for her presence in my life? Her laughter, her curiosity, her intelligence, and her humor have enriched my days and brought a kind of joy that I never could have imagined. The fact that we are together at all has sometimes seemed nearly miraculous to me. Out of all of the children who were in social welfare institutes in China in 1997, she was matched with our family. Adoption was just the beginning of a journey that has been filled with glitter and giggles, adventures and achievements, tears and travels, and most of all, love. How is it that I now am at this place where I question the very institution that created our family?
As with many caring people, my heart has always been touched when I have heard stories about children in need. Compelling portraits abound in the media of children who have been neglected or abused, their innocent faces staring longingly. Added to these images are portraits in the news of children languishing in orphanages, crowded together in spare environments with no one-on-one care. Is it any wonder that the first response for many adults is to think of adoption, of removing these children from such conditions and placing them in a loving homes? I suspect it is here where the rhetoric of “saving” or “rescuing” children first develops. But it is also here where we must be challenged to look deeper, to ask hard questions, and to move beyond adoption as being the first or only response.
Before there is an adoption, there is a first family. In looking only at the child, it is easy to let those first parents fade into the background, to relegate them to a past tense position with names such as birthparents, which make them into little more than human incubators. Or we create narratives about them, making them into either saints or sinners. We say that they loved their child so much that they sacrificed so the child can have a better life. Should any parent ever be asked to surrender a child so that child can have a better life? Is there not something inherently immoral about people of means becoming parents to the children of poor people around the world? What if we, the potential adoptive parents, sacrificed adopting a child and donated the same amount of money that an adoption entails to support agencies that work towards improving the lives of families in third world countries so they can keep and raise their children in healthy environments? And why do some agencies, businesses, and churches give grants to help people adopt? Again, that money could be better used to support services in home countries. Or how about those “sinner” first families, the ones who use drugs or alcohol, or who beat or severely neglect their children? What if resources were readily available to those families – excellent day care, easily accessed top notch treatment programs, decent housing, mental health services, job training for family supporting jobs, and on going emotional support for struggling parents? Could ripping families apart and children in and out of foster care and later adoption be avoided? I suspect that the answer to this would be “yes.” It wouldn’t work for all but would definitely preserve many families. Having worked in the foster care system for many years, I am well aware of the myriad of obstacles families face in trying to reunify with their children.
It is my belief that children belong with their first families whenever possible. Adoption should be a last resort and should be about finding appropriate families for children, not children for families. This means understanding that adoption is built on loss, and that loss is often permanent of first parents, siblings, a whole kinship system, parts of racial and cultural identity, and a sense of wholeness. Adoption is not a one time act where the door to one life closes and a new, better one begins. It is a life long process of self discovery and integration, with pain, confusion, and living with dualities often regular companions. We first must be willing to see that it is arrogant to assume that having more things, opportunities, and wealth is a fair trade off for losing that first family. If we value family, we will value them.
Like she has in so many areas, my daughter (the writer of this blog) has brought me to a clearer understanding of the many complicated issues around adoption – how monetary transactions have led to corruption, how first families have sometimes been lied to, deceived, or tricked into relinquishing children, how cultures can be punitive to single mothers, and how demand creates a climate for adoption to become more of a consumer venture. With all of these realities, I can’t, in good faith, be pro-adoption. That doesn’t make me anti-adoption either. I realize that there will always be legitimate reasons for adoption and that children can’t be allowed to suffer while societies change cultural or political values. It does mean, however, that I have an obligation to advocate for changes that will make adoption more transparent and ethical and less needed. I can start by supporting programs that help preserve families whether that is an organization for single mothers in Korea, micro loans to start small businesses for mothers in Africa, or parent education classes in the United States.
Read the follow up piece on being “Freshly Pressed” and all of the attention this blog post has received here.