The Politics of Family Building – Part 1

So Sophist Six over at Tolerant People invited folks to write guest posts for her and since I’ve had some ideas kicking about in my brain to post here, her invite seemed as good an opportunity as any to get some of it out. Now as I have started to write, I see this is probably going to be a series of posts because, well, adoption is a very complicated matter. And I don’t think Sophist Six really wants a dissertation on her blog. So here’s part 1 of hopefully many more to come. The rest will probably be posted only here.

Pause here to add the disclaimer that the opinions below are mine and mine alone. I do not pretend to speak for all adoptive or prospective adoptive parents, much less other folks touched by adoption. I am familiar with and sympathetic to the perspectives of others in the adoption web. And I especially try to see things from the potential viewpoint of my own son, who is nearly 4, adopted from China, and has barely even had an idea about what those things might mean to him. Please don’t assume that because I don’t address a different viewpoint that I am not conversant with it.

I also acknowledge that my view is one of a person of pretty major privilege, being well-educated, upper middle class and (although actually bi-racial) benefiting from the assumption that I am white. I know this. I own this. I try to hear and allow other perspectives to inform and change my opinions. But ultimately my views are what they are based on my own lived experiences. They are subject to change. But this is where I am now.

And I should probably add trigger warnings for a wide range of issues from infertility to abandonment to child abuse.

So a little background on me and how I came to be an adoptive parent.

Much of my adult life I was child-free by choice. I have never had a desire to be pregnant and for a long time I didn’t really want to be a parent. I still think this is a valid choice. Being a parent is a major undertaking and not everyone has the desire to do it , which is NOT a “lack” in the person in question. One is no less of a whole person simply because one chooses to seek other challenges than becoming a parent.

A lot of the reason I was not interested in being a mother was due to family health history. I won’t get into the details because the stories aren’t mine to tell so it’ll just have to suffice that there are major health considerations that have stopped me from wanting to bring children into the world. I do not want to be responsible for passing those issues along.

As an aside this caused some tension between me and my mother for a long time. I think she thought I was judging her choice to have children. I was not and still am not. Mom and Dad had kids somewhat in the dark and somewhat in knowledge of our genetic illnesses but I trust they had some idea of what they could handle. I certainly knew what I could handle – or rather, couldn’t handle – and made a different choice. My brother, who used to feel the same way I did, has since made the opposite choice and I am thankful for the blessing of the niece that resulted from that change of heart. I would never say he was wrong, either. He made the right decision for himself and his family. But I still choose not to have children of my own body.

Now although I was pretty firmly in the “no kids” camp, I had long ago formed the idea that if I ever did decide to be a parent that I would probably adopt. I had only vague ideas of what that meant. My parents had been official and unofficial foster parents and we
knew a number of families that were built by adoption. But few people who haven’t adopted really know what it involves.

Fast forward many years, a marriage, a divorce and crazy whirlwind of relationships later and I found myself with a man I love and respect and in a place in my own emotional development that, hey, kids actually sounded like a great idea. My husband, too, had concerns about biological children and we just naturally came to the conclusion that we would adopt. (If you want to read how and why we chose international adoption and China in particular, here is what I posted when we were early in the process.

Here’s where it starts getting political.

Adoption is a very, very fraught issue. Oh my gods and goddesses! I had no idea when we first stepped into this arena just how fraught. I had only one perspective when we started researching – that of wanting to build a family – so I was really and truly shocked to see how deep a subject it became in a hurry. Adoption triads/webs. Ethics in adoption. International vs. domestic vs. foster adopt. Race and trans-racial adoption. Privacy concerns vs. needs of adopted persons. Child trafficking. Domestic and local politics effects on adoption. Attachment and trauma therapy controversies. Even choosing an agency became a political act as everyone in the adoption community weighed in on which ones were “good” and “bad” and why. And which programs were “ethical” or not was a whole ‘nother level of drama. Yikes!

Being a research aficionado and a political animal, it was like second nature to wade into it all. I won’t call myself an expert by any means but having lived neck deep in the issues for almost a decade I think I’m at least qualified to say I have an Informed Opinion.

To keep this from getting to be too long (too late?) I’m going to focus in on one issue: the way our prejudices about family, specifically the notion that “blood is thicker than water” shape public policy on adoption and can lead to some bad consequences for children.

As someone who has always been surrounded by family of choice (being an AF brat, having most of the bio family in other states and countries and of course having foster siblings sort of forced the issue) I’ve never really fully understood the “blood is thicker than water” idea. There were and are a large number of people who are not biologically related to me (not the least of which are my son and husband) who I would lay down my life for without hesitation. And any number of biologically related people I wouldn’t cross the street to spit on if they were on fire. Biology is no guarantee of love, support or even acceptance. Being called a host of racial slurs by blood relations long ago burned out of me the quaint thought that biology equals Family.
To my way of thinking, love, that act of one’s will to embrace another person, putting someone else’s needs before yours at least part of the time, trumps all. Blood can be a beginning, a tie. And I certainly feel that even with the biological family members I see about once in every 5 years or so. But it is not the be-all-end-all of family. Only love is.
But while a lot of folks might say they agree with me on that point, really, most of us still think, explicitly or implicitly, that biology is all. I think this is wrong headed and leads to a lot of heartbreak, abuse, shame for adopted persons and making adoptive families second class etc.
Case in point: it may surprise you to hear that UNICEF’s official position on adoption, especially international adoption, is that it should be a last resort only. This despite the fact that millions of children are not living with their biological families for a wide variety of reasons, mostly related to extreme poverty, which I know gets even more political. But still, UNICEF officially endorses the biology trumps all philosophy, as do many other aid organizations, many of which have a great deal of influence over public policy in developing nations around the world. It is more important, in their minds, that a child stay retain ties to his or her biological family than to be placed with a family demonstrably able to care for them.
In theory I can understand this principle. In a perfect world, poverty would NOT be the number one reason a birth family relinquishes a child (in whatever form that takes – some of them more heinous than heartbreaking.) In a perfect world, every child would be wanted and prepared for. In a perfect world, poverty wouldn’t exist and no one would NEED to leave their child at an orphanage just to make sure he or she got to eat. I certainly applaud efforts to relieve poverty and empower families to be whole and healthy.
But I think the black and white position of UNICEF denies the reality of the lives of millions of children and their families, and the political situation that surrounds them all. It denies that children are relinquished in ways both proper and “improper” (read illegal and sometimes cruel) every day. That children die in orphanage care waiting for a family. That some countries are more interested in scoring political points against an “enemy” than making sure their neediest citizens have a chance to grow into healthy adults. That they are run by people and corporations too corrupt to allow true reform. That a child’s country of origin may not be the safest place for him or her due to factors such as race or gender.
I do understand the potential trauma of separating biological families. I do know that giving up a child is not always a “choice” in the strict sense of the word. The forces or culture, poverty and coercive government policies about family are among the reasons that our son is with us. I know that the vast majority of orphans were not relinquished, or trafficked or left to be found because someone simply chose not to be a parent. Nor are many of these kids true orphans in the sense of their biological parents being dead.
And I certainly don’t dismiss the trauma for the children, who had absolutely no choice in the matter. For whom this may be a lingering loss. I don’t dismiss that our love for our son, and his for us, undoubted as it is, do not change this loss or the effects that may (or may not) follow him all his life. I don’t deny the power of biology. I just don’t think it is the highest consideration.
I don’t think kids should linger in orphanages or foster care for years in hopes that the biological family will come and reclaim them. Adoption agencies and orphanages etc should NOT be allowed to “manufacture” orphans and I strongly believe that any government or NGO that handles adoptions  MUST be clear with the bio family about what adoption really means when and if children are placed. But I don’t think waiting and waiting for uncles, aunts, grandparents etc. to be on their feet and come back is in the best interest, ultimately, of all the children all the time. And that is what UNICEF is pretty much saying with their policy. That biology is so important that it’s better a child stay in an orphanage, never able to call that home, or foster care, never to call that their family, facing potential abuse, neglect, instability etc, often for years, because of blood.
I think the best interests of the child, not all members of the biological family, should be the prime consideration. And a policy that says adoption is a last resort, in my opinion, denies that principle. Yes, this will mean that biological families are broken up. This also means governments and NGOs must walk the fine lines of colonialist, “white man’s burden” thinking when international adoption, or even our own US foster care system, are involved. I write this advisedly: my own grandmother was taken by the colonial Dutch government from her widowed mother for entirely racist reasons. She rarely got to see her mother or the rest of her family while growing up. So again, I know the pitfalls that lie in this path as well. But I do not accept the idea that separation from biological family is the worst thing that could possibly happen to a child. And I want this erroneous belief to stop being the basis for halting domestic and international adoption.
OK, this post seems to have veered a little too much into what I fear may be taken as some sort of “save the children” rant and that’s not where I wish to go. I just meant to highlight that a prejudice toward biology over the best interests of a child can be a very real impediment to finding homes for children and adoptive family building.
I know that my own stance may seem a little black and white, too, but it really isn’t. I don’t think of adoption as a first and last solution to the terrible situations millions of children are in. But I do see it as a place where two complementary interests, family building and finding permanent families for children can bring about, not story-book happy endings, but possibly best case outcomes.

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