Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Can Complex Adoption Issues Be Made Simple?

The older I get, the more I feel like Socrates: the only thing I know is that I don't know anything.  Having lived adoption for 46 years, as a mother of loss to adoption and an adoptive mother myself, I thought I knew just about everything there was to know.  For most of those years I was a strong advocate of placing children in need in families that wanted and could care for them.  Sounds simple, doesn't it?  What I have learned is that it is far from simple, and what I didn't know proved to be the source of much suffering--for my lost son, for me, for my adopted son, and for my other two children who grew up in the fallout.

I was told by people I trusted that relinquishing my son would be for his benefit, that, even though I was an adult with a good education, I was not fit to be a mother simply because I was unmarried.  To protect my family and provide for my son, I should do the "right thing" and give him to strangers to raise.  So far as my family, the adoption agency, and the adoptive parents were concerned, a problem was solved.  I'm sure they all felt certain that I'd "get over it" and proceed with the rest of my life untroubled and unencumbered.  That didn't happen.

I believed that love was all you needed to raise a healthy child.  I loved my first raised son and knew I could be a loving mother to a child in need.  I didn't feel capable of dealing with a disabled child, but I could easily love a child of a different race.  I would promote racial equality and rescue a baby from desperate circumstances by adopting a Black/Vietnamese child at a time when U.S. troops were scrambling to get out of Vietnam, leaving thousands of mixed-race children behind.  More problems solved.

Today I am in reunion with my first son and have discovered that there is nothing simple about forging a relationship with a stranger who just happens to be your own flesh and blood and who looks just like you.  There is nothing simple about the mother-child bond that persisted through 44 years of separation or the flood of grief that reunion unleashed.  There is nothing simple about my son's psychological and emotional difficulties or my adopted son's turbulent life.  There is nothing simple about my raised children's growing up with a single mother and no money because my first marriage broke apart, in large measure because of the role adoption played in it.

During the past three years I have had a crash course in adoption--its history, effects, and policies.  The more I learn, the more I realize the terrible complexities that arise when good people follow good intentions into thickets of unforeseen difficulty.  On one side (though, in truth, there are many sides), you have the pro-adoption advocates: infertile couples hoping to build a family, gay couples hoping for the same, altruists who want to make a real difference, and evangelicals who see adoption as a divine mission.  On the other you have the adoption-reform activists working toward legislation that would grant adult adoptees the right to their original birth certificates, mothers of adoptees who want to find their children, adoptees who want to find their mothers,  those hoping to curtail the rampant corruption in foreign adoption, and those who want to see an end to adoption altogether, at least as we have come to know it since the era of closed adoptions began in the 1940s.  There are many sub-groups, but these are the major categories of those pro- and con-adoption.

It's only human to stake out an opinion about a vexing issue, then marshall all your resources to defending your position.  Often this involves demonizing your opposition.  Despairing mothers-of-loss (MOLs) accuse their children's "adopters" or "adopteraptors" of greed and selfishness, and potential adoptive parents (PAPs) see themselves as heroes in a fight to save children from drug-addicted, juvenile, or rejecting mothers.  I follow several blogs and read many others, and I am amazed by the vitriol expressed on both sides.  MOLs feel their babies were stolen from them, and adoptive parents tend not to think much at all about the women who gave birth to their children.  Many contemporary PAPs assuage their consciences by opting for "open adoption," whereby they keep the mother informed about her child's progress and perhaps even permit some visits. 

Tolstoy famously said that all happy families are alike, and for decades adoptive families have presented a facade of typical domestic happiness.  Adoptive families were held to a higher standard, what with all the home studies and intrusions by social workers to determine their fitness, so the stories that got told were filled with sweetness and light.  What adoptive parent was going to admit there were difficulties?  Adoption was beautiful, even noble, and adoptive parents were special people.  Adoption was a story with a happy ending--every time.  That's what most people believed, and that's what most people wanted to believe.  But we live in more transparent times now, and adoptees who were helpless infants when they were placed are now able to speak for themselves, and not all their stories have happy endings. 

It turns out that adoption is more complicated than anyone knew.  Mothers who lost their babies suffered grievous, life-long consequences, and many adoptees, even "happy" ones, were left to wonder who they were and how they came to be with people they weren't biologically connected to.  Knowledge that most people take for granted was denied to those most intensely involved, and this abyss of unknowing and alienation was papered over with pretty pictures and sappy commercials that portrayed adoption as so beautiful it would bring tears to your eyes.

What I find regrettable these days is the inability of the various factions in adoptionland to understand each other and find common ground.  In my enthusiasm I became completely anti-adoption.  I still cringe when I hear the word, but I realize my reaction is personal and emotional.  I know that not all adoptive parents are selfish, and I know that there are children born into circumstances that require an alternative.  Perhaps adoption is a Gordian knot that cannot be untangled.  If it must be simplified, then let's determine the few things both sides can agree upon and proceed from there.

There are three things I believe all parties of good will should be able to agree to: 1. equal rights for adoptees, ie., easy access to OBCs, 2. an emphasis on family preservation and the end of adoption for profit, 3. the elimination of corruption in international adoption.  The first is easy and could be accomplished tomorrow with a Presidential order.  Failing that, we should work state by state to overturn antiquated adoption laws that discriminate against adoptees and their mothers.  Ending adoption for profit will be more difficult, because many agencies and lawyers have a vested interest in the status quo.  There is big money in adoption, and there is big money promoting it.  It is a David and Goliath contest, and Goliath has all the stones.  The corruption in international adoption is the most problematic for obvious reasons, but the United Nations, UNICEF, and the Hague Convention are all making efforts to ameliorate the desperate plight of too many children around the globe.  Much more needs to be done.

It's easy for me to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the adoption problem (for lack of a better term).  For things to change, I believe society itself will have to change.  The Left will have to give up its conviction that everyone has a right to be a parent, and the Right will have to concede that God does not make adoption plans in a game of cosmic bait-and-switch.  Mothers who relinquished babies in the BSE (Baby Scoop Era) will have to come to terms with the fact that they were never promised anonymity, and if that was their understanding at the time, well, times have changed.  Adoptees must own their own stories and not be afraid to tell them, and no one should assume that because Aunt Sally or the neighbor next door had a successful adoption there can be no other kind.  Those who abhor adoption, as I admit I do, must understand that for some children it is far and away the best option, but no one should be able to maintain the delusion that adoption is anything other than a tragedy for the child and, yes, for his mother.  Happy adopted children grow up to be adults with gnawing questions about identity, and relieved mothers who leave their babies behind may well wake up decades later, finally fully aware of all that they have lost.  We must create a space where everyone can feel free to tell the truth and free to determine the course of her own life, without the interference of "professionals" who profess to know better.  Shifting social attitudes is never simple or easy, but it can and does happen when enough people see the right thing and do it.  Slavery, racism, gender inequality, discrimination, adoption.  One down, at least four to go.