I'm a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders. I'm also a natural mother from the BSE and the adoptive mother of a son from Vietnam. Since finding my first son nearly four years ago, I've undergone a sea change in my approach to adoption. (Read the rest of my blog.) Now it's November, National Adoption Month, and I'm ready to come out with all barrels blazing in favor of radical adoption reform, as in: Let's eliminate adoption and institute legal guardianship for kids who truly need a different family from the one they were born into. Infant adoption should end. Surrogacy should be illegal. And international adoption needs major overhaul.
These are my principles, based on over forty years of experience and extensive reading and communicating with other first mothers. So it was with some dismay that I saw--today, on the first day of National Adoption Month--my favorite presidential candidate trick-or-treating with his three granddaughters adopted from China. I know several families with foreign-born, adopted children, and I know the parents love their children, as I love my adopted son. I understand the motivations that lead to such adoptions, and I also know the difficulties that are bound to attend them. Adoption is complicated, far more complicated than the prevailing narrative about it. Of course, life with a loving American family is preferable to growing up in an underfunded orphanage or in abject poverty. But growing up with no sense of who you really are, who your people really are, or what your personal history is leaves the strongest, most well-adjusted adoptee with disturbing questions and longings.
When I first saw video of Bernie Sanders with his granddaughters walking down a typical American neighborhood street, I was taken aback. I've been arguing against adoption for so long that it's become a knee-jerk reaction for me, but when I saw these adorable girls, I knew I could never say anything that would disturb their peace of mind, their place in the family they now belong to, or their sense of self-worth. It's easy for adoption reformists like me to pathologize adoption, as if it were a guarantee of dysfunction and unhappiness, but that assumption is as simplistic as the one that assumes that all adoptions are happy and adoptees don't care about their original families.
In the best of all possible worlds, adoption would never be necessary. There would be no war-torn countries, no starving families in developing countries, no offspring of criminally negligent parents. In the best of all possible worlds, all babies would be born to mothers who want them and are prepared to care for them, but this is not the world we live in. That said, there could--and should--be far less adoption than there is, especially domestic infant adoption. My son was born in 1968, during the Baby Scoop Era, when unmarried mothers were told emphatically that they were unsuitable, that if they loved their babies they would give them up, that they would forget and move on with their lives. This is the ugliness I have known all my adult life. Babies born in the United States or Canada or Australia or Europe, where the standard of living is high and opportunities are more plentiful than in many other parts of the world, should by default remain with their own mothers. Affluent societies should do everything possible to keep mothers and their children together, if only to avoid the kinds of problems that afflict adoptees at a far greater rate than non-adoptees: addiction, suicide, mental health issues, infertility, incarceration. As they say, Pay now or pay later.
There is something inherently distasteful about paying thousands of dollars for a baby, whether through adoption or via surrogacy. Babies are not commodities and should not be treated as such. The very idea of organizations set up to "process" adoptions is abhorrent. Call infant adoption tantamount to slavery or human trafficking, and I won't argue with you. As I said, I understand the motivations that lead to adoption: the intense desire for a family of one's own, the desire to provide love and a home to a child who needs those things most of us take for granted. When I adopted my son, I knew I couldn't save the world or bring peace to a fractured country, but I knew I could love a baby. I already had a child I was raising, so I wasn't infertile and I knew I was a good mother. I truly wanted to save a child. What I realize now, over forty years later, is just how selfish I was. All parenthood is selfish in my view. Even babies that come by "accident" are welcomed, but no adopted child is adopted accidentally. There is much deliberateness involved, and adopted children are by definition welcomed. I know that the babies I gave birth to were babies I wanted--for me, so I could love them--not because I thought I was doing them a favor by bringing them into the world, and I adopted for selfish reasons: to replace my lost son, to save a child who might otherwise perish and so feel noble, to set an example to a racist society. And my love for my adopted son grew out of that selfishness, just as my love for my biological children grew out of natural selfishness. Nature intends that we should love our children with fierce selfishness. We may congratulate ourselves on our altruism and our highly evolved values, but at the end of the day, mothers love their babies (normal mothers) with a ferocity that transcends abstractions like altruism or generosity. Only the most exigent circumstances should ever separate a mother from her child. Not youth or feeling unprepared or being in school or being unmarried. These are all temporary conditions that will be ameliorated with time. No one is really prepared for motherhood until one finds oneself in the miraculous chaos of it, but good support is crucial. That is where, as a society, our attentions should go. Families are the first line of defense. I read somewhere once that civilization began with grandmothers, a striking observation. If families are ill-equipped or unwilling, then communities need to step up, but no new mother should ever be faced with the stark choice of being abandoned to her own devices or giving up her child.
Every adoption begins in tragedy. What worse tragedy can you imagine than losing a child? Whether you're a sixteen-year old with shocked parents and an unreliable boyfriend or a desperate mother of seven in an African village with not enough food to nourish your children, parting from your child is heart-ripping, yet when you look at pro-adoption websites all you see are smiling "birth mothers" and happy adoptive parents and the nobility of making an "adoption plan." What I see when I look at these sites are those pictures of babies born in the Nazi lebensborn program. German women were told that if they loved the fatherland, they would mate with good Nazi men and produce healthy Aryan children. Their motherhood was manipulated, just as the motherhood of vulnerable women is being manipulated today. We must see adoption for what it is--a desperate last resort--not the fairy tale it's made out to be. We do a disservice to adoptees when we raise them to believe their family is just the same as any other. Adoptive families ARE different. That isn't to say they lack love, far from it. But let's base our relationships, including parent-child relationships, on truth not myth. And let's make sure that all adoptees have full knowledge of their own beginnings, their own biological families, their own identities. Anything less is theft, pure and simple.