This posts starts with a story – the story of a quote I found one day that became the story of how I concluded that not only is adoption really hard and complicated as a process, but that the ways we have of conceiving of and talking about adoption and the process of adoption are in and of themselves problematic.
The other day I found what I felt was one of the most inspiring, moving stories I have ever read. It’s about Mariska Hargitay, star of “Law and Order: SVU.” Go with me on this.
Ms. Hargitay has two children, both of whom are adopted. However, in this article, she speaks about the adoption process and the early pain she experienced when trying to bring a child home. During their first adoption attempt, she and her husband brought a child home, and named them, clearly considered them a part of their family and were ready to settle in to a life together – when the mother of the child changed her mind.
When we brought my cousins home from the hospital, we had the whole extended family together, aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents, and that moment of becoming a family was so special. If someone had come back and taken that child away from us, I can’t help but feel like it would left a hole that might never have been filled. It would have been so indescribably painful. And in the long-term, I wouldn’t have my cousins, and I cannot imagine that life.
But this is what Ms. Hargitay, who is now one of my role models, had to say about the experience of having the person who gave birth come back to reclaim the child she was ready to raise as her own:
“But … this is what I’ve come to understand about life: It was probably the greatest, happiest ending. I mean, it was so painful for us, but it was deeply joyful and deeply right for her.”
I think Ms. Hargitay is absolutely right. For the mother to ultimately be able to make the decision that raising her own child was the best thing for both of them is “both deeply joyful and deeply right.” I am of the (possibly permanently) childless variety that thinks having a child and/or raising a child is always an act of untold bravery. But I also think it’s valid to discuss the ways in which this decision caused pain for the couple trying to adopt. The fact that the decision caused Ms. Hargitay and her husband pain does not make the decision any less the mother’s decision to make. It doesn’t make it wrong or bad in any way. But it was obviously difficult and hurtful, painful enough for Ms. Hargitay to describe it and remember it years later. I can still remember and describe the exact process of adopting my cousins as well. Bringing them into the family was an emotional investment, and it involved a series of ups and downs. We were told one of the adoptions wouldn’t go through, then that it would, then that it wouldn’t – and then, finally, we brought my cousin home. I think it is good and right to conceive of a child you are bringing into the family as your daughter, your son, your niece or nephew, your grandchild – but it is incredibly emotionally stressful to then be told that no, maybe not. Maybe. Maybe not. Invest emotionally – oh no, don’t do that. You’re waiting for another child. This one is not yours.
This situation highlights something that, in terms of reproductive choice, gets a lot less play than prevention and abortion: adoption is really, really hard. Lately, as anti-choice rhetoric filters through our culture, you see ladies in the media who get pregnant and have “two choices”: keep the baby or give it up for adoption. Really, that’s it. Examples of this now-pervasive notion that “choice” means only the choice between keeping the baby or giving it up for adoption, with abortion never even getting a mention, include: most episodes of “Sixteen and Pregnant” (there was recently a beautiful and poignant episode highlighting the challenges of abortion, but we were excited to watch it because it’s so damn rare), all conversations about Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, anything on the ABC family channel, including “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” and recently, most especially, ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” which has incredibly problematic portrayals of motherhood, choice, and adoption all-around. All of these fervent claims that adoption is a primary option for pregnant people who cannot parent or do not want to parent obscure the reality of the process. And while pro-choice advocates often mention that the world is overcrowded and adoption is an expensive, raced and classed process to which not everyone has access, which leaves many children world-wide without homes, there are so many more dimensions to this decision.
Carrying a child and giving birth are no joke. While there are certainly situations such as that of the oft-critiqued Juno in which someone knows that carrying a baby to term and giving it to a loving family is exactly the right choice for them, more often the process is fraught with a range of less easily packaged emotions. Many people who give a child up for adoption want to raise them, but simply feel they can’t. When they want to raise their child but cannot offer them what they believe they need or deserve, it can be wrenching, and can certainly lead to feelings of inadequacy and resentment. Ultimately, what they are giving is an incredible gift, and more and more adoptions are very open, allowing them contact with their biological child as it grows up. But someone else parents that child, provides them with a home, attends school functions, spends holidays with them, and has a life with them. And that is an intense decision to make. Were I to ever get pregnant, my options are abortion or parenting. Adoption is off the table. That is not something I could ever go through, and not a decision my large extended family, whom I love very much, would be alright with. It wouldn’t be their decision, but I am close to my family, and in a decision so big, what they want does matter to me.
In writing this post, I ran into a number of difficulties. One of our abortion gangsters objects to the term “birth mother.” I use it because I personally think it’s a sign of respect. I believe that parenting makes you a parent, and gendering the process of parenting makes you a “mother” or father” – I believe that giving birth makes you someone that has given birth. But if someone has been pregnant or given birth and thus conceives of themselves as a mother, I would certainly be the last person to tell them that they’re wrong. I don’t really get to decide who’s a mother, or what makes a mother – but I do have to make decisions about how I will discuss these things from my own perspective, or we cannot open up these conversations. And then, for me, even using the term “mother,” in any of these contexts, is problematic, and I would prefer “birth parent,” since I don’t know how the person in question identifies. They may not prefer those gender pronouns.
What I am saying here, then, is that the process of writing this post demonstrated to me the extremely problematic nature of the discursive framework of adoption and the adoption process. And while all of the issues raised with my drafts of this post, and, I am sure, whatever issues are raised in the comments, were valid and had their own reasoning, I found many of them problematic as well, mostly because I feel like the discursive framework within which we’re working is problematic.
As a member of a family in which other members are adopted, passionately hate the qualifier “adopted.” I absolutely hate when people refer to someone’s child as their “adopted child,” their sister as their “adopted sister,” etc. No disclaimer or qualifier is needed. The word “adopted” is a way of making that relation other, different. As someone who has that relation, let me please tell you, IT IS NOT OTHER OR DIFFERENT. IT IS THE EXACT SAME. It doesn’t matter how someone became family, once they’re in, they’re in. In a way, I find the relationship between my biological family members and adopted family members even more significant and beautiful, because we chose and found one another.
This assertion raised yet another issue with the post – that being adopted is different. Let me clarify. I don’t believe there is a “normal” family, or a normal or regular way of creating a family, so I don’t believe that qualifiers of this kind, when discussing familiar relations, are ever necessary, unless someone requests them. Many of my friends refer to people as parents who are not their biological parents, and they require neither the words “adopted” nor “step.” If they prefer them, I’m happy to use them, but I continue to go qualifier-free until otherwise requested. This is not to invisibilize adoption or the other processes that go into making biological and non-biological, “normative” and “non-normative” family units – it is to instead suggest that all family units are non-normative, and each process of creating and living within them different and unique in ways visible and invisible, requiring its own set of challenges and negotiations. I keeping with my general concerns about the discursive framework, I believe the net-terms of “adopted,” “biological,” and “step,” when used as qualifiers in these contexts, may mask they many differences contained within these constructed categories, and lead to a false set of assumptions or understandings about what is always, contained therein, a universe of individual differences, samenesses, and experiences.
Another of our gangsters pointed out to me that in earlier versions of this post I used the phrase “keep the baby” as opposed to “continue the pregnancy” and “choose to parent.” I think these corrections were totally spot on. She also pointed out that I used the phrase “give up for adoption” when “choose adoption” might be better. There, my feelings are more complicated. Yes, “choose adoption” is absolutely a less loaded, and even, given the context, less judgmental phrase than “give up for adoption,” and for that reason, I infinitely prefer it. I am judging no one here. I think choosing to adopt is brave, choosing to parent is brave, choosing not to parent is brave, choosing to discuss birth control options with your partner so you don’t get pregnant is brave. In short, I believe learning about your options as a reproducing human being of any gender and making conscious decisions regarding those options is a brave and admirable undertaking. But I also believe that putting a child up for adoption is giving up the idea of parenting that child, and choosing instead not to parent, choosing that someone else should parent instead.
I believe, when it works out, that adoption is one of the most beautiful, amazing ways to make a family, but it is not foolproof. As it stands, to decide to give a child up for adoption, and to decide to adopt, are flipsides of the same very challenging coin, and not everyone can do it. That is why I believe a holistic approach to reproductive justice is so very necessary. It is so important that people be made to understand that they have many choices to prevent pregnancy, and then they must be educated about them, and given access to them. Then, if they do get pregnant, whether intended or unintended, they must understand their choices, and again, have access to them. And then, all of these decisions have to be acknowledged as taking place within already-problematic, raced, classed, and gendered structures of power, and those frameworks need to be constantly challenged and examined. We must move towards a framework in which all of the “choices” are structured with the ultimate goal in mind of creating loving family units, however traditionally or non-traditionally, however normative or non-normative those “units” might be. It sounds utopian, but really, how wild and crazy is it to want people to be able to make families?