Really liked this long…

Really liked this long post about adoption at Fugitivus.
This is not to say that everything about adoption is wrong, but everything about adoption is painful. For our modern, legal concept of adoption to exist, families must be broken. Adoption is not, and can never be, a best-case scenario. It relies upon the worst-case scenario having already come to fruition. From there, youre working with what is instead of what should be. That should be will never go away. For the entire lifetime of everybody involved in adoption, that should be exists, and it hurts. What is can still turn out to be wonderful, beautiful, incredible, but what is will never be what should be.

[Edited to add: Strongly recommend reading her entire post before commenting, as there's a lot of context for the statement above. She isn't saying that there are no good adoptions -- far from it. She works in adoption services; she believes that adoption is sometimes the best option for the child going forward. But she also believes that doesn't invalidate the above.]

I'd be interested to hear what others thought of the post, especially others with actual experience of adoption (birth parents, adoptive parents, adoptees). I have no personal experience of adoption (aside from having several friends who are either adoptees or adoptive parents or both), but I find the entire subject tremendously important to think through. Especially as a bio-parent myself, but even aside from that, just as a member of human society. It takes a village, folks.

And I perhaps liked even more Harriet's supplemental post about privilege / derailment / etc. I tend to be of the 'win hearts and minds' approach when it comes to anti-racism, etc. work, and I'm still personally struggling with more confrontational approaches. So I find it helpful when folks spell out what they mean by things like 'derailment' of the conversation. Yes, maybe it's 101, but even though I've been doing this stuff for a while, some parts of it are still 101 for me. Maybe that's true for most of us.

But if you read my adoption post and thought, Well, thats not true, because my experience was good, I dont give a shit and I dont want to hear it. That is you coming in here and demanding that the conversation be made about you. Im not going to argue your life experience with you; thats a losing goddamn battle from the start, which is why its called a derailment tactic. But the fact that your experience was good has no relevance to a discussion about bad experiences, unless you have a deep and abiding need to make everybody agree with and focus on your experience. Thats some privileged shit. Just because you won the jackpot in the oppression lottery doesnt make the rest of us rich.

And I have to quote one more thing Harriet says about the often contentious term, 'privilege', in the comments to the second post, because I found it so clarifying and helpful, and sorry it's so long, but you need the whole thing to get sufficient context:

...I have always preferred the term entitlement. Thats a word that gets used a lot in recovery from abuse and recovery from addiction, and while it doesnt capture the motivations or invisible processes that privilege does, I think its a better word to describe the actions of privilege. Especially because people who are privileged often dont feel privileged  thats the invisible process  and can be very underprivileged in certain ways. Addicts, for example, can be tremendously underprivileged, but they are burdened with an overwhelming, crippling sense of entitlement that they should have the things they want at any cost, and shouldnt have to face the consequences of those actions. There are also plenty of abusers who are very underprivileged, but feel theyre entitled to terrify somebody into domestic and sexual slavery. Entitlement, to me, is a belief that you deserve a baseline that you arent willing to grant to others, and if achieving that baseline causes pain, inconvenience, or suffering to others, thats none of your concern, because your needs outweigh theirs. Privilege, to me, is what can insulate a person from seeing the reality of other peoples baselines, so that entitlement can become an honestly ignorant process. As in, coming into a conversation that is not about you and trying to make it about you  and getting mad when you get shut down  is an act of extreme entitlement, because its demanding attention without consequence from people who have never indicated they think youre worth attention. To me, privilege is the invisible luxury that insulates a person from observing that other people dont act this way, its not an appropriate way to act, and there are natural consequences to acting that way (like getting called an asshole). But entitlement is what takes that ignorance born of isolation and turns it into the act of shitting on a conversation and then being all, Come clean my shit up! I shouldnt have to.
Edited to add: I just found this post of hers on transracial adoption, You should move. Fascinating.

18 thoughts on “Really liked this long…”

  1. So, she’s saying that people can’t have a truly good experience with adoption (because even if they’re happy with the outcome, it’s still not “what should be”), and then saying that happy adoptees should shut up because talking about that experience just derails the conversation. I’m not too impressed.

  2. In other words, it seems to me that she is the one with “a deep and abiding need to make everybody agree with and focus on [her] experience.” That’s based on what you quote here, not on the whole post, which I haven’t read.

  3. I really liked her post. As I commented there (still awaiting moderation at the time of my reply here):

    “Im the adoptive parent of two kids, one a local and open adoption and one a closed international adoption. I love my kids deeply. Because I an white and have money, my kids have greater resources than they would have if their birth families had not placed them with my family. To many people, this looks like a win, and some people have said *to my kids* oh, arent you so lucky you were adopted! Which makes me feel violent urges towards the speaker.

    Its not win and lose, its not lucky or unlucky. It is what it is. In both cases there was a failure on the part of the community, the culture. The fact that we have a happy family now is great, but it doesnt answer my daughters questions as to why her birth mother lied about her identity and traveled to a strange city to place her infant with strangers.”

    To elaborate, I *do* have a positive adoption experience. But *I’m not the one adopted.* My kids are young yet, and I KNOW they are going to struggle with their identity at some point. We as a family have a really good relationship with the birth parents from the local, open adoption. But I do wonder how that will hold as the kids get older.

    I disagree with Harriet’s assessment that all adoptees would have been better off in a better world in which their birth families had the proper resources to care for them. I think some people just don’t want and therefore shouldn’t have kids. But I also think it’s unrealistically sunny to say that the system is without flaws.

  4. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Janet, I really think it’s worth reading the whole post before responding, as I think the part I quote doesn’t come close to getting across what she’s saying. There’s a reason the original was as long as it was. I just included it to point people towards the original posting.

    Sigrid, thanks for your comment!

    Harriet does say that she supports any woman who decides not to have a kid, including one who ‘just doesn’t want one.’ But she sees the societal failure coming in earlier there — why didn’t that woman have better access to reliable birth control, for example, if that was the cause of pregnancy and resulting child? (That’s just one situation, of course.)

    I think that’s an interesting way to look at it. I’m not certain I entirely agree, but it’s worth pondering.

    And I don’t think she ever says that all adoptees would have been better off with their birth families — even birth families are often abusive, for example, and I don’t think Harriet would disagree with that. But we don’t go around willy-nilly taking kids out of one family and putting them in another, just because the other seems ‘better’ in some way. It takes something seriously dangerous before we’re willing to take children out of their families (birth-families or otherwise) and move them to a new family, and I think that’s right.

    It’s more that Harriet doesn’t think people should feel that they *have* to give biokids up for adoption if the *only* reason they’re doing so is because they don’t have the necessary social resources to care for them. We should provide those resources.

  5. Thanks for the links; fascinating reading.

    I think Harriet sometimes (in my limited experience reading her work) starts out making what sound like very strong vehement inflexible statements, but then goes on to explain and qualify and say a lot of very nuanced and thoughtful things. I always learn a lot from reading her posts.

    I agree with you, Mary Anne, that Harriet is saying that societal failure starts early in situations that lead to adoption. But I also agree with Sigrid, in that I think Harriet and some of her commenters are valorizing birth parents in a way that makes me a little uncomfortable.

    A couple of her commenters in particular are saying things like “birth families aren’t meant to be broken up”; I’m not sure what perspective the “should” and “meant to be” are coming from. (In other words: it feels to me like Harriet and a couple of her commenters are saying, among many other things, that an adoptive family that goes the way it ideally “should” is privileged, while a birth family that doesn’t go the way it “should” is broken.)

    On a semi-related side note, I’m also a little bothered by one of those commenters saying that “natural mother” is the correct term; I sympathize with birth parents feeling marginalized (and I recognize that they’re often hurt a lot by the forces that lead to adoption), but in choosing terminology, I sympathize more with adoptive parents who are unhappy with the implication that they’re unnatural.

  6. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    On the ‘natural’ mother thing first — I agree as to why that term is problematic (casting adoptive mother as ‘unnatural’). But I also have some sympathy for the women who resist ‘birth mother’. I can’t remember where it is right now, but there’s a forum where a lot of women who have given up their children hang out, and I spent a while reading there at some point, and they have some real issues with ‘birth mother’. Some of them prefer ‘first mother,’ which seems reasonably neutral to me. It’s tricky, as normally, I prefer to call people what they want to be called — but in this case, the language does carry implications for adoptive mothers. Tough one. I still mostly use ‘birth mother’, but uncomfortably.

    There are a lot of different positions in the comments, so I think I’m not going to try to guess which ones you’re responding to — if you want to quote some directly, I could respond to those?

    But I didn’t take Harriet as valorizing birth parents, or even valorizing biological families. I do think that she’s implying that there is a source of pain for a child in knowing that they aren’t with their biological parents. Which again — may not be true in all cases. I’m not sure — it’s not something I have any experience with. I’d like to talk to more adoptees, to find out if they agree with her assessment.

    I guess it wouldn’t surprise me if it did turn out to be pretty accurate, though — whether it’s societal or biological, there’s a pretty strong sense in our world that children are “supposed to be” with their biological parents, and I wouldn’t be surprised if learning that they aren’t with their biological parents would generally be a source of some pain.

    And even if it is true, I think she’d agree that it may be a small pain, and far outweighed by many other benefits of adoption. But she feels that the generalized adoption narrative so wants to ignore and hide that pain that she feels she has to expose it. Strongly.

    She uses much stronger terms than I would, such as ‘horror’, and that’s part of my own resistance to her piece. But I find that if I tone down the language a bit, she seems to make a lot of sense to me. And maybe that need to tone down her language says more about my own issues than about it does about her?

  7. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    And to note, I suppose the radical side of me says that one way to alleviate that pain of not being with your biological parents, would be to change the overall importance society places on that. If, for example, there are twenty different family structures on your block, and they’re all seen as equally valid and healthy, then does that erase the pain of no t being with your biological parents? Maybe.

    But I’m also not sure how feasible that shift is, given how much more prevalent (by orders of magnitude) biological families are, over other family structures. Hmm…would be interesting to look at other cultures for this, as of course, I’m mostly familiar with contemporary America, which values traditional biological families (with one mom and one dad) so highly.

  8. Thanks for those responses; useful. No time to respond in detail now, but a couple quick notes in passing:

    Re tone: Yeah, when I said “what sound like very strong vehement inflexible statements” I should have said “what sound to me“—I didn’t mean that her tone is objectively bad, just that I sometimes bounce off it at first, which I agree is as much about my issues as about her presentation.

    I forgot to comment earlier about the privilege/entitlement thing. My first reaction to it was that I disagreed, but on reading more of the context and discussion in her comments thread, I now think it’s a fascinating idea. I’m still not sure I entirely agree, but I think it’s an interesting and useful paradigm. And I would certainly agree with the sub-idea that a sense of entitlement often, perhaps even usually, derives from privilege.

    Am tempted to call you and spend the next couple hours talking about all this, but I really gotta do some work.

  9. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Yes, I owe George final edits on “Sanctuary,” so am going to try to close web browsers for the next two hours, at least. 🙂

  10. Great link, thank you.

    I have re-written this sentence about ten times, but: I find that I don’t talk much, except to friends, about the problems with transracial and international adoption. Mostly because that conversation ends up being about me and my family, and (a) sometimes I don’t feel like it and (b) I’m damn sure not going to say anything in public that could sound like “there is something wrong with my family.”

    Both because people are bitches about adoption already, and because my daughter will never ever ever hear from me that there’s something wrong with her being with me.

    That makes me very glad that other people have a forum to say it, though.

  11. Catherine Shaffer

    I have encountered much of this type of thing on the internet when researching adoption. She has many valid points, and is in general correct on all of her facts and assertions. However, what bothers me about this sort of rhetoric is that it *inevitably* concludes with an attack on adoptive parents. I thought maybe she wasn’t going to go there, but unfortunately the final note warning about comments is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. In short, the adoptee and birth mother point of view becomes anti-adoptive parent, as if they want adoptive parents to suffer and pay for the pain they experienced. In reality, adoptive families can be just as successful and happy or as messed up and dysfunctional as any other family. From my point of view (as someone who has not adopted but put some extremely serious research and thought into it), the complaints of unhappy adoptees and birth mothers is yet another kick in the face that aspiring adoptive parents have to suffer in order to complete their families. The bottom line is that while what happens to children and birth mothers in adoption is often unfair, it is no more unfair than a lot of the other shit we get dealt in life. It is very true that the system is broken, and that people suffer, but the goal is not perfection. The goal is to give a fighting chance to as many children as possible. Too often, I see this kind of thing framed as an attempt to “educate” prospective adoptive parents, when really it seems more intended to make them feel as guilty and worthless as possible.

    I will say, however, that being exposed to this sort of information has caused us to hesitate indefinitely on moving forward with adoption. I am not sure whether that’s a good thing, but it is what it is.

    (By the way, I don’t know the background of this person, but it sounds like she is in social services working in domestic adoptions, probably foster adoptions. There’s a lot of tension there, because people bring in kids in international adoptions who end up needed social services, or sometimes even become foster children in need of adoption themselves, while kids in domestic foster homes wait and wait and wait, usually because their racial background, age, and/or needs make them undesireable. This is really frustrating for domestic adoption workers.)

  12. Although, re: the “you should move” addendum, I will say that when white-parents-of-white-children talk to me about “better” school districts, and I say cheerfully and agreeably, “Oh, I don’t know a lot about [district], is it really white?” it’s like a grenade in the conversation.

    Catherine, I didn’t read the disclaimer as an attack on adoptive parents. There is a long and pretty gross history, starting with the first wave of Korean adoptions in the 60s (?), of children growing up and saying “This part of my experience was horrible and destructive,” and being literally told–online, in person, at conferences–to stop complaining and be grateful. I think it’s reasonable to nip that one in the bud.

  13. Mary Anne — I realize that it’s not really fair to comment without reading the whole thing, which is why I mentioned that I was commenting on what you’d quoted. But what I did read pissed me off so much that I didn’t want to read the original, so maybe the problem was with the section you selected. Why did you think it was a good representation of her argument?

    Also, I had a chemistry exam this afternoon and I was just reading this while taking a study break. Never thought I’d be so happy to get back to malonic ester synthesis….

  14. Catherine Shaffer

    Everyone encounters rude and insensitive people. If you’ve been unsuccessfully trying to build a family for ten years, you have your own file folder full of thoughtless, insensitive, and downright rude things that people have said to you. What do NOT do is go and find an unconnected, unrelated person who *represents* some aspect of the pain in your life, and unload your frustrations onto them. If the system is broken, fix it. But don’t blame all of the failings and the shortcomings and wrongs on people who have no real control and only want to love a child. Because you’re never going to change anything by imposing a huge guilt trip on people who after all have every right to their hopes and plans and happy delusions (as any other expectant parent). It’s about as misguided as trying to reform obstetric care through a program of consumer advocacy disguised as “childbirth education.” As someone who is not involved in any part of the “adoption triad,” I have no interest in exploring the comments of this blog post where one group have been explicitly told they are not welcome. I don’t care what goes on on other boards–I probably don’t want to read those, either.

  15. Okay, I just skimmed through the post and poked around a bit on her site, and it’s true that she’s not saying exactly what I thought based on the piece you quote. It looks to me as though she contradicts herself a lot, saying something provocative and then saying that she didn’t really mean it — what Jed kindly describes as “start[ing] out making what sound like very strong vehement inflexible statements, but then go[ing] on to explain and qualify and say a lot of very nuanced and thoughtful things.”

    However, I think my basic criticism still stands — she makes a virtue of being provocative, starting with the “fuck you” picture, but she wants people to respond thoughtfully and without defensiveness, which is IMO pretty hypocritical. And no, I’m not saying “I would have paid attention if only she had spoken like a lady,” I’m saying that if you use the kind of rhetoric she does, you shouldn’t be surprised when people get ticked off. It’s her blog, she can run it however she wants, and she has no reason to care what I think. That’s why I’m commenting here, not there.

    I don’t know why this pushed my buttons so much — I’m not a member of the adoption triad, though I did at one time get pretty far into the adoption process (home study, etc.). I know quite a few adoptive parents who do not fit her stereotype (of course she knows some adoptive parents are “awesome,” she’s not talking about them, and where have we heard that kind of thing before?). Maybe it’s just that the web seems to be full of people ranting about this or that with the attitude that “I’ll say what I want to say however I want to say it, and you can’t stop me — this is my blog, so if you don’t like it, fuck off” but getting very self-righteous when other people behave the same way. I am heartily sick of it.

  16. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Catherine, Janet — I think I need a longer space for my response to your comments, so I’m going to do it in a separate entry. Hope you’ll follow me there.

    Janet, just to note — I didn’t mean that bit of her post to be representative — I just thought it was interesting, and might lead people to read the whole thing. I don’t think I could have clipped out a bit to be representative — her writing style is too intertwined, if that makes sense.

    Jessie, I totally understand your concerns. This is part of the tricky element of this discussion — or any public written discussion of parenting, I think. Because as parents, we have to take into account that our children may read these words someday. And that is inhibitory, and probably should be, from a parenting point of view. But it’s frustrating and stifling from a larger discussion point of view, of course. It’s a tough one.

    I’m not sure there’s a good solution, other than ‘wait until your children are adults and can hopefully handle it’. But a) that delays the conversation for twenty years, and b) I’m not sure that even being an adult really helps all that much when you hear about problems your parents had with parenting you!

  17. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Catherine, one more thing. You said, “you’re never going to change anything by imposing a huge guilt trip on people who after all have every right to their hopes and plans and happy delusions (as any other expectant parent).” And I’m just not sure that’s true, on a couple of fronts.

    I think making prospective adoptive parents honestly aware of what kind of business they’re getting into should be a minimum requirement of handling adoption well. I think it does have the potential to change things, if adoptive parents join in demanding that practices change.

    And I really kind of hate the happy delusions people have about parenting, biological or otherwise. Much as I love my kids, and I still think having them was the right choice for me, they have been MUCH harder than I’d anticipated — and they’re relatively good, easy kids! If I’d understood the reality of parenting better, I might have made a whole series of different choices. I might have had kids much earlier, for one thing, when I had much more energy and fewer other serious commitments. I might have made a better childcare plan up front, rather than cobbling it together as we went. I might have gotten a night nanny, for those first few brutal months, when I was just crying all the time out of sheer exhaustion. I might have gotten a lactation consultant way earlier in the game, at a point when it would have done some good.

    We’re doing fine now, but my point is that parenting is so damn hard, in so many ways, and the happy delusions don’t help. They make it a lot harder than it needs to be.

  18. Thanks for posting the link to the original post. I happen to like her in-your-face attitude, and frankly, I tend to agree that if you’ve not walked a mile in the shoes of someone in an adoption triad, you really have no business offering advice. Try going through childhood with friends asking about your “real parents” and THEN talk to me about what you think you might know.

    I posted the following piece at her blog, and I hope you don’t mind that I’m offering it here as well (with some minor editing). I tend to believe that the woman who put her kid on a plane back to Russia behaved horribly, but I think there are very few in this world who have the right to judge. When you read what I have to say, you might agree.

    I am an adult adoptee. I was adopted by my birth father back when such things were pretty unheard of (1960s). My parents were not married. My birth mother had less resources – education, money, connections – and more stresses (five other children by two other men) than my birth father’s family, and so I came to live with them. Parts of my childhood were really great and parts of my childhood sucked. I don’t think that was different from any of my peers. What was different was how I felt about myself. I was told when I was young “your mother loved you sooooooo much that she gave you up so that you could be loved by us.” What a load of crap. I knew, even at four or five years old, that someone had chosen me, yes, but that happened only because someone else had first said “no thanks.” Other adoptees I have spoken with describe this as a never healing hole in the soul. A place that cannot be filled. Original rejection, perhaps. It was nice to see that recognized.

    There is another story in the news lately that brings up issues of adoptions and kids and parents and things that simply cannot be overcome. Here in Maine, I knew a couple who were by far about the most functional people I have ever met. Highly educated. One worked in adoption services and social services and community action programs, the other was (is) a professor of science at a university. They adopted three children. One was a closed adoption of a healthy white infant, one was an open adoption of a mixed-race child, and one was an international adoption of a toddler from Haiti (this was back in the 1990s). The first two adoptions went well. Kids have issues, as all kids do, but these parents were better equipped to handle them than any others I have known. Great parenting skills, good connection to resources, all of it.

    But the little boy from Haiti presented a new set of problems. Because he was raised in an orphanage for the first 18 months of his life, he never bonded with one adult. There were nuns running the orphanage, and they did their best, but no child got enough attention in that situation, and failure to bond does funky things to the brain chemistry and subsequent behavior of a child as he grows. As their child grew, he exhibited symptoms that were diagnosed as “oppositional defiant disorder.” He was charming and manipulative and prone to violent outbursts during which he broke up the furniture in his room and sometimes in other parts of the house. He physically attacked his parents. Nothing they did seemed to help. Their health suffered. The stress was extreme. Eventually, after doctors threatened to hospitalize the mom for her skyrocketing blood pressure, they placed the little boy (he was 10, then I think) with a temporary family to try to see if there was a way to make his adoption placement work. They did all they could. The temporary family had very different values than the adoptive family, and eventually, the little boy was placed with and adopted by a new family.

    The community of friends and church members and others who felt justified in judging and making unkind comments during that time was horrific. I have never met two more functional, healthy, child-centered people in my life. They endured enormous self-blame for what they felt was a failure to be able to parent their child, self-blame for the stress and grief they caused their other children in that effort, and then to have others –who had NEVER lived with the child in question — blame them? Well, that was beyond the pale.

    The little boy settled into his new family, where he seemed to do well. He grew up, graduated high school and got an apartment with one of his foster brothers.

    He is now on trial for his part in a home invasion/robbery/machete attack (with that foster brother). I recognized his name in the newspaper account of his arrest, and then I recognized his photograph. It is the adult version of the little boy that my ex and I babysat for a weekend while his parents were away at a wedding. He was difficult to handle then, even knowing what I did about his behavior and issues, and I was glad when his parents returned home.

    That others felt they had any business judging that family for doing what they had to do shocked and nauseated me. Anybody who has not participated in an adoption situation has NO business telling anyone who’s in one what to do or how to do it.

    Thanks for bringing this up, and for providing me the space to share.

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