In praise of honesty: the complexities of adoption

Scott Simon, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition, released Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other: In Praise of Adoption in late summer 2009; Simon and his wife adopted two girls from China.  A friend told me about the book, suggesting that I would like it because of our adoption experiences.  I read the book last week, and it has taken me several days of writing and thinking to respond. Simon, as the title suggests, ascribes miracle status to adoption, and in fact, he opens the work this way: “Adoption is a miracle…as the dictionary says.” Simon’s premise oversimplifies the varied complications of adoption.  In addition to his oversimplification and sugar coated version of adoption, Simon purports to include not only the story of his family’s experience with adoption, but in a quasi-journalistic mode, Simon “interviews” adult adoptees and other families who have adopted children.  Each of his interviews provided information about adoption that suggests to the reader a particular conclusion: adopted kids need not search for biological parents, nor do they desire any connection to biological parents. This conclusion can be broadened to suggest that the “miracle” that Simon has experienced is one expressed by both adoptee and adoptive parent. Certainly, adoption transforms lives – the lives of the children adopted, the parents who adopt, and the birth families and mothers who experience a significant, perhaps irreparable, loss.

Simon’s view of adoption diminishes the complexities, loss, inequities, and struggles that are part of the process of transformation that occurs, whether children are adopted internationally, transracially, or domestically. While Simon acknowledges some of the “big” issues of transracial adoption, he fails to investigate them adequately, and more importantly, the potential deeper analysis that might come from his story is lost in the glossing over of the realities of adoption. Simon’s assertions about the “miracle of adoption” closes the door on valuable and significant discussion about a nuanced subject, especially for those adult adoptees who feel isolated, misunderstood, or damaged by families that were ill-equipped to handle the racial divides of United States culture.

Perhaps I have misread Simon, and his book details his own personal journey in order to express his joy and wonder at the gift adoption has bestowed upon him.  Personal experience is a valid and relevant as part of the on-going discussion about adoption. However, by including the stories of other, often quite famous adoptive parents and adoptees, he blurs the line between his personal experience and reportage.  Simon’s conclusions about the miracle of adoption seem more than his personal response, and because of the number of pages devoted to the stories of other families who have adopted, the conclusions he draws seem to be based on the anecdotal and very limited evidence he offers. Simon’s personal story is told in fewer than half of the pages of his 180-page text.  To be fair, Simon does acknowledge, “The stories I share from other families aren’t meant to prove anything in particular.  Lives cannot be stamped like supermarket products, and adoptions cannot be graded…But every adoption is, more or less, a success because every child who is adopted embodies a fresh new chance for the world” (41).  However, in the context of his opening line, declaring adoption – all adoption, not just his own – a miracle, this disclaimer rings hollow.  Simon’s remark that every adopted child has a new chance in life is an oversimplification of the realities of adoption.  It is presumptuous of Simon to suggest that the children he has adopted are somehow representatives of his particular vision of a “global village” in which Americans provide the moral compass that he notes is missing in countries like China. Simon does not sugar coat his rebuke of China’s one-child policy that has, ironically, provided him with the opportunity to fix the problems of the world.  “Putting children who need love and care into families who crave the love of a child is one of the great unfinished endeavors of the world” (172).

Simon’s supposition that Americans are uniquely placed to care for such needy children places Americans in a morally and culturally superior position.  Yet, Simon slips when he notes that the families themselves “crave” the love of a child.  Simon makes reference to the completeness conferred upon childless families through process of adoption, and that is a step in acknowledging the need of parents that is filled by the child.  However, Simon’s twist here turns his need into a benefit not only for the child, but also for the world.  Simon’s words are not unlike early Colonials who saw America as a City upon a Hill.  In fact, Simon seems to represent “everyman’s” take on American exceptionalism that makes us the envy of the world.

Simon spends much of his book defending the most obvious problems with international adoption, and he even makes tongue-in-cheek jokes about the very real problem of the market demands of the wealthy that influence babies available for adoption in international markets. Simon notes, “We explored programs in other places, especially central Asia, that were known to have an abundance of orphaned children. But we got confusing information about the length of the wait, and we heard too many stories about families who had made multiple trips and paid manifold bribes only to be told, ‘The child that was supposed to be yours? There’s been a delay…You’ll have to come back.’ We didn’t mind slipping an envelope to some apparatchik with an open palm (I am a Chicagoan, after all)” (31-32).  Simon does not adopt in a country in which he is asked to make “donations” or to outright bribe officials, but joking about his willingness to do so is part of the reason that international adoption is rife with corruption, greed, and most importantly, inequities that often prevent truly needy children from being adopted when authorities close programs due to allegations and proof of bribery, baby-selling or other unethical practices.

In my quest for different voices in international adoption, I discovered Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption, edited by Jane Jeong Trenka, Julia Chinyere Oparah, and Sun Yung Shin.  The book includes stories, poetry, personal essays, and substantive, documented research by adult adoptees who have wrestled with, and are still in the process of coming to terms with, their adoptions.   Outsiders Within provided a glimpse into the complexities of families comprised of multiple races, whether the result of domestic or international adoption. Kim Park Nelson’s contribution to the collection, “Shopping for Children in the International Market Place,” provides a stark contrast to Simon’s dismissal of the economics of power that drive international adoption. Nelson’s premise, that Americans who seek to build families through international adoption have been indoctrinated into the belief that only a family can fulfill a basic need, and that they are entitled to “enrich their lives by parenting a child from a foreign culture” (89), is supported by her evidence about the supply and demand nature of adoption.  Nelson notes that, “everyone is compensated [in international adoption], either monetarily, materially, or socially, creating a complex economic relationship” (89).  The people who are compensated range from social workers to childcare providers, to attorneys and other intermediaries. To bolster her claims, Nelson notes that the clamor for adoptable babies from Americans has reached a deafening crescendo, and the statistics she brings to bear are worth quoting at length.

In the year 2000, 500,000 Americans were on the market to adopt a child, up 150 percent from 5 years earlier. Transnational adoptions in the United States now occur at the rate of 18,000 per year, fueling the change in adoption services ‘from the tightly self-regulated realm of social-service agencies and unwed mothers’ homes to the free market.’ The heightened demand for adopted babies has sent adoption fees, which should theoretically be untouched by laws of supply and demand, soaring, and desire for the children is so high, prospective parents are willing to pay the price.  The huge demand for adoptable babies in the United Sates, Canada, and the rich nations of Europe has prompted nations with adoptable populations to react, and intermediaries in both the birth and host countries to step into the profitable middleman role. In 2000 the adoption industry generated $1.5 billion in adoption spending, with costs for transnational adoptions ranging from $15,000 to $50,000, up form around $1000 in the early 1970s.  One US adoption agency reported revenues of $4.1 million with a profit of $937,515 in 1998. (96)

Simon’s dismissive references to bribes he would willingly make, and his joke that, “In some zip codes [NYC], adoption has become as common as $3.75 lattes” (168), parody the economic realities of a marketplace for adoption.  Simon is not making such jokes to draw our attention to the stark economic realities that separate affluent Americans and the children adopted from families in Developing Nations.  If anything, his jokes are meant to normalize what should be a profoundly disturbing reality: Americans have cash and are willing to operate outside ethical boundaries in order to procure what they need, whether it be children or lattes. Nelson’s statistics reveal the commodification of adoptable children and the purchasing power that Americans wield as consumers in a global market for children.  Oddly enough, Simon’s joke, if read in the framework of Nelson’s assertions, illustrates her point neatly. Nelson’s analysis and research reveals that the economic transactions involved in international adoption range from legal to illegal, with a legal, but “unethically profitable,” transaction category as well.  Nelson notes that in Latin America, in particular, the reach of the US and its colonial imperative remain a determining factor in the black market adoptions that make attorneys, middlemen and adoption agencies rich, while providing miniscule compensation to nannies, childcare providers, and women who give birth to and provide children for the adoption market.

To be sure, there are adoption agencies that operate on a non-profit basis, and many ethical adoption providers are at work in various countries.  There is no getting around the dismal condition and equally dismal potential futures for children in war-torn and impoverished countries. (See Against All Odds for an uplifting view of the end result of adoption).  However, it is precisely these conditions that sustain a black market rife with profiteering when it comes to children and young women.

International adoption is riddled with ethical and moral questions, ones with no easy answers.  The problem with Simon’s book is that his answer is insipid – adoption is grand! He misses an opportunity to broaden the discussion beyond the simplistic view of American economic power as the savior of the world’s problems.

Americans and Western Europeans and to a certain degree Canadians and Australians, comprise the largest block of people who adopt children internationally, most frequently from Developing Counties. China’s one child policy, poverty in Ethiopia and Guatemala, desperate sex trafficking in Southeast Asia, and overcrowded orphanages in the Eastern Bloc countries are among the reasons that so many children are available for adoption to affluent Americans and Europeans. However, far too often, the adoptive parents do not stop to think about the role each of us plays and continues to play in the global inequities that create the circumstances in the Developing World that lead to a brisk adoption “trade.”  Adoption may seen like a humanitarian effort, and often, the people who adopt are good people who desire to help children by providing loving homes.  However, the fact that we have the money, resources, and ability to globe trot in order to procure families is not often questioned.  The very resources that we have, the ones we say we can muster to provide good loving homes for our adopted children, are “ours” because of American political and economic policies that have stripped Developing Countries of resources, children, choices for women, peace for the population, and education and stable environments for families to grow and prosper.

In her riveting documentary, Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam producer Tammy Nguyen Lee explores the complexities of the lives of Vietnamese children who were whisked out of Vietnam in the last days of United States occupation and adopted largely by white American families in the United States.  The story is one of desperation and love, but the lives of the now adult adoptees are complex, and many of them are dealing with the realities of racial differences within their families that have unearthed questions of identity and belonging.

What psychologists, bloggers, documentary filmmakers, writers and adoptees all acknowledge is that adoption does have moments of great wonder and awe, yet it is also rife with trauma, loss, and soul-searching.

Simon’s book emphasizes the “parenting” done by adoptive parents.  We clean up piss, shit and vomit.  We take kids to the doctor’s office for vaccinations.  We educate our children.  We teach them to read, we change diapers, and we provide them with food and medical care. I had the feeling, after reading Simon’s book, that somehow biological parents have abdicated responsibility for their children and so adopted kids may not be interested in a connection.  Adopted adults in Simon’s book mention the “real” work that the adopted parents have done to be parents.

I understand that.  I am doing the hard work of parenting my two adopted children.

However, I also benefit from the love, given freely, and without reservation, from both of them.  So I change some diapers – I also get several hugs on any given day.  So I listen to crying on sleepless nights – I also hear Monkey Man and Gorilla Girl tell me several times a day that they love me (and each other, and their dad and sisters). So I provide medical care, and hold them down during vaccinations – I also have the pure joy of watching them laugh, talk, grow, giggle, change, develop.

The women who, for reasons that are complex, heart-breaking, and linked to us in many ways, allow their children to be adopted never get to feel the joy of the unconditional love of that child.  They don’t get to experience the joy of watching their child grow.

The women who gave birth to Monkey Man and Gorilla Girl obviously cared deeply and profoundly about their children.  We saw it on their faces, and in their tears, when we participated in the “Giving and Receiving” ceremony in Lang Son, Vietnam.  Unlike many families involved in international adoption, we met not only Monkey Man’s and Gorilla Girl’s birth mothers, but their extended families as well. These two children were loved, deeply.  However, the family circumstances that included poverty, illness, and lack of resources, all led to Monkey Man and Gorilla Girl living in an orphanage in Lang Son, Vietnam.

The story of each birth family is far more complex than I have room to divulge here.  And, more importantly, each of their stories belongs to Monkey Man and Gorilla Girl and it is theirs to tell (and know) when they decide.

What I can say is that I have wrestled with feelings of the inequities of adoption, and far from feeling like a savior, I feel as if I could have done something more for Monkey Man and Gorilla Girl, it might have been to make things in the world right, so that each of them could remain in the families they were born to. It is a strange world when the misfortune, sorrow, and poverty of one leads to the fulfillment of long-held desires for another. In the end, Simon’s book provided an opportunity for me to open a new door, to examine again how I will participate in helping Monkey Man and Gorilla Girl to navigate the murky waters not only  of adoption, but of racial difference. I can’t shake Simon’s assertion of adoption as miracle, and can’t seem to dislodge the dissonance I feel when I think of adoption in those terms. Miracles are divinely inspired.  Adoption is culturally determined and created; human being carve out families from disparate circumstances. I come back to transformation.  Adoption has the potential to transform: families, individual lives, communities, and perhaps the world. However, the trauma of adoption has to be held in one hand while the possibilities are held in the other.

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12 Responses to In praise of honesty: the complexities of adoption

  1. jyourist says:

    A very comprehensive, thorough, and passionate response to the Simon. I wonder if you might link this post to one of the innumerable sites that are praising his book to get a piece of his attention or at the very least a piece of the attention of others who are reading his reviews.

    This is an important and critical part of the adoption story that needs to be addressed. Your realistic and profound look at the complexities which surround Simon’s “miracle” are ultimately more empowering because of your broader and more global understanding of adoption’s implications, intentions, and imperatives. Thank you for expanding my understanding as well.

  2. Eileen says:

    Peg I was riveted by your words and now I am thinking about it all — likely what you wanted to encourage!

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  4. Sallie says:

    As the mother of two adopted girls from China and Vietnam I so agree with you. As I read your blog, I was reminded of the blissful period just after adopting my oldest daughter. My thoughts are that Mr. Simon has a vehicle that was sent to press during his euphoria with finally becoming a parent. If, like my husband, he wasn’t all that connected and involved in the process all along the path; this is his ‘handing out of cigars’ phase. I have talked to many adoptive parents in the 12 years that we have been part of the process(and I too think it is a continuing process). Some grabbed their children like trophies and others were saddened, like us, that such tragic circumstances made for our happiness. It is a perspective that Mr. Simon will eventually come to_I hope.

    • Sallie —

      Thanks for the comment, and for the optimism about Mr. Simon. I suppose I am less convinced. Maybe it is because he actually published a book, instead of handing out cigars. You’ve been working on the process longer than I have, though, so your wisdom means something.
      PD

  5. PhoenixRising says:

    I too have been on the road longer than you, although you don’t know me–and I think Scott and his wife will move at their own pace.

    Here’s my challenge to you, an echo of the challenge that was thrown into my path when my kid was still little: You’re right, and you’re also completely off-base.

    The very resources that we have, the ones we say we can muster to provide good loving homes for our adopted children, are “ours” because of American political and economic policies that have stripped Developing Countries of resources, children, choices for women, peace for the population, and education and stable environments for families to grow and prosper.

    Yep. All that is true. Yet it’s only a piece of the truth. How and why are we, as the parents who are doing the work of raising these kids, more responsible for this larger picture than everyone else who benefits from it?

    No one thinks that the global inequities that brought my child to her adoption by an American family are caused by the adoption–or at least I hope you don’t think that. An international market in healthy babies is a symptom or metastasis of the underlying disease, not necessarily benign, but not the primary problem.

    Recognizing that the primary problem is a world that is more connected than ever, with no mechanisms to address enormous gaps in material circumstances–are we really more obligated to address that than all those who are wearing the clothes and typing into the phones made by our kids’ birth relatives?

    Like you, we made a choice to adopt rather than create a new life, and that choice has brought us into relationship with where our material goods come from. If we’d baked our kid at home, we’d lack that connection–but we wouldn’t be naked and barefoot.

    So do we have a special role as adoptive parents? Is it to act as ambassadors for the humanity of immigrants, garment workers, sex workers…whose truncated choices brought our kids to us? Is it to act as advocates for human rights everywhere, or particularly in our children’s home countries?

    I don’t have answers to these questions, but I think they are worth exploring.

    • PhoenixRising,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      I do think that adoptive parents do have some additional responsibility to address the inequities in some way, whether it be through education, direct involvement, honest discussion. Whatever we can do, on our level, seems worth the effort to address the global inequities that we didn’t cause, but that we participate in. Absolutely, we didn’t cause the problems, and sure others who did not adopt internationally also benefit from global gaps as you call them. On some level, we have an additional responsibility. Those other folks have responsibility too, and maybe aspects of their lives increase their personal responsibility. Lots of people aren’t even aware, however, and that is the first step.
      The questions are tough, and the first step is being willing to ask them, even if there are no “right” answers immediately.

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  7. Jay says:

    We adopted domestically and as we’ve traveled this path for nearly eleven years, I have also come into a different relationship with the idea of adoption and the inequities and injustices that made it necessary for Eve’s first mother to place her with us. No, we didn’t create any of those conditions, and I was aware of them before Eve was born, but I feel a greater responsibility now – at the very least, I feel that I should be honest with myself about the forces that created our family.

    Making choices about how and when to share that perspective continues to challenge me. I picked up Simon’s book, read that first sentence, and put it down; your review confirms my decision not to read it myself. I have a hard time keeping silent when the ‘isn’t it wonderful” adoption viewpoint is aired, and I know that it’s not my job to educate everybody, but silence feels like tacit acceptance and endorsement.

    Thanks for this post.

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