Once again Becton’s spring break coincided with the week of the American Adoption Congress conference. Last year, I took Becton with me to cold and rainy Cleveland, Ohio. This year, I took him and sister Skye to sunny California.
My kids were no more interested in sightseeing in San Francisco than in Cleveland – a phenomenon that blows my mind. I did, however, get them out to ride a cable car over to Fisherman’s Wharf and to Ghirardelli for ice cream sundaes.
But Skye was mostly interested in clothes shopping and communicating with friends via technology, and Becton was mostly interested in watching shows on his Kindle or computer. As a result, I was able to attend more of the conference sessions than I had anticipated. And that was a good thing.
I want to share some of the things I learned at the AAC conference. First, I should explain a little about AAC. AAC was founded in the late 1970s as a non-profit organization to educate, coordinate regional group efforts, and advocate for adoption reform. This is a statement pulled from the “beliefs” section on their website:
The AAC believes that all children have the same core of basic needs, and that these needs can be met most easily when children can grow up in the family into which they were born. Every effort should be made to preserve the integrity of this family. When birth families are unable to meet the ongoing needs of children born to them, however, we believe that adoption provides the best alternative—provided the adoptions are humane, honest, and rooted in the understanding that adoption does not erase a child’s connections to the family into which they were born. We believe that those who have lived the adoption experience are in the best position to articulate the importance of these conditions and to bring about an adoption system that is based on them.
I don’t see it stated anywhere, but my perception is that most of AAC’s members are adult adoptees and birth parents from the “baby scoop era,” as the end of WWII-1970s is referred to. In other words, most of the members came from closed adoptions and their anger can be palpable. I give you this background because, as an adoptive parent, it can sometimes feel like “we” are the enemy. But, personally, I would rather understand the triad community than put my head in the sand. It has become very clear to me over the years that simply following the lead of biological parents is not enough. Yes, it may be important to read What To Expect the First Year, and other books on development and the special needs a particular child may have, but it is also important to understand the overlay of adoption and its effects on the child. I hope this will become clearer as I recount some of the things I learned or were reinforced this past week.
On the first day of the conference, a workshop entitled “Conference 101” was scheduled. We sat in pairs and groups with other conference attendees discussing our position in the triad, our story, and our position on various statements made about adoption. The idea behind the workshop was to prepare us to encounter strong feelings and ideas that might threaten, anger or hurt us. For example, another attendee might believe that adoption should be banned altogether. S/he might believe adoptive parents are incapable of raising a healthy child who is not born to them. (If you doubt your capabilities as a parent to an adopted child, this workshop would have done nothing to bolster your confidence. Still, I found these conversations very useful preparation for what was to come later.)
Each day’s events included Keynote speakers, a choice of workshops, support groups, films, meals, and so forth. DISCLAIMER: My notes on the events I attended may not reflect the presenter’s intent and are a partial and, perhaps, inaccurate summary.
The first Keynote address I attended was presented by a transracial adoptee who uses writing and drama to tell her story. She spoke of white people commodifying and cannibalizing adoptees of color to enrich their lives. She talked about assimilation and the destruction of racial identifiers.
I then attended a workshop on relationships made more complicated when birth and adoptive family members turn to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate. As you might imagine, this is not uncommon. As I thought about my family and the ways in which alcohol and drugs have touched so many members of our extended family, I became convinced that John and I should begin attending Alanon meetings.
My next workshop was on writing as a means of doing some of the healing work of forgiveness. We did a number of free writing exercises, based on prompts, and then shared our writing with another attendee. We also made lists of the harms we had experienced or committed in relationship to adoption, picked one, and wrote a letter asking for forgiveness.
Another Keynote by an experienced therapist talked about truth and reconciliation, the need for more pre-adoption services: unbiased and mandatory counseling, informed consent, etc., and problems with money in adoption, e.g. women without resources surrendering their babies to those who do have have the power of money.
Another workshop dealt with how adoption affects the nervous system. There is trauma involved in separating a child from his/her mother because the nervous system can’t understand it. For nine months, the child is connected to and bonding with his/her mother through sights, smells, and sounds. The child’s DNA carries this memory. The presenter suggested that the amygdala (fight or flight impulse) is the only fully developed part of the brain of an infant. The prefrontal cortex, which would analyze an experience, is not yet developed. Everything the infant or young child experiences goes through the amygdala first, grabs it, and reacts. That initial loss of mother is stored and if anyone else later leaves the child, the response is to feel that his/her safety is threatened. The presenter stated that adoptees tend to feel more panic and anxiety in relationships. They tend to study faces more carefully, looking for the possibility of being abandoned again.
Another workshop focused on research and best practices in adoption. There are approximately 125,000 adoptions in the U.S. each year, the vast majority of which are non-infant children from foster care who have experienced abuse, neglect and/or institutionalization. Yet, our adoption practices are modeled on the idea that married white couples are adopting white babies. Practices need to change to reflect the new reality: openness, reunification of families when possible, single and LGBT parents, Internet oversight, etc…
One workshop focused on the impact of birth fathers. They are often overlooked because they are unknown or the circumstances are less than ideal. Yet, the reality is that adoptees will fantasize a father, so it is incumbent on adoptive parents to pay attention. Fathers affect our choice of romantic partner, relationships with other men, careers, sense of self, etc.
A final Keynote speaker discussed the history and politics of motherhood. “Who gets to be a legitimate mother?” is a question we need to ask because fertility or reproduction is used to pursue national goals. She looked specifically at the intersection between racism and legitimate motherhood over time. For example, the English Common Law, brought by settlers to this country, established that status of the child follows the status of the father. In the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries, enslaved women were coerced to have many children to create more enslaved laborers. Owing to circumstances, however, many mixed race children were born. The laws were changed so that maternity determined whether a child was free or slave, keeping children of mixed heritage in servitude and serving the needs of the economy. During the 1800s, white women were also encouraged to have more children to maintain white supremacy and to fulfill the need for a strong military against foreign powers.
Another example: Chinese male immigrants were recruited for labor on the West coast. Laws were then passed that one could only have sex with someone of the same race to prevent Chinese babies being born.
Example: Indian training schools. The belief was that Native American mothers could not civilize their own children. The children were removed to boarding schools where they could be “assimilated” into white culture.
In the 1930s, with the Great Depression, the U.S. adopted the idea that Americans should provide for poor children, and the Social Security Act of 1935 was passed. Initially, aid was given only to children, demonizing the women who gave birth to them. Originally, aid was given only to whites because the act excluded domestic workers and agricultural workers – the only jobs African-American women were allowed to have. White women could go home and raise their children, but African-American women had to work and find someone else to raise their children. During the debates over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, some of the resistance was from voices protesting aid to people of color because there would be no one left to clean their houses or pick cotton. As people of color began to grow in numbers, during the Reagan Era, women of color began to be “punished” for having too many children. These “welfare queens” were deemed to be producing valueless children who were a drain on white taxpayers. We have been conditioned to believe that welfare is a program for women of color who cheat the system. The truth is that welfare recipients have always been disproportionately white. The speaker suggested: “In pursuit of white male supremacy, non-conforming reproduction provides an opportunity to punish women.”
Before the middle of the 20th century, an unmarried mother was considered genetically inferior. Accordingly, her babies were also inferior. However, with the advent Freudian theory, the locus of “inferiority” was shifted from the body to the mind of the mother. Babies were now free of the taint. Without a man, a woman was deemed not to be a legitimate mother, and adoption as an institution was invented to care for the babies produced by these illegitimate mothers. (Interestingly, white families were not accepting of single mothers while African-American families were.)
The invention of the birth control pill and legalized abortion gave choices to women. No longer were white women a vulnerable group. As the market for white babies evaporated, the void was filled by international adoption…
According to the speaker/historian, the existence of adoption in any country is a reflection of women without resources. At present, it is women of means who can afford the high cost of donor eggs or other infertility treatments on the backs of women without resources…
I also attended a workshop on interracial adoption and white privilege led by a white lesbian couple who had adopted two African-American boys. Many interesting issues were raised in discussion, particularly the way adoptive parents must learn to see through the lens of race and assume racism in any situation. Racism appears in the areas of education, law enforcement, social relationships, employment, and more.
The final workshop I attended also concerned genetics and energy in the human body. That is, the contention is that what happens in the womb imprints on the fetus at a cellular level. For example, stress hormones affect inflammation at the time of formation of the coronary arteries. Other organs may be formed differently. And what unplanned pregnancy is NOT stressful to the mother? The presenter suggested that if the womb experience is chaotic, the child later would gravitate toward chaos…
I will also share a reflection on a documentary I saw. “Father Unknown” tells the story of a father-son trip to Switzerland in pursuit of discovering the father’s origins. Most of the story is captured on a phone camera. Son, David, has never been close to his father, Urban. But after the discovery of a box of documents with Urban’s birth certificate stating “father unknown,” David convinces Urban to return to the orphanage in Switzerland out of which he was adopted and brought to America. Urban knows that he lived with his mother until the age of three. She died and he was placed in an orphanage with others until the age of seven. As the days of the trip unfold, we see a very emotional Urban as he revisits the sights, sounds, and places of his youth. Eventually, a cousin is able to translate a document that names a particular man as his father, a father who paid the bill for Urban’s care in the orphanage. His father, we discover, is deceased. But Urban also learns that his father was married to another woman and that he has a living half-brother. The two men (now in their 70s) meet, and it is a joyful, beautiful reunion. We learn that this trip to reclaim Urban’s missing past also “fixes” his relationship with his own son. Indeed, David and Urban were present at the showing of the film, confirming the amazing bond between them.
To give you an idea of the expansiveness of the topics covered during the conference, here’s a list of some of the workshops or presentations I was NOT able to attend: what to learn from recent tragic cases in the news, donor conception issues, long-term reunions, bad search outcomes, opening up adoption records, LGBT adoptees, need for adoption-specific clinical training for therapists, interventions for working with foster/adopted youth and their families, impact of infertility on adoptive families, creating opportunities for connection with first families, searching for family on the internet, and so on.
The foregoing gives you a taste of the richness of the conference. It will take me days, weeks, or months to process all I heard. In the midst of it all, it was easy to despair about the brokenness that adoption represents. It was easy to despair about my own inability to right what is wrong. But when I step back, I realize that knowledge is power to help me navigate my way through this journey that is adoptive parenting. Knowing how and when adoption impacts my children or my relationships with them is not easy to discern from all the other factors, but it is certainly a big piece of the puzzle. Going forward, I hope to continue to grow in my understanding so that I can be for my children who and what they need me to be.