Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Some Thoughts on Poverty, Coercion and Adoption

If you haven’t given much thought to adoption ethics and reform (and there’s no judgment in that – most people haven’t), this is probably not the best place to start, because you might feel like you've walked in on the middle of a conversation you don't really understand. Instead, you should pour yourself a strong cup of coffee, say a little prayer (you might need both), and head on over to This Woman’s Work where Dawn writes tirelessly and honestly and personally about adoption. One of several reasons I don’t write about adoption much is that Dawn does it so damn well, and I have little to add. But it’s probably not fair to sit back and let Dawn do all the heavy hitting, and maybe I do have a few things of my own to say. So here I go, dipping my toes in….

The central paradox of adoption, it seems to me, is that it is a joyful and awesome thing that happens, by definition, in a context of profound loss and sorrow. But this alone does not make it problematic; indeed, much of life, it seems to me, is like that. Perhaps slightly more problematic is that the joy and awesomeness on the one hand, and the loss and sorrow, on the other, are pretty lop-sided: adoptive parents get most of the former, first parents get mostly the latter, and adoptive children are stuck in the middle trying to synthesize the two. But even this does not seem to me intrinsically problematic, especially if everyone is doing their work with honesty and integrity.

By which I mean that adoptive parents owe it to themselves and their children to lift up and celebrate the profound and beautiful experience of creating a family through adoption, because it IS beautiful and profound. There is something just extravagantly hopeful and glorious and absurdly against-the-odds about forging bonds that usually begin with DNA, but, as it turns out, don’t have to. But this is only part of the story, and it’s a story that easily sinks into sentimentality and, ultimately, heartbreak, if it can’t exist along side the other story, the story of what was first lost, which is also profound and real and beautiful. Adoptive parents also have an obligation to make room for that other story, and to let it be part of their family’s story, and to give their children tools for coping with that loss.

Likewise, first parents owe it to themselves and their children to, as best they can, find ways to heal their broken hearts and celebrate the families they have helped their children become part of. Under the best of circumstances, in an open adoption, first parents remain part of those families. And if all the grown-ups are doing their work as best they can given the resources they have available to them – in other words, if everyone is doing their work with integrity -- it seems to me that adoption becomes just one of life’s many crucibles, and that it is at least possible for everyone to come out whole on the other side.

I guess what I’m saying is this: adoption is full of joy, and it’s full of pain, and the joy and the pain are not evenly distributed, and that sucks, but none of that, it seems to me, makes adoption intrinsically problematic. That’s just life: it’s full of joy and it’s full of pain, and the joy and the pain are not evenly distributed, and we all have to do the best we can, with honesty and integrity, to, well, do the best we can. And some of us will get wounded along the way even so, and some of us will come out relatively unscathed, and life is just like that.

No, it’s not pain and sorrow and grief that make adoption problematic, it’s that the pain and the sorrow and the grief are all-too-often the result of coercion.

Now, some folks will argue that adoption is, by its very definition, coercive, and that I’m just splitting hairs, but I actually can imagine a scenario in which a first mother truly and freely chooses adoption for her child. It seems to me that it is patronizing and offensive to say that no woman with real agency would ever choose to place her baby for adoption. It strikes me that insisting otherwise is to insist that there is no better life for all women who find themselves pregnant than to raise children, which, it strikes me, is simply absurd. Not all women are meant to raise children, and certainly even women who are meant to raise children are not always meant to raise them at the moment they find themselves pregnant, and while the choice to place a baby for adoption will most likely have serious and life-long implications for any woman faced with that choice, implications she is probably incapable of fully understanding at that moment, nonetheless, to suggest that she should not have adoption as an option as she tries to make the best choice for herself and her baby in that moment …. well, I find that problematic. I believe strongly that adoption free of coercion, just like abortion free of coercion, should be one choice among many for any woman faced with a crisis pregnancy.

But there’s the rub: adoption free of coercion? That, it seems to me, is a rare thing indeed. There’s so much coercion in adoption, and so many others, especially first mothers, have written so much more knowledgeably and eloquently about that than I can. So I just want to think for a little bit specifically about the coercion of poverty. Dawn has suggested, wisely (as always), that a first step to getting coercion out of adoption is to get the money out of the equation, and certainly I agree that if money were less a part of the actual transactions that result in adoption, that would be A Good Thing. I’m not an adoption reform activist, and I can’t promise that I’m going to become one any time soon, but I will certainly throw my voice and my prayers and even my money behind the good folks who are doing this important work.

The problem, though, as I see it, is that even if those good folks are successful and we get the money out of adoption transactions … it still seems to me that whenever poverty is part of the adoption equation, there’s going to be coercion involved. Because poverty is intrinsically coercive. One of my pet peeves is people who claim to be living lives of “voluntary poverty” because one of the hallmarks of poverty is that it’s sticky and profoundly restrictive. Intrinsically involuntary. If you can chose poverty, then you can un-choose it, which means that it’s not really poverty in the first place.

Real poverty? No one chooses that. Because let’s be clear, poverty is ugly and brutal and violent and soul-squashing. And it is not good for children, not good at all. Does this mean that children living in poverty would always be better off living with affluent families? Of course not, because many, many parents living in poverty are able, against so many odds, to be good parents (also, it’s because affluence can be likewise ugly and brutal and violent and soul-squashing, but that’s another rant altogether). But does it mean that some children born into poverty would be better off adopted by more affluent families? Yes, I do believe so.

Of course the best solution would be to end poverty. Of course. Then the coercion of poverty could be totally taken out of the adoption equation. And working to end brutalizing poverty is at the heart of my faith and informs all of my life-style and political choices (so maybe I am an adoption advocate?) But, you know, good luck with that and all, right? Even Jesus said the poor will always be with us, and while I try to do my part, I’m sure not holding my breath. In the meantime, there are families right here, right now, in this “mean time,” families who are stuck in poverty, and the only choices they have are choices that are overshadowed by poverty’s inherent coercion. That’s just the reality of their lives. To suggest that their children are always better off with them is to romanticize poverty and to patronize them. When poverty is your context, often the only choices you have are the best among a lot of bad options. When poverty’s coercion pervades your life, the amount of agency left to you is really small, but it’s what you have, and to exercise it is to exercise the only power you have. To take away that power in the interests of eliminating coercion is itself coercive. That’s what I mean about poverty: coercion is just the sea you swim in. There is no being free from it, there is just doing the best you can to stay afloat. For some women living in poverty, the best choice they can make for their children is to place them for adoption.

There’s so much coercion in adoption, and adoptive parents are responsible for a lot of it. We who adopt have an awesome responsibility to speak out, as Dawn says, to use our privileged place in the adoption triad as a bully pulpit for those who are structurally less powerful. I believe that, and I thank Dawn for being so relentless in reminding me of it.

But the coercion in adoption that stems from poverty? All of us, all of us who don’t live in poverty, aren’t we all party to that? Aren’t we all responsible for that? Well, that's probably a whole other debate, but as for me, I'm pretty sure when it comes to poverty, pretty much we're all implicated (present company most certainly included).

Poverty is one of the hardest things for me to write about. I have tried and failed, tried and failed, over and over and over for several years now. It is one of the reasons I stopped blogging at my first blog, the wide tent – it was time to write honestly about poverty and race, but I just didn’t have it in me. And I’m not sure I do even now. As I read back over this piece, I’m not happy at all – this is exactly the sort of writing I go out of my way these days to avoid: argumentative, righteous, entirely lacking in personal narrative. But to write well – to be vulnerable enough to tell the truth as I live it about poverty and race, much less poverty and race and adoption – I still haven’t figured out how to do that. So I leave you here with this, the best I could do with the resources I have at hand right now.

And really, you should go on over to This Woman’s Work because she’s just fearless.


Anonymous said...

several adult adoptees I listen to and learn from remind me that from the child's pov adoption is always choice at all.


Marta said...

wanda, that seems to me to be inarguably true, but i'm not sure what you do with it. it seems to me that hallmark of childhood, especially of infancy, is that all our choices are made for us. in that way all of infancy is inherently coercive, right? so given that, adults can't hope to take "coercion" out of their relationships with infants, but rather to make the best choices they can under the circumstances, given that every choice they make is "coercive" in a sense. and i guess i would just argue that there are circumstances under which adoption is the best of all the "coercive" choices. it's just better when the adults making the choice are party to/the victims of coercion -- but even then, sometimes adoption is the best choice. i guess i really do believe that.

Marta said...

oy! of course, that should read, "are NOT party to/victims of coercion"

Dawn said...

Just beautiful, Marta. And it reminds me of how much I've missed your voice talking about adoption. I feel like you have a very centered, compassionate point of view that I find very ... I'm trying to think of the right word and am missing it! But it's like I've been thirsty and you've quenched my thirst. Thank you.

Sara said...

I too have missed your writing on this.

It also reminds me of "coercion" re sexuality too - very few kids grow up thinking anything but straight is a valid choice, etc.

but yes, re adoption, it would be really good to have poverty/money out of the equation.

Claire said...

very beautiful writing.

one of the cruxes of the coercion issue seems to be the crazy way we have historically thought about agency, or to use a better word decision-making, especially in our 'liberty' and 'pursuit of happiness' country. The myth is that we make free decisions "all things being equal", but this very myth perpetuates that all things are never equal, and few, if any, decisions are free of constraint.

I join your anguish for those whose fields of possible decisions are so very much more circumscribed than ours, and hoping for a more just society, where more people can have more and better options.

Did I hear on NPR the other morning that 50% of African American children are in poverty? or was that a projection based on the way things are going?

Joanna said...

Marta, I'm glad you're talking about this again!

Marta said...

dawn, sara, claire, jo: oh my, but the love is making me blush! i mean, four of my favorite peeps! thanks. the funny thing is that i think this is one of the weakes things i've written yet on this blog! what do i know? but really: thanks. it means a lot.

alice said...

Add me to the chorus of people glad to hear your voice on this again! I think that there's a lot of territory around coercion and economic situations that doesn't get covered enough.

It's a tricky thing, because (speaking for myself), I feel like I could be doing more to fight against economic inequality. Taking part in systems that exist in their current form due to those inequalities is inherently complicated - sometimes abstaining works out (Wal-Mart can union bust, but I won't shop there), but other times it doesn't.

We're planning on adopting through the foster system, and it's got some deep, inherent flaws connected to economic injustice. Working with imperfect systems is one thing, but doing so whenI don't feel that I'm working hard enough to 'fix' things is another matter entirely. Hearing your thoughts on this is definitely helpful in figuring out how to keep approaching it.

Anonymous said...

yes, oppression of any form is always coercive, but are we to do but try and lessen it's force a bit, or create some safe space for someone. maybe in a terribly imperfect world, adpotion is about creating a bit of safe space, even at another's expense, in a world of incredible power imbalances-- both of those of age and of access...


SustainableFamilies said...

Thank you for writing this post. We in the adoptee/first parent community need your voice.

Marta said...

alice: it can be overwhelming. the needs of people in poverty are endless, the systemic nature of things makes it hard to feel like there's much you can do ... for me, it helps to realize that i can't fix it myself -- i can't fix the system, and (harder for me to accept) i can't "save" individuals stuck in poverty either. i try to make good choices and live my values with as much integrity as i can, but of course i fail all the time. it helps keep me humble.

michael: yeah. i was thinking of your sermon on ruth and naomi and boaz when i sent this to you. as you noted, it's a very different story if you understand how limited their choices really were.

sustainable families: thank you so much for your comment. it really means a lot to me.