Adoption and Birth Work

Adoption is a topic not often talked about in the world of midwifery, but I think it’s very important and integral to what we do as birth workers. My interest in looking more deeply in the connection between adoption and birth work came from a conference workshop I attended at CLPP in April where I heard Mary Mahoney from The Doula Project speak about her work as a doula for women considering placing their baby for adoption.

The following is a guest post by my dear friend Lena Soo Hee Wood. Lena is in the process of opening up her own labor and postpartum doula service, Cascadia Birth Services. I feel very honored and humbled that Lena has chosen to share some of her thoughts here on Bloody Show. This post is focused more as an initial exploration into transracial and transnational adoption, but I hope to be able to post more guest posts from Lena in the future as she continues to explore the intersectionality of being adopted and being a doula as well as potentially taking on some clients considering adoption.

As I’ve been doing some brainstorming and planning for my potential future doula/birth services, I’ve also been thinking a lot about family and pregnancy in general, and in particular, the work of both abortion and adoption doulas, which lies more on the fringes of the doula world than the center.

It’s also my own adoption anniversary today, the day that I arrived, at the age of three and a half months, in the arms of my foster mother, to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.

So it seems timely that I might share some more thoughts and resources for you on adoption…really, though I don’t even know where to begin.  It’s such a huge, complex subject, and for me, as much a part of my identity as being a woman.  I don’t remember the first time my parents told me I was adopted–I just feel like I always knew, although I do recall some vague memories of early conversations.

Mostly these focused on the fact that my birthmom was very young and “not ready” to be a mommy yet, but that my Mom and Dad wanted a baby very much and were so happy they could be my parents.  I remember asking if I would ever meet my birth mother, and they said probably not…and that they were my real parents now.

That was pretty much it.  We never talked about it more than absolutely necessary.  My parents, coming from a working-class background, did not necessarily have the education and resources at their disposal to become more aware of cross-cultural and trans-national adoption politics and history.

The thinking at the time was that babies are blank slates.  You can just give them a new name, a new identity, a new family, a new language and they’ll grow up to be just like their family.  Adopting Asians is even better, because historically, they have been viewed as more complacent, more “easily assimilable” to American culture.

And so, I grew up in a white world, a world in which I nearly forgot, unless I looked in a mirror, that I was not white.  I could tell stories that everyone reads about in angsty adoptee memoirs, the teasing, the weird looks, the racial slurs, the mindless stereotypes.  I could write about how I played into them: the quiet, studious, polite, charming flutist who got straight A’s, loved school and was beloved by her teachers…but that’s not really what I want to write about.  That memoir has been written countless times already, and frankly I’m sick of them.  Those are the memoirs that well-meaning adoptive parents read and then think they’re experts on their children’s experiences.

What I find lacking in the broader conversation of adoption is historical, political, economic and sociological perspective.  What are the circumstances that make adoption necessary?  What are the cultural norms that influence the way we think about and enact rituals of kinship?  And more importantly, how can the current renaissance of adoptee driven research and scholarship be made accessible to adoptive families and children, who are most in need of this support?

I think of my awareness about adoption issues in stages…levels of peeling away layers, years of misconceptions that are largely driven by the fact that much of what we hear about adoption is from the perception of either adoptive parents or adoption experts: social workers, therapists, etc.

I. Ignorant Bliss:  thinking that I can be just like Mommy and Daddy, without any awareness of cultural heritage or the concept of Korea as a real place, with living, breathing people.  Writing sweet little poems to my mom about how happy I was to be adopted and how she is the best mother ever.  Playing into the stereotype of adopted child as a gift and blessing, and believing that I should somehow be grateful for my “luck” in being adopted into such a wealthy country, when I could have ended up as a poor prostitute.

II. Cautious Curiosity: wanting to know more about adoption, why my parents chose it (was I a last result to their infertility?), what life would have been like had I not been adopted, who my birth mother was…but without actively seeking any of this information.

III. Careful Avoidance: after a few years of participating in teen adoptee groups and realizing that I had nothing in common with these wealthy Christian suburban teens, consciously avoiding any reference to being adopted or different in any way.

IV. Righteous Anger: in college and after, becoming aware of the larger historical context of trans-national adoption as a product of war and religious idealism, growing a sense of Pan-Asian identity and consciousness, and trying to reclaim lost pieces of my identity, desperately seeking to cling to any aspect of Asian identity that I can, which more often than not ends up being cultural consumption of food and clothing.

V. Resignation:  Understanding that I do not fit in any boxes.  Period.  I am not Asian, and not completely American, either.  I cannot connect with someone, even someone who is adopted, merely because of one aspect of my identity.  I am a Korean-American adoptee who grew up in a working class family in a white city who attended a rural women’s college and fell in love with farming.  I don’t like Asian hip hop, but I have learned to like kimchi, even though I have to pretend that I can use a pair of chopsticks.

VI. Delving into the Personal: As I became more interested in the work of doulas and midwives, and started seriously considering the journey toward motherhood myself, I began to finally allow myself to ask real questions about the circumstances of my birth, to let myself do the research and find what answers I could.  What I found out was healing and provided a sense of closure to that period of anger and confusion about my identity.

VII. But not completely closed:  because now I carry this intimate personal knowledge in the larger context of controlled family-making…and I still have mixed feelings about adoption.

Ideally the clients in adoption are the adoptees themselves.  They are the ones in need of families.  But really, it’s the adoptive parents who are catered to.  And I struggle with how to come to terms with the wealthy white women, single or not, who feel it is their right to have a child, come hell or high water.  That when they adopt this child will be “theirs”. Is being a mother a human right?  Even if it comes at the cost of another woman losing her child

Of course, it’s somewhat easier if a woman consciously decides she wants to offer her child for adoption.  But the cynic in me asks how much of that is a conscious choice and how much of it is feeling like she doesn’t have a choice because most governments don’t have social services in place to support single mothers. I cannot fathom that most women, if given the support needed, would willingly give their babies away so that other wealthy women can fulfill their need to become mothers.  If the thousands of dollars in adoption fees went to the birth mothers instead of the lawyers…

Well, let’s not go there.

And then, it’s hard just not to feel guilty and awful about all this anger.  Because at the end of the day, so many adopted children are grateful and would not choose their life to be any other way.  Parents feel a sense of completion as they take on this new role of mother or father, and feel themselves grow and love in ways they never imagined possible.  Who am I to deny that love and kinship?

I just can’t stand the ignorance around adoption, the unwillingness of adoptive parents to truly learn about and recognize the hierarchy of motherhood and family building and the global ramifications of selling and buying children.  Despite good intentions, our world is not color-blind, nor do I think it should be.

As much as I want to support adoptive parents in making careful, well-thought out decisions about growing their families, I also want to advocate for the trampled rights of adoptees and first mothers.  If our society truly valued public health, we would offer support for single parents.  Our health care and education and social services and employment laws would advocate for the well-being of families of all types, not just nuclear families.

So…that is my struggle right now. I still believe that adoptive families need support as they grow their families, and that they are an overlooked community in the world of midwifery and doulas, but I still seek more clarity and answers as to how I can most compassionately and effectively assist and support these families in a manner that is also sensitive to the issues of race, class and global power.

Let the conversation begin.

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11 responses to “Adoption and Birth Work

  1. As someone who was planning to adopt kids eventually, thank you for writing this. After seeing all of the pitfalls and injustices in adoption, and reading many perspectives that echoed this, my husband and I decided to no longer adopt. It’s a system that is just to messed up to participate in. Now we are looking forward to being childfree!

  2. AE, thank you for your response…

    As the author of this post, I want to make one thing clear: I am not anti-adoption. Although my experiences haven’t always been easy, I don’t regret my adoption. I feel truly lucky that I have been able to explore these issues and know that I am supported by friends and family.

    That being said, I wish all prospective adoptive parents were as conscientious about the process, and had the support to be honest with themselves about their fears, hopes, and limitations.

    It is definitely a messed up system, but there are still many, many children who need loving families. There are no easy answers I can offer, as a doula, or an adoptee myself, on how to improve the system. That is my big challenge–what can I do that will have a positive impact on those who are already in the system?

  3. I am a doula, too, and I’m infertile. I’m also a lesbian, so even before I found out about my infertility, I knew motherhood would have to be a very conscious choice. I’ve always wanted to be a mother, and figured adoption would be the best option, but this post brings up so many things I’ve been wrestling with too. I am white, and I never have felt like I would only want to adopt white children, but I know how fraught a transracial adoption can be.

    I don’t want to be ignorant about all these complicated issues. I don’t want to adopt a child who will grow up to resent me for adopting him/her.

    I am really interested in the idea of open adoption. It seems to get closer to a better way of doing things. But I wonder, too, if adoption is always going to be a horrible option? I was really stung by the idea of having a right to motherhood. I hope I don’t feel that entitlement, but I guess I’m naive.

    • I think two things are going on here. The adoption system here in the states and the way we do transnational adoption is deeply, deeply flawed. That does not negate, as Lena said, the fact that there are children who need safe, loving homes out there.

      Personally (and maybe Lena you have some thoughts to add here), I think by and large adoptive parents of the past have not taken the initiative to educate themselves. I think in a perfect world, responsible adoptive parents will educate themselves well about the history of adoption in the US, the adoption agency they are choosing to work with, and types of adoption (I’m so glad you bring up open adoptions, Valerie). Furthermore, any parent considering an transracial adoption definitely needs to educate themselves about the experiences of transracial adoptees. Love Isn’t Enough has an absolute wealth of information about this. It’s not that it can’t be done (and done well), but it needs to be done from an informed and actively anti-racist perspective.

      The other thing is that when I was at the workshop with Mary Mahoney, I was really thrilled to hear about the adoption agency they work with. This place works hard to give agency to parents considering placing their parents for adoption (which has certainly not been the rule in the past). They give the parents lots of information about their options and try to hook them up to social services so that they are not choosing adoption solely based on money. They give the birthing parent full choice whether to see, hold, and breastfeed the infant or not. And ideally (although not all state laws are favorable to this), the birth parent has some time (I’m talking 6 months to a year) to make a full decision while the child lives with them or the prospective adoptive parents. This ensures that when children are placed for adoption, it is done with adequate forethought and love, and that everyone (birth parents as well as adoptive parents) can feel good about the decision. And then this ideally is followed up by an open-adoption format where the birth parent(s) continues to have access to their child on a regular basis as agreed upon with the adoptive parents. This process, while not perfect, radically subverts the current paradigm of adoption that removes agency from the birth parent and has great potential to change the way adoption currently happens in the US.

      • I’m curious what adoption agency this was!

        In my doula training, there were two women who had (willingly) placed their first children for adoption and seemed to have fairly open relationships with the adopted parents and their children. It got me really interested in being an adoption doula and helping to create a better space for the birth mom in the ways you point out–letting her hold the child, breastfeed, etc. It was really great to get to know these women and hear about their experiences placing their children.

        I’m glad to know about the site Love Isn’t Enough, so thanks for pointing that out!

        • Well, I think we really could use more doulas working to support birth parents and parents considering placing their infant for adoption. You might consider contacting The Doula Project to see if they have any resources or if they have any other contacts in your area. I don’t know the name of the adoption agency Mary Mahoney mentioned, but if I remember right she said they had branches throughout the country. With any luck they’re in Utah too!

        • I loved reading this post, as a doula who has worked with birth mothers who’ve chosen an adoption plan for their children. I also work with the Doula Project and wanted to let you know that the pro-choice adoption agency we work with is Spence-Chapin in NYC. They are awesome!

          • LE, I’d love to hear more about your experiences doing this work! I know it’s out there, but I don’t see a lot of talk about it in the birth blogs (unless I’m reading the wrong blogs, and if that’s the case fill me in!).

            Also, I did a quick Google search of Spence-Chapin and it looks like they’re based in the New York/New Jersey area. Do you have any recommendations for similar pro-choice, pro-birth mom adoption agencies in other parts of the country?

  4. LE, I too, would love to hear more about your work with the Doula Project and with birthmothers.


    Thanks for posting your thoughts. I appreciate your honesty and the thought with which you seem to be approaching this whole adoption process.

    First off…the comment about motherhood as a right…I almost took that one out, because I can see how it could be really hurtful to someone who really, really wants to be a parent. And I am well aware of the challenges that gays and lesbians have in choosing to start a family. For the record, I firmly believe that gay and lesbian families should have the same rights and support as heterosexual families…and all the research points to the conclusion that children of gay and lesbian parents do just as well as other children. I am not in any way suggesting that there are some people that are “better designed” to be parents…

    I do however, agree with Krystel, that historically, adoptive families, for a variety of reasons, have not educated themselves on the circumstances of adoption as well as they could have. On the flip side, there are a lot more resources available now than when my parents were setting out on this journey.

    I think the key things that I would reiterate are these:

    *For anyone considering adoption, talk to adoptees. Read books by adoptees. Learn everything you can about their experience by TALKING WITH THEM. For too long, the voice of expertise in the adoption world has been adoptive parents and social workers. They are an important part of the process, yes, but at the end of the day, this is about the child. So listen to their voice.

    *Also, talk with birth mothers, as much as circumstances will allow. This might actually mean reading books from the birth mother’s perspective, as it can be a painful thing for many moms to talk about, but it’s also important to hear their experiences as well.

    *If you’re considering trans-racial or trans-national adoption, there is extra work to be done to become conscious of one’s own biases and privilege. John Raible’s blog is a really good place to learn more about that.

    *Know that whatever you decide about adoption, there are no easy answers, and each story is different. For the adoptee…even if the adoption process goes smoothly, it will always be a part of who they are, and their identity as an adoptee will evolve and change.

    • Thank you Lena, for your sincerity and sharing your perspective.

      As I wade through the stories and learn what it is to be an adoptee, so often adoption is minimized. My feelings are minimized, especially since I’m a late discovery adoptee. I learned at 43 that I was adotped. “They” say, but you had the life you had and you should be happy with that. Period, done – moving on. No, not at all that simple. I’ve learned I am not Welsh, I do not have my great grandmothers skin or smile. I was not a heavenly surprise to my mother who claimed to give birth to me when she was 44 years old. And so on…

      My only advice to add is that children need their parents to be honest, especially about their beginning. It should never be an option to keep their adoption a secret. Adult adoptees also need honesty, so any information about the birth family is a priceless gift that an adoptive parent can give.

      And a final thought to ponder, all adoptees at 18 need to have their original birth certificate. It is our human right to have the record of our own birth. Everyone else has their original birth certificate, we should as well.

      Thank you for your heartfelt blog and advice.

      Please keep these discussions going and encourage adoption reform.

  5. Pingback: Adoption and Birth Work « Bloody Show | Adoption

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