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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