When I decided to become a mother, I tried to get pregnant. I read a lot during that time. I read What to Expect When You’re Expecting; I read Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions and a bunch of other new-mothering books.
Time went on, I wasn’t pregnant, and we started planning an adoption. A lot of other things and emotions happened, but that is the short version. It wasn’t an easy transition, there were tears and very hard days, but we made the transition. My reading list changed. I subscribed to Adoptive Families Magazine (to which I still subscribe) and I read and read and read books. I read to learn and I read to fill the space in my heart that was there because I had thought I was already going to be a mother by then. And I read for the joy of it. As a woman in a lesbian relationship, who had been part of a lesbian community for many years– I loved the part of our lesbian culture that was about making new ways out of old ways of being. Making community, family, culture out of whole cloth–figuring things out. What is a family? What do I love, care about–that I want to pass on to a child? What kind of home will we make with a baby?
It didn’t take me long to notice that many of the people who wrote about adoption were (not always, but often) also thinking about very fundamental questions about family and kinship and closeness in a fresh way. They were thinking about race and racism and about culture– the one you are born into and the one you grow up with. They were thinking about the deep question of what is it that binds us together, as humans, in love, that has nothing to do with genetic lineage. They were trying to figure out some things about what young people actually need. I got more and more excited and I kept reading. And reading.
On my shelves today I count 36 books related to adoption. Because we are long out of shelf space for books, I have many books in boxes and at least two of those boxes are full of more books about adoption. I probably own about 100 books about adoption and there are many more out there than the ones I own.
Until last week I not read Adam Pertman’s Adoption Nation. The book was first released in 2000 and was just re-issued with updates and revisions. I have mostly been drawn to very personal accounts of adoption. Adoption Nation is indeed a different book than my usual reads. But I am very glad I read it and very glad Adam Pertman wrote it. It provides something we don’t have so much of, but should– which is actual data and comparative discussion of laws surrounding adoption. It tracks actual history of adoption practice, both domestic and international. We need to know these things in order to inform decisions and policies about adoption practice as we move forward and to understand what we are a part of as individual adoptive families.
I think Adam Pertman and I have much in common. He is an adoptive parent; he clearly adores his children; he is Jewish and he cares very passionately about adoption. And like myself, he wasn’t content just to parent two children who came to his family by adoption (a big enough job)– he wanted to know and to think more and deeper about adoption.
Adoption Nation is long and not a quick read. It is divided into three sections; one called “Don’t Whisper, Don’t Lie– It’s Not a Secret Anymore” about the long history of adoption in U.S. culture as a practice rife with secrets and lies– to birthmothers and to those people who were adopted out of their birth families and into a new family. The section does a great job of detailing some of the history of international adoption and the role of the Hague Adoption Convention. The middle section of the book, “Sensitive Issues, Lifelong Process” discusses issues affecting each of the members of the adoption triad; birth mothers, adoptive parents and adoptees. He does not shy away from discussion of the many abuses that arise in the context of adoption, nor does he trivialize these abuses.
In matters like adoption, where those of us who are touched by adoption have such deeply personal experiences and views, there is so much that is important, but that we actually know so little about— or worse, that we think we know, but where our “knowledge” is based solely on personal experience– which is important, but not enough.
I hope Adoption Nation becomes just one of what I hope will be a growing body of more comprehensive work on adoption. We need discussion of adoption as he provides, not just as it plays out for individual families, but in the context of the whole of the societies affected. Adam Pertman is knowledgeable and writes about a much bigger picture than just that of his personal experience– which is depth that I think we need.
I learned a lot and I am sure I will open it again in the future as a reference for information I will want and need as I continue to think and write about adoption. It is quite a feat to have compiled so much useful data, considered adoption from the standpoint of each member of the triad and discussed a wide array of state laws regarding adoption, international adoption law and practice as well as practices that are not codified anywhere.
My criticism of the book is not in what it is, but in what is missing. Throughout the book, Adam Pertman talks a great deal about birth mothers and about the data regarding race– who adopts, who is adopted. There is a lot of discussion about the increase in transracial adoption and many aspects of that shift. But he does not ultimately place his discussion of adoption directly in the context of two of the larger social issues which I believe are at the very heart of why adoption, as we know it in the U.S., is what it is.
He does not write directly about racism nor does he write directly about sexism. The omission of this overall context is most significant in the third and final section of the book, “Tough Challenges in a Promising Future” in which he discusses the public adoption/ foster care system and also offers a frank discussion of the role that money does and should or should not play in adoption. Yet all of this would be a fuller, more meaningful discussion if placed in the context of the larger social forces that are at play in all of these issues.
I think it is inescapable that the conditions that give rise to the placement of so many children of color in the U.S. and throughout the world are utterly connected to racism. I am neither pointing a finger at any one person or family nor blaming adoptive families in the slightest. But I am saying I can’t fully understand my wonderful daughter’s life story, without understanding racism and its effect on her Chicano people. We all, individual families and policy-makers alike, need to look at this bigger context as we look at adoption.
Likewise, I believe that any real discussion of adoption history and practice must be at least in part, a direct discussion of sexism. By this I mean discussion of adoption must include discussion of the sexism facing young women and single women, women in marriages and the level of control and economic autonomy that women do or don’t have. Adoption in inextricably bound with the conditions facing birth mothers, all of whom are women.
The individual reasons that any individual woman or family chooses an adoption plan for a child, or abandons a child are as myriad as the individual birth parents who make such plans. And yet all women’s lives, and especially our economic, reproductive and child-rearing lives, are circumscribed by sexism. Sexism isn’t the reason for every adoption, but no adoption happens outside of a world in which sexism has a profound effect on the lives of birth mothers as well as adoptive mothers.
Nonetheless I am glad this big book exists, and very glad to add it to my collection. I am glad the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, which Adam Pertman directs, and which may be the only institute dedicated solely to adoption research, exists. I hope I’ll meet Adam Pertman one day, and I hope to continue to play a small or perhaps even a bigger role as our thinking and the understanding of adoption continues to grow. There is certainly room and a need for many minds at work on this important issue in our world and in our families.
Last of all, if you read through to the end–this is your last chance to participate in my first Blog Book Giveaway!! If you’d like a new copy of the book, please email me your name and address at laurawrites1 at verizon dot net no later than Saturday and I’ll do a drawing and send off two copies of Adoption Nation.