I always knew I would adopt children. I was less committed to giving birth to children, however pregnancy and homebirth have been parts of my mothering experience as well. I don’t remember the moment I decided I wanted to be a parent–it was in me from the very beginning. I also don’t remember deciding my future family would include both adopted and biological children, I just always knew it would. Maybe it was because my first friend was adopted. I don’t remember life before him; he is just three days younger than me.
As a young child, I took care of my many dolls and dressed up (for several years in a row) as a ‘mother’ for Halloween. I spent a good portion of my early pre-parenting life taking care of other people’s children. I have a brother who is ten years younger than me. I babysat a lot. I ran a summer ‘day camp’ for neighborhood kids. I nannied for children with cerebral palsy and autism, as well as their siblings. I worked with toddlers in a daycare center. I was a substitute teacher.
In my later professional life, I worked with adults with schizophrenia, OCD, and bipolar disorder. I worked with social workers and police investigating child sexual abuse and serious physical abuse. I’ve known many children, and I’ve known many struggling adults who are still dealing with their difficult childhoods.
I have always felt a real responsibility to be of use (as Homer Larch says), to constantly assess my life and myself to see if I am doing all I can. My thoughts and purpose have directed me to be of use to people in need: real, basic need. I completely believe that we are all one world, one people, but I also believe I must first address what is right here in my own back yard: the needs and inequities in my own country.
When we went through our first adoption process, I was not thinking about the ethics of adoption or about the policies (and the ‘values’ behind them) that financially reward women for placing their children with adoptive families–but don’t provide these same women the opportunity to parent their children. I was just thinking about children who needed a family. We knew what we were comfortable with, and we had a fabulous agency, and we ended up with a fully open adoption. Our second adoption was (serendipitously) with a different agency, and again was a completely ethical placement. (Although sometimes it seems like luck that both our adoptions worked out that way. In hindsight, I see so many potential pitfalls that just didn’t materialize.)
Our coming to adoption by choice instead of by way of infertility has caused a lot of confusion for others–for family members, for the general public, and for other adoptive parents. It is an unusual choice, especially with our combining adoption with biological children in such close concert. (Hard-core preferential adopters do not have any biological children, and many adoptive-bio mixed families have a few older bio kids and then a few younger adopted kids–almost like two separate families.)
So, why adopt when we are able to have (and not philosophically opposed to bearing) biological children?
For me, the answer lies deep inside me: every child is my responsibility. As with all things, If not me, then who? This is true in the abstract and in the very concrete (as in, we have the resources and the space, we should be open to another child in our family if a child needs us). The way this deeply held belief has played out in my adult life is a bit more complicated.
I have a life partner and best friend I have been with for almost 14 years. His ideas and plans are not necessarily the same as mine. I now have four children who (through some amazing blessing) are all multiply-gifted. They are healthy, they are beautiful, they are (mostly) well-behaved. They are intellectual and athletic super-stars (yes, I know, this is their mother bragging here). Thus, the thought of adding extremely needy children–I’m talking older child adoption here–to our family at this point in time (our kids range in age from 6 down to 2) gives me pause for the first time in my life. What would that mean for the children we have now? What would our family feel like for a child who has not had most of the advantages our kids have?
I am not traditionally religious at this point in my life, but I do love the writings of the Sufi master Jelaluddin Rumi. In a piece entitled The Real Work, Rumi says:
There is one thing in this world that you must never forget to do. If you forget everything else and not this, there’s nothing to worry about, but if you remember everything else and forget this, then you will have done nothing in your life.
Parts of me want to be a writer, a painter, a small-time homesteading farmer, an antiracist activist and organizer, an educator about multiracial families and individuals, an adoption reformer, an open adoption advocate. But when I dig deep down to my core, my internal compass always points the same way. My true purpose and drive is to provide a family and a home for children who need one.
One place this gets tricky with adoption is in turning down a specific situation because it is unethical: because the child’s parents are not being treated fairly, because you are being asked to do something–or pay for something–that is (at best) a very grey area. If you (as a potential adoptive parent) stick to your ethical values and say no to the situation, it feels like what you are really doing is saying no to the child: No, I’m sorry, you or your mother are involved with an unethical social worker (or facilitator or agency) and so you can’t become a member of our family. But I could not live with myself with even the hint of having ‘bought’ a child, or parenting a child whose first family truly intended to keep and parent them.
I carry all those children–and their mothers– around with me still, the children who joined other families, the children who are still waiting. I carry the sibling group of three Black brothers waiting in foster care, children who require more care (and fewer siblings) than our family can provide. I carry every face from every photolisting, every mistreated pregnant or parenting mother, every statistic about children living in poverty or parents dying of AIDS, alongside the pain in the faces of the mothers on T.V. during hurricane Katrina, the stories of children from Guatemala and Ethiopia stolen away to families overseas. Every mother hurting because of her child’s pain or the loss of her child; every child hurting because they have no parents–I carry them all inside me. I always have.
I constantly ask myself, would I be more effective working on policy issues instead of parenting a house full of stair-step children? But to me that feels like I’d be saying, I’m willing to donate money to the cause because that abnegates me from going to the people and being a part of the work myself. Donating money is important, don’t get me wrong, but it is also neater, less personal, in many ways–easier. Who is responsible for doing the actual hands-on work?
Along a similar line, and one that is with me almost as often: The financial privilege of the world’s middle and upper class has translated into ridiculous–yet seemingly mundane–expenses. Even when we have the money, I struggle to buy myself anything because the thought of what that $40 (the cost of a new striped turtleneck) would buy for a mother struggling to feed her children . . . you know, I’m pretty content in my thrift-store finds and my mother-in-law’s hand-me-downs.
We’re not wealthy, but we do more than get by. My partner and I have been blessed with good health, able bodies, the opportunity to complete college degrees, steady jobs, health insurance, and some very supportive family members. To most people who know us IRL (and probably the rest who don’t), our consideration of adopting another child–or two–into our hopping and popping family, well, they think we’re a little crazy. “Your life’s so perfect,” one relative always says, “Why risk wrecking it? Who knows what another child will do to your family balance?”
To that relative, and to everyone else, I say only this: There are children who need families. I think we have a pretty great family, with a lot to offer another son or daughter, brother or sister. And I love being a mother.