When I posted this I got a few emails from first mothers in response. The conversations that followed were great (from my perspective, anyway) as I am always eager to meet and talk to first moms about their experience of adoption. It's hard for me to understand adoptive parents who don't feel this way. As I see it, the stories and experiences of first parents enhance my understanding of my child and I am endlessly interested in my child and understanding her is sort of my more-than-full-time job, so bring it on.
But in those conversations I became convinced that I needed to shore up some of the ideas in that original post, as it was not clear in some respects. So here you have it.
One issue that kept coming up with the birth mothers I talked to was the idea that I said I was opposed to adoption reform, while in all other respects sounding very much like a reformer at heart. And I guess it's true that I am pro adoption reform. But when I wrote that post, I was coming away from reading some "reform" proposals that I strongly disagreed with.
One example was a requirement that first parents wait 30 days before being able to sign a relinquishment of their children. I don't agree with that, because not unlike waiting periods required for abortions, I think it puts a hardship on the woman who is trying to make a decision for herself and her child. In Nat's mother's case, such a requirement would have made adoption very difficult if not impossible to choose. I don't think putting a child in foster care for 30 days (one suggestion to protect adoptive parents from disappointment) is something many first mothers want and I don't think requiring a mother to take her baby home is fair, since this is not really possible for some women.
In chatting about this with one first mother, I agreed with her that having a 30 day revocation period seems like a great idea instead. If a woman could sign a relinquishment that automatically took effect 30 days later, without any special effort on her part, but in the meantime, she could, with a phone call, revoke the relinquishment, that would give her time to think without putting an undue burden on her to return to court, actively parent for a month or other difficulties. I realize that this would put adoptive parents in a scary place for a month, but it's a risk I would certainly be willing to take in order to bring more justice to the equation of adoption.
Another example of "reform" I read recently suggested that all adoption should be abolished and children whose first parents could not care for them should be placed in some kind of permanent guardianship with a foster family who would not legally be allowed to change the child's name. It is impossible for me to begin to agree that putting a child in permanent identity limbo--you aren't really part of your biological family and you aren't really part of the family raising you--could be in a child's best interest. This idea was raised by a disgruntled adult adoptee. Whatever identity issues some adult adoptees may face, I can't imagine the issues would be less under the suggested circumstances!
In our case, Nat has four names representing 1) her African American heritage 2) her birth mother's maternal line 3) our paternal lines 4) our maternal lines. When she is grown, she can pick and choose if she likes and take up any of the identities available. I realize not all adoptive parents necessarily choose to name their children this way, but I think naming needs to remain an option for adoptive families.
I do think it would be much better if "amended" birth certificates included all the birth name information--both the identities of the biological parents and the names they may have given a child at birth. Short of that, I wish all adoptive parents were given both the original copy of the birth certificate and the amended one so their children could access them later. In Nat's unusual case, she has no original birth certificate (she wasn't born at the hospital and they wouldn't give her one upon arrival) so instead, we have copies of all the paperwork the hospital had on her. No one at the hospital recorded Rose's given names for Nat, but we discussed names with Rose, so we know Nat's original name (we kept the important part of it) and it is written in her memory book beside her hospital bracelet and little foot prints and Rose's thumb print.
When first mothers say they think the coercion needs to be removed from relinquishment decisions, I can't possibly agree more. I could not be part of an adoption in which I thought the birth mother was coerced into placing her baby. And we strongly believe that we are not part of such an adoption.
This is where race comes into the picture. And this is one of the things I had in mind while writing that original post (and I think I made it pretty clear there). So many of the first mother blogs or websites I have seen are by and for and about white women. And when I read about (or see evidence of--at icky adoption agency websites, for instance) coercion of birth mothers, it's related to there being a strong "market demand" for healthy white infants for would-be adoptive parents. To put it bluntly, there is not a strong market demand for Black infants in any kind of health.
Though our agency has been booming with adoptive parent interest lately and the wait average has doubled since we got Nat, it's still considerably shorter than the average wait for a healthy white infant. Furthermore, the agency we work with is not-for-profit, solely exists to keep children out of the foster system, and collects the bare minimum of fees to keep the lights on and the phones connected. They do not have any discernable interest in persuading more mothers to relinquish their babies. In fact, they operate in exactly the opposite direction, focusing their outreach efforts on both finding adoptive families and persuading those prospective adopters to consider less than perfectly healthy infants (as many of their first mothers do not have high quality health care during pregnancy). They also work hard to educate prospective adopters about open adoption and the importance of acknowledging birth parents.
So while I disagree with coercion of any kind in adoption, it is not really a big issue in our adoption, whereas other issues--the ones I discussed in the original post, like racist public policy etc.--loom quite enormously in our adoption. Those are consequently the issues that concern me most when it comes to reform.
Likewise, the call for more pre-placement counseling for potential birth mothers gets my sympathy. I'm happy to sign onto it. But in our case, Nat's birth mother was already a single mother who knew very well what her resources were (and were not) and what life would be like with another child in her family. So while I think that making sure pregnant women understand their options and resources for raising their children, at our agency, most of the women they work with know this already, quite well. And they do counsel women about this, nonetheless. So again, that particular issue is not in the forefront for me when I think about this stuff.
One first mother I talked to said my agency was sort of already "reformed" but that many still were not. She's right. I did a lot of research and footwork to find and choose our agency and I saw a lot of awful stuff along the way, including dire warnings to women in crisis pregnancies that all choices but adoption would scar them and ruin their lives. There was no mention of how adoption affects the rest of a mother's life.
Here's a story that absolutely proves that first mother I spoke with to be correct about the distance we have to go in making all adoption as ethically sound as our agency's adoptions.
A few weeks ago, a message came across a gay parenting listserv I'm on with a phone number and name to call if anyone was interested in adopting twins due very soon. All the person posting the message knew was that the woman was looking for a lesbian couple. So I called.
It turned out that the name and phone number belonged to an "adoption facilitator" (a title that is made up and means absolutely nothing and requires no licensing or training of any kind). I had heard that adoption facilitators as a genus were slimy money grubbers and guess what? This one did nothing to dissuade me of my convictions.
When I raised questions about the pregnant woman this facilitator supposedly represented (questions like "what kind of counselling is she getting? why is she placing if she has so much support from her family?" etc.) she accused me of acting like I was buying a car. Meanwhile, she represented the woman's babies as high-quality merchandise because they were healthy and likely to be blond and blue-eyed. The "situation," this facilitator told me, was "perfect" because the mother didn't want contact with the adoptive family, and the father wouldn't "make any trouble" because he was married to another woman who didn't know about his affair and he wanted the babies to go away quietly and never be heard from again.
When I told this woman that A) our first child is Black and we want her siblings to look like her and B) the costs she was quoting me were about 3 times what we had planned to spend and C) the situation didn't sound like it met our ethical standards anyway, she honed in on race and cost.
"Well, as you probably know, a white infant will cost you more than a Black infant, but if you are on a budget, you could give me your email and I'll keep you in mind if I come across any Black infants and maybe we could work out a sliding scale."
At this point in the conversation, I wanted to jump in the shower myself and toss the phone into a bucket of bleach. I was shocked enough that I was probably far too polite when I told her no thank you, we'd just stick with our agency.
I really, really hope that mother kept her babies (and paraded them down to the birth father's house and demanded child support). It sounded to me like she was feeling quite coerced indeed by the father and by this woman who stood to make a huge profit on the "deal." Because as I mentioned, her job requires no training, no licensing; she provides no legal services (she offered to find local lawyers in the phone book for us to call), no counseling services, and as far as I know, has no expenses but her phone bill and her internet hook up. What she meant when she said "white infants cost more than Black infants" was "I can get more money for white babies than I can for Black ones."
It was strictly a market matter to her.
When I told Uncle David about the phone call (he was minding Nat in the living room), he said "does the mother get any of that money?" Heck no, I told him. That would be unethical. You can't sell your own baby, you can only sell other people's babies.
So if we can add "tar and feather the adoption facilitator Shannon spoke to on the phone" to the list of adoption reform demands, I'll happily sign onto that too.
Because I am all for all kinds of adoption reform.