It’s been nearly two years–to the day–since we left Ethiopia with our newly-adopted daughters. This photo was taken of one of the girls holding my husband’s hand on the airplane, right before take-off. She slept like this the entire flight to Germany.
Every once in awhile an article or interview surfaces that places international adoption in the spotlight, and often a negative one at that. As an adoptive mom to four children, all from Ethiopia (cue ominous music), this subject interests me to no end–probably because I’m constantly answering questions about why we adopted, about my kids’ respective pasts, and how my children conceptualize race. People sense that transracial adoption from another country is, in a word, complicated.
And, it is.
We adopted my twin sons before Ethiopia was what it is now. In 2005 Ethiopian adoption was relatively uncommon, and now it’s considered a “hot spot”. It turns out that Angelina Jolie put the East African country on the adoption map shortly after we began the process (no joke), but before that, people were far more likely to adopt from China, Korea, or Russia. And so by the time we went back and adopted our daughters in 2011, children from Ethiopia were in high-demand, with of course a few exceptions (my daughters for example had been sitting in an orphanage for two years, because they had Down syndrome. And were therefore not so much in demand.)
I’ve always been aware of the ethics involved in international adoption. I get the whole power discrepancy and I’ve always believed that while adoption may be in the best interest of a child, relinquishment by a birth parent ought to be a last resort. When I advocate for adoption, I am advocating for adoption that is ethical, above-board, and necessary.
And so when I see international adoption portrayed in the news as a cesspool of trafficking and corruption, perpetrated by naïve and baby-hungry white people, I just roll my eyes and think to myself that it’s really much more complex than that. Just like one should not oversimplify adoption by painting it as the urgent rescue of a cute little baby whose parents are both dead (most orphans have at least one living birth parent, and most children needing families at any given time are not indeed babies), one should also not diminish its role entirely by suggesting that birth parents are all a bunch of clueless, powerless victims that don’t know what they’re doing. Or that adoptive parents are all a bunch of white-privilege-loving-and-imperialistic-minded baby stealers. Many birth parents do know what they’re doing. Many adoptive parents are very sensitive to ethical concerns regarding their child’s past. The mainstream media loves themselves a good polarizing story–especially where race is concerned–but honestly? Oftentimes, it’s not really all that exciting. A sad reality, yes, but not automatically a cloak-and-dagger deal gone down where a mother exchanges her baby for money and is therefore taken advantage of.
Now don’t get me wrong. That does happen. Probably more than we realize. But not in every situation. And as an adoptive mother I refuse to feel guilty for giving children a family, who were legitimately in need of one.
Of course that is not to say that I don’t cringe when I see some adoption advocates gushing over the ”precious children” with “minimal” medical/developmental needs (that, let’s face it, very well may not be minimal), or when I hear Christians saying that if you’re not adopting, you’re not following Jesus or Saint James’ version of pure religion. And I kind of want to stomp and yell when a certain non-profit markets kids they have no jurisdiction over whatsoever, and utilizes sketchy fundraising practices. All of that concerns me, even while I acknowledge that they have helped a lot of children with developmental needs find families. And the idea of a child being taken from his or her mother or father under the ruse of receiving an education abroad, which has indeed happened in Ethiopia? Absolutely disgusting. Corruption in adoption is evil. It is not uncommon. We need to be aware, and to listen to the children and families who have been touched by this particular tragedy.
But. That does not diminish the reality that children are meant to be raised in families. It does not mitigate the fact that sometimes people are desperate and unable or unwilling to parent, and that orphanages are not proper (or safe) places for children to grow. Extreme poverty, social stigma, disease and shame are ugly, but they are real. My four adopted children could not remain with their respective birth mothers. And while one could argue that while my kids may have legitimately needed a family, I paid into a corrupt system that hurt other kids, well, a large portion of my money actually went to the US government for visas, airfare, lodging and food for travel, formula and diapers and supplies for our agency’s orphanage (that cared for a large number of children with developmental delays that no other orphanage would accept and who most likely will never be adopted), and legal fees for the Ethiopian courts.
Frankly, I rarely see any sort of nuanced or realistic conceptualization or expression of international adoption in the media. Adoptive parents are either hailed as pioneers of heroic virtue or condemned as bumbling perpetuators of what some like to call international abduction. No middle ground. No approach that seeks to explore the reality of what it means to be a transracial adoptee or parent. And that is the great paradox: society either wants to vilify or canonize as saints people like my husband and me. And I think part of the reason (beyond the fact that the media prefers an exciting story to a boring one) is that it really is so very complicated. Not all adoptees or adoptive parents are the same. You can’t paint us with a broad and over-simplified brush, but people do, because it’s easier.
Families are complex in general because they are comprised of relationships–Mother Teresa even liked to say that it’s much harder to love those in your home than the poor in a far-off country. And how much moreso when your family also includes children living with the scars of difficult pasts, a significant amount of loss, and post-institutionalization? With some developmental delays thrown in for good measure? Not every adoption story is the same, not every circumstance of how adoptees came to be placed for adoption is the same, and it is not an exaggeration to say that there are many children around the world legitimately in need of families. The bad and the scary stories tend to take precedence, but there are hopeful stories out there too, and I would hate for people to assume that international adoption is not a viable option on account of trafficking and falsifying documents and baby buying. When, while those things are very real, they are not happening 100% of the time.
My husband and I are not planning to adopt again. Were we to do so, I don’t know that we would adopt from Ethiopia, because things seem like a mess. Still, there are children there that need families, and I always advise people who ask to discern where and what the need is, and go there. If not Ethiopia, somewhere else. Do your homework. Do your best to ensure that you’re not contributing to an unethical situation. Seek to understand the complexities, joys and sorrows that come with international adoption and don’t be surprised if it, like parenting in general, requires a constantly-evolving set of ideas, strategies and ways through which to view it. For me, this has meant that I refuse to be silenced or labeled by the paradox of international adoption perpetuated in our society. And I hope other adoptive parents–whether their stories are the same or different as mine–join me in embracing our children amidst the unique and often complicated circumstances from which they came.