Friday 28 October 2011

On October 27...

In 2009: We became parents to two fabulous and surprisingly noisy children
In 2010: I pondered the significance of the anniversary
In 2011:totally forgot the anniversary. I'd been thinking about it a lot the previous week, but on the actual day? Total blank until 11.30pm, when I was nearly asleep. 

In 2009: We ate pizza, because it meant we didn't have to think about cooking and parenting at the same time. The babies drank milk.
In 2010: We celebrated the anniversary with pizza, and hoped it counted as the start of a tradition. The babies refused to taste it. They drank milk. 
In 2011: Pizza again. The day after the anniversary. Because of the forgetting.  The babies licked it, and then cried because of all the flavours and asked for pasta. Then they drank some milk. 

In 2009: I thought ' This is it! Family Day!' but never said it out loud.  
In 2011: I could care less whether anybody is annoyed that I use the term Family Day. Anybody wants to discuss whether or not we are a family can take their turn singing ten rounds of 'the wheels on the bus' first. 

In 2009: I hoped I knew what I was doing
In 2010: I was pretty sure I knew what I was doing
In 2011: I am absolutely certain I have NO idea what I am doing

In 2009: I didn't know them at all
In 2010: I loved them
In 2011: They are so far under my skin that I don't really know where they end and I begin

In 2009: They were yelling
In 2010: They were babbling. And yelling. 
In 2011: They are singing. And talking. And also sometimes yelling. 

In 2009: I was getting sick and hadn't showered. 
In 2010: I was wearing a floral cardigan. I hoped it was channelling the 1940s librarian trend, but I forgot that only works if the whole outfit isn't channelling the 1940s librarian trend. 
In 2011: Last night, I decided that I would try some of the babies' hair products in my own hair. After all, they have dry hair, I have dry hair, right? No. NO. A thousand times no. So today I had to spend the whole day with my hair up as a result. Never. Again. 

In 2009: 

In 2010: 

In 2011: 

Happy Family Day, beautiful babies. We love you more than ever. Here's to many more happy years together. 

Monday 24 October 2011

The Periscope and The Dam: A Map Of Adoption Ethics According to Me (Part Two)

I'm continuing straight on from Part One, with no recap. If you haven't read that, this is going to make no sense at all. Read it now - I'll wait. Okay, now here we go: 

Agencies. Ah, agencies. Dwellers in the fertile plains. How would an agency behave ethically? It's probably easier to ask the question - how can things go wrong?  Let me take you on a journey to the bad end of the wall.

 In my mind, this wall we've been talking about is made up of equal parts law and moral obligation, and where it stands tall, it does so because of a combination of good regulation and good behaviour. This bad end of the wall is where those two start to run out. I've called the area at the very end of the wall, where it has crumbled totally, 'The Open Plains of No Regulation'.  In some countries, especially when international adoption is in its infancy, there are very few laws in place and it is very, very easy to behave unscrupulously. People can walk right around the wall because it's not really there. Of course, not all people do behave unscrupulously in those situations, but it's an environment that makes bad behaviour much easier, and therefore much more likely. In this sort of situation, an agency representative (or, more likely, a PAP) could easily go to a village orphanage and agree that a particularly cute child probably does need a new home, and, since there are no formal regulations in place surrounding abandonment / relinquishment, arrange to adopt the child (or facilitate the adoption) with very little official interference. I think this situation has been getting less and less common over the last few decades, all around the world, for which we should all be profoundly grateful. But it can still happen. There's always a lowest common denominator, a group of bottom-dwellers who will do all they can to get around the law. But it still needs to be there. Good regulation is absolutely critical if the interests of children are to be looked after.

The two bigger risks, especially in established international adoption programmes, are the holes in the wall caused by the 'Tunnel of Bribery' and the 'Pit of Coercion'.  These are two of the most obvious ways that people who benefit from adoption can act to influence the people who are the official decision makers. Coercion can take various forms, but when a parent is led to believe that they should relinquish their child, that it would be the loving thing to do, I think that's coercion's most common face.  I think the most difficult thing about coercion is that sometimes it seems that the people doing it genuinely believe that they are acting in a child's best interest. They may truly believe that a particular woman's child would be better off at school in Milwaukee or Stockholm  than with her on the streets of Kampala or Addis Ababa. They may honestly think that a young, unmarried woman will have the chance to re-start her life if she bids her baby farewell, and that this would be much better than her trying to make her way as a single mother in a society where they are stigmatised. In these situations, the agency may not be looking for financial gain, and they may even be well intentioned, but if they are working to convince a mother to say goodbye to a child she wishes to parent, the behaviour is unethical nonetheless because it is not their decision to make. They benefit from it, and they should not be trying to influence it. 

The tunnel of bribery causes holes in the wall when people use money to influence decision-makers. This could be an orphanage offering a mother money (or food) if she relinquishes her child. It could be an agency or a PAP offering perks to keep a pet social worker sweet. Either way, when the people who benefit from adoption use their money (or some other form of power) to increase the number of children who are deemed adoptable, this is probably the most blatant, the most obvious form of unethical behaviour.

(I've been thinking about this question of money, though, and I've come to think that it can be a bit of a red herring in adoption discussions.  Forgive the digression, but - if my agency gives money to a social worker so that she will be more likely to determine that a child is abandoned (when really, the child's mother is coming back and everybody knows it) that's a clear breach of the wall and of adoption ethics.  However, what about when my adoption agency fleeces me, on its own side of the wallWhat about if my agency director is taking a big chunk of my fee and using it to buy expensive cars, vacations, a swimming pool? What about when the agency's in-country employees are overcharging me and profiteering and asking for extra cash in order to do tasks that they have already been paid for?  Or, on the other side of the wall, what about orphanages who are processing adoptions legally and not getting involved in the decision-making but who are neglecting the children, keeping some of the money for care back and lining their own pockets? How about if an orphanage driver charges the agency a vast, ridiculous sum of money in order to transport children to the agency centre? My opinion is this: All of those things are bad. Some of them are criminal. Several of those people should be in jail, especially the orphanage guy who is stealing money that should be used to feed hungry children. However - that's not what I'm talking about, personally, when I'm talking about whether an adoption was ethical. I think that sometimes 'ethics' is used to talk about how well people behave towards the other people on their side of the wall, how well children are cared for, how being with an agency makes us feel. But all these awful things I listed- and they are awful things -  aren't really the heart of the matter, in my eyes. They are extremely important. But adoption ethics, I think, is first and foremost about answering the question of whether a child should have been adopted in the first place. Whether a child is treated well or badly while waiting to be adopted is critically important, as is whether my adoption agency is trying to defraud me of all my money. But I don't think those things are what makes an adoption - the legal transfer of a child from one family to another - ethical or not. Okay, digression over).

All of that, of course, leads me to admit that I don't really know what to do, schematically, with orphanages;  I think that the murkiest bit of the map is probably in-country orphanage care. In fact, I haven't even given orphanages a separate space on the map. I probably should have, but I drew the whole thing a few days ago and now can't find the blue felt-tip pen I used. Please, do your best to imagine that orphanages have their own bubble next to agencies. Close your eyes and draw it with the felt-tip-pen of your imagination, okay?
Use the light blue pen of your mind. Got it? 
I think that if adoptions are going to be squeaky-clean, people who run the orphanage, who manage the money, should not have anything - anything- to do with making final decisions about placing children for international adoption. Is this realistic? I don't know. I suspect that there is a spectrum, depending on the country, depending on the local infrastructure, depending on the orphanage. Where the orphanages have more power, more chances to get their hands mucky, the role of the watchers on the wall becomes increasingly important. (I haven't really discussed this group of people because their role - as independent, neutral adjudicators and enforcers - is pretty self-explanatory. Exactly what they do, and how well they do it, will vary by country and person. It should not be this way, but I think it probably is). I have no doubt that there are many orphanages where the only times that children in their care are sent for intercountry adoption is when an independent person with no interest in the outcome deems it to be in the child's best interest. If that orphanage receives reasonable funding from an agency for the care of the child, no ethical boundaries are crossed because the orphanage had nothing to do with deciding that child would be placed for adoption.

I also have no doubt that there are other orphanages where the people in charge have no qualms about pushing for particular children to enter the adoption pipeline. I am sure that there are some where the mothers who come for help are given a spiel about how that baby they are cradling could have a much better life (with an education!) in America. I am sure there are cases when the director then phones his favourite agency, tells them to refer the child and pockets a big chunk of the money passed to him for the child's care. This second situation is clearly and unarguably unethical. He pushed for the child to be relinquished, and then he benefits from that decision. I'm sure it sometimes happens, but it never, never should.

It may not always be as clear-cut as this, but these issues are one of the main reasons that I think agencies have to do more than simply hide behind the wall. They have to respect it, but they can't just put their backs to it and hunker down and think that is enough. This introduces the final feature that I have drawn on the wall: the periscope of accountability*.

An agency may not be actively facilitating child recruitment, but if they aren't interested in finding out what their partners in the field are doing, that's not good enough. So: agencies must not broach the wall, but if they care about ethics, they have to care about what is happening on the other side. For each child they place, I believe they have a responsibility to check that nobody on the deciding who gets adopted side of the wall is doubling up and benefiting, too.  They've got to make good use of the periscope. Because if agencies don't do this, who will? Embassies have a responsibility to check adoption details at the point where a visa is issued, but (as someone else said recently, and I wish I could remember who) these people are in the immigration business, not the adoption business. Their job is to check that a child is eligible to immigrate to their new country, not really to check whether or not they should be emigrating from the old. If the agency is going to be referring a child to new parents, the agency should be checking - as far as is humanly possible - that everything that happened before the child reached them was both legal and, yes, ethical.

It's a pretty obvious point to make that different agencies will be at different points along the wall.  I suppose that, in real life, this wall turns into something of a spectrum. One one side, it ranges from those who are doing everything possible to breach the wall at one end, to those with their eyes glued to the periscope of accountability at the other. On one extreme of the other side of the wall, there are those standing next to those breaches, hoping for kickbacks. Those committed to looking after the interests of children belong at the other.

I think it's important to say that even the very worst agencies can end up facilitating ethical adoptions. By the power of statistics and sheer dumb luck, some of the children that they place in new homes probably really do need them.  Similarly, even the very best, most ethical agencies can unknowingly place children who are the victims of other people's lies. Social workers can lie. Birthfamilies can lie. Agencies are not always the bad guys in adoptions that should never have happened. There is no way of managing this risk down to zero. We live in an imperfect world. ("Imperfect solutions for an imperfect world!" Now that's an adoption agency slogan I'd like to see).  But it can definitely be minimised, and I think a crucial first step is finding out as much as possible about where an agency stands along the wall. Are they tapping on the bricks, looking for cracks? Are they standing with their backs to the wall, fingers in their ears, ignoring warning bells? Or are they standing with their eyes glued to the periscope? The last group should be ensuring, firstly, that nothing they do will ever pressure any decision-makers into classifying a child as 'adoptable', but also that they won't participate in a process where anybody else has done this. I want to say that this last group is also less likely to use the word 'angels' anywhere on their website to describe children, but that would be flippant. So I won't.

So, if that's all in place, is that the best thing we can do for children? If we respect the wall, and cling tightly to the periscope, is that it? Is a really, really ethical adoption the highest thing we should be striving for? Is an adoption, facilitated by independent professionals, what every young mother dreams of for her child? Is that the best, the only thing we can do for children in need across the world? Well, no. Obviously. All that an ethical adoption system can do is pick up the pieces of tragedies that have already happened - this is a large part of what makes it ethical. If we want to stop the tragedies happening, we need to look elsewhere for solutions. Too many adoptions happen because women find themselves in the  swamp of adversity, fed by those three rivers of poverty, illness and social expectation. Building a nice high, tight, wall, a perfect adoption system, does nothing about those three rivers. They will continue to flow. Nothing will change. Families will continue to break apart. To address those three rivers, we need to think beyond the wall. We need something else: we need a dam.

The best way to address a problem is not to pick up the pieces, it's to stop it happening in the first place. If we are looking to have long term, big-picture impact on children's lives, we want the swamp of adversity to dry up. We have to build a dam.  What does that look like? Here are some suggestions:

Building the dam means working for family reunification. It means working for better healthcare (especially maternal and child health, and sanitation). It means working for education (again, especially for women). It means - and this isn't something that we, in other countries, have much power over - fair government.  If those things are in place, rivers start to dry up. The orphan crisis (although I have an allergy to the word orphan, I can't think of a better one here) is addressed in the best possible way because steps are taken to prevent children ever being orphaned.

There are lots of ways that people can help to build the dam. Some of them are here.  Here is another. Also, this.  However - this post isn't about the joys of microfinance, clean water or women's education - although those are all fascinating topics - it's about adoption, and adoption does nothing to help build a dam. So, the reason I bring up the dam here is that I think that ethical adoptions start with a wall, and I think that in some cases people are looking for a dam instead. This goes two ways.

Firstly: I get the impression, sometimes, that when people say that their agency is 'really, really ethical', what they mean is that their agency is spending a lot of energy and money building the dam. Their agency funds free health care. Their agency does all kinds of nice things that help people. And maybe they do help people, and that's great (see below, re: helping other humans being a generally good thing) but I suggest that it has nothing to do with whether or not the adoptions they facilitate are ethical. In fact, I think that sometimes people take bricks out of the wall to help build the dam. While I am totally in favour of the dam, I believe there's room for confusion if the people who are overseeing 'helping' projects also have an interest in adoption.

Secondly: Sometimes people say adoption is not ethical because what we should really be doing is preventing the problems that lead to adoption. They think that adoption is not ethical because it's not dambuilding.  I disagree with this second one because I think it misses the whole point of what an ethical adoption should be. An ethical adoption should pick up the pieces of a tragedy that has already happened, when the rivers were too fast, when the dam wasn't there, when it's too late to prevent the problem because it has already occurred.  Building a dam is too late for those kids. Adopting a child who has already lost his or her family does not mean that we don't think the dam is important (although we should be honest enough with ourselves to examine whether we really want the dam built now, or whether 'after my referral' would suit us better. I say that from painful experience).

Dam-building should be something that we do because we are human, and we care about other humans.
We should be doing all we can, where we can, whenever we can, to share what we've got, to make the world better, doing for others what we would want them to do if they were the half of the world who had nearly all of its riches. Dambuilding should not be seen as something that only adoptive parents should be invested in, or only the infertile, because honestly? The dam has not nothing to do with adoption. The reason I've drawn the dam on this map is not because the dam is part of adoption. I've drawn it to illustrate that it is emphatically not part of adoption. It should be separate.  Living with one may well lead to an interest in the other, but they are not the same thing. They are not interchangeable. People who have a go at adoptive parents for not sponsoring children instead? Yes, we should all be helping where we can. But that includes YOU. And me. And it should have nothing to do with whether or not either of us ever plans to adopt. 

So that's my take on what I mean when I'm talking about an 'ethical' adoption. Please remember - I am not saying that any particular country has it all figured out. I am certainly not saying that I have it all figured out.  I'm not saying that this analogy covers all the complexities. I am not saying that everything is okay. I am certainly not trying to list everything about international adoption that is not okay. I am not even really proposing any solutions. (Want to propose some solutions? I'm happy to do a link-up!)  I am just trying to define a word. Ethical. What does it mean?

I suppose I'm saying that I think it looks something like this.

*Not a real product. Not available at any store. 

Thursday 20 October 2011

Part One-And-A-Half: Disclaimers

Before I posted Part One of my map of adoption ethics, I thought: 'hmmmm, I should probably include a few disclaimers on this thing'. And then I my husband hollered 'It's midnight! Switch the light out so I can sleep!' so I said 'Okay, Okay' and clicked 'publish' instead.

Turns out I should have taken the time to write the disclaimers. So here they are now:

Firstly: I'm looking at international adoption. I should have specified. One thing I was going to say in part 2 that I'll say now instead - yes, I think that the wall in US domestic adoption is pretty much non-existent, and I can't imagine that is a good thing. It seems to me that coercion in domestic adoption is a HUGE issue, at least potentially. I recoil from the idea of an international PAP showing off their perfect life with the intention of persuading a mother to relinquish her child. I think that's unspeakably unethical. But it seems that similar things happen every day with domestic adoption. I have to admit, the more I think about it, the more uncomfortable this makes me. But I don't live in the US, and we have zero non-foster-care domestic adoption here so I am a long, long way from being an expert on that scene. Hence, it wasn't what I was writing about. That doesn't mean I don't think it's important (see below....!) it just means that it wasn't what I was addressing.

Secondly: I know it's possible to take the polarised positions of 'Adoption is inherently good; everybody should adopt!' or 'Adoption is inherently bad; it should never happen at all' but I don't take either of these positions. (Disclaimer-within-a-disclaimer: of course I think that we should be trying to do away with the reasons that so many adoptions happen. But thinking that we need to fix the problems that lead to adoption is a very different thing from saying that adoption itself - as a response - should never happen. More on this in part two. Honestly). If you do take either of these positions, that's fine, but it's probably going to help to be clear from the outset that we are coming at this discussion from very, very different places.

As soon as we remove those polarised extremes, and say that adoption is neither always good nor always bad, what is it? I think the answer is this: adoption is complicated. I mean complicated. I mean really really complicated. To really get into all these complexities, to really grind out the details of what ethical adoption means, it would take at least a whole book. And believe me, I would love to read that book. But I am not trying to write that book in two blog posts. What I'm trying to talk about is the basics. The bare minimum. The bird's eye view. The broad brush-strokes. The bits of adoption ethics that are not complicated. The bits of adoption ethics that should be absolutely non-negotiable.

There are two reasons I'm not writing about the complexities. Firstly: I have twin toddlers. I have limited time. As they nap, I'm typing this with one hand while I eat my lunch with the other. (Slow-cooker corn soup. Delicious. Want the recipe? Put 2 pounds of frozen corn into your slow cooker with a chopped onion and a chopped potato and about two pints of vegetable stock. Cook. Blend. Serve with chipotle hot sauce, if you've got it. Freezes well. Doubles easily. You're welcome). But the more fundamental reason is that when we start talking complexities, there are lots of legitimate disagreements.  I think that a lot of the time, conversations about adoption ethics get derailed because we start talking about the complexities before we have agreed on the fundamentals.  I'm not saying the complexities aren't important - I think they are extremely important - but the complexities are not what I'm trying to write about here. I'm trying to write about the fundamentals.  Like I said - the bare minima. Again with the birds eye view. Again with the point about the broad brush-strokes. And for me, the number one fundamental in ethical adoption should be that (all together now....) the people who benefit from adoption should not get a say in deciding who gets adopted. 

So - I'm not trying to be complex. There are about a million things I haven't addressed. A few were raised in the comments on the last post, and a few have been addressed to me privately or mentioned in other fora*. Mostly the discussion has been polite and thoughtful and I really (really) appreciate that. But  I do feel the need to say - the fact that I haven't written about a particular thing  in one half of a broad overview doesn't mean that I don't think it is important. If you think it is important, it doesn't mean that I disagree with you. It doesn't mean I don't care about that thing.  Please believe me - I am not trying to say that this map of a wall** is all there is to say on ethical adoption. Per-leeze. I'm not that stupid. It's just some stuff that I think is important. In fact, I think it's foundational. That doesn't mean that I think it's the floors and doors and windows as well. Would you mind giving me the benefit of the doubt on that one? Thanks. (I know that 99% of you already do that, and I'm really grateful). 

Does that last paragraph make me sound a little bit peevish? Sorry, I guess I am. It does grate my cheese a little when people read 'I think Thing X is important' and respond with 'I can't believe you didn't mention Y!' when actually, I love Y, I think Y is hotter than Justin Beiber***, it's just not what I was trying to say when I was talking about X. Seriously - if you want to know my opinion on Y, all you have to do is ask. Preferably politely. And we can discuss! Discussion is great. I love respectful discussion. I have no issues with honest, thoughtful, polite disagreement either. But I have less patience for when people make assumptions or talk unkindly or rudely on the internet in a way that they would never do in real life . It makes me feel like this

Thirdly. One thing that a few people have asked - and most very politely - is why children aren't on the map. That's a very fair question, and one that I wondered about as I was drawing it. Initially I felt like of course, children should be there somewhere because adoption should put the interests of children first. However, in the end I didn't include them on this particular schema because generally, children aren't making any of the decisions in adoption. The map is really a map of decision-making, of action, of who-is-doing-what. And when 'adopt' is used as a verb, children are always the object, not the subject, of the sentence. They aren't making any choices. So that's why they're not on the map - because they are not making choices about adoption, not because I don't think they are important in how those choices should be made. In, fact, their powerlessness is the main reason we should be working hard for an ethical process. I should have been explicit about this.

I think that's it with the disclaimers. I hope so, because I can hear thumps - I think naptime is over.

*possibly my favourite plural of all time
**and there's another structure coming in the next post, can you bear the suspense?
***Joke. I think Justin Beiber is creepy. Obviously. I was in Claire's earlier today buying earmuffs for my kids and was utterly weirded out by just HOW MUCH STUFF you can buy with JB's face on it, mostly for under a pound. Ewww. 

Tuesday 18 October 2011

The Wall: A Map Of Adoption Ethics According to Me (Part One)

This was going to be one post but it got too long. Yes, even for me. Today, part one. 

There's always lots of talk about ethics in international adoption, and that's great because there always should be. But what does that word mean: ethics? I'm pretty sure that people use it to mean many different things. So, this is my attempt to answer the question: What am I talking about when I talk about an ethical adoption? 

To me, an ethical adoption starts with one simple thing: A wall. 

A great big, unclimbable, immovable, unbreachable wall. This wall needs to divide two groups of people: The people who benefit from adoption and the people who make decisions about who will be adopted. Those two groups of people have to stay on different sides of the wall. 

That's what an ethical adoption is, to me. An ethical adoption is not about how many social outreach programmes an agency has. An ethical adoption is not about how wonderful and kind the agency staff are. An ethical adoption is not about how great the kids are, or how well they fit their new families. An ethical adoption is not (necessarily) about waiting the longest for a referral. An ethical adoption is certainly not the very best possible thing that could happen to child. An ethical adoption is about the people who benefit from adoption staying on their own side of the wall. 

So, who are these people? I think there are two main players on one side of the wall. I'd say that prospective adoptive parents (PAPs) and adoption agencies are the key beneficiaries of international adoption. PAPs have an obvious emotional investment in the process, adoption agencies have a financial interest. 

I know, I know, nobody is allowed to 'profit' from adoption, but there are a lot of people who make a living from it without, strictly, turning a 'profit'. This is totally legal, and I'd say that mostly it's totally fine. Homestudies need to be done, and someone has to do them. Dossiers need to be collated, and someone has to collate them.  Later, children need to be cared for, and someone has to do that caring. Even the nannies in the baby homes are, in some small way, benefiting from adoption as agency employees. There's nothing immoral about making a modest living from doing honest work involved in the adoption process, as long as those people who benefit stay on their own side of the wall.  
On the other side of the wall sit the people who are making the decision: is this child an adoptable child? 

I've put two sets of people there: parents and social services, but in international adoption, usually, the decision should rest with the child's parents. (Here, I'm using 'parents' and 'mothers' interchangeably to avoid getting overly specific about the myriad family dynamics that can contribute to adoption decisions. I'm sure you'll figure it out). 

On top of the wall sits another group of people - those who are responsible for overseeing adoptions. These people (judges, local social workers and so on) should be able to see both sides of the wall and make objective decisions when necessary. They should also stop people straying onto the wrong side of the wall. They are like the wall police.  

Okay. Now adding a little more detail:  

I've called the area in which the relinquishing parents find themselves the 'swamp of adversity'. (Did I spend too much time reading Pilgrim's Progress as a kid? Um, possibly).  The swamp of adversity is fed by three rivers: the river of poverty, the river of illness and the river of social expectations. Of course there are other factors, but I chose those three because I think they are behind a lot of decisions to abandon children, or formally relinquish them to international adoption.  Any of these three can lead a woman to decide she is unable to parent.  A single, HIV+ woman with no income faces all three. 

One of the main reasons that I think there needs to be a wall between the beneficiaries and the decision-makers in adoption is that people living in the swamp of adversity are incredibly vulnerable.  They are socially vulnerable, emotionally vulnerable and financially vulnerable. And not only are they vulnerable, they are parenting vulnerable children and I am sure that they know it. None of the three rivers lead to my door and yet parenting often seems to me to be nearly impossible. I often feel like my children deserve more than me. If I couldn't feed them, or care for their health, or my parenting attracted social stigma, I am certain I would feel that even more strongly. So people with an interest in seeing me decide not to parent would have a moral obligation not to exploit that, by staying a long way away. Preferably behind a wall. 

Of course, vulnerable is not the same as stupid. And yet being vulnerable and facing adversity can lead a person to make poor decisions. Here's where I want to tread carefully. Because: adoption is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I am sure that there are cases where a mother is not coerced in any way and yet regrets her decision intensely for the rest of her life. I am equally sure there are cases where a mother is not coerced and yet her child regrets that decision intensely for the rest of her life. I am not trying to make light of that. Ideally, in a better-than-merely-ethical situation, all mothers (and fathers) considering placement would receive free, neutral counselling about the implications of the decision they are about to make. And in the best of all possible worlds, these people would get more than counselling, they would get help and support and  financial assistance and encouragement to parent. That is what we want. That is what we should be striving for. That would make these families' life better, and obviously helping children to remain in their families of origin is better than international adoption with all its lossesBut I think the baseline, the very minimum for an ethical adoption, should be that it does not make anything worse. I think that a lot of confusion comes into discussions about adoption ethics because we conflate two things - an ethical adoption, and the very best possible outcome for a child. These two things are not the same. More on this later. [in part 2]. 

And speaking of regret - I do think that sometimes, ethical adoptions involve some very bad decisions. One thing I find odd about having been immersed in thinking about adoption for several years is that I am now pretty aware (at least theoretically) of the realities of adoption for children. I know that relinquishing a child for adoption is a lifelong decision with lifelong ramifications for both parent and child. I am also aware that these decisions are being taken, daily, by disenfranchised women who have never had the opportunity to learn to read at all, let alone the opportunity to read birthmother blogs or longitudinal studies on transracial identity formation.  From my position of privilege, I certainly hear some adoption stories where I think 'oh no, I wish that mother had decided to parent'. But here's the thing: It's not my decision.  I'm not on that side of the wall. What makes an ethical adoption, in my opinion, is that mothers make their own decisions about placing their own children with no coercion and no manipulation from people who are getting something out of that decision. 

Those decisions may not always be good decisions. But in each case, for each mother, it must be her decision, and hers alone. The prospective adoptive parents must not emotionally blackmail a mother into relinquishing her child with promises of 'a better life'. Adoption agencies (or their representatives) must not offer money or other incentives to encourage relinquishments. I'm not just talking about outright harvesting (although that is obviously wrong). I'm also including 'strings-attached' maternal care, outreach / sponsorship programmes that are only available to families with relinquished children, religious pressure and and all other slightly more subtle ways of making people think that relinquishing their children would be the right thing to do. Because - I'm going to say it again - An ethical adoption is about the people who benefit from adoption not getting involved in deciding who will be adopted. 

Ethical doesn't mean good. Ethical doesn't mean wise. Ethical doesn't mean that adoption is win-win. It doesn't mean that  everybody is always happy with what happened. But I'd say the minimum is that an ethical adoption picks up the pieces of a tragedy that has already happened  to a child - the loss of his or her parents. An ethical adoption is never an active part of making that loss happen. An ethical adoption takes a bad situation (kid with no family) and makes it - hopefully - better (new family). Ethical adoption is not the reason the bad situation happens in the first place.  

Moving on. All I want to say about social services is that they had better be living in the hills of neutrality. 

  And so now, some more detail on the other side of the fence. Prospective adoptive parents. 

PAPs tend to inhabit two very different types of terrain. Lots of people come to adoption because all their other attempts to make a family have failed, and I've labelled this zone the Valley of Despair. Here's why people who live in that place need to be totally uninvolved in the process of relinquishment: People who are desperate for a baby are not in a good position to make wise decisions.  I'm not saying this to judge people who are desperate for a baby. I've been there. Who knows, one day I may be back in that place again.   I know that people who have never felt that way can get very judge-y about it, but in my opinion it is absolutely normal for a woman facing fertility problems to feel a desperate, overwhelming desire to be a mother. Some women don't feel this way (and I bet they work out five times a week and like quinoa, too) but most of us who have been in that situation know that knot in the stomach of painful, hopeless desire for something we can't have.  I think that biology programmes us to be desperate for a baby and feeling that way is normal, it's natural, it's nothing to be ashamed of. I think that pretending that desire isn't there or wishing it away by saying it shouldn't be there is counter-productive. Emotions are neutral. You feel what you feel. There's nothing wrong with emotions on their own.  It's what you do with emotions that lends them power.

So: there is nothing wrong with being desperate for a baby. But it can make a person very selfish. It can make us forget that the potential birthmother we are looking at is a real person, not an incubator for our child. It can make a person want a baby at any cost. And conversely, PAPs in this position are also extremely vulnerable. They are vulnerable to making extremely poor choices, of displaying extremely poor judgement, of deciding that the means justify the end. They are vulnerable to believing things that no sensible person would believe, because they so desperately want them to be true. These things include  if you sign up with OUR agency you can ethically have a baby home by Christmas and we are the victims of a smear campaign; we can explain all of the ethical issues that former clients have raised. Not all PAPs believe these things, but this crazy desperate belief and trust is a risk. A huge risk, actually. Power corrupts, and so does grief and desperation.  Putting power into the hands of desperate people seems, to me, to be an extremely bad idea.

The other place PAPs can often be found is the moral high ground. These PAPs aren't adopting because they want a child, they are adopting because they want to help a child find a family. People can say sarcastic things about saviour complexes at this point, but wanting to help a child find a family is a great reason to start thinking about adoption. (Unless the only child you are willing to help is a healthy infant. But that's another post). 

The problem that can come from inhabiting the moral high ground is that it can lead to tunnel vision.  People who decided on adopting from Ethiopia years ago are often unwilling to see that the situation there is no longer what it was. Some of the needs that formerly existed no longer exist. I think that sometimes, people are adopting in order to fulfil a desire they have had for more than, say, ten years, so it's a desire sparked by a situation that is now ten years out of date. But having started on a path, they stop looking around, stop considering the context. All they can see is the light at the end of the tunnel: their future child. Again, this is absolutely understandable. Making adoption decisions is agonising.  It's unlikely that people are going to put themselves through that same agony once a week for ten years. The human brain just doesn't work that way. But I do think that it's an extremely rare person who is detached enough to pull back before completing the process and say 'actually, I don't think our family is needed any more'.  Even if the situation has changed drastically, it's much more normal to stay fixed on the original plan. The main risk with adoption tunnel vision, I think, is that it can lead people to think that their adoption will definitely be ethical because they are in it with good intentions. "I adopted in order to help, therefore my adoption is a good thing". This is more palatable than baby hunger, perhaps, but no more rational and ultimately not very much less risky. 

I can't end this section without mentioning the fact that a lot of Christians are keen to adopt for religious reasons. I'm a Christian myself, so I love seeing children growing up in homes where they will learn about Jesus. No matter what your worldview, I'm sure you feel the same - we all like seeing children growing up with parents who will teach children values that we, ourselves, respect. For me, and lots of other Christians, we rejoice to see kids learning to pray. If you are an atheist who values secular humanism, you will be glad when a fellow secular humanist brings their child up to quote Dawkins from an early age. My point here is that there is nothing wrong - for all of us-  with wanting to see children adopted into homes where we agree with the values that will be learnt. However - I do think that we Christians have a bad track record with assuming that the ends - a Christian home - justifies the means, any means, of an adoption. This is the worst kind of tunnel vision. Because God is not honoured when we pressure or coerce mothers into relinquishing children that God has given to them, not to us. James 1:27 is often quoted to imply that God is always in support of adoption but I think we also need to have a sober look at Job 24:9 and Mark 12:40 before ever, ever thinking that we should look for a way to get around the wall. 

Of course, there are some PAPs (a very, very small number) who don't live on either the moral high ground or the valley of despair. But even where this is the case, if I'm honest, I'm yet to meet a PAP who does not suffer (to some degree) from adoption induced psychosis. Waiting to adopt makes a person crazy, especially towards the endThere is nothing normal or natural about waiting to be meet a total stranger who will one day call you mama. The feelings that this state induces are understandable, but they are not rational and they are not conducive to good decision making. 

I think what I am saying is this: PAPs, on average, are vulnerable, tunnel visioned and / or psychotic. I'm joking. Except no, actually, I'm not.  For these reasons, they - we - are not the right people to be making decisions about whether a child should be adoptable. Having been one myself, I would barely trust a PAP to make a good decision about choosing a breakfast cereal. 

This is why I think that PAPs should not be involved in any of decision making about which children really, truly need new homes. They profit from adoption - not financially, but emotionally, so they are generally unable to be truly neutral about what should happen to a child. Perhaps a good way to illustrate how judgement can be compromised while waiting to adopt is to ask: have you noticed how common it is for people to suddenly become much more vigilant about ethics after returning home with their oh-so-perfect-obviously-meant-for-our-family child? I think this is partly benign - after becoming a parent, I think it's pretty normal to have more of an understanding of what it would mean to lose a child. However, I think part of it is simply that, once we are no longer invested in the system, we are able to look at it more objectively. This is what I call 'Oh, I wouldn't adopt from there nowsyndrome, or, more bluntly, post-adoption-hypocrisy.  Symptoms include discussions about how different things used to be in country X, when actually, nope, things were pretty much always like they are now. I'm going to put my hand up to this one and say that there was a lot of stuff I did not want to think about before we brought our children home, stuff that seems obvious to me now. People who adopted about the same time as me sometimes mention that now there are concerns about ethics in Ethiopia but hmmmmm, I'm pretty sure there were some concerns about ethics when we were adopting, too. My own experience of observing my own changing perception is enough to tell me - I was too invested in the process, as a PAP, to be able to make any objective judgements. I am so grateful - unspeakably so - that I was never put in a position where I had the opportunity to choose an ethical shortcut for a quicker adoption. (We adopted in the UK - so we made pretty much no choices at all in our adoption. But that's also a different post). I would like to say I never would have done it, never taken that unethical choice, but honestly, with such clouded judgement it's hard to be sure. One of the biggest reasons that the adoption system needs a wall is that PAPs need to be shielded from the consequences of their own poor judgement. And I'm speaking for myself first.  

What is the point of writing all that? Maybe all of that only applies to those who adopt independently. Surely, one good thing about an agency system is that PAPs do not generally get involved, cannot stomp into a country and demand babies, healthy girl babies, now now NOW! This is true, to an extent. It means that  the way PAPs are able to do most damage, in an agency system, is by choosing an agency poorly. The agency a PAP chooses will act on their behalf. (That's what the word 'agent' means, after all). This means that PAPs need to be aware of their own limitations and get educated. And going to an agency  and demanding babies, healthy girl babies, now now NOW! risks having exactly the same effect as getting on a plane in order to do it. 


TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW SOON: Where do agencies fit in? What about non-adoption outcomes? Is hiding behind a wall enough to guarantee an ethical adoption? With MORE RIDICULOUS PLACE NAMES and LOTS MORE RANTING. (I just hope I don't change my mind about anything in this first section while I write section two). 

Part Two is now up HERE. 

Edited to say: I've added some disclaimers in a new post.   If anything in this post makes you feel cranky, please read the disclaimers before getting annoyed at me. Thanks!

Tuesday 11 October 2011


A few days ago at the park, a little boy came up to Pink and started hitting her. She hadn't done anything to him, but he obviously wanted to hurt her. I was horrified.  It happened again the next day - same park, same boy - this time he was pulling her hair, yanking it by the roots and making her scream with pain. I was so angry that I could barely see. She was howling with anguish and tears were running down her little face. She lifted her arms to me and shouted cuddle! in a voice of pure panic, meaning save me, mama! And I did, of course. Before she had the word out of her mouth I had already swooped in and lifted her in my arms, shaking with rage at the kid who dared to maul my child.  How dare he hurt my precious baby? What is wrong with this boy? What kind of mother brings up a son like that? How can she live with herself?  What kind of person must she be? 

A person like me, of course. A person who is me, in fact, because the boy attacking Pink was her twin.  And so I don't know what to do with my rage, with my fury. What am I supposed to do when the person hurting my precious child is also my precious child? 

I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but it's not. At the moment, Blue has a terrible scratch down one side of his face. It was quite deep, and I worry it may scar. People ask me how he got it and I tell them it was Pink. They look shocked and start to feel sorry for him, but I shrug my shoulders and say 'no, he totally started it by biting her. It was just self defence'.  That shuts 'em up. 

One tends to be a little more aggressive than the other, but really they are pretty much equally to blame for these skirmishes. No matter what we - J and I - do, they are always at each other's throats. It's at its worst when they are a bit bored, and for this reason the supermarket has turned into a miniature warzone.  I have lost count of the number of times I have heard a blood-curdling scream from the stroller and looked down to see the screamer with a  bite mark on their plump little arm, the other sitting their nonchalantly as if butter wouldn't melt. Bad news - I'm beginning to worry that I'm raising vampires or werewolves. Good news - judging from the perfect half-moon indentations,  their teeth really are extraordinarily straight and I don't think we will need to budget for orthodontics. Heh. 

 Extreme irony alert - when we were deciding between a side-by-side twin stroller and a front-and-back, we ended up choosing the side-by-side because friends with twins told us that their children loved to ride along holding hands.  How could I deprive my little munchkins of that beautiful experience? I thought then. So we got the side-by-side and have spent the last two years barely fitting through doorways because I deliberately wanted them to be in close physical proximity. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! I think now, as I watch them hitting each other. Today I finally realised the real reason we are out of food - not just because I'm disorganised (although I am) - I just don't trust them not to get murderous during even a 15 minute shopping outing any more.   We are currently watching a few of these on ebay but until we find one at a good price, I'm so full of fear about what will happen, who will get badly injured this time that I have decided no more supermarket excursions! I just can't take it. I think we'll be spending the next little while living on dried pulses and frozen foods. 

I sound flippant about this, but I don't feel flippant. It's hard to know what to say about all this. Watching my children attack each other feels deeply, deeply not okay. People tell me 'oh, they fight now but they'll be such good friends when they are grown up!'  Honestly, right now I don't care . And anyway, who says that is necessarily true? I have one friend who barely speaks to her adult twin.  Right now I'm not even sure they are going to let each other live that long.   I know that most siblings experience some degree of rivalry but I am beginning to suspect that the animosity my children feel towards each other is on the extreme end of the spectrum.  

They seem to have been designed exactly to cause each other maximum irritation. Twins aren't supposed to start playing together when they are little, they are supposed to engage in what's called 'parallel play', where they basically ignore each other. Mine never, ever got to that stage. Instead, they only do what I call 'perpendicular play' - where they want to play independently but in a way that directly opposes what the other is doing. Poor Mr Potato Head, I should never have sent you into that mess, is all I can say about that. They do have moments of belly laughing with each other, of trying to high-five across their cots and giggling hysterically but that 1% does not even begin to touch the other 99. Blue loves rough and tumble, Pink hates it when he even touches her accidentally in passing (and no, I don't think it's opposite sensory processing disorders but thanks for asking).   They both love to sit on my lap, but they won't do it together. They have a strange, aggressive, abusive and co-dependent relationship that seems to have a life of its own; I know with absolute certainty that it's bigger than our parenting choices, that it's about them together rather than them in our family. They cause each other untold grief but they can't bear to be apart. In some ways they are two halves of the same whole but the whole seems to be chemically unstable, like a nuclear compound that has reached critical mass and is always about to explode in all of our faces. Their mutual antipathy feels almost pathological. 

Is there a conspiracy of silence about the realities of adopting siblings, or is our situation really unusual? I have no idea. I have no idea. I have nothing to judge it against. I don't really know how other siblings, other twins, relate to each other (apart from the deeply misleading stroller handholders, of course) because they don't live in my house. I do know that one of our two can't bear to have any part of the other's body touching them. I do know that I can't leave them alone together unless they are watching a DVD. I do know that Blue loves to hug Pink but it makes Pink wail as if she is a banshee, as if she is being flayed alive. J and I were discussing how that noise makes us feel and we agreed - it's like being attacked with a cattle prod, being electrocuted. It's absolutely unbearable, it's absolutely impossible to ignore. It happens about fifty times a day. I. Am. Losing. My. Mind. 

It's odd, how hard I find this. I won't lie - at the moment, having siblings feels like the hardest thing in my life.  There were so many things about adoption that I was unsure of, afraid of, and this was not one of them. This was something that I was sure would be hard but good. Instead, it feels impossible and poisonous. I find myself unhelpfully generalising from my own situation when I'm talking to people expecting their second child. I'm always consciously biting my lip, reining myself in, saying to myself do not make dire predictions of horror about having two children, Claudia! Because lots of people love having two children. In theory, I love it too. Individually, I'm extremely glad that I have the chance to mother both of them. It's just the two of them at once that I can't handle. 

Of course, as well as them pretty much hating each other, there's all of the normal difficulties that come from having two kids in the house - it really affects how much of myself I can give to each of them. I can't do long slow mornings reading Blue stories, because Pink won't join in (since that would mean touching him) and she still needs looking after too. I can't spend time drawing with Pink because Blue can't yet be trusted with crayons but wants to be part of the action if there is any going on. They both want to be picked up and carried, but I can't carry them both at once. Boo Hoo. I know this stuff is normal - anybody with more than one child finds out that they can't give 100% to two different people at once. And yet I feel so awful about not giving them 100% - I feel like they need and deserve all of me, at all times. I wonder if this is a sign of really messed-up thinking - who says that children should get 100%? Honestly, where does that idea come from? I really don't want my kids to grow up thinking that they are the centre of the universe; not even my universe. They are utterly loved, but they are not the axis around which the world spins. They need to grow up knowing that other people matter too; that they are not the only people who exist; that they have feelings and needs and they are important, but the rest of the world has feelings and needs too and sometimes those other needs are going to win out.  Theoretically, I think that having a sibling is really good for kids because they learn that they will not always come first, they will not always get what they want and yet the sun continues to rise. I also think that being annoyed by someone who mostly loves you takes some of the edge off learning to accommodate other people later. I think it knocks some of the rough edges off a person, and overall I'm pretty sure that's a good thing. I know all the theory about why siblings are so good. It's the practice I can't take. 

I'm also aware of just how much some of my friends would love to have my problems. One close friend in particular, at the moment, is filled with sadness about how long she has been waiting to become a mother for the second time. (No, it's not YOU, if this applies to you - she doesn't read my blog. I hope). Her first child  was long awaited and much loved, and number two is so far failing to make an appearance. She really wants another baby. Of course she does, and I sympathise deeply. But it feels odd how the very thing she is crying to have is the thing that most often makes me cry, too, because I have to work out how to deal with having it. It reminds me, yet again, of how it felt to be on the childless side of the fence while listening to my mother-friends complaining about how hard their perfect lives were. I button my lip and try not to complain to her about how hard I find the two-ness of my two because it probably just sounds like whining to her. 

And yet I am not imagining how hard this is, how much it grieves me that my children want to hurt each other and find so many ways to do it.  I want to justify to my friends who are parents of only children that two really is a whole different ball game. All that turning-up-late that I do? All that mess in my house? Not my fault. It's just that my life is really, really hard. MUCH HARDER THAN YOURS. The funny thing is, I felt the same way when I didn't have any kids. I'm pretty sure I'll feel the same way if I one day have three. I'm beginning to suspect that the impulse to assume that my life has to be much harder than everybody else's just springs from fear. If my life is more difficult than yours, then it's okay that I'm not really coping. It's reasonable to be crying during naptime (and bedtime, and mealtimes) because my life is unusually, unreasonably hard and any sane person would be going crazy.  What I fear is this - if my life is really just averagely hard, then why am I coping so poorly? Why does my family have to live on lentils and frozen corn*? If my life is only averagely hard, and I'm coping really badly, then... what? I guess that would mean that the problem isn't my life, but me. I don't want to think about that. 

So I'm off to order some groceries online. Who cares if I never get to go to the supermarket again, huh? That's what the internet is for. Who cares if we can never again go to the park, never use the swings? That's why we have a DVD player. Who cares if cuddling one causes the other to break down and howl? That's why I have earplugs. I think I'm just going to give up on trying to lead a normal life until these two are in high school, at least. We'll hunker down. I'll pad the walls and turn this into a bunker.  It'll be fine. 

It'll be fine. Because apparently - they'll be really good friends when they are grown up.  So the horror now doesn't matter. I'll let you know how that works out. Stay tuned for the next update. 

In twenty years' time. 

*I'm kidding. We ran out of frozen corn WEEKS ago.