Reflections on Adoption, part 3

Part 3, from philosopher and adoptive parent Brynn Welch.


Social convention 3: be excited for adoptive parents, not proud of them.

What happens in the absence of this convention: adoptive parents find themselves getting loads of praise for adopting a child. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a bad thing. Who doesn’t like praise? However, the praise very quickly starts to imply that one views adoption as somehow similar to mission work, which makes it seem like there was a reason we *wouldn’t* adopt our children. I wanted to parent for the same selfish reasons others want to parent. (I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’m perfectly at peace with the selfishness.) Although now I am of course motivated by a fierce love of one particular little dude, my desire to adopt was motivated by my desire to parent, and my desire to parent was exactly the same as anyone else’s desire to parent. I wanted to have that kind of relationship in my life even before there was some specific person with whom I might have that relationship, and adoption was the path that made that possible. I was not doing mission work; I was just trying to become a mom. Praise for having adopted is particularly strange because a successful adoption makes adoptive parents feel unbelievably lucky. PowerBall lottery winners have *nothing* on someone who hears a judge declare s/he has all rights and responsibilities of natural parents. I thought I was being a little nutty and overly sensitive about this until I spoke with other adoptive parents and read several books about adoption, and it’s apparently a pretty universal experience that adoptive parents are a) praised for having adopted, and b) uncomfortable with what that praise seems to imply about adoption and/or the adopted child. There is no question that much praise in the form of “he’s so lucky to have you” or “I’m so proud of you” would have happened had I given birth to my son, but there’s also no question that some of it wouldn’t have. The latter category is bad but unfortunately often indistinguishable from the former. I freely admit that this may be a situation where adoptive parents are reacting to all praise badly even though much of it is totally unproblematic. Nonetheless, in the absence of this convention, we are praised, and though there’s no earthly reason someone who hasn’t been through it would know this ahead of time, the praise is uncomfortable. Hence the new social convention.

If you have friends or family who have adopted, be excited for them and with them, but do not praise them. Even if you disagree about the implications of such praise, resist praising because that praise will – rightly or wrongly – make the adoptive parent(s) uncomfortable. In fact, the best response to someone who adopts is “Congratulations! You’re so lucky!”



7 thoughts on “Reflections on Adoption, part 3

  1. I am not sure I understand this point (while I agree with the previous parts). Would not it be OK to express you that I admire you because you have been generous enough to want to parent a child although she or he does not share your DNA? I cannot help thinking that, ceteris paribus, adoption is a morally better option than IVF and that parenthood is always risky, but in this case there is an additional lot of risks one is willing to accept. You might object that you (or many other adoptive parents) did try IVF, but still I would praise you for having stopped at a certain point and have instead opened your doors to a needy child. I know you are not a missionary, but can’t I admire you as a virtuous parent?

  2. I have not adopted (though have considered and continue to consider fostering to adopt), but I have always had a similar thought about this praise tendency as being problematic for these very reasons.

    To give a similar yet very disanalogous case (because it involves animals, not people–totally different!), I have gotten such praise with regard to how we acquired our dog. We adopted her as a senior dog from the humane society while she had a few serious health problems. Now as a matter of fact, it is very possible she would have been put down had we not taken her since her health problems required immediate and somewhat expensive treatment and she was already a senior (and she was also deaf, though this was not a problem that required any medical intervention). But that is not why we took her. There was nothing particularly generous or charitable about our adopting her in the sense that we did not take on any sacrifices in taking her. We wanted an adult dog who was already house trained, who was somewhat submissive (so as to get along well enough with our dominant cat), who was medium-sized, who was not rowdy, etc. We had a friend who worked at the humane society and she was the first dog who was all those things. I find the praise we sometimes get misplaced given we just took the dog who first fit our needs/wants–just like most other people getting a dog do. (Of course the misplaced praise is really not very problematic here since, after all, it’s a dog! Obviously there’s no chance of her hearing and understanding folks saying these things or taking them to imply anything about her. And the relationship between dog owner and dog is a million miles away from the relationship between a child and parent.)

    So I too worry about the praising of adoptive parents for the sorts of reasons in the original post. And this also makes me worry about some philosophical arguments I have seen which suggest that adopting rather than procreating biologically is a moral duty. I worry that seeing coming to be a parent in a way that one sees as a moral obligation to the child might undermine the proper parent-child relationship. Just as the pro-choice movement has suggested every child should be a wanted child, I would think every child should also not be seen as or be taken to be an object of charity (by their parent).

    In reply to Elisa above, I wonder, why do you think it is generous to want to parent a child who does not share your DNA? If the thought is that too many people place an inappropriate amount of importance on DNA, since they do not feel they good possibly love a child in the right way if it was not their biological child, I certainly agree that this attitude is problematic. But I don’t think it’s particularly generous to not have that attitude–no more than, say, its generous to think one could love one’s gay child.

    In addition, I don’t think the willingness to raise a child without one’s DNA on its own is the thing typically being praised in these cases (though I could be wrong). For instance, same-sex couples with children pretty much always involve at least one parent not being genetically related to the child. My wife is not biologically related to our daughter (though I am), but no one has ever praised her for being willing to raise a genetically unrelated child. Nor, as far as I know, have other same-sex couples we know parenting a child related to one parent but not the other. These cases are seen differently, I take it, because the child was created purposefully and so can’t be seen as in any way “needy”. Thus the non-bio parent hasn’t done anything that could be seen as charity. But if that’s right, then it seems the praise given to adoptive parents is probably mostly about the idea of the child as being needy and thus, as the OP puts it, the parent doing a kind of mission work, which I think is indeed problematic.

  3. A few other thoughts inspired by Elisa’s post–I wonder, Elisa, about what you say about thinking that adopting is a morally better choice than IVF (other things equal). Sorry to nitpick, but I hear similar views a lot in causal talk about reproduction and adoption and also sometimes see such views in the reproductive ethics literature and often are surprised at how widespread they are when I find them very concerning.

    First, the way you put things seems to assume that the only reason one would adopt in the first place is because one couldn’t reproduce biologically. But this itself is a problematic assumption/implication. Though it’s true that many people who do adopt do so because the have fertility difficulties, this is far from the only reason people do (and should) choose to adopt. And, this, I think is connected to the the next point.

    Secondly, I worry that your post makes it sound as if it is only IVF that you think is a worse choice morally than adopting (other things equal)–not creating a biological child in other ways. (But perhaps not–perhaps you mean to say adopting is morally better other things equal than any kind of biological procreation. If so I’m much more sympathetic to that claim, though so have the sorts of worries raised in my post above similar the worries the original post brought up.) This juxtaposing of IVF and other reproductive technologies with adoption is a view that seems to pop up a lot in the reproductive ethics literature and I find it rather puzzling. For it’s hard to see why adoption would be morally better than IVF, but not morally better than simply having heterosexual intercourse and getting pregnant, or using fertility drugs, or using IUI with one’s partners sperm, or using donor sperm, etc. It starts to seem like there is a hyper-focus on the morality of the choices that infertile or single or lgbtq people make about how to become a parent, but it is assumed without argument that healthy fertile heterosexual couples conceiving through sex is completely unproblematic and there’s no need even to ask whether adoption would have been a better choice than having a child that way.

  4. Thanks for the interesting points. Concerning 2, I admire people who adopt children instead of having their own ones in the standard way or through any other assisted procreation method. And I very much admire the people who raise the child of a partner or of a relative. My intuition about all these cases is that they are non-conventional ways of building a parental relationship (and being non-conventional implies having to deal with it again and again while talking to friends, teachers, burocracy….) and ways which overcome the sense of “natural belonging” many people feel while seeing eyes or hair similar to their own ones in their children. It is relatively easier to love someone who immediately resembles you, while in the case of a non biological child one needs to be more ready to love her as a distinct person, I would say (but I am ready to be proven wrong).
    As for the sense of neediness, you are right that one should not praise Anne for having adopted the needy Charles (especially if in front of Charles, who will then think that he has been “rescued” and not just loved and chosen), unless this is what has happened. But I wonder whether I should also refrain from saying “Great of you! I admire you for your choice”.

  5. Thanks for the response. Sorry to have gone off on the tangent re: 2 since your view is that all adoption is morally better than all sorts of procreation.

    I certainly see what you mean about the sense in which any non-conventional way of becoming a parent leads to a lot of lack of understanding and unsupportive attitudes, so I can see having some sense of admiration about dealing with that stuff. Though I think for me I would put it more in terms of being courageous or strong or something like that, rather than virtuous. Also I guess in the situation of my wife and I and our same-sex couple friends I wonder if the unconventionality of the lack of bio relation for one parent is actually overshadowed by the unconventionality of a same-sex relationship in the first place. I think the there’s-two-moms-and-no-dad-in-this-family thing is a bigger deal for us in terms of constantly having to deal with that than the one-mom-is-not-biologically-related-to-the-kid thing. But probably for heterosexual couples the lack of bio relationship is a much bigger thing to deal with (if they reveal it that is–I believe the research shows that a lot of heterosexual couples who use donor gametes such that one or both of them is not genetically related to the child do not allow this to be publicly known.)

    On the issue of it being easier to love a child who is biologically related to one because of physical resemblance, though, I have to strongly disagree on a number of levels. First I think this view significantly overstates the typical physical resemblance between biological parents and their children. Plenty of bio parents look at children’s eyes and hair color and noses that look nothing like them while others might as well be looking in a mirror; it just seems extremely implausible to think those whose children’s physical appearance is very similar to theirs have an easier time loving their child than those bio parents whose child doesn’t look much like them. (For instance, I look very similar to my dad and not very much like my mom at all; both are my bio parents who raised me together as a married couple. Was it easier for my dad to love me than my mom because I looked more like him? This seems absurd to me!)

    I would broaden the same point regarding non-bio parents. I just don’t think the fact that I am genetically related to my child makes it any easier to love her or that it is harder for my wife. Nor would any of the same-sex couples I know in our similar situation agree. In fact, I think many in our situation would find that suggestion even to be at or approaching the level of offense (unintentionally on your part I’m sure)–at least that is my wife’s reaction. After all, to say that it is harder for a parent to love a child who does not look like them or is not genetically related to them is to suggest that genetic relatedness is of such significant importance in parental relationships that it actually might threaten the one’s love for the child in a certain way (such that one has to work harder to achieve that love). But these are exactly the sorts of things people assume when they refer to non-bio parents as not the “real” parent and that sort of thing. (On a related point, Sally Haslanger has an interesting paper–“Family, Ancestry, and Self”–about what it means to resemble someone and how this concept often comes up in thinking about adoption and the over-emphasizing of the importance of genetic relationships.)

    Finally the way you put things about a non-bio parent having to love a child as a distinct person makes me worry about the kind of love you are imagining bio parents have. If bio parents aren’t seeing the child as the distinct person s/he is and loving him/her in that way then I think their love is very problematic!

    Now to be charitable, I do think there might be some ways in which different bio relationships can lead to (small, temporary) differences in how parents bond with children immediately after birth or, in cases of adoption, adopting them that might come down to differences in biology. I’m not at all sure that these differences have to do with genetics rather than gestation though. For instance, for us the post-pregnancy hormones combined with my breastfeeding (and my wife not inducing lactation), and my having time off that she didn’t have because I was the one who gestated, and the baby being colicky and hard to sooth led to my wife spending less time with the baby early on than I did, not being able to sooth her through breastfeeding and hence having few ways to sooth her at all, and that then started to spiral into it being more difficult for my wife to bond than for me because it was harder to have pleasant interactions not involving the baby screaming and wanting to nurse or otherwise be soothed by me. Numerous of our same-sex couple friends reported similar kinds of difficulties for the immediate bonding of the non-birth mom. Interestingly the one heterosexual couple we asked reported the same thing for the dad. So none of this seems to be about genetics at all in my view. And again, none of this was about “loving” the child.

    Of course I can only report what things were like for us and for friends we have talked to about this. Maybe there really are people who find it harder to love a child who is not biologically related and yet choose to adopt or use donor gametes anyway. But at the very least, this would be a far from universal thing. (And I have to say I have my doubts that it is actually that common at all–rather it really just sounds like a typical false assumption that most adoptive and non-bio parents would reject.)

  6. In my experience, both the praise for being generous and the praise for parenting a “needy” child are problematic. First, I was *not* generous. I wanted all of the parenting experiences that anyone else would want, and adoption provided my path to that. Second, suggesting that I’m generous implies that someone might not want to parent my child, which is problematic, especially when that praise comes in his presence. Third, that sort of praise reinforces those social norms that make adoption “non-traditional”. Fourth, loving my child was not difficult, and I cannot imagine that it would have been easier if my child resembled me. It was terrifying because yes, there are many, many emotional and financial risks involved, but I gather that most parental love is terrifying. More importantly, I would not want my child to think that loving him was someone difficult – even trivially so – for me. However, the suggestion that my child is needy is also problematic. Again, that praise often occurs in his presence. However, more importantly, it reveals many (false) assumptions about birth parents. I can’t correct those assumptions without giving information to which a third party is not entitled, but it suggests that my child’s life would have been unfortunate if I hadn’t “saved” him from it. The savior image of adoptive parents is what is problematic (and adoption literature suggests that most adoptive parents find it problematic).

    Generally speaking, I think these comments are experienced as troubling whether there is a good reason to make them or not, and so it’s a good idea to steer clear of them even if you have the best intentions or arguments that praise is morally appropriate.

  7. Brynn@6: “In my experience, both the praise for being generous and the praise for parenting a “needy” child are problematic.”

    Yes. Just wanted to add that these considerations also apply to people parenting children with special needs.

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