Who deserves to be a parent?

One of the best parts about being connected to the University of Minnesota is the amazing Social Welfare archives housed in the Elmer Anderson library. On Monday, I attended the opening of a traveling exhibit at the Social Welfare archives, curated by Rickie Solinger, author of Beggars and Choosers: How the politics of choice shapes adoption, abortion and welfare in the United States and Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade. I am a big fan of Solinger’s works and was thrilled to have the chance to meet Ms. Solinger and hear her speak.

Solinger speaks a lot to the philsophy held by so many in America that motherhood is no longer a biological concept but an "economic status" and the debate is now about "who gets to be a legitimate mother in the United States – and how is that enforced?" Of course, we don’t speak of motherhood as an economic status – we speak of it as a choice that women make. But the underlying truth is that women who are poor have fewer choices if any at all.

Solinger brings up a good point. I have said it before too – and appreciate the large body of research that I can draw from to continue asking this question. Poor women are the most vulnerable of women to lose their children. And poor women of color are the most vulnerable of poor women to lose their children.

It’s not that middle class and rich women don’t relinquish children for adoption; it’s that they often have more options and thus, more "choice" about whether they are going to choose to parent. After reading Ann Fessler’s book, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who SurrenderedChildren for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade and Fallen Women, Problem Girls:N Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work by Regina Kunzler, I learned that until the mid-1960’s it was mostly poor white women affected by what Solinger describes as "an embedded philosphy that punishes poor women because poor women don’t deserve to be mothers."

But for women who are poor and of color, this cuts even deeper. And it’s not just poor women of color in the US. It’s poor women in other countries too.

I remember reading an interview in which Rickie speaks about poverty affecting the practice of adoptions. Solinger states:

When I say that adoption exists on the backs of resourceless women, I am underscoring the class dimension of adoption, and also the racial and gender aspects – the conditions which make groups of women, some in this country and many others around the world, profoundly vulnerable to losing their children.

I want to underscore that adoption, as a social practice, absolutely depends on the existence of groups of women rendered deeply vulnerable most essentially today because of their poverty.

For adoption to take place, there must be groups of women who are so profoundly resourceless that they cannot claim or protect their status as mothers of their own children.

Solinger makes a salient point later on in the interview when she states that she believes that because adoption is presented to the at-large public as child rescue, what is forgotten is that the "source" – that is, mothers, provide the children for adoptive parents. According to Solinger, "The media and public policy and other opinion-builders have invariably/relentlessly conditioned Americans to “see” the baby and “overlook” the woman who gives birth to this baby."

I think this is even more evident when we think about international adoption, because the framework underlying international adoption is that the mothers are merely poor, or have the misfortune to live under some political or governmental policies that force them to place their children for adoption. This framework or philosophy does two things – it makes adopting internationally seem more "safe" and less problematic, since the poor women in those countries are seen as caring, benevolant and loving. This is in contrast to the women in the US who have their children taken away by the state child protective services, who are monsters and thus, less deserving of pity or empathy.

Solinger states:

I deeply disapprove of the practice of taking babies from the poorest women on earth so that people in the richer countries can make “families.” This will be a very, very difficult practice to alter because Americans are largely convinced that international adoption is generally a perfect example of “child rescue.” Most Americans are comfortable believing that there is no contest – a white professional couple in Boston, for example, will surely make better parents and give a Columbian child a vastly better life than the child’s destitute mother in Bogata. And so on. Again, the practice of international adoption reinforces the idea that motherhood should be a class – and race – and national privilege, and the best mothers are the rich ones in North American and Western Europe.

Throughout my professional experience in the adoption world, I have faced this conundrum many, many times and it is without a doubt one of the most difficult aspects of my work. Yesterday I was discussing with a colleague of mine this idea of motherhood as an economic privilege. She stated that for her white friends who are mothers, the discussions lately are about whether they can afford to become stay-at-home moms, while for her black friends who are mothers, the discussions are all about why they can’t get a  decent paying job.

And to add to this, the topic of adoption assistance came up this week as well. In the state of Minnesota, a child eligible for the classification of "special needs" (foster care adoption) will receive anywhere from $247 to $337 a month to help provide "basic maintenance needs." If the child has greater disabilities or diagnoses then they can receive anywhere from $150 to $500 in addition to the basic adoption assistance.*

Which makes me think about all the women who lose their children because of poverty. We’re paying adoptive parents $247 to $837 a month per child to take care of them. What would that mom, who’s minimum-wage job doesn’t cover the rent, food and medical insurance or day care be able to do with that money?

Yes, there are women who abuse their children. There are women who neglect their children (but the majority of the neglect cases are because of lack of supervision and this is often due to mental health, chemical dependency or job issues). But again, as Solinger states:

There are women in every social/economic class who are “unfit” to be mothers. The only ones who lose their children today because of their “unfitness” are the poor ones.

For the rest of the interview with Rickie Solinger by Mirah Riben, you can access the full transcript here.

* Adoption assistance in the state of Minnesota, January 2008 figures, Department of Human Services. Adoption assistance is only available to children adopted from foster care. It is not available to adoptive parents who adopt privately or internationally.