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.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

14 thoughts

  1. “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.”
    Yes. What this quote doesn’t convey, and may be covered elsewhere in her work, is the impact of religion on these attitudes. Many – most? – international adoption agencies are Christian faith-based organizations. When the possibility of “saving” a non-Christian child enters the equation, poor non-Christian women don’t have a chance.

  2. Re your question (probably hypothetical, but I’m commenting anyway) about adoption subsidies: We used to have such subsidies for single moms. I understand it, and as you probably know better than I do, the reason welfare – not child welfare, but Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) – was originally developed was to enable single mothers (usually widowed) to care for their children. As public opinion began to shift away from empathy for poor families to blaming families for their own situations, ADC evolved into AFDC, and now TANF, which of course requires mothers to work and which is time limited.
    Thanks to your recommendation, I’m now reading _The Baby Thief_. So I’m wondering how the shift in the purpose of welfare (ADC) corresponded with the changing public attitudes that rich people would be better parents than poor people, such that poor mothers began to be pressured to relinquish their babies, or even have their babies stolen.

  3. “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?”
    This isn’t a new concept! This is something that was started by Margaret Salinger herself – ‘The Case for Birth Control’, 1924. “We see that those parents who are least fit to reproduce the race are having the largest number of children; while people of wealth, leisure, and education are having small families.” While she herself was not necessarily racist, just classist, many of her supporters and financial backers were.
    Also, I can’t speak for all other countries, but in the case of China international adoption at one time had NOTHING to do with women giving up their children. Even now most babies are left at door steps to be raised by the government. Very few people within China actually know that their children are leaving the country. International adoption began as a solution to the government’s problem of money – nothing more. It is no longer the case and the Chinese government is adjusting for that – much to their credit. Most people I know who go to China do so because they believe these children will be raised in orphanages if not, not as an alternative to a poor birth mother.
    In India, their solution to the birth of girls is to simply kill them after the birth. To the tune of 10 million girls in the last 10 years. International adoption has very little effect on this country or the state of these women being able to keep their children.
    But I also know that this is not the case for all countries. Also, this has little difference on the attitudes in America where yes, the belief is richer is better. But as I said, it has been around almost 100 years.

  4. As a male, someone who was poor and is no longer, and an adoptive father I find this perspective on motherhood difficult to understand. None of the decisions I’ve made have been based on race or class, though certainly about economics. And yes, I know should have considered race.
    I say this only because I know I need to understand.
    My own mother had seven children taken from her ultimately. That’s right. Seven.
    I can never know if she could have been supported well enough to have not lost us, but in my heart my loyalty and love utterly belong to her.
    And I want to know why that is.

  5. Great post!
    In regards to Ann’s comment about international adoption from China, sadly, this program also has serious issues of corruption.
    It may have begun with the best of intentions, but as most programs involving money, it is as corrupt and non-transparent as they come.
    Anyone who truly thinks otherwise needs to look a bit deeper into the reality of how children are still finding their way into orphanages or is it that the orphanages are finding the children now?
    It all goes back to money and lack of options. We have the money and sadly this contributes to first parents losing their options.
    Then again does anyone seem to care about the “poor women of China” when PAPs desires are being fulfilled, agencies stay in business and orphanages get fully funded by the ‘donation’.
    The birth mothers voice is suppressed and the child’s voice is yet to be heard

  6. Cathy, as I said, China is adjusting for this. Yes, there is corruption and since it became public the Chinese government has dropped the number of adoption and increased wait times and tightented restrictions on who in America is allowed to adopt. Where at one time it was a 6 month wait, it has become 3 years in an effort to discourage PAPs.
    Remember though, that it is the Chinese government, and culture that FIRST suppressed the birth mother’s voice NOT American parents. Orphanage directors with a desire for money found a way to capitalize on that.
    Remember also, that even if China stopped their IA program altogether, which they have talked about. They have announced that they have NO intention of stopping their One-Child policy. Sorry but THAT is the essence of “suppressing the birth mother’s voice and the child” and has NOTHING to do with American PAP.

  7. In response to Ann, why does it matter who FIRST suppressed the Chinese mothers’ voices? If someone is suppressed initially, this somehow warrants additional people/governments/agencies/policies to suppress them further?
    I don’t understand why it is being perceived that this issue should be reduced to defending our positions in the adoption triad or system. Seriously, the core issue is about creating a social environment in ALL countries that allows women to have the means to care for their own children…where a woman would never have to consider relinquishing her child b/c there would be the understanding and suppor to allow her to do so. Every women should have that right.
    So what good does it do to “wash your hands” of responsibility for the issue of transracial and international adoption? We all have a role in attempting to right the wrongs and injustices that have been committed against women and mothers around the world.

  8. I am not trying to defend my “position in the triad”. I viewed this post in part with how AP and PAPs viewed who was worthy to be a parent and how that affected other countries. My original point was that from China and India it affects it very little. It was added as “something to think about”.
    My second post was merely defending my views on the Chinese governments handling of the adoption program. But again pointing out that our attitudes in America have very little affect on China much as we would like to egocentrically think it does.
    The core issue may be to create a world where all women get to parent but that isn’t the point (or I didn’t think it was) to this post.
    I would like to add that just yesterday, after reading this article, I was speaking with a friend who mentioned that her mother gave her an article about the history of “what makes a good mother.” This article was indepth – it went beyond America and current thought and studied centuries of history around the world. Unfortunately, it is in German so I don’t have details.

  9. I have to say, I’m neutral about the practice of international adoption itself, because I don’t see a really strong correlation between overall child/mother welfare and international adoption. Countries that don’t have international adoption don’t have markedly better records than countries that do have international adoption… at least from what I can tell. I think being adopted internationally is like one color from a large palette of non-ideal things that can happen to a child.
    If Korea, China and Japan all completely ceased their programs (Japan has a minuscule one), what would happen? Things might improve in Korea from what I’ve read, but I don’t know if it would have much effect in the other countries. I would be interested to hear about studies that look at comparative things like life expectancy and educational outcome for children at risk.
    The practice itself doesn’t bother me… although I realize that’s dismissively easy for me to say that, as someone who has no connection to international adoption.
    What does really, really bother me is the lobby of international adoption agencies that often work together to cover up corruption and fight against regulation. I also don’t like how charity work is often linked with adoption.
    As someone who is adopting from foster care I definitely thought hard about poverty and maternity. I decided that not adopting wouldn’t do anything to fix the issue. I have a greater moral obligation now to make sure, politically and as an advocate, to reduce child removal. Adoption is a bandaid and generational child abuse/neglect is like a massive cancer within society. Adoptive/foster parents can’t fix it. Social workers can’t fix it. It’s a much, much bigger problem that will need more people working together.
    It was definitely with a sense of relief that I found out poverty had very little to do with the removal history of my future son. There are some things that are going to be really hard to talk about in future… but at least the system worked in the limited way that it was supposed to work: providing a safety net for a child when it isn’t safe or possible for them to go back to their family of origin.

  10. As a person of mixed ethnicity who is in the contemplation phase of international adoption, I read this blog because I want to know and learn more about the impact of transracial adoption on my child and his/her community and on my community.
    Solinger’s critique of international adoption, which I hope to do (specifically Haiti), is a hard pill to swallow because I agree with it. I know that ideally children would be domestically adopted, making international adoption obsolete. How to reconcile that with my ever present desire to adopt? I continually analyze my reasons to adopt, adopt internationally and transracially. I recognize that I am privileged yet consider myself an ally. I have difficult times ahead of me while I weigh my decisions carefully.
    Thanks for posting such a thought provoking entry!

  11. Solinger should check her spelling. It’s “Colombian” and “Bogota”. Seems like it’s the least she could do if she’s going to use that as an example.

  12. With the recent disaster in Haiti, we’re seeing this all over again. I heard a report on NPR’s “All Things Considered” on 02/03/10 about the children who were taken from Port-au-Prince with the destination of an orphanage in DR. The on-site reporter made a couple of references to poor Haitian women who had “turned over” their children to the orphanage. There seems to be little discussion of the reality of orphanages in poor countries like Haiti: that many times they are sanctuaries for children whose parents are still alive but cannot care for them. I don’t understand why more people aren’t contributing to the needs of the orphanage, and ultimately, the parents whose children are placed there (temporarily or otherwise), instead of attempting to adopt children and take them out of the country. Would it not be better for a child to live within his own culture, close to his family (if not with them), with education and love and needs met? The alternative of leaving one’s country and culture in order to be raised in the US seems so stark to me. And it robs Haiti of its future.

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