Adoption is both/and, not either/or

A long time ago I wrote a post titled "Adoptee vs. Adoptee" outlining some of the challenges that critical adoptees receive from others – including adoptees – particularly those who think adoption should not be criticized or in any way challenged and adoptees who participate in the unproductive "pro-adoption/anti-adoption" dichotomy. 

Lately I've been involved in a similar situation but from the flip side, this time involving an adoptee who publicly shamed me for working with adoption organizations (and their leadership) the adoptee does not support. 

A few days ago I participated in some facebook conversations that brought me back to some of my earlier Harlow's Monkey posts and I had some nostalgic moments re-reading some of my archived articles. Life has sure changed for me since those early days in 2006 when I started the blog. As I re-read through, I thought it was interesting how my thoughts and beliefs about adoption (as well as my tone) have evolved over time. Back then the political stakes were low and I could just be a (mostly) anonymous, outspoken adoptee working with other adoptees and foster youth. Now I'm more public and work more in the arena of research, training and educating those who will work in the area of child welfare, permanency and adoption.

Perhaps the one thing that has remained constant, however, is the struggle to keep balanced on the tightrope. I am still navigating and negotiating and explaining myself to adoptees who are angry that I critique the adoption industrial complex and those who are angry that I seem to be supporting it. The only difference is that in some ways it feels there is more at stake and definitely more politics to navigate now than there was five years ago, but the level of mistrust and suspicion among adoptees is still ever present.

And that makes me wonder how much of this is just human nature, and how much of it is about the structures – politically, institutionally, etc. – that just keep us feuding with each other instead of focusing on working together to dismantle the oppressive institutions.

It is much easier to take all or nothing sides on an issue, but I won't participate in arguments that force me to choose from an either/or situation. Because for me it's never either/or, it's almost always both/and. 

Adoption is not either a family building issue or a big business, it's both/and. Adoption is not the solution or the problem, it's both/and. We can't be focused only on the child or the family, we must be mindful of both. And a child's best interests are not unilaterally separate from the family's and vice versa – the child's best interests can also include the family or community's best interests. Adoption should not be only thought of through the lens of children or through the lens of parents. Both matter.

Trying to reform adoption isn't the same as just moving a few parts around and calling it good to go, and neither is it eliminating the practice all together. There will always be children whose parents are unable, for whatever reason, to care for them. There will be some children who will fall through the cracks in their extended family and kin community. There will always be some parents who don't want to parent the children they have and will find way to not have to parent them. The problem is that adoption is still too often posed as an either/or solution – adoptive family vs. biological family – instead of both/and. Open adoptions are starting to change this paradigm, but we have a long ways to go. I'm not willing to call for a total end to adoption until all the reasons children are placed for adoption have been resolved.   

I've been thinking a lot about the either/or and both/and paradigm shift thing in terms of my profession a lot over the past several years. Social workers in particular grapple with the meaning of the work they do, because it often is positioned as either "helping individuals" or "advocating for social justice" and these two values are seen as dichotomous. I call this the starfish and the dragon dichotomy. We need to be doing both, of course. We can't just save the starfish and ignore the reason for why all the starfish are washing up on shore, neither can we just head off to slay the dragon and let people drown in the river. 

Adoption reform can happen through grass-roots organizing and it can happen through working within institutions to be an agent of changes and in my own opinion, change and reform happens most successfully when both occur at the same time.  


Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

6 thoughts

  1. Thanks for this clear, rational and wise post. The same either/or black and white mentality afflicts birth parents and adoptive parents as well. If you are not anti-adoption and keeping all children with biological family, you are accused of being an adoption promoter. There is no possibility of a middle ground. It is very discouraging and the attacks wear you down, and also reflect badly on adoption reform as any sort of unified movement.

  2. I’m not anywhere near past the place where I can process adoption outside of my own situation, but I absolutely see the “both/and” in my own life. Adoption was the right option for both of my families when I was born. And. It is one of the major psychological issues that I’ve dealt with in my life. It is both a defining part of my identity and a major point of contention.
    I can be upset about aspect of the system and happy with my life, respectful and loving of both of my mothers and often annoyed as hell at the comments and insistences of the world outside adoption.
    Thanks for the post — it takes me outside my one particular situation in a way that still relates to the many things I’m thinking and working through.

  3. Absolutely agree with both/and and also agree its easier to take all or nothing sides on an issue. I don’t understand why it’s so impossible to convince those who choose to do so that it affects their credibility which allows their audience to tune the message right out. Maybe the fact that it’s easier is the simple explanation. I appreciate your post, thanks for it.

  4. Great post. There’s a tendency for folks on one side to defensively say, “Adoption is great, wonderful, and God’s perfect plan for lots of people’s lives.” On another side, folks say out of their pain, “Adoption is evil.” But in the middle would be a thought that adoption is a means by which families are created and good can be brought out of very difficult situations.
    As an adoption social worker – I have to acknowledge that my bills are paid through adoption. And yet, at the same time, I’m not doing this for the money. I work because I do need to earn a living, but I choose to do this work because it calls to me.

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