Sunday, April 5, 2009

Birth mother

I've been reading "Adoption Nation" by Adam Pertman. It's a sociology book, but it's very interesting to me now, mostly because he's discussing social issues that have been on my mind on a daily basis. I'm going to try to convince my parents to borrow it after I'm done. It's not a must-read, but it presents a nice overview of the changing attitudes in our society. Changing attitudes are relevant to everyone, whether or not they are or know someone involved in an adoption. Everyone has attitudes.

Last month Husband'o'Mine and i attended a "waiting families" meeting in which the two other families were engaged in private domestic adoptions. One woman already had her baby, and the other had started to get referrals of birth mothers.

These two things have gotten me thinking deeply about Yun Gui's birth mother.

Many adoptive families wish to avoid having to deal too closely with the birth mother, at least initially. I am not a people person, so this makes sense to me. When becoming a parent means allowing an unpredictable stranger into your life, it can be intimidating. What if she pushes too hard and forces you to set limits? What if the child becomes confused, and maybe even fails to bond with you? What if she sues to regain her parental rights? What the adoptive family fears is disruption.

This was one of our lines of thinking. It wasn't my strongest prejudice, ironically. My strongest prejudice was money - I thought an international adoption was beyond our means. (It was, but it isn't anymore, thanks to some changes in our financial situation.) I was tentatively willing to take the risk. We were assured that we could say no to any child who came with family ties greater than what we'd want to handle. I thought that if we were selective, we could navigate the state foster/adoption system until we got the child we wanted.

But we ended up adopting from China instead. The program was there, it felt right for us, and, as mentioned before, we found we could afford it. In China, nearly 100% of the children are abandoned anonymously. Finding, meeting, or interacting with the birth family becomes irrelevant; it is impossible.

Closed adoptions (in which little or no identifying information is shared between the birth family and the adoptive family, and contact is prevented and discouraged) are appealing to the adoptive family, initially. But, according to "Adoption Nation," many families change their minds. Even if the parents never change their minds, often the adoptee wishes to reestablish contact with his/her birth mother. But often enough, the adoptive parents do too. They want their children's family's medical history, or they want closure, or they think it's best for the child, or they just want to know.

Sometimes the birth mother and the adoptive parent(s) establish a comfortable relationship. They appreciate each other and they stay in touch. I can understand all of this, too.

The several chapters in "Adoption Nation" about sealed birth certificates, searching services, and corresponding or reuniting with biological relatives fail to apply to us. And that's essentially impossible to change, even if we want to make contact with Yun Gui's birth family at a later date. There's nothing we can do. We can't get his family medical history, either. We can't send letters and photos to his mom, no matter how badly we may want to. We will never be able to tell her that her son is doing fine.

When Yun Gui asks about his birth family and the circumstances of his adoption, there's only one thing we can do. That's talk. We can tell him stories, explain the culture and politics that contributed, and reassure him with lots of words that it's okay for him to question his identity, and he still belongs with us.

And he probably will continue to wonder who his parents were and why they abandoned him. I wonder already. Fortunately, I have some advantageous tools at my disposal.

For one, I can comprehend people doing things that, at first glance, seem horrible, but that can be supported with good intentions and other human frailties if one digs deeper. I can claim a firsthand perspective - my parents acted with the utmost love and concern for me as they forced me into a long series of difficult and harmful situations. Having survived that, I now strongly believe that there is no such thing as right or wrong. Everything is both right and wrong. Therefore I don't jump to an overly simplistic opinion that Yun Gui's birth parents deserve my reproach, or even that they'd made a mistake or were inferior to me in any way. Maybe they are warm, wonderful people. Maybe they did everything right and made the absolutely best decisions, and this just happened to be the result. I won't say "I'm grateful to them because they provided me with my child," either. How Yun Gui went from their care to the Wuxi orphanage and then, very soon, into our household is merely a series of random occurrences plus conscious decisions by many different people. They made their decisions, and we made our decisions, and all those decisions fell into place amidst a much bigger dynamic.

I have distance. Distance is a gift. Even though I'm right in the middle of this adoption, I'm still able to step back and take educated guesses without being blinded by emotion.

And third, I'm a storyteller by trade.

Yun Gui was a second child. It's conceivable! The One-Child policy has shaken Chinese culture up a great deal, but we Westerners have a poor understanding of the day-to-day effects it has on any given family struggling to deal with it. We say, "They throw away their girls." Yet many families keep their daughters, love them and raise them, teach them and encourage them. We can latch onto this idea of a specific gender being treated poorly, but that idea won't explain away every family's experience.

How many different ways can you imagine the One-Child policy complicating a family's life? Just that one way? Or can you imagine other kinds of decisions being made for other reasons?

Yun Gui was a second child. His sibling - brother or sister, either one works - was healthy and thriving under all that love and attention. The family was rural and not rich, but they got by. Maybe they were farmers. Maybe they practiced a trade. Maybe they were employees of the state. They didn't mean to get pregnant again, and they didn't mean to let the pregnancy go on so long, but these things happen. When you secretly want a big family, it's hard to prevent these things from happening.

Yun Gui was born big and healthy-looking. His birth posed a horrible dilemma for his parents. They toyed with the idea of keeping him surreptitiously. Maybe it would be a year or two before they were caught and forced to pay the fines. They could hide him at his aunt's house in the daytime and in their own back room at night.

He ate well, but soon it was apparent that something was wrong. He was ill somehow. His parents paid a local nurse under the table to look at him, but all she said was that it was serious and he needed to be examined by trained doctors. His parents knew they couldn't do that if they hoped to keep him. They couldn't afford the punishment for having a second child. It would ruin them all.

Meanwhile, the baby got sicker and sicker. It was ten days before, in desperation, his parents wrapped him up in warm clothes and blankets and stole out into the night to place him near the town bridge, where someone would surely see him in the morning.

One or both of the parents made some excuse to head that way again the next morning. When they got to the bridge, the baby was gone. He had been found and brought to the hospital, where he'd been given some lifesaving surgery and some TLC and admitted into the state orphanage of the nearest city. But they had no way of knowing that. They had no way to know whether his ailment was fatal or treatable. They just knew he was gone, and the risks they'd been willing to take for his sake were gone too.

I've heard people say, "They abandon their girls so they can try again for a boy." Once or twice I've heard people say, "They abandon their sick and disabled children so they can try again for a healthy one." That may be true, but it's an overly simplistic explanation. They must also, at times, abandon the second child (or the third) for no reason at all. And who can say whether any child abandoned anonymously was or wasn't a second child?

Well, we can't know. But we can say anything we want.

This is just the beginning, too. We haven't even gotten our child yet. We have a whole lifetime of not knowing ahead of us. But we're not the only ones on that front.

Still... this is the age of the internet. The online crossover between American and Chinese internet is not great, and there's that language barrier. But maybe things will change over time.


  1. I loved this post. Makes you look beyond the "usual" answer as to why our children are placed in orphanages. Thanks.

    Lori G.

  2. I like it too! I have been thinking about Rebecca's mother a lot, too (and btw, that's what her foster family has called her since she was 2 months old--we probably would have kept her Chinese name! WIth her cleft the reason she was abandoned, or the probably reason, is obvious. It will never be an easy story to tell, but it needn't have been about perfection. She couldn't eat! How they must have panicked...

    Can I say, I'm hopeful that by the time they are old enough, there will be more possibilities--a database, a more open government. Their first parents will never forget when and where they laid there babies down. Even without DNA, it could happen.

    And can I also say, howdy, we come to the Cape every summer, we both seem to be writers...maybe we'll meet!

  3. Howdy back! I would love to meet up with you when you come to the Cape. My husband and I would enjoy giving you the insiders' tour - if the kids like wildlife, that'll be a plus. Whereabouts do you stay?

    I belong to a local writer's group, and you're welcome to join that while you're here. It's just a casual affair, though nobody brings their kids (yet). I do write, but I usually draw at the meetings instead.

    But whatever we do, we should definitely get in touch and do something, even if it's just meet for pizza.