Category Archives: Family Values

Need Reader Feedback

Hi folks.

I am going to be closing down this blog in the next several weeks. There are many reasons for this, but I won’t get into them now.

What I would like to do, however, is compile the most useful posts into categories and bind them under an e-cover for download in case really, really interested folks still want to read them, or share them with others.

This is the compromise I’ve come to between just shutting down OR leaving the blog archives sitting here forever.

What I would love from you is some nominations for posts you’d like to see preserved in e-book form. I will try to edit and/or update any posts that go into that format, so if your favorite one is old and needs some revision that’s okay too.

I have in mind a total of say, 100 posts.

Help? (Please leave your suggestions in the comments so people can see each others’ okay?)

 

P.S. I’m also taking some of the posts from this blog (mostly since 2009) and backfilling Muse of Fire with them. So much of the more recent material will still be on a blog.

Veronica Won’t be a “Baby” Forever

This is cross-posted from BlogHer, where it was originally published last Tuesday:

After the Supreme Court decided against a biological father in the so-called “Baby Veronica” case two months ago, I found myself worried not just for the family in the case, but for adoption in general. Adoption is riddled with misunderstanding and the mainstream media tends to exacerbate the problem rather than clarifying.

Now Veronica’s father has failed to return her to the adoptive couple that won the Supreme Court case, has been arrested, paid his bail and is currently somewhere unknown, presumably with his daughter. Now the would-be adoptive parents are using language like “holding her captive” and claiming to “fear for her safety and well-being,” though Veronica has been in her father’s custody, happy, and healthy, for close to two years.

This case has been rife with misunderstanding, and its high profile can only lead to more confusion among people not personally knowledgeable about adoption. Rather than leap into an argument for what I believe ought to be the case’s outcome, I want to focus here on clarifying what I see as three major misunderstandings the coverage of this case has perpetuated:

1. Misunderstanding of how legal adoption works
2. Misunderstanding of the ICWA and its purpose
3. Misunderstanding of what is in the “best interest” of children

First, the would-be adoptive parents of Veronica (no longer a baby) knew that this adoption was questionable from an early date after Veronica’s placement with them. While Veronica was still a young infant, it became clear that the adoption was not perhaps, legal or likely to be finalized because of the father’s interest in parenting her.

But importantly, the adoption was not yet final at that time. So in spite of headlines declaring that Veronica was “adopted” at birth, she was not. In my long experience of adoption study, I have never, ever heard of an adoption being final “at birth.” Babies may be placed with prospective adoptive families at birth, but adoptions typically take about six months to become final, and these six months include follow-up visits from social workers and legal work at court.

Veronica’s hopeful adoptive parents were indeed caring for her as their daughter in her infancy, but she was not legally theirs yet.

Second, the law the father has used to fight this adoption placement (which happened against his will and most likely without his full understanding, depending on who you believe in the reports, and I believe him), the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), is a matter of American Indian sovereignty, not of racial identity, as the press has widely misled us to understand.

The ICWA was enacted as a correction to and a protection against the all-but kidnapping (sometimes, indeed, literal kidnapping) of American Indian children and their placement in white families or (more often) “boarding schools” or other institutions that basically forced them to assimilate to white culture and cut them off from their heritage and communities.

The ICWA gives a tribe legal sovereignty over where its children in need are placed for care. Typically there is a hierarchy in which immediate family members are first, extended families are next, any tribal member is next, any American Indian is next and last, after these are exhausted — and only with the tribe’s approval — an Indian child can be placed outside an Indian home.

This hierarchy was hardly exhausted in Veronica’s case. In fact, her own father, as soon as he knew she was being adopted by out-of-state strangers, wanted to parent her.

Third, there is a problem in this case that comes up in adoption in general, even when there is no bitter custody battle. Veronica (again, not a baby) is bound to develop her own perspective on it all. And what is going to be best for her overall healthy development as a person?

To me, the answer is obvious. When a biological parent is ready, willing and able to raise a child he clearly loves, and has a two-year track record of doing just that, and doing it well, there is absolutely no excuse for moving her from his home to the home of out-of-state strangers who claim her based on an at-risk hopeful adoption placement that they knew was problematic since Veronica was an infant, and before her adoption was final.

Would it be heart-rending to give up a baby you had been caring for as your own for three or four months? I have no doubt of this. I am an adoptive mother myself and both my children were placed in my care at birth. Legally final adoptions or not, they felt very much like my babies — no, they indeed were my babies — the minute I held them each for the first time.

But.

Is it okay to essentially steal someone else’s baby because you love her? No. Nor is it a particularly loving thing to do.

I still maintain that as soon as her prospective adoptive parents discovered the legal and interpersonal complications of this case, they should have handed Veronica (then an actual baby who might have had enough resilience to thrive in spite of the disruption) to her father and wished them all well. Would that have been hard? Absolutely. But if we are going to romanticize the relinquishment of babies to adoption as a “loving, selfless” sacrifice on the part of birth parents (and we do, all the time) why is it that these hopeful adoptive parents shouldn’t be expected to do the same with grace?

A legal trick is not what should decide this case — as in: when did Veronica’s father sign away his rights and did he know what he was doing? A decision about which adults ought to have more rights is not what should decide this case. What should decide this case is Veronica’s right to her father.

“Best interest” should not be about which parent lives in the better neighborhood, has the better school to offer or takes the most expensive vacations. If that were the grounds for deciding where children should be, would you (if you are a parent) be allowed to keep yours if your wealthiest friend took a shine to them and decided to sue you for custody?

If we can agree that people of any socio-economic class who provide for their children adequately and lovingly deserve to raise them in their own families and communities, we must look elsewhere to decide where a child should be when a contest like this comes along. And when I listen to adopted people (who are no longer babies), they tend to say that they have a right to their biological heritage when it is available.

Adoption disrupts families. No matter how loving and stable the new family, the original family is forever broken. This should be prevented whenever possible. A child with an enthusiastic, loving and fit parent has no reason to be adopted.

Veronica has known her father as her father now, for two years. She will be four years old next month. She has a right, not only to the stable family she has known for probably, all of her conscious life, but to the biological connections that are available to her.

Importantly, Veronica is not a baby anymore and from here on out, she will do nothing but grow in knowledge and understanding of what is happening to her. If her adoptive parents end up with custody, I hope they are ready to answer an angry teenager when she googles herself and asks them, “Why did you take me from my daddy?”

I find it hard to swallow that “we love you” will be enough for her.

Not in My Name, or, Whiteness Goddam

In the days immediately following the George Zimmerman acquittal I was in a state of shock. I wasn’t alone. I was stuck home with children too young to take to after-bedtime demonstrations, so I sat in front of my computer and tweeted with like-minded, grieving, angry fellow travelers.

But now that a few days have passed, I have moved from my sense of helpless, hopeless horror to my version of an action phase. I’m going to share it with you, and perhaps you’d like to join me, or if it doesn’t apply to you, you might pass it on to a friend to whom it does.

As a white woman, I feel a special responsibility (I almost wrote “culpability” and I’m not sure that’s far from wrong) regarding this case. I’m not saying it’s my personal fault, but my “identity” (not necessarily one I choose, but one that is put upon me by everyone who looks at me) is an enormous working piece of the machine that killed Trayvon and denied his family justice.

Because of this, when I first heard about the makeup of the Zimmerman jury, I was really, really worried. I hoped against hope that maybe being moms of teens might help these women empathize with Trayvon. But (especially after hearing from the anonymous juror on CNN), we all know that didn’t happen.

The fact is, throughout U.S. history—especially after the Civil War—white women have been the rhetorical foil white men have used to justify violence and terrorism against Black men. In the 1880s and 1890s there were several lynchings of Black men per month. In fact, in some years of those decades there were three or four lynchings per week. The overall “reason” given for these lynchings by almost everyone in the press—even in the Black press, which decried lynching but didn’t always challenge the accusations leading to it—was the rape of white women.

But Ida B. Wells (my favorite dead person of all time), challenged this claim by investigating every lynching she could, finding that in fact only 30% of lynchings were actually claimed to be about rape, and that very few of those actually were rape cases. (Many of the cases involving sex between Black men and white women, were in fact consensual relationships, as Wells pointed out, garnering death threats for her pointed honesty.)

No one accused Trayvon Martin of rape. But the icon of the threatening, always-already criminal Black boy or man is an icon perhaps not invented, but certainly refined, in the heyday of Strange Fruit, and is made out of white men’s need for sexual (well, and everything else) control of white women. This is well accounted for. Just go watch D.W. Griffith’s Birth of Nation  and you will see the story unfold there just a few years past the height of the lynching era. In that film, anxiety about white men’s loss of political and economic control to Black men is finally too much to bear when control of white women’s sexuality is added to the pile of straws.

So when George Zimmerman assumed, based on appearance that Trayvon was a criminal, a big part of why he assumed it was this history of Black boys and men being considered threats to white women. Sadly, though it’s been nearly sixty years, the twisted logic that made Emmett Till’s life worthless and let his murders go free has done the same to Trayvon.

I say 150 years (at least) of being used as an excuse to terrorize Black boys and men is enough. I’m out. I’m a white woman and I am not afraid of Black boys and men. If some white man is afraid for me, well…he needs to learn to be afraid of me. Because I’m not taking it any more.

How do I change one of the keystones of white supremacy all by my little self?

Fine, I can’t. But I can sure kick against it with all I’ve got and if you’re a white woman, you can join me and recruit all your white female friends to join too.

It is time (way past time) for white women to ally with Black boys and men with all our hearts and minds, with every shred of power we’ve got, and when it comes to this issue, we’ve got more than most of us realize.

Here are a few small things we white women can do almost every day to fight the ideology that Black boys and men are our worst enemies and to refuse anymore to be theirs:

1. Stop using the phrase “I was the only white person there.” It’s code for some kind of perception of vulnerability at best, real threat or danger at worst. But the truth is, if you’re the only white person somewhere, you’re likely to be a guest, and treated as such. If you stumbled into the “wrong” neighborhood, the history above should assure you that you are perceived to be a threat–much more so than a target.

But when you say, “I was the only white person there” with no other context for why this was relevant, you are leaning on that history to explain what being there meant. You are underscoring the idea that generally, Black people are a threat to white people and specifically that Black men and boys are a threat to white women.

Besides not saying this yourself, you can refuse to support it with your silence when other people are saying it.

When you hear someone toss the “I was the only one…” line into conversation, stop the speaker and say, “what’s your point?”

This will either force the speaker to unveil the racism behind the phrase, or to be clearer about why race legitimately mattered in the situation.

This isn’t the only phrase of this kind. What are some others you hear in what seem to the speaker to be white-only conversations? Interrupt them whenever you can.

2. Make a friend. No, your Black friend won’t be your get-out-of-racism free card. (And trying to wield it as one will lose you your Black friends fast. Because doing that is racist.) But let’s face it, if you DON’T have any black friends, you’ve got a problem. (I’m talking to U.S. Americans who live in the U.S. here, not the people of Iceland.) And everyone knows that the best kind of friends not only reflect our sense of self back to us, but challenge our sense of self, stretch us to empathize with others’ experiences and teach us new skills and ideas.

Real, honest, vulnerable friendships (based on something other than “hey you’re Black and I need a Black friend!” of course) are always valuable. When they are made across the boundaries society polices the most, they can help undo the implicit bias everyone in our culture carries around. (According to this research, seeing anti-stereotypical images helps combat implicit bias. What’s more anti-stereotypical than a true friend?)

Meanwhile, cross the daily thoughtless, race boundaries society has erected whenever the opportunity comes your way. Smile, and say hello to the Black man in front of you in the grocery store line, look those Black teen boys in the eye when they pass you on the street (whatever you do, don’t cross the street!), sit by a Black man, instead of another white woman, on the bus.

Seek out integrated spaces as much as possible. Don’t settle for the easy thoughtless comfort of being around a bunch of other white people. Try putting yourself in the minority often enough that you learn to be comfortable there.

3. Stop identifying with whiteness. I don’t mean stop allowing yourself to be labeled white by the census or the law or whatever, but to identify with whiteness within yourself. Identifying with whiteness is a pillar of white supremacy. Whiteness was made up. It didn’t fall from heaven decreed by the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You may have to be it in the eyes of others and ironically, in working to undo it you must acknowledge the unearned privilege it gives you. But you don’t have to give a flying fig Newton about it, yourself. You don’t have to take the wrong side in historical stories, for example.

Back when I was teaching race in U.S. history and culture to college students, the white ones would eventually come to me all distressed that “white” people had done such terrible things in U.S. history. Half these kids’ families weren’t even in  the U.S. at the time of some of the events that troubled them. I told them there was no reason to identify with Thomas Jefferson and no reason not to identify with Frederick Douglass. Your heroes should be the people who share your values, not your melanin levels.

Again, I’m not saying Jefferson didn’t set it up sweet for you if you are white nowadays and you must acknowledge that, but you can be proud to be a U.S. American because of the heritage you share with others–a heritage that includes people like Harriet Tubman and W.E.B. DuBois.

TrayvonMartinHoodedDo you have any personal examples of how you’ve carried out any of the things on my list? Do you have any suggestions to add to the list? Please share them in the comments. It’s time we U.S American white women got together to form a ring of love and protection around our Black boys. But first, we have to recognize that they are ours.

Watch Out World, There Are Two Cates Online

My brother started blogging. He just couldn’t hold back after receiving a letter from his congressman assuring him of all his (congressman’s) hard work to end Obamacare.

Go say hi and tell him I sent you.

Whiplash at the Supreme Court: An Excerpt

“…how am I to feel when the Supreme Court decides today that my partner and I could potentially be legally married, but my daughters—both Black—had their future voting rights threatened by the striking down of a key aspect of the 1965 Voting Rights Act yesterday?

I am cynical enough to think that we won the right to (sort of) marry because queers are imagined as white and middle, or upper-class, like Ellen Degeneres or Anderson Cooper. Those people are comfortably familiar enough to Supreme Court-types to “deserve” civil rights, whereas poor southern Black grandmothers without driver’s licenses to show at the polls aren’t as obviously deserving of a vote.

It’s this imaginary idea—along with the racist notion that all Black people are homophobic–that is too often wielded to divide and conquer us as minority groups with many interests in common. But queer rights and the rights of racial minorities are not in competition. If we pit them against each other, we all lose.”

For more, head over to BlogHer.

Happy Father’s Day

Thinking about my Dad this weekend.

Just Another Purim-Themed Picture Book about Gay Dads and Aliens

The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner
The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner

Because I am exceptionally lucky, I have known Els Kushner for several years, via the magic of the Internet. When I heard that her first picture book was finally released, I was eager to see the final results of something I got to watch happening behind the scenes. It was as terrific as I expected. Now I’m eager to share it with you.

I asked Els to tell Lesbian Family about herself and the book. Enjoy the results below. And be sure to order a copy of The Purim Superhero in e-format, paperback or hardcover. You have just enough time before Purim, on 25 February this year.

1. Tell us about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, how did you become interested in writing for children?

Oh, I’m just another Jewish lesbian librarian/writer/parent who plays the ukulele and periodically attempts to garden. I’m a kid person and a kids’ book person, so I guess it makes sense that I became a children’s librarian. I’m from New York and New Jersey and Seattle and, now, Vancouver, where I live with my spouse and our daughter and a lot of books and musical instruments and small plastic items. I’m addicted to text in all forms, from fiction to old New Yorkers to podcasts. I stay up too late on a regular basis.

I’ve written lots of things, for years, short stories and blog posts and bits of novels and what have you. I think people tend to write about they’re interested in, what their thoughts and feelings revolve around, even if their writing isn’t directly autobiographical. And for me, the experience of childhood and adolescence is endlessly fascinating: life is so vivid when you’re a kid, so many things are new, and you’re also so powerless and subject to the whims of the adult world. I also really like stories about community, and when writing about kids there’s a sort of automatic community a lot of the time, as they’re often in school or other groups.
2. This book began as a contest. Tell us a bit about that. What were the perimeters of the competition and what was the process like?

In early 2011, Keshet sponsored a contest for an 800-to-1000-word picture book manuscript with both Jewish and GLBT content. The contest description specified that the storyline shouldn’t be primarily didactic, and that it should have “clear, clever and interesting narrative plot with universal themes and Jewish content.”

The process of writing the manuscript had in some ways started years before I saw that contest announcement, when I was a librarian at a Jewish day school, and was looking for books to read to my students for Purim. Purim is a Jewish holiday that takes place in February or March; its customs include reading the Book of Esther aloud, dressing in costume, eating cookies called Hamentaschen, and generally being silly. It’s a very kid-friendly holiday, but–maybe because, unlike Chanukah or Passover, it doesn’t correspond with any major Christian holidays that take place at the same time of year –I couldn’t find any good read-alouds at that time that told the story of a contemporary kid celebrating Purim. (There are a few more now, but there weren’t then.)

After a few years of thinking, “sheesh, someone should write a good Purim picture book,” I thought, “maybe I should write a Purim picture book.” I noodled around with that idea a little, but I couldn’t really figure out what the driving conflict would be. Then, a few years later, I saw the Keshet contest and thought that a kid with same-sex parents would be a great protagonist for a Purim story.

The final part of the equation came when I had a writing date with a couple of friends one day while I was working on the manuscript, and one of them brought her 8-year-old son along. I was grousing to my friends about how stuck I was, and how I couldn’t figure out what kind of a problem my protagonist should have, and my friend’s son got very caught up in this question and started giving me these amazing suggestions about how aliens and monkeys should come take over the “Jewish church” and have a big fight…he got really into it and was drawing pictures of the great alien-vs.-monkey battle while we were writing. I was struck by how original and quirky his imagination was, and how a kid like him, with strong and individual interests, might have a problem fitting in with his peers, but how that kind of difference, like gayness, or Judaism, could also be a source of strength. Nate’s interest in aliens is inspired by, and a tribute to, him.

After that, my biggest problem was getting the manuscript down to the requisite 1,000 words; I think I went through six or seven drafts. I’m pretty verbose normally (as you can probably tell by my answers to these questions!), so that was tough.


3. You are a lesbian parent. Does Nate’s experience with peer pressure to fit in come from your own experience as a mom in a same-sex headed family?

My experience as a mom in a same-sex-headed family has mostly been pretty undramatic. We’ve been lucky enough to live in communities where being a lesbian parent is accepted as a pretty ordinary thing 99% of the time, and the few times it hasn’t been, well, I’ve experienced that as the other person’s problem, not mine.

I’d say Nate’s experience with peer pressure comes more from my own childhood as a sort of nerdy, bookish kid who had different interests from most kids my age. I had a lot less confidence than Nate, so I dealt with that experience by being pretty shy and withdrawn. I think it takes a very solid sense of yourself to do what Nate does and maintain your individuality while acknowledging and honoring that deep desire to be part of a group.

I also wanted to explore, a little bit, the way that gender expectations for boys of Nate’s age—about 4 or 5—are in many ways so much narrower than for girls. My experience from working with preschool and elementary-school aged kids, and from being a parent, is that there’s more tolerance for girls rejecting traditionally “girly” things than for boys who aren’t deemed sufficiently interested in things that mainstream boys are supposed to like. And a lot of the time, it’s other kids who are doing the gender policing. So a story about a girl who, say, didn’t want to dress up as a princess would’ve had a very different feeling and, I think, might not have been as dramatic.


4. I loved the connection the book makes between Esther coming out of the “closet” of Jewishness and Nate’s anxiety about expressing who he really is. That’s quite a sophisticated connection and a wonderful theological point. Do you find overlaps in your own life between voicing your Jewishness and your lesbianism?

Both Jewishness and queerness are identities where you sometimes have to “come out”—they’re not so immediately apparent, in general, as race or gender, so there’s an element of choice in whether to identify publicly as part of that particular group. In my life, right now, they’re both identities where a lot of the time I’m part of a small minority: the neighborhood where I live, for example, doesn’t have either a large Jewish or GLBT community, and many of the friends and co-workers I see on a regular basis are neither queer nor Jewish. I guess, like Nate, these are aspects of my identity that in many ways aren’t the driving forces in my daily life right now—I spend a lot more time and energy actively thinking about being a parent, or a librarian, or a writer, than I do about being a lesbian. But at the same time, my lesbianism and my Jewishness are so central to who I am.

Both are also communities or groups that have been historically oppressed but that I experience as a gift—I’ve always loved being Jewish, and as an adult, I’ve found a lot of strength and creativity and just general wonderfulness in the lesbian community and in claiming a lesbian identity.


5. The illustrations for the book are just the best. Can you tell us what it’s like to work with an illustrator for your words? It seems like a relationship requiring a lot of trust.

I love the illustrations too! Mike Byrne has really captured Nate’s sweetness and individuality.  One little-known fact about picture books is that usually the author has little or nothing to do with the illustration process; generally the publisher selects the illustrator, and they and the illustrator work together to determine the visual component of the book. That was the case with The Purim Superhero: I was sent some early drafts of the drawings, but mostly I didn’t know what the art would be like until I saw the finished book. It was a little bit like meeting someone in person for the first time who you’ve only known through emails and blogging—even though I’d created these characters, I felt like I understood them on a whole other level when I saw the finished illustrations.


6. What’s next for you? Do you have any more picture books up your sleeve? What about other writing you are working on?

I’ve been working on a picture book set during another Jewish holiday, Shavuot. One of the customs of Shavuot is to stay up all through the night and study, and another is to eat dairy foods like blintzes and cheesecake, and I think the combination of staying up late and eating cheesecake could be really appealing to a kid.

And when I entered the manuscript for The Purim Superhero to the Keshet contest in 2011, I’d just finished a very rough first draft for a young adult novel that’s sort of a sequel to a short story I wrote a long time ago. The story was published in an anthology called The Essential Bordertown, which is part of a shared-world series about a city between the human world and Faerie. The story, and the novel I started, are both about a girl who runs away to Bordertown after she’s been involuntarily outed at school, and falls in love with another girl there. I was having a hard time revising the draft, and then I found out that I’d won the Keshet contest, and what with one thing and another that rough novel draft is still sitting on the side of my desk, with more and more files and books and bits of random detritus piled on top of it. I give it sort of a look every once in a while and promise the characters I’ll get back to them and work on their story and make everything better, if they’ll please, please just be patient a little longer.

Cross-posted at LesbianFamily.com

Meet Lindsay of “Fortunes Full”

 As a part of the annual Adoption Blogger Interview Project sponsored by Production, Not Reproduction, I was paired with Lindsay, sweet, busy new recruit to the two-kid lifestyle, and brain-behind-the-blog, Fortunes Full. Lindsay began documenting her adoption process once she and her husband were ready to begin.

A mother by traumatic birth (pre eclampsia, premature emergency c-section, weeks in NICU), Lindsay knew she wanted to adopt if she had any more children and her partner agreed.

She brought home a new son (her second) this past spring, a few weeks after another plan to adopt fell through when a father decided not to place.

Without further ado, here is my interview with Lindsay:

What kind of adoption did you do?

We decided very quickly on open, domestic adoption through a local agency. It was the perfect fit for us.

How did you make the decision to do this kind of adoption versus other types available (if they were available)?

As we were learning about all the different kinds of adoptions out there, we were shocked at how great the need for African American/biracial adoption was versus how long some people were waiting for a baby of their own race. Everyone has different needs and comfort levels, and we understand that. But for us it just didn’t matter, at all. We wanted a baby and felt we were emotionally and logistically equipped to raise a child of another race, respectfully. We also needed this adoption process to have a very low impact on our son, W, who was two at the time. So we decided on domestic to avoid extensive travel. Then we learned that there was an agency very close to our home  that specialized in open adoptions. We figured that if we were going to have a child of another race, that it would be beneficial to know their birth family – to see where they came from. It was all just too perfect. Open, domestic, multi racial adoption. Boom bam.

Of course it didn’t wind up turning out quite that way though…

What factors (specifically about adoption itself) where most important to you at the time you began the adoption process? Did these change or shift at a later time? If so how and why?

We went into adoption with one focus: a healthy baby to bring home from the hospital. We were robbed of that experience with Little W and we were craving it. So that was our driving force in the beginning. But once we found our path (open, domestic), I think a fire was lit in me and I developed a passion for it. Open adoption is a relatively new thing and I think it’s very scary to outsiders. I love “spreading the gospel” to people who aren’t in the know. Hopefully some form of open adoption will be the norm, some day.

It was also important to me to find a respectable agency that put the needs of the children first, then the birth parents. We were lucky to find that in our local agency. In my opinion, once agencies or adoption professionals start putting the needs of the adoptive parents before the babies and birth families, you’re creeping into what seems like very questionable moral/ethical ground.

Once we were in the thick of The Wait, bringing a newborn home from the hospital seemed less and less important. And good thing because H’s adoption plan was created when he was three months old. Our feeling was… when this kid is six months, three years, eleven years, twenty years old, is it going to matter that we missed twelve measly weeks with him? No way.

As you raise your adopted child, what is most important to you today? Is it what you predicted would be important when you began the adoption process? If it has shifted how and why?

I think my answer to this mirrors that of any other parent, adoptive or biological. I want my sons to have every opportunity available to them. I want them to shoot for the moon, to follow their dreams, to be healthy and kind and loving. Being  an adoptive parent will always be a bit trickier than being a biological parent because there’s more questions to be answered and more people woven into the tapestry of our lives. This is especially so if you’re a multiracial family. In preparing for our adoption, I did all the research, I knew all the ways to include my child’s ethnicity into our family’s nucleus. But as fate had it, that sweet little baby wasn’t placed with us. And just a few weeks later we were surprised with an emergency placement… of the blondest haired, bluest eyed cherubic baby you’ve ever seen.  Go figure. So while I still want H to have a connection to his birth family’s roots, it’s not quite so pressing because simply, at first glance, there’s not that blazing difference in appearances. Did I answer that question appropriately? Not so sure. We’re just seven months in from placement, 7.5 months in from that heart breaking disappointment. So even though Little H consumes every corner of my mom-brain and is the light of my life, I still think about the baby that  wasn’t placed with us every day. I’m sure that will fade with time. But currently, the transition from expecting an African American baby to having a Caucasian baby is still a part of my life. Clearly, some of the details aren’t what I expected. But overall, the ideals that I hold important remain the same. I want him to know that he is loved by his birth family. I want him to know about them – and to know them. I want him to know that he is entitled to feel exactly how he feels. If he’s feeling sad or mad regarding adoption, I want him to know that that’s ok and that we’re there to listen.

What resources do you look to for learning what you need to know about adoption and raising an adopted person? What do you like about these? Are there any “resources” you have seen and not liked? Why?

I’m a blog junkie. I bought several books while making our adoption plan but I just can’t get through them. They’re written by well meaning psychologists and I’m sure they’re great for some people.  But when it comes down to it, I prefer blogs. Real life experiences from people who aren’t experts is what I need. I like to learn from real moms’ mistakes and laugh with them as they learn the ropes of parenthood. It puts a face and a heart on “The Adopted Child” that you read about in the books.

You have a mixed biological/adoptive family. Do you feel there are unique challenges to this experience, from your perspective? Are there unique blessings?

I do feel that there are unique challenges to having both biological and adoptive sons. Just the other day, I got into a conversation with W about how much we look alike. It wasn’t a real heavy talk. It was short and to the point then he was off with his trains and dinosaurs. But it stuck with me for a while. How would that convo had gone down if the boys were older? How would it have made H feel to hear me talk about how much W and I look alike? Will W feel left out because he doesn’t have a birth family like H? We will definitely have challenges as a family of mixed origin. Luckily, we have a few years to figure out how to tackle those subjects. Hopefully, our endlessly open dialog regarding H’s adoption and birth family will leave him fulfilled when it’s brought up that W and I look like twins. We’ll be able to jump right in with pictures and stories about how much H looks like his birth parents and siblings.
What does “open adoption” mean to you and your family? Do you feel you have the support you need to maintain a healthy open adoption? What is your support? Would you like to have more and if so, what kind?

Open adoption means so much to us. Ultimately, it gave us our son. But it also gave us such a bigger sense of love for a child.  Before learning about open adoption, I would have never guessed that loving an adopted child would include love for his birth family. H’s birth family loves him so much – and that will always be tangible to him. I see our relationship heading towards a place of closeness. It’s still very new and I think I don’t hear from them much because they’re healing. But I keep a blog for them and always let them know how open I am to him knowing (I mean really knowing them). Hopefully with time for healing, we will be comfortably close. We all live less than two hours apart, so there’s no excuse, if both parties are game.

If we need it, our agency is there for us. But I don’t feel like I need them as a middle man. I’m confidant in our relationship and the respect is there, on both ends. Like I said, I’d love to have a close relationship with them. But only time will tell if they will reciprocate.

Thanks for your thoughtful answers, Lindsay! To read my answers to Lindsay’s questions, visit her blog.

On my Children, my Father, Life, Death and Vegetables

I wrote the following for my church’s weekly newletter. You can find the original here.

Train up a Cucumber

Nat Harvests Radishes in the SPR Garden

“They are like children!” said one of the garden ladies. “They will climb up, but you have to give them a little help and show them where to go.” She gently lifted a cucumber vine and twined it through the netting so it would climb.

My children have grown a bit this summer — more than a bit, perhaps, to judge by shortening dress hems and tightening shoes. But they have also grown in understanding.

This summer, they lost their grandfather after two years of watching him fight cancer. It is their first death, and they have taken it hard. As my older daughter said the week after the funeral, “I don’t want anyone who loves me to die!”

I sympathized and told her I felt the same way, but there was nothing we could do about it. One of the hardest things about losing my father has been losing some of my children’s confidence that I can make anything and everything better for them, if only I want to and am willing to try.

I could do nothing to save their Granddaddy, even though I really, really wanted to. So my kids learned the sad lesson that parents are fallible and that sometimes death wins.

But the SPR garden also has been a pastime for them this summer, in the weeks we have been home and able to get to church on a Sunday. It has been a reassuring counterpoint to the fact of death, and that is the very concrete, undeniable fact of life.

When my children ask me questions about God, I tend to tell them some version

My father loved this picture he took on a walk with my girls.

of this: “God is a very special mother who takes care of the whole world. God makes things be alive. She makes things grow.”

(As a result of this teaching, when my younger girl saw a landscaper doing some work recently, she said, “look, that man is helping God! He’s taking care of the world.”)

When things in a garden die, my children know that nature turns them into dirt again, like the compost in the buckets on our own patio garden at home. New things can grow from that next season.

A garden at church is the perfect object lesson for them to connect the sacred and mundane facts of life — that God makes life, makes things grow, turns death and decay into something new and beautiful and perhaps even delicious, like a cherry tomato picked right off the vine, warm from the sun.

But this comes at a cost — a cost of labor and time and sometimes the frustration of fending off rapacious beetles that would chew down your vine before it can blossom.

And some people, work as hard as they will, never can get that vine blossoming.

This summer, along with the sad fact of death, my kids also have begun to learn the sad fact that life is not fair. Some people have more than they need, while some don’t have enough. The good news is that those who have enough can share and even the score just a little bit, almost every day.

When we go to the grocery store each week, we have a list of “Things We Need” and a list of “Things We Want.” My older daughter carefully crosses things off our “need” list and adds the prices as we shop. We have a budget every week and we are never able to get everything on our “want” list. But “sharing food” for the basket at the church altar is on the “need” list.

We always have enough to add a can of beans or a package of cereal for someone who might be hungry, even if it means we can’t get a candy bar for ourselves. It’s a lesson the children take with all the faith in the world that what I’ve told them — sharing is part of being who we are — is a simple truth. They never quibble about this.

Granddaddy and Nat

Recently, my older daughter badly wanted to eat a fresh pepper harvested from the SPR garden. I told her no. She kept begging and cajoling and I kept saying no until the thought struck me to simply explain. “The garden vegetables are sharing food,” I told her. “Oh!” She put down the pepper gently. She has never asked me to eat food from the garden again.

But she loves the garden nonetheless for that. She is as happy as she can be, helping pick ripe veggies, pulling weeds, plucking beetles off the plants and asking the expert gardeners a thousand questions.

The morning after my father died, my younger daughter asked, “will God make Granddaddy again?” I explained that Granddaddy was one-of-a-kind and that God is just too creative to ever make the same thing twice.

But although it may sound odd at first, I’ve told the girls that Granddaddy is a little bit like the compost. For one thing, he donated his body to cancer research. So there is an obvious way in which his physical being has been used to renew life among those of us who are still here slogging along on the Earth. But in the end, my father’s body was just a body, and it has returned to dust, as every one of ours will someday.

My Father and Me

And yet, like the compost that gives so much vitality to a tomato plant, my father’s love for his children and grandchildren will become — has already become — a part of who they are.

My children are stronger, happier, more loving people for having known his love for them. The spirit of sharing that he demonstrated even after death, he passed down to me to pass on to my own children. If all goes well, someday they will pass it to theirs.

And SPR — both in the garden and elsewhere — is a place to nurture those seeds of generosity and kindness, of sharing and enjoying people from all over the world (or from just across the neighborhood at KAM Isaiah Israel!). People come and go — even the ones who love us.

But in the end, it’s that very love that really wins.

By Special Request: 10 Red Flags that Your Adoption Agency Might be Coercive

I like to think that no prospective adoptive parent wants to adopt a baby whose mother really wanted to keep him–and might have done, with the right kind of support. But adoption agencies by and large are in the business of adoption. They are not in the business of counseling or supporting women who find themselves in crisis pregnancies to do anything else but place their children for adoption.

That being the case, while “coercion” may be too strong a word to apply to all adoption agencies, it is hard to see how any adoption agency is not mostly hoping that the expectant mothers that come to them will choose to place their babies for adoption. For this reason, it can be hard to sort out a relatively ethical agency from a downright coercive one.

In the end, you have to make the call for yourself and look most of all to the individual circumstances of any placement you find offered you, but there are things to watch for as you research the best agency you can find.

Not all of these is a sure sign in and of itself that your agency is practicing coercion with expectant moms. But each of them is a reason to look closer.

Caveat: This is all in reference to adoptions in the United States.

1. Calling expectant women in crisis pregnancies “birth mothers” before they place their children, or even well before they’ve given birth. The term “birth mother” is questionable in and of itself. Many mothers who have placed children for adoption find it an offensive label that distances them from the fact of their real motherhood. But to call a pregnant woman a birth mother (read: “merely” a birth mother) before she has signed away her parental rights–even before she has given birth–is to subtly distance her in her own mind from the possibility of keeping her baby. She is always-already “just” there to provide a baby for others to adopt.

Adoption professionals should be referring to pregnant women working with them as just that–pregnant women or expectant mothers. These women may be considering adoption, but they are not “birth mothers” at least until they have placed (if indeed it is ever appropriate to call them this).

This ought to be a red flag, and it is. But, here’s the rub: I have never come across an agency that didn’t do this at least somewhere in their materials, website or just in talking among themselves. What that says to me is that “adoption coercion” is almost a redundancy. [Healthy, newborn infant] adoption in the United States is coercive. But we can work to make it less so by letting the agencies we work with–perhaps especially the best of them–know that this language is offensive and inappropriate.

2. Providing agency “counseling” for expectant mothers—often this is about talking mothers into placement not truly helping them make a decision. The TLC show, “Birth Moms” gives some sadly excellent examples of this. The counseling basically amounts to a “how to give up your baby” class. How can you know what kind of counseling an agency offers? All you can do is ask. Listen carefully and consider what it would sound like to you if you were a pregnant woman thinking about adoption. Is it the kind of counseling you would want or need?

3. Providing housing—esp. on agency grounds—for expectant mothers. It’s a fine line that different states handle differently. How much pre-birth assistance to a pregnant woman is okay and what amount counts as coercive or as baby-selling? Any amount of help can place a sense of obligation on the woman that she owes her baby to the agency (or prospective adopters) in return for help and services. On the other hand, it feels cold not to offer a woman help when she is pregnant, whether she plans to place her baby in adoption or not. If you yourself end up giving assistance to an expectant mother, be sure to remember what it is–assistance to an expectant mother. Make sure the woman hears from you that there are no strings attached to your help. If you can’t say this to her with honesty, don’t accept the “match.”

4. Websites that subtly give one message to prospective adoptive parents (open adoption means the birth mother might get a letter once in a while and she will probably lose interest in a few years) and another to expectant moms (open adoption means you will always have access to your child, you will still be in his life as much as you want to, with no mention that open adoption is not usually legally binding).

This agency’s website is an excellent example of this double-message. I used the form on the “pregnant?” side of this website to ask if open adoption is legally binding in the state in which it operates (Louisiana) and how soon a woman was allowed to sign a Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) without revocation in the state. The response was that no, open adoption is not legally binding there. If you watch the birth mother testimony videos about how “in control” they are of their adoptions, you will hear no hint of the fact that in the state where they live, the adoptive parents of their children could change addresses, phone numbers, never contact the agency again and disappear–legally–regardless of promises made to their children’s first mothers.

Always read the whole website, both the “for birth parents” side and the “for adoptive parents” side. Request all print materials given to each as well and maybe even call the agency posing as an expectant mother to see how eager they are for you to “work with” them or for you to use their “services.” That work and those services are for the sake of getting babies to prospective adoptive parents, not for your sake.

5. Being a for-profit agency–or a not-for-profit one that seems a bit too well-heeled. Find out what the fees cover and what the agency’s finances are like.

The agency we used to adopt our children has fees that are roughly the same as the current federal tax-credit for adoption. They do this to keep adoption within the reach of a maximum number of parents, regardless of income. (Of course, tax-credits are not accessible to all income-levels, but it’s the best we are doing in the United States right now.) This leaves the agency with a shoestring budget to keep the lights on and the phones hooked up and put gas in the social workers’ cars. Poverty in an adoption agency can be a good thing when it means no one is raking in cash by selling babies.

6. Being in a state that allows TPRs to be signed too early and without a revocation period. Some states allow non-revocable terminations of parental rights to be signed by a mother as soon as 24 hours after the birth of her baby.

(When I questioned that Louisiana agency above, the answer was 72 hours after birth with no revocation period–or opportunity to change your mind. This is the same law we have in my state where our children were adopted. One came to us right after those 72 hours were up and the other came 10 days after birth because she and her mother were both still in the hospital. But in general, agencies tend to push for the TPRs to be signed as soon as legally allowable. A great agency is one that not only does not push this way, but perhaps provides temporary care for a baby a mother isn’t sure she can take home, but isn’t sure she can relinquish. Our agency sometimes uses the services of a larger, nearby agency, that offers a nursery for this purpose, giving mothers more time to think through a decision after the birth of their babies.)

Look around and you will often find other abuses occurring in states with short TPR signing limits—like egregious violations of the rights of biological fathers. Utah is a notorious example. If you can help it, just never, ever adopt a baby born in Utah. Perhaps that sounds extreme, but I stand by it.

7. Providing nothing but adoption services. An agency that also provides foster care, or single-parent/low-income assistance to women actually parenting their children is a good indication that women are encouraged to make their own decisions rather than pushed towards adoption. Many “social services” agencies do all of this work, not merely adoption.

8. Abortion versus Adoption rhetoric. When adoption is portrayed by the agency as merely an alternative to abortion and parenting the child is not explored in much detail, it erases a woman’s agency to choose to keep her baby. An over-emphasis on adoption as the non-abortion alternative to a crisis pregnancy also tends to indicate a moralism in an agency that is likely to extend to disapproval of single, young or poor mothers rather than a desire to help them keep their babies. Religious-based agencies (though not all of them–Lutheran Social Services being a notable exception) often have this rhetoric. You can be sure that the rhetoric alone is shaming to single women expecting babies, and shame is coercive.

For a thoughtful post on why adoption is not simply an alternative to abortion, see Racilous.

9. A high percentage of pre-birth matches that don’t “fall through” after birth. The rough percentage should be close to 50/50. When few mothers are choosing to keep their babies after birth, the agency is probably doing something coercive rather than just happening across women who turn out to place in higher than typical numbers. That might sound hard–who wants to go through the disappointment of a missed chance to adopt? But it is realistic.

10. An overall “babies-for-parents” rather than “families-for-babies” attitude in the agency. If you feel like a customer, if the adoptions an agency is making feel like orders fulfilled, if you are not challenged to think about the possibility of accepting a harder-to-place child rather than the perfectly healthy same-race newborn you might have produced biologically, the agency might be emphasizing adoptive parents to the detriment of expectant mothers and their children.

I also tell friends who ask to look at the guidelines for adoptive parents. If they have too many restrictions (income, marital status, age, current number of children, years married, sexual orientation, etc.) it could be a red flag. Willingness to work with any qualified (passed a home study) prospective parent shows that they are most concerned about finding parents for babies who need them and less about wooing the perfect, monied customer with a Leave it to Beaver profile that can impress expectant moms (or worse, shame them about their own deficiencies) into placing their babies for adoption.

Wait, Make that Eleven

This is a tough one, but in general, encouraging prospective adoptive parents to meet a baby before the mother has signed her final TPR can be a problem. I know adoptive parents who were present for the birth of their child. I know first mothers who wanted the adoptive parents present. Often, people are very happy with this arrangement. Especially in hindsight, when things have gone well, it can be a beautiful memory.

But things don’t always “go well.” For this reason, an agency should not encourage it. Having adoptive parents at the birth or hospital after birth can create a serious difficulty for a mother who has decided she wants to keep her baby. And of course, it can be gut-wrenching to watch the birth and then find out the baby won’t be yours after all. If possible, a pregnant woman should have her “own” support for her birth experience, rather than the adoptive family–or at least in addition to it.

For just about every red flag on this list and a few extras, see my write-up of that awful TLC show.

The longer I live adoption, the more important these ethics become. I am grateful that we were able to find just about as ethical an agency as I have ever found–though they are far from perfect–and that the individual circumstances of our adoptions fulfill my ethical standards. But it has taken years to learn just what those standards are, because the problems in adoption are not well known by people outside of it. Adoption is too often assumed to be an uncomplicatedly good thing. It is far from this.

Please add your own red flags, anecdotes, or links in the comments and let’s keep spreading the word.

 

Update May 2013: For those who are concerned about the possibility of corruption in International adoption, there is a wonderful post here, that gives some bullet points to consider when choosing an agency/country/program. It’s part of a series considering the importance of reform and ethics in international adoption–especially on the part of people who are motivated by religious beliefs to help “orphans”.