On Events at the Southern Border

My God, I cannot bear to listen to the national conversation these past few weeks; specifically, the hue and cry over the kids in detention at our southern border. All this wailing and moaning about “families being torn apart” and “breastfeeding babies ripped from their mothers’ arms.” I watch all the concerned citizens sharing these stories like they’ve discovered something unprecedented, something new…and my stomach starts to seize.

It’s not that I don’t find what’s happening down there both perverse and outrageous. It is.

No, my reaction is against the hypocrisy of those who, while weeping now, have enabled, endorsed and even celebrated breaking up families for years.

I want to grab these pontificators by the lapels, get right up in their faces and scream that the same despicable thing happens every single day in the world of adoption. I congratulate them for caring what happens at the border, but need to know why they don’t spare a thought for the families being torn apart within our borders (via domestic adoption) and outside our borders (international adoption).

But I don’t scream. I am a rational adult. I moderate my tone. I try to enter the conversation carefully, suggesting oh-so-mildly that family separation is never good, that the problem is even bigger than they see, and that we should care about all separations, wherever and whenever they happen. Inevitably, though, I am dismissed with a crisp “Go away. We aren’t talking about that right now.”

“That,” meaning family separation by adoption. See, their compassion just doesn’t extend that far. The current vogue for caring has its limits.

Well, I guess I’m not surprised. After 20 years as a birth mother in a world that despises birth mothers, I am used to being dismissed, feared, even hated. In our society, there is no bigger taboo than giving up a child, and maybe the taboo is justified: Humans fear being alone, and we’re absolutely terrified to think that family bonds can be so easily broken. No one wants to face how tenuous our relationships are, how quickly such ties can be severed.

So people draw distinctions. They can agree that it’s horrible for mothers and babies to be apart—unless they suspect that the mother didn’t want her child. And with adoption, most people desperately need to believe that we are monsters who didn’t want our children.* Because how else could such a horrible thing happen? Separation is so abhorrent, so tragic; there simply has to be something wrong with the mother. She has to be a heartless abandoner. She HAS to be at blame.

But having lived in the world of adoption for so long now, I find that’s almost never the case. We did want our children. I know I did. My baby was also (cue the tired phrase) “ripped from my arms.” Not because I was seeking asylum in the US, but because I was gullible, and I got sucked into a maw. Not by force, but by manipulation. You see, there is a very large cadre of people who want to procure a baby, and they have the money to make it happen. And if there is one thing we know about America, it’s that where there’s demand, some enterprising capitalist will do anything he can to provide the supply.

In this case, the provider is the multi-billion dollar US adoption industry. With so many orders to fill, and long lines of impatiently waiting customers, this industry has to seek out its suppliers. But there’s a problem: these days, fewer and fewer women would ever consider entrusting their child to others. Abortion and the now-revealed horrors of closed adoption have put a serious crimp in the supply chain. So the industry dangles the idea of open adoption, a promise to preserve family ties through continued contact. Problem is, that promise is often broken and is legally unenforceable in most states.

And yet I fell for it: pregnant, supporting myself, but emotionally alone and with distant, unsupportive family. The adoption industry took one look at me and marked me out as a target: a smart, successful white woman with good genes and the twin vulnerabilities of being unsure and unmarried. (I don’t add the word “white” here for nothing – the adoption industry is fraught with racism and “healthy white infants” or HWIs are in much hotter demand than children of color.)  As a stable adult, there was no reason I couldn’t have raised my baby, but they certainly weren’t going to tell me that.

Instead, they pounced. They pressured and cajoled me to give him up. They made me feel sorry for all those hopeful, waiting, “desparate” parents, convincing me to put those couples’ needs above my son’s and my own. They fed me bullshit about noble sacrifices. They gave me no legal representation, no post-birth pause for reflection, no chance to challenge or reconsider. This separation was going to happen. Come hell or high water, they were getting my baby, and then they were going to erase me from his life. The laws, all firmly on their side, made sure of that.

I’ll never forget how my son cried as they wheeled him from my hospital room. It wasn’t a normal baby cry; it was bigger and more awful than that. He knew, and I knew, that what was going down was wrong.

On some level, I wonder if our society suspects it too. They are waking up to it at the border, but they can’t yet look at the wrenching scenes unfolding in hospital rooms all over our country each and every day. Will they ever?

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There’s another thing that gets me just now – all the concern over the breastfeeding. It’s as though people think separation might be acceptable, but not in the middle of a meal. “Can you believe they did it while she was breastfeeding?” Newsflash, anxious Twitterers: I was a breastfeeding mother, but no one gave a shit that my baby was ripped from me; in fact, they cheerfully and emphatically did the ripping. I leaked milk for days after he was gone. They told me to ignore it, to wrap my breasts in cabbage leaves and ace bandages. Though the milk eventually stopped, the tears did not. It’s 20 years later and I still haven’t stopped crying over the loss of him, and all the secondary and tertiary losses that came along with this stupid, unnecessary separation.

So yeah, I can’t stand watching the world suddenly begin caring about something that’s gutted me and so many others for years now. I can’t stand that their goodwill doesn’t extend to people like me. And I cannot bear how the narrative keeps escalating. Now we’re all clutching pearls over the entrance of Christianity into the story: “I can’t believe they are using THE BIBLE to justify taking babies from their mothers!”

Please. Social conservatives have been using the Bible to that end since the first one was printed. Ask the Catholic Church, number one operator of US adoption agencies and the perpetrator of horrors against unwed mothers and their babies in Ireland and many other countries as well.  But Protestants and evangelicals do it too. Crisis pregnancy centers, Christian adoption agencies, shady facilitators all push the narrative that wayward sluts can find redemption by giving their babies to “deserving” couples. That adoption is a noble sacrifice. That your baby is intended to be a gift for others. That Jesus would want you to surrender. Read The Child Catchers, Kathryn Joyce’s landmark work on the Christian adoption movement, and you will see that the Bible has always been enlisted in the push to bust up families and redistribute children to those they deem most worthy.

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So, now the whole country has caught on. Now we all think that ripping families apart is bad. Great. If you truly want to care, take the next step and ask yourself a few probing questions. Let’s see how woke you really are.

  • Have you ever crowd-funded an adoption? Did you ask yourself why you were giving money for someone to procure another person’s child? Did you stop to think if that same amount, given to a different person, might help a family stay together?
  • Have you ever attended a party to congratulate the new adopters and basked in the warm glow of their new family? While you were cooing over the baby, did you ever stop to consider where the child actually came from? Did you wonder who wasn’t invited to the party? Did you ever think that there might be a mother on the other side of it all, leaking milk and crying for her lost child?
  • Do you assume that the mother willingly placed her child? Did you judge her and presume she must have done something wrong in order to make the child available for adoption? Or do you acknowledge that there might be a profit-driven system at work here, one that involves marketing, deception, coercion, and plenty of bad laws?
  • Are you aware that we reenact scenes from The Handmaid’s Tale in delivery rooms across the country? That adopters-to-be stand by the head of the mother giving birth, sometimes holding her hands and pretending that they are the ones doing the pushing?
  • Have you ever wondered why we give people three days to back out of a decision to sign mortgage papers, but in many states, offer no chance to reconsider the wrenching, life-changing act of surrender? Or why we must prove that we’re of sound mind and health when signing financial deals, but deem it OK to enter hospital rooms and shove adoption papers at women who are possibly medicated and have just given birth?
  • Do you know that adoption law is state law, and very different from one state to another? Did you consider that your knowledge of “how it all works” may be limited or just plain wrong? Do you realize that this variation in laws has caused some states to become unethical “adoption mills” where families can more easily be torn apart, and that women are often trafficked to such states to coerce them to surrender?
  • Do you know or care about the falsification of birth certificates? Do you know how glibly we lie on paper, attesting that the adoptive father actually contributed the sperm and the adoptive mother did the labor and delivery? Does that kind of magical thinking happen to remind you of The Handmaid’s Tale?
  • Are you aware that in most states, we take away the human rights of adult adoptees by sealing away their original, unfalsified birth certificates? That we make adopted people into an inferior social class and treat them like permanent infants by never giving them access to their history?
  • Have you ever allowed adoptive parents to pretend as if they are the ONLY parents? Have you made disparaging comments about birth families? Do you acknowledge the whole complex and messy truth behind an adoption, or do you view it as a simplistic win-win situation? Do you think adoption is the opposite of abortion?
  • Do you believe that babies are blank slates, who can be passed from home to home like unwitting little footballs? That the pain of infertility can be cured by replacement? That mothers and fathers can ever forget the children they lose? Or do you think it’s all a bit more complex than that?
  • Do you only click on the heartwarming stories, or are you willing to look at the dark side? Can you face things like the cultural genocide by adoption that’s detailed in the podcast Finding Cleo, or the abuse and murder that happened in the Hart family? Do you listen to the voices of those who have lived on the two powerless sides of the adoption triangle?
  • If a mother does need to be separated from her baby for some reason, have you wondered why that child can’t stay with the father, or extended family? Do you wonder why we need to bring complete strangers into the situation? Why hefty fees are charged for the adoption? And why adopting parents feel so perfectly entitled to someone else’s child?

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People are saying that what’s happening at our Southern border is un-American. I get what they mean, but as a survivor of adoption I believe it’s actually very American. Americans have a zeal for busting up families. We’re good at it. We like it. We are a money-driven and consumerist society. We are all about upward mobility, and we’ll do any sort of social engineering we have to, as long as we can make a buck on it.

So if you’re going to decry what’s happening at the southern border, at least look it squarely in the eye. Look at ALL of it. Open your eyes all the way, not halfway–and please, please begin to acknowledge the magnitude of the disease.

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“It is the child welfare establishment that has provided the picture of ‘birthmothers’ as indifferent – as mothers who abandon their children with a wish to remain forever hidden from them. They know this is seldom true, but it helps to facilitate their work for the public to believe this. The ‘birthmother’ must be different, an aberration; for if it were true that she had the same degree of love for her child as all other mothers, the good of adoption would be overwhelmed by the tragedy of it…neither society nor the mother who holds the child in her arms wants to confront the agony of the mother from whose arms that same child was taken.”
– From a speech by Margaret McDonald Lawrence to the American Adoption Congress in Washington, DC, May 1979