Many moons ago, an online author named Tricia Smith Vaughan posted this article about adoption.
It offended large sections of the adoption blogging community to the point of spluttering incoherence – I’m tellin’ ya, the Great Parking Spot Wars paled into insignificance beside this one. So, of course, I had to comment. I hadn’t actually intended to be quite this late to the party, but this was not a simple post to write. Under the crust of objectionable views, high-handed tone, and implied homophobia, there lurked some crucial points on which I do actually agree with Tricia. And, as I tried to write a post that had originally been intended to be a few pithy comments pointing out her errors, I faced the fact that the areas on which we agreed were too important to be ignored.
Tricia Smith Vaughan is against adoption. She is against adoption in much the same way that the Pope is against condoms or Germaine Greer is against the patriarchy – with passion, with rhetoric, and with a conviction that brooks any chance of considering the feelings of the opposition. This is, in large part, for a poignant personal reason – she is herself the daughter of a woman who was pressured into giving her up for closed adoption, back in the 60s. It’s a soul-tearing story, and one of the harshest things about it is the realisation of just how many other stories like it there are. As Tricia highlights, there are frightening numbers of women out there who yielded to pressure from adoption agencies or society’s mores and relinquished babies that, given some support or even just the space to decide for themselves, they could have kept.
As important as it is for us to be aware of these abuses, I’m not sure discussing stories and statistics from several decades back was the best way to highlight them. There is too much of a temptation to dismiss such things as being examples of how terrible adoption used to be – but, hey, aren’t we lucky that it’s so much better now? I, too, would love to believe that no-one in these enlightened days would ever pressure a woman facing such an important decision. Unfortunately,that would be a naive denial of the evidence.
What irked me somewhat about the picture Tricia painted of helpless birthmothers exploited by the Evil Adoption Industry is not so much that I disagreed with it, but that it was far too simplistic. There was no acknowledgement of any other face of adoption. Quite apart from the fact that this doesn’t allow for the equally thorny yet distinctly different ethical issues raised by other facets of adoption such as international adoption or adoption from foster care, it also doesn’t acknowledge the existence of women who do decide for themselves, independently and unpressured, to place babies for adoption. There is something a little too patronising in this sweeping categorisation of birthmother-as-victim – I wasn’t sure that it was ultimately much less demeaning than the more familiar birthmother-as-villain or birthmother-as-vessel stereotypes.
However, Tricia is concerned with the treatment of first mothers not just prior to the adoption, but also afterwards. Society’s traditional view has been that a mother who has relinquished her baby for adoption stops being a mother. The damage that this belief does to both mothers and children is now much more widely recognised, but not nearly widely enough, and Tricia is quite right to highlight this. But her concerns are not just with the direct effects on the mothers and children whose most fundamental bond has been denied by society, but with the wider implications of believing that parenthood is revocable. “Today’s mother may become tomorrow’s non-mother. And who decides?” she asks rhetorically.
Tricia Smith Vaughan does, it would appear. Tricia, like so many would-be social reformers, falls into the trap of believing that the behaviour she denounces in others is quite acceptable for her. Tricia is more ready than any social worker or adoption agency to reclassify certain mothers as non-mothers. At least the label ‘birthmother’ allows a woman a qualified degree of motherhood: Tricia Smith Vaughan does not believe we should allow adoptive mothers even that much. Anyone not sharing that crucial genetic link with their child should, she believes, be promptly stripped of all claims to parenthood and demoted to the status of ‘legal guardian‘.
This, of course, is why she incensed adoptive mothers so. Tricia, for her part, seems to have taken the outrage as proof of the rightness of her cause. After all, why on earth would someone object to being told that they’re not really a mother to their much-loved child? Clearly evidence of a guilty conscience, thinks Tricia.
Amidst all the furore, what seems to have gone largely unremarked upon is the premise behind Tricia’s beliefs – her ‘Highlander‘ philosophy of parenting. According to Tricia, there can be only one mother and only one father in a child’s life. End of story. It’s a view that, by its very nature, automatically sets birthmothers and adoptive mothers in competition with each other, such that the debate then becomes over who wins and who loses in the fight for the exclusive, and elusive, title. It’s easy to see how, backed into an either-or choice by this belief, an adoptee might reject years of loving upbringing in favour of a few strands of matching DNA. After all, most of us value the things we feel we missed out on more highly than the things we had the luxury of being able to take for granted.
And that assumption of Tricia’s is what doesn’t seem to have been disputed. Why should we believe that a child can have only one mother and one father? Why does that make any more sense than believing that a mother can have only one child? Given that we easily accept that children can love two parents as much as one and that, all else being equal, they are better off for having the chance to do so, why do we have so much difficulty accepting that they might have room in their hearts and their lives for more than that? Why do we insist on thinking about the parent-child bond as though we were three-year-olds who can’t believe that Mummy could love a new baby yet still keep loving the old one as well? Why do we act as though a child’s love were a limited resource that we need to hoard?
And this is the deepest, most fundamental reason why I disagreed with Tricia’s article. The reason I do not agree with her that ‘adoptive mother’ is an oxymoron is not because I believe that adoptive parents replace first parents, but because I believe they add to them. I believe that an adopted child does have more than one mother and more than one father, and that it is in the child’s best interests if we can accept that and learn to celebrate it instead of denying it. And I find it a terrible shame that Tricia’s view on this topic is so narrow, not to mention phrased so arrogantly, that she offended people too much to make herself heard even on those points where she had something to say worth hearing.