Friday, June 28, 2013

Of blood and its discontents:

This was the week of the Voting Rights Act decision by the Supreme Court (awful) and the gay marriage decisions (mostly good); it was also the week of the Adoptive Parents v. Baby Girl case, otherwise referred to as the Baby Veronica case. This case pitted the adoptive parents of a child (the case has been going almost as long as Jarndyce at this point) against her birth father. He gained custody of her a couple of years into her life because the American Indian Child Welfare Act mandates that Indian children remain with Indian parents. (More on the history and the case here and here. Google will open more sites, too.) While the Act makes sense, the case itself seemed a nightmare that King Solomon himself could not resolve, unless perhaps he were to decide that instead of cutting the baby in half, the baby ought to be shared among her four parents. Better have the Court decide this than I. But on facebook, friends put up status lines that with great simplicity rooted for the birth father and dismissed the adoptive parents. The case was termed utterly crucial for native rights; the birth father's actions were excused (at worst) or extolled (at best). Some sources were presented as dubious (NPR, for example) and others as true (tribal sources). The outcome of the case in favor of the birth father was, in other words, deemed absolutely necessary. The status of status lines is always dubious, of course, because they tend not to argue but to state. They are messages to friends, not provocations to complexity and debate. They are ideological statements of purpose and belief, not (usually) admissions of confusion or inability to decide.

Even given this fact, along with the way in which these friends were clearly positioning themselves as supporters of native rights in ways that more resembled flags than actions, the blurts of opinions hurt. When I wrote in a time or two or three to say simply that there was clearly a lot of suffering to go around in the case, someone would inevitably click the "like" button and move on to explain why the case had to be decided against the adoptive parents. My emotions were getting in the way, it seemed, and if I could only clear my adoptive mother eyes, I could see that the law was just and must be enforced in all cases. Since the decision came down, one that splits the difference between this case and the principle of the Act more generally--a decision that strikes me as the best possible of many bad options--more opinions have been spilled on the pages of facebook and the internet. But also by one of Slate's resident opiners, Marcia Zug, went so far as to generalize beyond the boundaries of what is an equation of tribe and culture (babies stay with the tribe so that the culture does not die) to what strikes me as a symptom of our culture's deep distrust of adoption. She argues for biology, pure and simple:

--This disagreement over the importance of biology is at the heart of the Baby Girl case and it is why this case should matter to more than just Indian families and their advocates. For the majority, biology is insignificant, but as Scalia notes, “it has been the constant practice of common law to respect the entitlement of those who bring a child into the world to raise that child.” More importantly, this recognition of parental rights is not arbitrary. It is a recognition that biology matters. As Justice Sotomayor wrote, “the biological bond between a parent and child is meaningful.” I have no doubt that the Capobiancos also have a deeply meaningful bond with Veronica, and I cannot imagine their pain since losing her last year. But Dusten Brown is Veronica’s biological father, he loves her and wants to raise her. This should matter."

Leave aside the odd bed fellow agreement between Scalia and Sotomayor, and here you see an expression of the belief that biology does not just matter, but that it trumps all other notions of family. Children should always be placed with birth family (unless they are being abused), someone else opined on the Donaldson Adoption facebook page. And you know, I might have agreed with that, or not cared about it, were I not a mother by adoption.

Some things happened:

: My husband and I adopted our son at 12 months. Twice when I was at the cash register of the local supermarket, I looked at my Cambodian son in his stroller and saw the face of my father. This was not his face from old photographs of his childhood, but his face as I last knew him. A white man with wrinkled face and white hair.

: A few months ago, we traveled to our son's birth village in Takeo Province. I saw in his face in that of one of his Cambodian cousins. I was happily, eerily, astonished. This is to say--among many things--that when we identify physical likeness, we automatically extrapolate to other forms of relation. "He looks like you!" is one of the most common forms of praise for parents of children who resemble them, sometimes even those who not. No one needs to add "and this is a good thing," because no one needs to. That we do not say this to someone whose father abused her ("wow, you look so much alike!') or to someone whose father killed his mother ("how similar are your smiles!") also goes without saying. To be fair, my mother would tell me I was like her mother only when I was being difficult. She had a real quarrel with genetics as hers involved alcoholism and chaos.

:"Are your kids related to each other?" one baseball mom asked me; I dislike this question, because I know what she's asking, but refuse to answer it in those terms. "Because they look so much alike!" Well, not only do my children not look alike, but they are not related by birth. The fact that they are members of a family, however, tends to make people think they look alike.

 :A woman at a playground years ago asked me if my son were adopted. She wanted to know because she had assumed that she could never love an adopted child as much as she could love a child she bore herself.

: "Where do they come from?" "Do you know their families?" "Were his parents tall?" "Is she a real orphan?" "Why didn't you adopt an American child?" "Does he remember his language?" To which I explain that height also correlates to diet, that a one-year old or three-year old learns a new language and forgets the old, that it's none of your business what the details were of our adoptions (or that it would take months to tell the stories with their meandering and doubt and hope and disappointment and frustration). To which I explain that we are family. 

When you are an adoptive parent, you become a teacher. Or, when you are a teacher, you play that role in the parts of your life that don't match the mainstream. But first you are your own teacher. I can remember wondering how to parcel out the feelings you might have toward children who are fully yours biologically, or related biologically to your partner but not to you, or conceived in-vitro, were only 1/2 or 1/4 of your blood, or or or. It seemed such a puzzle, how feelings might follow biology, how you might have different feelings toward children based on whether or not they looked like you, or like your partner, or like someone else entirely. Such speculations turned meditative hours into exercises in percentages, blood quantum and made me miserable because I'm not good at math. To say nothing of the fact that hypotheticals can't be resolved on their own hypothetical terms.

And then came a boy and a girl, he at one and she at three. Those hours of parsing and measuring and wondering now seem comical in retrospect, because it has mattered not a whit. When I saw my father's aged face in my son's one year old visage I saw a likeness not recognized by those who would base family solely on blood ties. Someone suggested that this palimpsest meant I had accepted my son. Maybe so. He has my father's middle name, Frederick. He also has my father's gentleness and dry wit. My daughter resembles my mother in her utter lack of a sense of direction--if she turns left, know to turn right--and in her glinting eyed sarcasm. Are these markers of relation, happy coincidences, or figments of my imagination? As Nancy Pelosi said of Michelle Bachmann's opinion of the gay rights decision this week, "Who cares?" And if my children decide some day to find out more, it's their business, not yours.

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