The Weakest Reed

He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.

Adoption, privilege and pain

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This is an excerpt from an essay I wrote a few weeks ago applying for a fellowship to visit Zambia and write about mother to child AIDS transmission. I’m sharing it here because it speaks a bit to the issues rising up in the adoption world these last couple of years. Jen Hatmaker blogged about them yesterday here quite eloquently.

To be the vessel for new life is a spectacular occurrence. The alternating and sometimes simultaneous experiences of ethereal excitement and weighty responsibility can pull on a woman, splitting and stretching her, the spiritual mirroring the physical preparation for the birth that is to come. My first experience getting ready for motherhood was all about trying to harness every ounce of control I could to apply it towards the future health and well-being of my child.  I was armed with an MPH and a lifecourse perspective on public health, affording me the not-always-so-helpful knowledge that every single thing I did or put on or in or allowed to be around me could affect my future child’s well-being and general success as a human being. So I……Well basically, I worried.  A lot. I was fiercely protective, monitoring every breath, every bite, every personal care product I allowed to enter into a certain radius of my person. But the fact is, though this was a draining experience, it was also one I was allowed because I live in an environment of choices and privilege. And that’s the environment into which my first daughter was born.

My second experience preparing for motherhood couldn’t have been more different. I had absolutely no control over what my child was exposed to before she entered my arms. We adopted our second daughter from E. Africa with absolutely no knowledge about her medical or family history. As an infant somewhere between approximately five months and a year old, she had been found on the street and multiple investigations had turned up no leads about her first family or her life before us.  Our knowledge of her health history begins when she came into the care of the babies home in fragile condition and with multiple health issues. Though we don’t know the exact circumstances surrounding my second daughter’s entry into this world, we are almost certain she was not born into an environment with nearly as many choices or privileges.

Every single adoptive family is formed through loss. My daughter lost her first family. We don’t know if they relinquished care of her willingly or felt compelled by tragic circumstances.  We don’t know what lack of privileges or choices, what kind of death, disease, neglect or abuse, environmental toxins, inadequate nutrition, lack of medical attention, chemical dependency, mental health issues, relational difficulties or despair might have been part of the environment in which her first mother carried her and birthed her. But whatever the circumstances that led to that moment of abandonment on that city street, we know that it must have been a heartwrenching event likely motivated by desperation. And as a family whose branches of our family tree are now grafted together with the first family of our daughter, we will always grieve that moment and honor it as the story of another human being, someone without the same choices and privileges with which I was graced, doing the best she could within the circumstances of her life.

I am haunted by that story of which I know so little; that story that is now an integral part of our identity as a family. And I am ever aware that the burden of loss borne by our daughter and her first family have resulted in our being given the choice and privilege of raising her as our daughter. Someone else’s scarcity of privileges and choices increased mine. It is a sobering fact.

When Jen Hatmaker discusses the  issue of ethical concerns in adoption, she does a great job of highlighting the fact that adoption is big business. It is an institution that is already intertwined with the tragedy and injustices I discussed in my essay above, but it is an institution that is also being bolstered by corruption. Corruption has become the ugly, insidious, weedy vine that seems to wind its way up and all throughout the walls of this institution, making it difficult to know  how tall the walls of that institution could have been built and how long they could even stand if that weed were killed dead. It’s a weed that thrives in darkness, unfurling its tendrils and stretching into every place it can take hold when it is allowed to grow unchecked by the light of truth. But we know we have to come against that corruption mightily, shining brightly the light of truth, even pulling up the roots that are entrenched deeply and pervasively in the soil. But what is difficult to reconcile is that when that happens, when we decimate that weed, we’re going to see some things crumble, perhaps even some things about the institution of adoption that are otherwise good.

If I’m being totally honest, to be a relatively new adoptive parent, being a family formed by adoption in the last 5 years, seeing this weed exposed and cut down is something that comes with very mixed feelings. I am sickened and disgusted by the stories we’ve heard coming out of the adoption world of birth families being coerced, incentivized, manipulated and worse in order to supply the adoption pipeline. I am enraged that children have been bought and sold because “supply” was lower than “demand.” And this is where things get really painful to admit: I have felt fear, guilt and shame as each story that came to light started to threaten that weedy vine. I imagined the walls that supported our own story start to look dangerously crumbly. The possibility that me and my family have contributed in any way whatsoever to an institution infiltrated by such evils is one that casts long, dark shadows on my feelings about adoption and my own adoptive motherhood. It is a devastating possibly and one that leaves me wanting to scramble desperately to find ways to redeem any wrongs of which we might have been a part. It is so very scary.

Every parent holds deep fears of what would happen if they lost their child. But for an adoptive parent, these fears are based on the reality that we hold onto our children through the grace of other governments, governments that aren’t always stable. Our children are “ours” because of laws and policies that could change at any time. Could our family change just as easily? Those fears feel very close to the surface as awareness is raised about the complexities of adoption ethics. To those who are not adoptive parents this might sound ridiculous, but I can barely breathe sometimes wondering if things could change enough that my daughter might somehow be taken away or that the stability and integrity of our family unit might somehow be threatened.

So when I think about this revolution in adoption awareness, I’m pulled in seemingly opposite directions: One in which I am fiercely protective of my family and the way it was formed and the other in which I feel compelled to raise the banner for other mothers who don’t have the privileges I have. I want to raise my voice within the sisterhood of mothers to call for justice and for compassion so that all moms who desire can be empowered to hold their children as close as I want to hold mine.

What I want to hope is that this isn’t a situation in which the pull is in opposite directions. I want to believe that I can hold my children tight and be proud of our story and our identity as a family and ALSO work against corruption in adoption and on behalf of other mothers. And maybe there is a place where these two seemingly opposite instincts can stand together.

When I feel myself sink into fear and feel like staying in the darkness seems somehow safer, I will ask myself what I believe about the Light.

I believe that truth and light go hand-in-hand and that fear and darkness are similarly entwined. And I believe that He who is light and in whom there is no darkness at all is at work in this. Therefore, I will not be afraid of the light, I will welcome it. I will trust that light ultimately will bring redemption and life to birth families, to adoptees, to adoption and adoptive families, not darkness and destruction.

But I will also work against the shame that is lurking around families like mine who have adopted and that threatens to be part of the environment in which my daughter is raised. Yes, we know that our family story is laced with tragedy. And we would never choose for our family’s story to have been written on the same pages as a larger adoption narrative in which corruption and injustice have been main characters. But if we shrink back, then we are not in the light.  And shame is a creature of the darkness.  So I am only feeding it if I choose to live there, too. Could it be that welcoming the light of truth will not only kill the weed of corruption but ultimately strangle shame as well?

I don’t understand why this thing has been allowed to so powerfully influence something that  is so close to God’s heart.  I know he cares deeply about adoption, about families, about the poor, about widows, about orphans and yet these are the victims of this ugly weed.  But I do know that I believe in the God of Joseph about whom it can be said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive…” In this story, I don’t know who is the “you.” Is it willfully ignorant adoptive parents or corrupt officials or any who, purposely or not,  perpetuate poverty or oppression or broken families?  There is plenty of evil in the world, in every individual and in every system we build. It’s hard to distinguish who is the enemy in this story.  But what is clear is who the good is. And I will stand in Him and trust that life will be brought out of this.  

I have so much more rushing through my brain and my heart today as I think about these things. But I’ve already spoken more words than I “should” in a blogpost, so please forgive me. I haven’t spoken them perfectly and they are coming out of a place of rawness today, so hopefully there will be grace from you, dear reader, as my thoughts and feelings evolve through this.

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