A recent email I received was pretty typical – I won’t quote it here because the person meant well, but the sum up was this – they laud my decision to adopt, argue that I should have done it earlier, and point out that adoption is the solution to the population crisis. People who want children should just adopt, rather than giving birth. In the spirit of my discussion of the new suggestion that the world will hit 10 billion, I thought this was a good subject to take up.
Now as usual, I’m not going to recite my discussion of why I have four biological kids – and I’m not going to argue that four biological kids is unsustainable – of course it is, as are a number of things I’ve done in my time. If you want to see what I’ve said about this in the past you can check out ye olde blogge under “population” or read the chapter I wrote in _Depletion and Abundance_ on this subject, for starters. Google my name and “population” and you’ll find a lot of material, some of it personal some of it more general. I’m not going to bother making a case for me having four biological children – there isn’t one – on the other hand, they are here and I’m not debating it, either.
What is obviously true is that I’m pro-adoption – and not just in principle – we’re about to put our family where our mouth is and take foster children with the longer-term goal of adoption. We are hoping to take a larger sibling group, as those are extremely hard to place. The strongest thing driving me in that direction is both experience – my own mothers were foster parents to one large sibling group of four – and also my own mental vision of if, (G-d forbid) my own children were to come into care, if somehow my own support network failed, what would happen to them. I can see it in my mind – people willing to take charismatic five year old Asher, and sweet Isaiah. Maybe, if we were really lucky someone would take bright, wordy Simon – or maybe not, three are hard. No one would want my sweet, cuddly, funny autistic eldest – and while losing his parents would be huge, the loss of his siblings, his friends, his protectors would destroy him. I can see it in my head, I can understand why someone would say no to a severely autistic, non-toilet trained 11 year old, can see how he could be shifted into residential care and away from everything he loves and is familiar with. I can see it – and I know that the one thing I can do is keep some small number of children together.
My husband and I are perhaps unusual in that we have always wanted to adopt – we originally agreed that if there were any fertility difficulties at all, we would not enter into treatment, but immediately pursue adoption. We were fortunate in that both of us had parents who were foster parents at some point in our childhood, and a good deal of extended family and family friends who made families by adoption – it was familiar to us.
In fact, we had the opposite of fertility difficulties – I get pregnant whenever my husband looks at me, including on multiple forms of birth control – so our adoption plans were put off until we finally found a combination of permanent methods that actually worked (note the word “combination” – it is not there by accident .)
That said, however, I don’t see adoption as a clear solution to the population problem, for a number of reasons. That doesn’t make adoption a bad option, it just means that it is more complicated than that – that we cannot use the argument that “you should just adopt” as a solution to our environmental troubles.
The first reason is that as far as I can tell (and the statistics on this are hard to find) – giving up children for adoption does not in fact reduce the number of overall children that birthmothers have. That is, while adoption does give children homes and lives and futures that they wouldn’t have had, it isn’t a strategy for population reduction, because people who give up children go on to have more children, or previously have had more children.
The statistics on this are not very clear, and involve collecting data on a lot of categories of birthmothers. In the global south, often very limited demographic data is even available on the birthmothers. In the US, there have been and are still ongoing major demographic shifts in birthmothers – for example, much of the data about whether teenage mothers who choose adoption go on to have more children later on comes from a period where being young and single was a strong handicap. As more young teenage mothers keep their children, the demographics have shifted and now most mothers giving up children for adoption are over 18 and single and far less well studied than adoptive child or teenage mother populations.
“In contrast to earlier findings, it was found that younger women-that is, those under age 21-were more likely to keep than surrender their children.”
In addition, she also found the birthmother choosing adoption was more likely to be living away from home and was less likely to receive assistance from family and friends. The young mother who chose parenting was more likely to have parents who were divorced or separated. Grow hypothesized that the women who had lived in a one-parent household were less likely to consider single parenthood in a negative light and more likely to consider parenting their child.
There are two categories of birthparent in the US – those who voluntarily place infants for adoption (or who occasionally make voluntary placements of older children), and those who involuntarily lose custody of their children. In the first category, most mothers are young, and 75% of all the children are their first – data suggests but does not completely confirm that most of them will go on to have at least two more children later in life. We do know most of them express desire to parent children later.(see: Rosalind J. Dworkin, et al., “Parenting or Placing: Decision Making by Pregnant Teens,” Youth & Society 25, no. 1 (September 1993): 75-92.) There are some studies that suggest this desire may be made more acute, rather than less, by giving up their children.
I have spoken mostly about birth mothers here, because in most cases modern infant adoption involves the mothers only – the fathers have been unsupportive or decline to be involved in the lives of their babies. There is a significant minority of cases in which birthfathers and mothers join together to give up babies for adoption, but this is comparatively rarer, because the impact of birthfathers is so huge – generally speaking, supportive fathering of any kind increases the likelihood dramatically that a woman will keep and parent her child – even if they are not partnered.
The second category of birthparent, both father and mother, in the US, are those that involuntarily lose their children. There is fairly clear evidence that families involved in the foster system tend to be larger than average. A large percentage of these parents are mentally ill, drug or alcohol addicted or disabled, all factors that make the use of birth control effectively less likely. Extreme poverty, homelessness and lack of medical care are other reasons for higher than average reproductive rates. Moreover, mothers who lose their children involuntarily often go on to have more children, in part because they want to parent children, even if they have difficulty.doing so. The average child in foster care does have several siblings.
Adoptions from within the US do not seem to make a difference in the overall US population – they certainly make a difference in the lives of children, but they are not a method of population reduction. We will come back to US vs. International Adoptions a bit further on, but let’s take a look at international birthmothers – almost nothing is known about birth fathers in these cases, with the exception of families destroyed by HIV in Africa.
The data on these varies a *lot* by country – there is no single overview study or research on the demographics of international birthmothers that I could find – and this makes sense, because birthmother circumstances vary a great deal. The scenarios and populations are very different – consider the population of Ethiopian adoptees, overwhelmingly orphans from the HIV crisis whose parents were supporting family but are now deceased vs. Eastern European adoptees from low TFR nations where children with disabilities and members of certain ethnic populations with living parents are the main category of children available vs. China where girls are overwhelmingly the largest available population. The differences are so large that it is hard to speak generally.
At the same time, a general picture does emerge.of international birthparents that seems to support the idea that adoption does not reduce overall population. Studies suggest that in contrast to most US adoptions, children placed for adoption often already have siblings and their mothers and fathers are unable to feed or care for them. In some cases they may undergo pressure from the state or private agencies to give up children, in other cases, such as in Africa, social support systems may be simply overwhelmed.
We know that in China, with its one-child policy, international adoption actually facilitates having *more* children than if the parents adhered to the policy – abandonment of a child permits a family to go on and try for another child, usually a son or a non-disabled child. In other countries, it is not clear whether parents who give their children up for adoption go on to have as many children as their peers, but there’s no evidence that they do not – and a parent who is unable to support or feed or care for a child is unlikely to have access to good medical care and birth control as well. Again, the data is extremely unclear, but it seems doubtful that adoption makes a significance in the US or global population – what it appears to do is mostly shift childbearing from one family to another – that is, birthmothers go on to have at least as many children as before, sometimes more, and then some children are shifted around into other families.
Moreover, in the case of international adoption, there are compelling reasons to believe that the environmental benefits of international adoption are actually negative (note, I am *not* saying that international adoption should not happen or is immoral, just that it isn’t environmentally beneficial – there are other moral arguments that apply here.) International adoption is environmentally consequential – it involves long plane flights, often several, as many nations require multiple visits before you can take a child home. Moreover, as all of us know population is never considered alone – numbers are multiplied by impact. Taking the poorest children in the world, who consume the least (often far too little for them to live very long) to affluent western homes is not a way to reduce overall environmental impact. Again, this is not an argument against removing children from terrible poverty and institutionalization, but it does not make a positive environmental difference – adoption actually increases the environmental impact of these children, and undermines any difference in the I=PAT equation. So adoption as it exists now does not seem to be a solution to any population problem.
Moreover, international adoption across large bodies of water doesn’t seem to be a resource that will extend into the deeper realms of energy depletion – airline travel is particularly vulnerable to shifts in oil supplies, because there is no alternative fuel for air travel. The high cost of international adoption (12-50K in most cases) is not offset by tax credits and is likely to be increasingly infeasible for many people. Over time, it may be likely that adoption is possible only from nations within easy travel distances.
But what about the adoptive parent end of this? Doesn’t this at least reduce the number of biological children that they would have? The answer is yes, but only slightly. Infertile and gay and lesbian couples are more than 10 times as likely to adopt as fertile straight couples – even when there were still fertility treatments available to them to try. And were adoption to be made a more widespread, accessible option for many people, it might well be the case that some parents would choose adoption over fertility treatments (or might not have access to as many energy intensive fertility treatments), or that more fertile couples might choose adoption instead of reproduction or for a second child, reducing the overall birthrate in developed nations
There are some problems with this vision as well – most first time parents prefer the proverbial healthy white infant, a population that has been shrinking for decades. Ever since we ended the draconian practice of sending pregnant teenagers off to have their babies taken away from them whether they wanted it or not, the population of newborns, particularly white newborns without medical issues has shrunk – it is already tiny, with waiting lists of many years for most private adoptions and extremely high costs. As single parenthood has become more common, most women who become pregnant choose to keep their children, or have an abortion, rather than go through pregnancy and give up their baby.
The overwhelming preference for very young children is understandable – but the majority of children available for adoption in the US (more than 550,000) are not infants or toddlers but older children with significant special needs – those special needs may include the full range of physical and mental disabilities, documented or undocumented, trauma, attachment disorders, being part of a larger sibling group or being a teenager or older child, past the cute stage and with plenty of baggage. This is not the vision of parenting that a vast majority of people who want children have. Even the infants and toddlers usually have special needs, although many of these are not evident at that age.
More than 85% of international adoptions and 90% of American adoptions involve children under 4. Of the millions of orphaned and abandoned children in the world, the UN reports that the average age is 9. There is already a dearth of younger, healthy, available children – it doesn’t mean there aren’t any, but the population of babies and very young children is not likely to increase for any good reason.
If adoption is to be seriously considered as a large scale way of reducing the number of biological children, we must be prepared to rethink our vision of “having a family.” How many families are comfortable taking on a sexually abused, epileptic 10 year old and her two siblings? A gay teenager? An AIDS orphan with stunted growth and PTSD? More than 20% of adopted children have serious special needs – and those numbers get higher as you get older. Some of the issues are very risky and hard to detect – pictures from an orphanage or a profile of a foster kid from a therapist who observed them for 2 hours total doesn’t necessarily tell you whether your child will ever be able to attach to you or whether they will be able to live independently or be permanently dependent.
Now disabilities and serious issues happen to both parents of biological and of non-biological children. My argument is not against taking older children or children with special needs (we plan to do both, again). It is that any dramatic expansion of adoption as a strategy to address population issues will involve a radical reconsideration of how we view parenting, and disability and family in a host of ways. And if there were to be many more adoptive families, we would also need a better support system for the disability and trauma issues that arise – and this is a tough sell in an era of declining social supports and economic instability.
In my own case, I can honestly say that our ability to take older kids with special needs is precisely the product of my earlier parenting experiences with my own children. I know wonderful, amazing people who have entered into parenting knowing and wanting to take kids will profound issues – they are wonderful. In my own case, however, I don’t think I could be willing to do what I am willing to do without experience – without knowing I can handle a severely disabled child, because I do it every day with Eli. My own fears and anxieties and vision of what parenting would/could/should would almost certainly have made *me* say “no” to Eli, were he offered to me as a foster placement – perhaps that is cowardice, but what I didn’t know about raising an autistic child would have left me afraid to choose it.
I find it hard to judge parents who also can’t choose something more difficult – because I think all of us have limits, and finding out how to create a family, rather than a hospital, is a challenge. Most of us, confronted with a child who is not what we expected, whether by birth or adoption, will rise to the occasion. Saying “yes, I can deal with sexual abuse, uncertain HIV status, three kids at a time, post-traumatic stress disorder, reactive attachment disorder, drug involvement, or any other option” before you’ve been a parent, however, is another thing.
I deeply admire the people I know who do it – and they do. My godmother, now deceased, adopted and raised 6 children, all adopted when older, all with severe special needs. All but one grew up to live independently. We played with her oldest, whose list of behaviors before adoption included fire-starting and other things that I’d have a tough time saying yes to – he’s a responsible adult now. I know and admire a lesbian couple who have taken two boys as their first foster placement – a 9 year old with serious emotional issues and a 2 year old with a seizure disorder, or the single Mom who adopted a daughter with serious neurological issues, or my aunt whose daughter came from an orphanage in Vietnam with an epilepsy diagnosis, and who has evolved a range of severe disabilities. I often wonder – could they have said yes knowing everything? Could I have? Will I be able to?
For most people who want a baby, what they want is partly the baby, and partly the sense of hope and possibility, the openness and the rich future. Any child given up for adoption has already experienced at least one major trauma and loss – that may or may not affect them signficantly down the line, but what we know about adoption is that that loss is not invisible. Older children often have experienced many of those losses and traumas – while it is in some measure an illusion that even birth children have infinite possibilities, that is even clearer with adoptive children. And adoptive parents need parents who are prepared to acknowledge and deal with the fact that they may be a signifier and a site of hope for their families, but they have already experienced trauma and loss that are real to them. We know from previous generations of adoptees that pretending the birth family never existed, pretending the loss of first parents didn’t hurt is a bad idea – but not everyone who wants a child is fully prepared to shift their expectations.
Even those who take the toughest kids must, in the end, pick and choose – in her wonderful, honest book _Another Place at the Table_ my friend Kathy Harrison, foster parent to hundreds, adoptive parent of 8, talks about the children she couldn’t take or keep – the medically fragile infant that was just too much for her, the children whose intense needs just didn’t fit into her family or allow everyone to be safe.
In the equally wonderful recent _No Biking in the House Without a Helmet_, Melissa Fay Greene meditates on wanting to be a family, not a hospital or an institution – on trying to find a child capable of attachment in a 10 minute video taken in an orphanage, on her fears that adopting two older, HIV orphaned siblings from Ethiopia (their 8th and 9th children) have pushed them past the point of being a family and into “institutional.” Ultimately her family reconstitutes itself – but not without difficulty. Do read both books.
Maybe I could have done it – maybe I could have said yes to a child, knowing they might not live independently, knowing my life would have been about doctors appointments and surgeries and therapists and behavioral crises. Heck, I gave birth and got a son with some of those issues. But the “yes” that begins from is hard for me to imagine – for me, the kind of adoption I can do now would not have been what I could have done had we been infertile – so I can grasp and identify with the shifts that are buried underneath the idea that “people who want children should just adopt.”
Saying “you should just adopt” as something other than a dismissive way of discussing people’s desire for children would mean shifting our culture in a whole host of major ways, making the traumatized 11 year old African-American boy someone’s early mental image of “look, here’s a child” – it is very different than the baby in a blanket that leaps to most minds. It would be good if it were possible – if we could begin shifting cultural attitudes towards what a family is, towards disability and the results of trauma so much that families do think “hey, I want to adopt orphaned pre-teen Ethiopian goat herders” (ok, that was part of my reaction to Greene’s book – three of her sons were former goat and cattle herders from rural Ethiopia, and the very funny stories she tells of the skill sets they brought to suburban Georgia are well worth a read – and although it does me no credit, I did immediately think “hey, cool, you can adopt kids who already know how to herd goats!?!? I recognize, however, that isn’t a normal reaction ) But that’s a bigger shift than just saying “oh, you should adopt.”
One of the consequences of our societal shift is that there will be more children in the US and adjoining nations available for adoption – greater poverty, greater stress, more natural disasters are likely to open up candidates for adoption. Greater poverty and stress may also reduce the number of families able to take on more children – or it may increase them as high-cost, energy intensive fertility treatments become the territory only of the very rich. It is hard to say – but what is notable is this – adoption is important for a whole host of reasons, but not as a way of stabilizing world population. It is not an answer to the population problem. It may be the answer for a lot of children. It may be a gift for more and more people. It may be that many families could become hopeful and excited about sharing their lives with children who yes, have had traumas and are older and aren’t the baby in the blanket, but can be the site of many joys and hopes – but the changes needed for that to happen for most people are huge, and they cannot be resolved by the optimistic “you should just adopt.”