Questioning Easy Narratives: Exploring Adoption

Thirty years ago, as a single woman in my 20s, I had no reason to think that I’d one day adopt. Yet adoption somehow kept coming up in conversations with potential partners in ways that occasionally proved pivotal. Over dinner with a man nearly two decades my senior, I teased a bit about our age difference, asking if he only dated women so young. He said yes, because he wanted a chance to have a family. I probed: What if he fell in love with a younger woman, but they were not able to have a child? He looked stumped. Might they adopt? I asked, thinking I was throwing him a line. He shrugged and said that he couldn’t imagine getting up in the middle of the night for a child that wasn’t really his.

I don’t remember exactly how much longer I stayed in that restaurant, but at that moment, as far as I was concerned, the date was over. It wasn’t adoption, per se, that I cared about; it was simply … the capacity to freely care. The capacity to get up in the middle of the night to care for a crying kid and love that kid, full stop. (And, perhaps, also (maybe?) to see and love women beyond their baby-making potential: What would happen to any relationship he had if infertility or other dream-busting challenges crept in?)

Another time, the subject came up with a more serious boyfriend. He fared better by far than “older guy” on this topic. But then we got on the subject of a someday-child’s race or ethnicity. We agreed that it didn’t feel right or necessary and wasn’t likely practical to assume we and an adopted child would “match.” For the first time in my life, I pictured myself (a white woman) with a white partner parenting a child of another race, and I found myself considering various ethnicities on the basis of my own cultural knowledge and real-life familiarity.

He expressed a clear preference for an Asian someday child, perhaps Chinese, which seemed as reasonable as my top preferences, just different. But that feeling shifted for me (reasonably or not) when he told me why. For him, it was because “they” (Asians? Chinese people?) are so much like “us” (white Ashkenazi Jews). I remembered my mother noting how very much the older mothers in Amy Tan’s novels reminded her of her own mother’s circle of friends. I understood many parallels; still, his comment saddened me. I thought of groups further up on my list and all the reasons he might not see them as monolithically — or at all — “like ‘us.’ ” If I’d had the term then, I could have tossed erasure — of so many kinds — onto my heap of concerns.

Now I look back with a better understanding of how the assumptions that ex-boyfriend made — about “them,” about “us,” about other “thems” that wouldn’t make his cut — were based on biases he’d been fed, steeped in really, over a lifetime. He relied without realizing it, as most of us do, on easy and ultimately harmful narratives about ourselves and others.

Stories We Internalize

In an anti-racism workshop I took a few years ago, participants were asked to sit with the question, “What lies have been told about you?” and its complement, “How have they been perpetuated?” I scribbled down a list of lies that are told about me as a woman, as a Jew and more. It was in part an empathy-building exercise to help participants also think about the kinds of lies that have been told about others.

It’s fair to ask what lies or partial truths we’ve been told about any number of aspects of our culture: about the way our justice system operates, about what constitutes success, about what caretaking work is worth … . How are those representations or misrepresentations perpetuated? What “easy narratives” about certain groups of people, and about the status quo, are we encouraged to lean on? How does our faith in those narratives affect others?

And what does any of this have to do with adoption?

Nearly 17 years into my life as an adoptive mother — one who is besotted with her kids (and with her particularly menschlich partner in parenting) — I have nonetheless come to wonder about the range of “easy narratives” there are about adoption in our culture, what lies or partial truths are being perpetuated and what harm they may be causing.

Is adoption simply a “win-win”? Are children lucky to be adopted? Is it “just another way to grow a family”? Is love on its own enough to meet the needs of transracial, or any, adoptees?

So let’s break it down …

Here are some things I consider to be true:

  • Love, care and kinship are not dependent on shared biology.
  • It is a good thing to care for another human being as deeply and well as you would (in the words of “older guy”) your “own.”
  • There are children who may not be able to be raised by their biological family who need love and care and security.
  • Research has shown that children fare best in families (whether single-parented, grandparent-parented, same- or opposite- sex couple parented, etc.).
  • Adopted children and adoptive families deserve to be embraced fully by their extended families and communities.

But I also believe these things to be true:

  • Adoption always begins with the rupture of a family. That rupture registers as trauma (as we seemed to know when so many of us demonstrated to Keep Families Together).
  • There are any number of ethical pitfalls that warrant our attention in common adoption practices.
  • Adopting across racial, cultural and national lines is often enriching for the culture of the adopters, but can be difficult and deeply problematic for the adopted child. (I say that as an adoptive mom of children of different racial and ethnic heritages than me, whom I’m trying to do right by, as I strive to learn more and more what that entails.)
  • From a distance, Bette Midler sang, the earth looks blue and green. From a distance, adoption looks like the migration of children across nation, race and class in hierarchies that confer the privilege to parent on some over others.
  • Just given how many adoptions — international, private domestic or through foster care — are linked directly or indirectly to systemic inequities, there should probably be fewer adoptions.

I’m sitting here trembling. Did I just say those last five things “out loud”?

Saying It Out Loud, Cautiously

Before my husband and I adopted, like so many others considering it, we had faced painful challenges with fertility. With more miscarriages behind me than I could count on one hand, I remember feeling more like a broken baby factory than a person. At the end of the day, we simply (or not so simply) wanted to be parents.

When presented with a promising new treatment protocol on the one hand and the unexpected prospect of an open adoption on the other, we went with the adoption. We did not feel glued to biology. We believed the prevailing narrative that adoption was indeed a “win-win”: someone who, for whatever reason, couldn’t parent their child finding (and/or having their child’s needs met by) someone who was ready and able to parent, but who, most often, couldn’t bring children into the world.

I do not regret that particular choice, in that particular circumstance, nor the choices involved in the adoption of our second child in different, specific circumstances. However, over the years, through talking with and listening to other adoptive parents, lots of adult adoptees and first/birth parents, I don’t believe that simple narrative anymore. I am not sure anymore quite what to believe, except perhaps all the seemingly contradictory items in the list above.

For so many who have turned to adoption to fulfill the dream of parenting, just as my husband and I did, and for the friends and family and community members who care about them and their children, this — anything that raises questions about the ethics of the process that formed their beloved families — is a tremendously tender subject. It is also a tender subject, understandably and in different ways, for many adult adoptees and for first/birth parents.

At the end of the day, though, in looking to grow our families, to share our love with children and/or care for children in need, if we stopped to think about it, we’d probably agree in theory that we don’t want to be guilty of perpetrating or perpetuating harm. I just want to say, out loud, that it is an area worthy of ethical exploration. I am not the first to say this nor the first to say it in a Jewish space, but it bears repeating and examining further.

There are ethical pitfalls in pre-adoption circumstances, whether in domestic infant adoption, where there can often be explicit or implicit coercion of birth/first parents; or international adoption, which has been shown to be quite vulnerable to corruption; or even the foster system, where poverty can be criminalized, discrimination plays a role, and foster parents who hope to adopt can consciously or unconsciously work against reunification (the primary goal of fostering). And there are ethical issues in how we navigate all of life with and for foster and adopted youth, with issues of transparency, identity formation and more. Love is essential but not, on its own, enough.

Launching an Exploration

With those concerns in mind, I leapt at the chance last year to study adoption and child welfare through a Jewish ethical lens via a pilot certificate program in Jewish ethics and social justice at the Jewish Theological Seminary. My first stop (during a class on Jewish bioethics) was to look at ethical writing and halakhic (Jewish legal) wrangling over ways to make babies, and thus, in effect, ways to make parents and families.

I found a preponderance of concern about ethical considerations regarding every interventionist method of family-building except adoption. In one responsum adopted by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, both egg donation and sperm donation were questioned on the basis of the physical and/or psychological harm that might indeed befall the donor (and in some cases, the recipients). In both cases, adoption was strongly encouraged as a better first alternative.

Rightly, the author asked, essentially, “how did these eggs or this sperm become available, and what harm may have been done to their donor in the process or might result from their separation?” Never is it asked, “how did these children become available for adoption, and what harm may have been done in the process to the adults who gave them life or might result from their separation?” So strong is the “win-win” narrative about adoption that these questions simply don’t rise to the level of consideration. They don’t get thought of; they don’t get asked.


In traditional Judaism, there’s a concept of approaching halakhah lekhathila, “before the fact,” and bediavad, “after the fact.” Take food: If you’re a halakhic Jew, lekhathila, you’ve taken every precaution to abide by the law to make sure your food is prepared according to the laws of kashrut. But say there was an error. Bediavad, after the fact, how do you adjust to the situation and make the best of it, while still honoring the law and its spirit?

Approaching life ethically, we are all doing a dance between lekhathila, preventing harm in advance, and bediavad, managing with as much care and respect as we can in imperfect circumstances. In so much of life, bediavad thinking is our constant dance partner. When it comes to preventing situations that lead to family rupture and that may unnecessarily lead to children being available for adoption, I think we as individuals and a society need to live a little more in lekhathila. There will always be children who need to be cared for. But adoption can be a bit like the Wild West — different laws in different states, lots of intermediaries, some of them good and necessary, some of them out for their own bottom line. As individuals, let’s at least make sure we’re not strengthening the hand of evil-doers, unethical practitioners. It’s incumbent on us to do adequate research before we start this journey and all along the way. In our deep drive to parent, pumping the brakes can be hard, but I’d argue, ethically warranted.

The ‘Apotropos’ in Jewish Tradition

In my exploration of adoption ethics this past year, I came in knowing that despite some notable examples of adoptive or adoptive-like relationships in the Bible, there is not really a Jewish traditional analog to modern Western adoption practices. The Talmud stresses the merit of protecting the yatom, the fatherless/“orphan” (perhaps best defined today as a child in need of care), and arranged for the appointment of an apotropos, or “guardian.” In practice, that guardian helped with financial support and management, education or whatever the remaining family could not manage. Sometimes, not always, it meant guardians took children into their home and raised them. But never was there a break in the tie to the child’s biological lineage, no familial supersession as adoption in the United States has historically upheld. After all, traditionally, the commandment to honor father and mother, kibud av ve’em, is, first and foremost, intended toward those who gave us life (though others — teachers, adoptive parents, etc. — may be honored similarly).

I saw it as notable that, in normative Jewish tradition, the apotropos was to manage whatever property the yatom carried, their inheritance, with greater care than they managed their own affairs. They were to do so until the child was old enough and mature enough to manage it for themself. I took the liberty of transposing that concept to today’s realities. What if the “inheritance,” or yerushah, that foster and adoptive children carry is the obligation to honor their biological parents? How can the foster or adoptive parent, like the apotropos, manage that obligation until the child is old and mature enough to handle it for themself?

I propose that it starts with real respect for the child’s first parents. That respect can begin with lekhathila efforts to keep families together whenever possible. Then, once a child is in our care, bediavad, it takes the form of maximizing openness in foster care and adoption. That starts by nurturing in ourselves kavod/“respect” and hesed/“lovingkindness” for first/birth parents, present or absent, and for the community and culture and/or country from which they come. It means learning as much as possible about that heritage and about the first/birth parents and family. It means attempting whenever possible to build relationships with those first/birth parents, family and/or in that community of origin, and encouraging relationships, when possible, between them and the children.

It means rethinking what gets in the way of more openness, in attitudes and action, even if truly direct, open relationships are not possible in every situation. It means striving for as much openness as possible, given particular circumstances, so that adoptees and foster youth are left able to honor those who gave them life, or to constructively grapple with that notion and/or with those relationships when they’re ready to navigate them on their own.

‘Yerushat Hayatom’

The other reason I reached for the language of inheritance — though “property” is the term used in the Talmud in this context — is because of the added connotation of yerushah in the different threads of Jewish tradition to mean legacy, or teaching.

The yerushat hayatom — the teachings of the now-adult adoptee, who had the least to say growing up about their lot — are essential for all those touched by adoption to hear. Listening to the stories and wisdom of those who’ve been impacted the most by adoption is necessary for us to prepare ourselves to act — lekhathila and bediavad, before and after the fact — in the real “best interest” of this generation’s children and those who follow. Though their stories are theirs to choose to tell or not, many have voiced them for their own and others’ benefit; there is now a robust and growing literature of memoirs, blogs, documentaries and the like to teach us.

Though there are endless such stories to hear, I will end with the words of one Jewish adoptee and writer, Michele Kriegman (who also sometimes writes about adoption under her original given name, Suzanne Gilbert). When she interviewed prospective adoptive parents about what they consider ethical behavior in an adoption for a 1998 article in Lilith magazine, Kriegman found people consumed with their own understandable concerns in family building and, to a fault, “on how others treated them: on whether the attorney charged a fair fee … , on whether the birth mother changed her mind or not [about placing vs. parenting], on whether a foreign government or agency expedited their case quickly or not.”

“Certainly these demands would parallel fair business practices in any exchange of goods or activities for payment,” Kriegman wrote. “But adoption is not just any business exchange. It is holy enough, and complicated enough, that there should be a body of halakhah advising adoption facilitators, the adoptee, the birth parents and the adoptive parents on how they should treat each other.”

Whether we reach for halakhah specifically to guide us, or Jewish ethics and values-based decision-making more broadly, let us begin to better examine the intricacies of pain and the necessity for care, beyond what we’re used to examining. When it comes to adoption and child welfare, let us love and care ever more fully, and in doing so, let no accepted narratives remain unquestioned.


Sample/Recommended Adult Adoptee Blogs:

Dear Adoption

Lost Daughters

Harlow’s Monkey

Adoptee Voices Blog

Gazillion Voices

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