UK Guardian: The Meaning of Adoption

October 2006

Realizing the meaning of adoption

by Laura Barcella


Still fighting for her right to bring home the hottest accessory du jour – an African baby – today Madonna will air her grievances to the queen of America’s daytime talk machine: Oprah. (The interview will air Wednesday on The Oprah Winfrey Show. I’m sure you’re waiting with bated breath, right?)

As we’re all now well aware, the pop star last week released an open letter seeking public support for her efforts to adopt 13-month-old Malawian baby David Banda. Madge insisted that she’d abided by the same rules as anyone in the course of adopting a child from a foreign country. She wrote: “After learning that there were over one million orphans in Malawi, it was my wish to open up our home and help one child escape an extreme life of hardship, poverty and in many cases, death, as well as expand our family.”

But the Human Rights Consultative Committee – an alliance of 67 Malawi-based human rights organizations – didn’t see it that way, and has filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the waiver granting her custody of Banda.

This convoluted story has grown ever messier since Madge first opened her mouth about her plans to bring David home. At first, Yohane Banda – the father who originally turned David over to a Malawian orphanage when his mother died – approved of Madonna’s intentions. He pleaded with the Associated Press: “As a father, I have okayed this [adoption]… I have no problem. The village has no problem. Who are they to cause trouble? Please let them stop.”

But Banda is now singing a different tune, claiming he never realised that adoption was forever. The illiterate farmer now says…he signed the documents believing “when David grows up, he will return back home to his village.” He added, “I am just now realising the meaning of ‘adoption.”

Yikes. As an adoptee (rhymes with amputee, refugee) myself, I feel bad for the poor kid, being tossed back and forth between countries – and parents – as if he were a football. And I find Madge’s casual attitude about the whole thing (her failure to spend the required amount of time in the child’s host country) tacky, insensitive and off-putting.

She didn’t seem to consider (at least, not publicly) the gravity of adopting a baby; the outright enormity of the adoption’s impact on the child’s future, psychological identity and emotional state (not to mention the effects on David’s birth father and community). She didn’t acknowledge any of this until she was forced to grovel by a rightly unsympathetic media (and an even less sympathetic Human Rights Consultative Committee).

I won’t pretend to know what Madonna is thinking. I don’t doubt that she has the best of intentions, but good intentions aren’t always good enough.

Adoption is a big deal. It’s always a big deal, for all the parties involved, and especially for the child. It has the capacity to unfavourably affect children’s self-perception and sense of identity. It can bring with it a hovering host of existential questions that border on crises – “who am I, what am I doing here, why did my mother/father decide to give me up?”

All rational explanations about the birth parents’ reasoning for giving up the child – “she was too young; he was too sick; they didn’t have enough money;” – might be accurate, but they don’t necessarily mean anything to small children who only understand that their mothers are missing, gone, absent (for closed adoptions, wherein a baby’s biological birth records are sealed, this absence can feel as intense as a death).

Adoption can certainly bring joy to a family, but unless the circumstances of the child’s birth are talked about openly and often, I feel it can also bring about untold grief and pain to the children involved.

My birth mother put me up for adoption when I was an infant, and she was studying at college. The married couple who became my adoptive parents were happy, stable, and successful; they really wanted me, and they loved me loads. But their unfailing devotion and support didn’t make the simple fact of my adoption any easier. The absence of my biological mother seemed to taint me, for as long as I can remember, with a black shroud of loss and alienation around me, and a question mark where my core sense of identity should be.

In my own experience, adoption is a bitter pill that can hurt as well as it heals.

Of course, I don’t advocate an end to adoption. That would be asinine, and utterly impractical (though not unheard-of; there are anti-adoption groups who advocate abolishing the practice. But I think we need to fling open the closet door on the still-stigmatized, still-secretive practice, as soon as possible. More adoptees need to come forth and be open and honest about our “secret histories.”

There should be better resources for both biological and adoptive parents about the psychological effects of adoption on children, especially when it’s a cross-cultural affair. (As Diary of a Mad Kenyan Woman notes: “What do you suppose it costs, emotionally and psychologically, to give away your child? You want to help African kids? Then make sure that their families are healthy, and whole and have access to social services and to medicine, and that there are schools and jobs awaiting them.”)

If I could have one wish for the future of adoption – in America, in Africa, in England, anywhere – it would be that it’s dragged out of the closet and into the daylight, where the wounds would have air to heal, where the shame around the process would be forced to slowly dissolve.

I want to see adoption, in all its broad, messy, difficult, psychologically-loaded glory, talked about openly among friends and family. I want to see it written about in major magazines; not as part of some celebrity trend analysis, but as coverage of a complicated, long-standing social/historical convention (even the biblical Moses was an adoptee). Such a weighty, sensitive issue shouldn’t be relegated to petty water-cooler gossip, and celebrities who adopt (I’m looking at you, Madge) should educate themselves about the effects, intricacies and ramifications of adoption, and then speak out about it in a significant way. (At least in a way slightly more meaningful than simply announcing, essentially, “Gone to Africa to adopt a baby and save the world. Be back soon!”)

Adoption isn’t a cure-all, or a wonder-solution to neglect, child abuse or the world’s poor. It’s not a real way to “save” anyone, and no one – not celebrities or we regular folks should use it as a tool for martyrdom.