November is National Adoption Month, and I’ll be posting throughout the month on issues related to adoption. If you want to submit an essay on this topic, you can find my contact info here.
Last year, a couple in Florida – presumably hoping to distinguish their $45,000 adoption crowdfunding campaign from others like it – came up with a gimmick they referred to as the “Baby Draft”: If you donated, you could vote for your favorite football team, and the adopted child would be raised as a fan of whichever team got the most votes. The couple obviously assumed their “Baby Draft” would garner more attention, and thus more donations. It did get attention – much of it negative, with adult adoptees at the forefront of the criticism. Even many people who might have otherwise had no problem with adoption fundraisers seemed to find the campaign tasteless.
The whole idea seemed silly to me (I don’t care about football unless Tami Taylor is there), but on the whole, as an adopted person, I found it only slightly more unsettling than all the other adoption crowdfunding campaigns out there. Shares of these campaign pages appear with some regularity in my Facebook feed — sometimes the fundraisers are for the benefit of people I know, sometimes friends of mine are simply signal-boosting their friends’ fundraisers. They often add a brief personal testimony at the top of the post, like I’ve known these wonderful people forever and if anyone was meant to be parents, they were! or This generous couple needs your help to bring their child home!
I’ve given to a lot of crowdfunding campaigns over the years, and if you’ve ever had a little extra money to give, you probably have too. There are so many worthy causes out there. Chemo Pals. DonorsChoose drives. Families who need help paying their rent, or covering medical bills, or rebuilding after a fire. So what’s different about people crowdfunding their adoptions? Why does this trend make me, and many other adoptees, so uncomfortable? There are many reasons, but here are just a few:
Adoption fundraisers can further promote the commodification of adopted children. It’s difficult to imagine the transactional/business trappings of adoption disappearing any time soon. There are for-profit entities and individuals that privately facilitate adoption. Adoption agencies (including non-profits, which most are) must advertise and cast their nets far and wide for clients who can pay the steep fees. Some prospective adoptive parents pay for professionally designed profiles and ads to help them market themselves to mothers and pregnant women considering domestic infant adoption.
Unless you’re adopting from foster care, adoption is expensive (even with a sizable tax credit). People who adopt are certainly not all wealthy, but they tend to have a degree of economic security and access to support and resources that birth mothers and families often don’t. (You have to be approved to adopt, and an ethical adoption service provider is supposed to take finances into account.)
In our culture, people seem to buy into the notion that if you can afford to pay for something, it should be yours. You can give a child a comfortable life, support and send them to college, and someone else can’t? You should definitely have a kid. Crowdfunding campaigns ask donors to endorse parenthood for people they might not even know, and to do so with their money — the very thing that many people think is what makes one a responsible, “worthy” parent in the first place.
Other people don’t need to know personal, private details about a child’s life before they were adopted, or how much their adoption cost. Crowdfunding pages often list all manner of personal details about the specific child in question – everything from birth names and family history to the reason for relinquishment and the exact amount the adoptive parents will need to pay to adopt them. Yes, this is the Internet! We love to overshare! But a child’s life, personal history, and adoption story belongs to them first and foremost. Private information about their birth family, details about abandonment, factors that led to placement, their personal medical needs, any history of abuse or neglect, and any other sensitive information should not even necessarily be shared with everyone in the adoptive family, let alone everyone on the Internet. Nor should these details be shared before the child has even been adopted, years before they are old enough to understand and take ownership of their own story.
Other people don’t need to know personal, private details about a child’s life before they were adopted, or how much their adoption cost.
I don’t know why it took me so long to ask for specifics, but I was actually in my twenties before it even occurred to me to find out how much my adoptive parents paid for my adoption. I am happy to tell anyone who wants to know! (I was a bargain.) The point is, it’s my choice to share information about how much I cost, just like it’s my choice if I want to explain to you why I was relinquished, what the social worker told my adoptive parents about my birth family, and what my medical needs were at the time. I am old enough to control what’s out there, to consent to my story being shared, to tell it myself.
Adoption crowdfunding campaigns can (even unintentionally) promote the belief that adoptive parents – due to location, wealth, religion, race, nationality, marital status, privilege, or any other combination of factors – are superior to birth families. Of course there are many reasons why someone might make an absolutely wonderful adoptive parent. But the reason often touted for adoption, the reason some people feel okay asking their friends and people they don’t know to help finance it, is the general promise that adoption gives a child “a better life.”
Donating to a private adoption fundraiser might appeal to you for this reason, even if you don’t know the hopeful parents yourself. “A better life” sounds like an unassailable goal. Still, it’s worthwhile to consider that word, better, and how loaded it really is. Better than what? Better than the life their families or communities or countries and cultures of origin could have offered them. Better, because comparatively well-off and overwhelmingly white Americans can provide a child with anything – at least, everything that’s truly valuable, truly important.
So focused are we on this notion of better that we gloss over any losses, any biological relatives children might have remaining, and barely give a thought to the communities from which they are adopted. If original families are mentioned approvingly in this narrative, it’s usually just to applaud their sacrifice. There’s a connection many people still make, sometimes unconsciously, between worthy parents and wealthy ones.
Adoption crowdfunding elevates the desire or will to adopt to the level of a charitable cause – or even a religious crusade. “Imagine the heartbreak of being an orphan,” read one post I saw last year on Facebook. “This generous couple has said ‘yes’ to whatever child God wanted to give them, and they deserve your support!”
The desire to become a parent is extremely relatable. It’s easy to understand why people would donate to their friends’ adoption fundraisers — it seems like just another opportunity to be generous and practice charitable giving, with the bonus that you might know the people involved. But thinking of adoption, any adoption, as a charity or Good Work is far too simple a portrayal. It suggests that adoptive parents are heroic for adopting, presents children as charity cases in need of rescue, and completely ignores the importance of adoptees’ histories prior to adoption.
Growing up, I was often told how lucky I was to be adopted and raised in “a Christian home” (guess what, guys, my birth family is also Christian!) and “a Christian country.” You’d think by now everyone would know better than to talk about adoption in terms of saving children or rescuing kids from lives as “unbelievers.” But many people have not learned this lesson. Adoption can be a very good thing for an individual child, but it is not charity. It is not a religious crusade. It is never a “miracle,” the hand of God at work, when a child ends up living without their original parents.
It’s not uncommon for people to speak of adoption from other countries in almost vocational terms: “We feel called to adopt from China.” “God gave me a heart for orphans.” Fundraising pages and the posts used to promote them tend to focus on the parents’ journey — their faith, their desire to adopt. But a completed adoption is not supposed to be a reward for those who’ve waited a very long time to be parents. A brief glimpse of a crowdfunding page or a Facebook post about it can’t help potential donors or anyone else understand the reality for adoptees or first families. (Prospective adoptive parents are not especially well served by an oversimplified view of adoption, either — while pre-adoption education and preparation is a lot better than it used to be, particularly for those parents who are open, curious, honest with themselves, and willing to seek out lots of perspectives, the view of adoption as a straightforward happily-ever-after for adoptive parents is still common — and insufficient.)
The best way to help children is to support and preserve original families whenever possible. Many birth mothers and families in this country would keep their children if they were able — but of course, they typically don’t receive the widespread public sympathy and support people are counting on when they try to crowdfund their adoptions. Many children labeled as “orphans” abroad also have living parents or other family members. Sometimes these family members decide (or are pressured) to release the child for adoption so they will have “a better life”; sometimes they never actually made that decision at all – they might have placed their child in an orphanage for a time, thinking it would be only temporary care.
Even if adoption is the best option for a child — which it can be! It was a really, really good thing in my case — it’s still important to recognize that moving children from poorer families and communities and countries to richer ones because people can and want to foot the bill one baby at a time has real consequences — global, economic, personal, and social. And it’s not any kind of real solution for most children living without their families, the vast majority of whom will never be adopted.
Which is why meeting the needs of vulnerable families and promoting family preservation should be the first goal for those who care about the welfare of children. We need to support original families and their communities. We can direct our financial support to meet public health needs, promote women’s health, educate children, provide infants and youth with necessary medical care regardless of whether or not their families can pay for it, de-stigmatize and wholeheartedly support single parenthood and kinship care and other alternatives to adoption, and address the many economic and social factors that ultimately lead to family separation. There’s no reason that adoption can’t exist alongside systems that prop up families, help them stay whole and together, and allow more parents and communities to keep and raise their children.
We need to consider the institution of adoption in all its complexity — that’s something everyone deserves if we are going to be asked to give our money to support individual private adoptions.
I’ve explained why, as an adopted person, adoption fundraisers give me a shifty, sinking feeling when I see them pop up in my social feeds. I don’t believe they represent the greatest challenge in adoption. I don’t think it’s necessarily terrible to donate to one. I don’t think we need to spearhead a campaign to eliminate them. What we do need is a lot more education and nuanced discussion about adoption, who it is supposed to benefit, and how it might need to change. We need to consider the institution in all its complexity — that’s something everyone deserves if we are going to be asked to give our money to support individual private adoptions.
There persists an alarmingly widespread view of adoption as something simple, predestined, or even something that adoptive parents “deserve.” We urge adopted people in countless subtle and unsubtle ways to be grateful for the “better life” they were given and not dwell on what they have lost, including the families and cultures into which they were born. Yes, we might “save” some of them — and I will never discount the things many adopted kids stand to gain, or say those gains are insignificant — but too often we don’t hear adoptees’ voices, drowned out as they are by others.
Too many still unquestioningly endorse a story about adoption that focuses on the wants of adoptive parents and not the needs of adopted people and vulnerable families. As an adoptee, my reservations about the trend of adoption crowdfunding have much to do with the furthering of this insufficient narrative. I do think it’s natural – and admirable! – to want to support one’s friends. The next time you see an adoption crowdfunding page shared on Facebook, by all means donate if that’s what you want to do. But even if you do make that donation, or the one after it, or the one after that, it’s worthwhile to continue to think about this issue, consider the experiences adopted people and birth parents are willing to share, and interrogate past and current adoption trends. A worthy practice should be able to evolve, to stand up to the tough questions. The wider discussion surrounding adoption in our society can only benefit from having more thoughtful, compassionate, and well informed people at the table, listening with open hearts and minds.
Nicole Chung is the Managing Editor of The Toast.