I've tried (and failed) to write this post before. It has nothing to do with our recent adventures, to which I will return, but everything to do with everything important to us.
Back when we expected to adopt domestically, I was surprised to find birthmothers ("first mother" or "mother" the preferred terms in our family, but I am speaking of broader conversations) divided by anonymous online doptive parents into two categories, even when speaking of particular women: women who did not deserve to parent or women who deserved to be sainted. The former were poor, irresponsible, easy (all equally negative and equally character flaws, and all in contradistinction to the relatively better-off prospective adoptive parents). The latter were sacrificing everything they loved for the baby another family would soon love.
I realize how naive it is that I was surprised (and had I been reading adoption blogs at that point, I would have known that you all already knew this). This binary is rooted deeply in our culture, in ancient conceptions of women as (forgive the momentary family unfriendliness) either virgins or whores, and it won't be eradicated with corrective measures in the adoption community. But there's a start, and an important one.
I was impressed, at the time, by an adoptive mother who had defended the mother of her child. Someone had said "I could never give up my baby," to which she responded, "Could you if you were in a burning building?" And she elaborated: relinquishing a child for adoption was like tossing your child to safety, from the window of a burning building. It was not an unloving act, the act of a woman pathologically unattached to her child, but a supreme act of love. Yes, I thought, that's a good way to explain it to people outside the adoption community, people who don't get what it is our child's mother would have to have done: a woman would be compelled to throw her child from a burning building, and I would be there to catch that child. She and I would recognize each other equally as mothers, and I would know that there was nothing else that she could do.
But then a funny thing happened. As much as I wanted to do the catching, it started to seem that buildings were rarely really burning. And someone should have been helping those women put out fires. Our agency was invested first in keeping first families together, and even then . . .
In only one situation shared with us (of three) do I really feel that that building was on fire. Two involved potential single parenting in economically fragile circumstances (but parenting was still possible in those circumstances). This one involved mental illness and lack of basic needs being met for the mother and her son (though at that time the placement would still have been a voluntary one). I think of that little boy (a toddler) frequently, and pray that his mother received the help she needed to live and to parent as she so desired and decided to do.
Without returning to the metaphor (until now), we turned to international adoption when the anxiety was too high, when we knew we just couldn't do it. We ruled out countries where we didn't feel that the building was really burning (a developed/developing nation, a long wait by prospective adoptive parents for relatively few children, etc). As I adore my daughter, I like to think that we made the right decision. I like to think that she'll think so (eventually). And I am certain that her family's building had already burned, and so had her community's. Though that doesn't absolve us -- their buildings burned as we in the west fiddled, and no decisions for our child were made free from durress, free from the pressures of hunger and illness.
Even so, I suppose what I am asking is this: There's a lot of talk about ethical adoption (usually talking about domestic adoption, as the inquities of international adoption are frequently discussed at other, macro levels) but doesn't any ethical consideration involve not just what happens during and after the process, but also who should be actively discouraged from relinquishing a child?
But can we use the "burning building test?" (as we implicitly did, when we decided on Ethiopia). If everyone used it, it would certainly call into question agency practices of recruiting expectant mothers to become birthmothers. Yet if a situation meets the burning building test, isn't it automatically coercive? And who am I/who are we to decide whose building is burning and whose isn't?
But the truth about why this matters to me? Under all these layers of ethical consideration, I think there really lies my own need to be able to say to my daughter that her first family couldn't have parented her. Because I'm not sure I could look her in the eyes if they could have.