Battle in Print: The Culture of Adoption

David Clements, 29 October 2008

Oh, wasn’t adoption better than childbirth? More dramatic, more meaningful. Bitsy felt sorry for those poor women who had merely delivered.
(Anne Tyler, Digging to America)

Taking the rhetoric of the UK adoption industry at face value, one would think pretty much anybody, anywhere, anytime, can adopt a child. One adoption agency describes itself as having a ‘flexible approach to what makes a good adoptive family’. The Adoption Information Line explains that ‘married couples, unmarried couples, gay and lesbian couples, and individuals can all adopt a child’. According to the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), ‘[p]eople from all ethnic origins and religions can adopt’.

However, putting aside the fact that it would be outrageous if they couldn’t, what BAAF don’t explain is that you cannot (as a general rule) adopt a child outside of your assigned religious or ethnic group. The National Minimum Standards for Adoption confirm this. They say that in order to secure and promote their welfare, adoption agencies must ensure that children are ‘matched with adopters who best meet their assessed needs’; and those assessed needs must reflect the child’s ‘ethnic origin, cultural background, religion and language’.

It would seem the social work establishment has embraced the conservatism that Patrick West describes in his excellent The Poverty of Multiculturalism. West shows how the political left have abandoned progressive Enlightenment values and have instead become ‘apologists for ethnic separateness … under the ostensible banner of respecting diversity’. They have, he says, ‘sought intellectual refuge in identity politics’, dividing humanity into groupings that are described ‘almost as quasi-biolgical entitites … akin to endangered species or threatened rainforests’, and that must be ‘cherished, respected and protected at all costs’.

In addition to the institutionalisation of multicultural thinking in adoption policy and practice, the themes of identity and ‘heritage’ are also apparent when it comes to the supposed therapeutic needs of formerly adopted adults (of whatever background). The Adoption and Children Act 2002, for instance, makes it easier for adopted adults to find out about and re-establish contact with their birth families. It also requires that as well as facilitating the adoption process - from assessment to adoptive placement - local authorities must establish adoption ‘support’ services.

Much is made of supporting the relationship between the adopted child and their birth family, in particular. It is often desirable for adopted children to retain, or for adopted adults to re-establish, contact with their ‘natural’ parents – whether out of respect to the birth family and their continued role in the child’s life, or with regards to continuity for the adopted child. However, the reforms also reflect the problematisation of the experience of adoption. Most adopted children will have been removed from their families and will have spent some time in the care system. That this can be traumatising is hardly controversial.

It would be wrong to dispute the legitimacy of anybody’s need for emotional support or counseling, but the stress on adopted adults’ psychological needs is not without its problems. There is a growing expectation that previously unremarkable transitional life events – from going to ‘big’ school to experiencing motherhood for the first time – will be impossible to cope with without help, and will probably affect the individual concerned for the rest of their lives. There is an assumption that people in general are increasingly vulnerable and in need of ‘support’. In this sense, the adoption reforms are a product of a wider ‘cultural’ problem – not in the ethnic or anthropological sense, but with regards our political culture and the ideas that it tends to generate.

Both this therapeutic orientation to the needs of adopted children and adults, and the divisive multicultural outlook that informs (to say the least) the selection criteria for adoptive carers, have acquired the status of orthodoxies today. Perversely, and ostensibly as a correction to both the emotional illiteracy and racism of the past, adoption has come to represent not so much the gaining of a new family for an ‘unwanted’ child, as the potential loss of an individual’s cultural heritage or their sense of self. In my view, whilst some individuals may benefit, this is likely to have implications. On the one hand, it affects the emotional stability of adopted children and adults; and on the other, it is already impacting on outcomes for minority children who are likely to spend longer periods in a care system out of want for want of an ‘appropriate’ carer.

But this irrational turn in adoption policy and practice is not peculiar to the UK. Digging to America, a novel by Anne Tyler, is a an acutely observed and touching story of ‘the arrival’ of adoptive children from Korea, and how their new families deal with the day-to-day challenges of raising them. It is also a biting satire on multiculturalism in the United States. Bitsy, one of the mothers-to-be, is insistent that the families keep in touch not so much out of their shared experience of awaiting their children in the airport lounge, as to ensure that the girls ‘maintain their cultural heritage’. She struggles to attend to what she imagines to be their cultural needs, insisting, for instance, that ordinary milk just won’t do – ‘soy is more culturally appropriate’, she says. Bitsy and her husband read their daughter authentic folk stories and - to the protestations of their eldest, Jin-Ho (or ‘Jo’) - insist on ‘dressing their daughters in something ethnic’ every now and then.

The irony is that it is all-American Bitsy who worries over such things, not Ziba, a second-generation Iranian-American, whose adoptive daughter is named, plain, American ‘Susan’. We learn that Ziba used to be in awe of Bitsy ‘before she fell all over herself apologising for her Americanness and her First Worldness’. She is rather embarassed to find herself ‘granted a kind of authority’ on account of her ‘exotic appearance’. Similarly, Ziba’s mother-in-law, Maryam, is irriateted by Bitsy and her proclivity for ‘manufactured traditions’.

But these ‘traditions’ are no less significant for that. Social workers in the UK, for instance, are expected to engage in ‘identity work’ with minority children. It is widely assumed that not to invent traditions is to risk damaging the child’s self-esteem, or strangely (given that its effect is to differentiate them from the wider community), to undermine their sense of belonging. While ‘life story’ work, something that social workers do with children in care, is important in as far as it is an attempt to counter the disruptions routinely endured by children in the care system; this suggests the question - why should the personal narrative imposed on minority children be any different? This essentialising of their ethnicity or ‘culture’ is as likely to induce the stigma that its privileging is supposed to avoid.

The confusion wrought on adoptive children and families by this cultural relativism – combined with that of the adoption experience itself – is explored insightfully by Tyler. The girls ‘go way back’ according to Bitsy. When Jin-Ho gets older her mother says that she and Susan might want to return to Korea, to trace their biological parents: ‘You could do it! We wouldn’t mind! We would support you and encourage you!’. But she hasn’t a notion of it. In From China with Love, Emily Buchanan – in a very personal account of her own experience of adopting a child from China – expresses similar concerns for her ‘foreign’ daughters. As a Western adoptive parent of a child from the East she is as keen as Bitsy to familiarise her adopted girls with their ‘roots’.

Both are trying to do what they believe to be in their child’s best interests. Both exhibit more than a little self-loathing as wealthy de-spiritualised Westerners; they want to make up for tearing children from their place of birth. But the notion they should have any attachment (from which to be ripped) to a place other than their place of ‘arrival’ makes no sense. What might be an interesting trip, and a place that might mean something to them in the future if they so choose, can only ever be an adopted heritage for them. Whilst they are children, to the extent that it has any meaning at all it is only in as far as the adoptive parent makes it so.

So, though the ‘matching’ process in the UK denies many the opportunity to adopt, and effectively on the grounds of ‘race’; it is also the case that, as Buchanan and the characters in Digging to America demonstrate, the grappling with the ‘cultural’ implications of the adoption process, are even more pronounced (if only because they are longer-lived) with a successful adoption. Either way, the retreat into cul-de-sacs - whether of the personal past of childhood, or the mythical past of ‘cultural’ heritage - is impacting on the political culture of adoption and with very real implications for all those involved. But the yearning for a sense of belonging assumed by the authorities on behalf of vulnerable adopted children and adults, is a political not a cultural problem. This can only be resolved in the here and now, and by establishing what people have in common with each other - what makes them ‘human’ - not what sets them apart.

Of course, none of this is to say that questions of heritage and culture are the only criteria used by adoption agencies when assessing carers and matching them (or rather: not) with children. On everything from smoking to smacking, it is the politics of behaviour and lifestyle as much as identity politics that impact on whether or not a potential adopter is ‘approved’. It is tempting to conclude that in the absence of a better idea of what makes a ‘good parent’ the authorities are employing the most arbitrary criteria to make the most important decisions. But this would be to forget the premise of the Adopting Orthodoxies debate at the Battle of Ideas this year – despite the supposedly liberalising reforms to adoption in the UK, especially with regards sexuality and recognsing the plurality of family forms, the authorities have replaced the old prejudices with a no less illiberal set of criteria for deciding who can and cannot become an adoptive parent.

Importantly, these are not particular to the discussion of adoption but are adopted from the wider political culture. The ever greater involvement of the state in our lives and particularly in our family lives is increasingly regarded as legitimate. The paradox is that in the one instance where the state is divesting itself of the responsibility for the children it is looking after – however, temporarily or badly – that official attitudes and anxieties about parents about the welfare of children are laid bare. Which is why the accounts of Tyler and Buchanan are so important. While drawing our attention to the absurdity of the adoption process and how it impacts on those caught up in it, both make an essentially positive case for adoption. Both are touching in their portrayal of the bonding of parent with child. The lack of a ‘natural’ basis for the adoptive relationship only makes the human capacity for love and intimacy all the more impressive. This is a cause for optimism in the face of the institutionalisation of some very backward and illiberal ideas about what people are like, and what is important when deciding who deserves to be a parent to a child.


David Clements is a social policy writer;and co-editor, The Future of Community.


Buchanan, Emily (2006). From China with Love: a Long Road to Motherhood, London: Wiley.
Tyler, Anne (2007). Digging to America, London: Vintage.
West, Patrick (2005) The poverty of multiculturalism, London: Civitas

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