Nancy French pointed me to this great video that illustrates the sort of comments you get from people when you are out and about as a multiracial family (often, but not always, an adoptive one). Been there, heard that.
Like I said before, the point of this is not to throw a pity party for adoptive parents. Any discussion of transracial adoption shouldn't be all about the adoptive parents' feelings. Rather, calling this sort of thing out is about (1) preparing parents to deal with such situations in a way that's constructive for their kids, (2) whistling past the graveyard — a sharing of the experience, and (3) laughing about the brokenness and general asshatitude of humanity.
I had the pleasure of seeing the documentary ""Somewhere Between" last night at an art-house theater on the West Side, followed by a question-and-answer session with the director.
We did it right — Katrina and I went with three other adoptive couples with young girls from China, and prepared with a raucous discussion of inappropriate topics at a nearby Japanese-tapas place. The beauty of dinner at a Japanese restaurant is that you can drink gigantic bottles of beer and deep-fried things without social condemnation. We arrived in a very upbeat frame of mind.
We left sober (literally and figuratively) and contemplative. "Somewhere Between" is simultaneously touching, inspiring, and painful for adoptive parents. The film — directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, herself an adoptive parent of a young girl from China — doesn't pull punches. The film focuses on four teenaged adoptees and their thoughts and experiences. Knowlton was fortunate to pick four very articulate and thoughtful teens willing to expose painful truths. The result is neither an anti-adoption film nor a pro-adoption apologia; it's a film that is comfortable with the lack of easy answers to hard questions. One teen struggles to define herself both in America and in China and wonders whether she will ever feel she belongs in either place. Another teen, finding what the director called the "needle in the haystack," succeeded in finding her birth family, only to find that the discovery and the new relationship with that family involved mixed feelings and emotions. A teen adoptee, visiting China, forms an attachment with a beautiful orphan girl with cerebral palsy, and is instrumental in connecting her with an American family equipped to care for her and wanting to adopt her, only to witness that taking the girl from all she has ever known is still heart-rending. Adoptive parents are portrayed honestly as well-meaning but imperfect — an adoptive mother's brutal question to her daughter's birth mother is filmed unstintingly. (One of the biggest laughs, and truest representations of pluralistic American culture, comes when an Anglo adoptive mother explains how she learned Mandarin to interact with her daughters, and the camera cuts to the Chinese-American father saying he can't follow because he doesn't speak Mandarin.)
This isn't a movie to persuade you that international adoption is a good thing if you think it isn't, or vice versa. It is a movie to make you grasp with the fact that it's a complex subject and that different adoptees have different experiences, and are treated differently by their birth and adoptive cultures. The self-awareness and resilience of the teens amazed me. The simultaneously joyful and painful scenes of first meetings with adoptive children remain stirring for me and remind me of our own first meeting with Elaina.
I highly recommend it to adoptive parents and people interested in the subject. It's going to be in very limited release, followed by a DVD early in 2013.
[Note — more recent Popehat readers may not know that I've written a lot about international adoption and being an adoptive parent; you can find the posts collected here.]
It would be trivially easy to focus on the negative this week. I could focus on, say, a four-year-old singing "No Homos Going To Make It To Heaven." Or I could focus on purported men of God talking about putting gays in concentration camps until they die out, or on the parishioners who defend him ("He said they would feed him!" one said.).
Instead, I'm going to focus on a movie Take Me Home: The Birth Of An American Family about two parents who create a family by adopting six special needs kids and by raising them right with love:
[The subjects of the movie] fostered and adopted six boys and girls with special needs including in utero drug exposure, abuse and neglect. The kids are currently ages seven through fourteen. I arranged to meet the entire family and together we decided to make a film.
Those are facts; they don't begin to describe the family. It's unexpected. It's special.
The kids are surprisingly happy and well adjusted. They love and respect their adoptive parents and their siblings. They are grounded. They have high self-esteem. They form a conservative suburban family built on all-American values. The kids work hard in school, play dress-up, video games and sports. They watch TV, make their beds, run around the neighborhood playing with the other kids and say grace before dinner. When you look into their eyes you don't see scars or nightmares. You see vibrant flourishing children, happy to connect and grow.
Here's what makes the movie notable: the adoptive parents are gay. One day, I hope, that won't be particularly notable (just as I live in hope that one day it won't be notable when older kids and kids with special needs get families).
There is good and evil in America. This movie appears to be about the good. I hope it gets made. I'd pay to watch it.
[No doubt, this — along with Patrick's superlative series — are part of what makes third parties call us "left-leaning." That's a shame.]
Things actually said to real families with internationally adopted kids, collected on adoption forums:
Are they REALLY brother and sister?
I guess their mom/dad is Ory Ental, huh?
Did their mother die in that big war they had down there?
Are you SURE she's [ethnicity]?
How could you love [adopted child] as much as [biological child]?
I adopted a dog once.
[Upon a post-adoption pregnancy] What are you going to do with the other one, keep him or send him back?
You get what you pay for.
Is he a real orphan?
What's wrong? You can't have one of your own?
Oh, they fight a lot there, don't they? Lots and lots of fighting!
[Regarding infant] Does she cry in Korean?
[By a family therapist, in front of child] Was her mother a prostitute?
Is he Chinese take-out?
What boat did he come on?
You know, your kids can marry each other.
How much did he cost?
[Public official, loudly, upon reviewing documents] You paid THAT much for her?
So is she, you know, natural?
How do you know he isn't really North Korean and a communist?
Will he be Christian?
I can't believe how Chinky his eyes are!
You know you'll never love an adopted kid the same as a real kid.
So, how much does it cost to buy a baby and how much of a cut does the birthmother get?
We'll that's awfully liberal of you.
No, what's her real name.
[In front of male child] HOW DID YOU GET A BOY?!! I thought they wanted the boys in China? You know what they do to those poor baby girls? Leave them abandoned in the streets to die! Why would they do that to a boy when they want the boys?
[In front of children] What kind of woman would abandon beautiful children like that? She must be a monster.
Where'd you get a slanty-eyed one?
Do you ever call him 'Immigrant baby?'
[regarding tiny infants] Does he speak Korean/Chinese/etc.?
[To clearly Anglo parents of clearly non-Anglo kid] Will you tell him he was adopted?
Don't they have birth control over there?
Are you going to buy rice in bulk now?
[Regarding twins, one a boy, one a girl] When a boy and a girl share a womb, those hormones get mixed up all willy-nilly, and so one of them will certainly turn out gay. [OK, that's not adoption-specific, but it's hilarious.]
Are you the nanny?
[After being told yes, they are siblings] No, but are they really siblings?
Can you tell me what you know about his real parents?
Is there a catalog or something?
What's wrong with American kids?
[to children] You don't know how lucky you are.
I've always wanted me one of them orientals!
Have you considered the eyelid surgery–I mean, not to make him look more white–but just because white people can see better with the shape of their eyes?
Oh, his mommy didn't want him?
Did you get a discount for more than one?
[general nipple-Nazi aggressive nosiness]
You must be rolling in it to afford one of those.
Oh, them people do good nails!
So are they all deformed, or does that just make them cheaper?
I'd definitely get one of them if they could guarantee me him. It's so expensive and there is no guarantee you'll get a good one.
I'm informed that adoptive parents of same-ethnicity kids get variations on some of these, too.
My point is not to portray adopted parents as poor victims — we're not, we're tremendously lucky. Nor is it my point to suggest that adopted children and adopted parents are exposed to more ignorance and bigotry and rudeness than other people — we're not, necessarily. The world is chock-full of asshats, and the subject of children is a powerful vector of asshattery, perhaps even more so than politics or religion or sports. Rather, my points are these: (1) my God, but the world is full of twits, and (2) adoptive parents, you aren't alone. Stay cool.
Look: people are going to get offended at stuff that doesn't offend you. You're going to get offended at things that don't offend other people. How you reconcile these things will help determine how you blunder along in the course of expressing yourself and dealing with other folks in our odd society.
Today's example: the wildly popular newly released game Portal 2 — sequel to a hit that launched many internet memes — features a rude character who teases and berates the player's character. At one point, the teasing focuses on adoption: "Alright, fatty. Adopted fatty. Fatty, fatty no parents," and so on.
Neal Staple, an adoptive parent in North Carolina, encountered this while playing the game with his daughter, and was so offended that he went to the media about it.
While Stapel and his wife have never hidden the fact their child is adopted, they says they wanted to wait until she was ready to talk about.
"It throws the question, the most ultimate question that child is ever gonna have for you and it just throws it right in your living room," he said. "It says it's rated "E" for everybody and I'm thinking maybe it's rated "E" for everybody except for orphans.
Stapel also said the most people won't even think the joke is problematic. "If you're not an adoptive parent it's probably not that big a deal to you," he said. "If you are it's literally the worst thing I could have probably heard."
Of course, gamers are offended that Mr. Stapel is offended and are ridiculing him, which is the primary mode of interaction for the online gaming culture. They point out that Stapel seems overly dramatic, and argue that the phrase "literally the worst thing I could have probably heard" is silly hyperbole. (That's true enough, but it's the sort of observation you make if you've never been interviewed by the press for half an hour, only to find that the resulting article or video only quoted the thirty seconds of stupid over-the-top and off-the-top-of-your-head shit you said, because that's what draws eyes and ears to stories.) They also argue, more reasonably, that the rude character in Portal 2 is portrayed as rude, and what he says is supposed to be obnoxious, and that it's silly to take it as the designer's opinion as opposed to negative characterization of a character.
But speaking as an adoptive father (and as someone who has been extensively interviewed by the press, only to have my reasonable and eloquent statements ignored and my stray stupid and/or incoherent statements emphasized), I'm sympathetic to Mr. Stapel. If I were playing Portal 2 with any of my kids and we came across the adoption-mocking, I'd feel pretty awful. If the kids reacted, I'd struggle to explain why it was there; if they didn't react, I'd struggle to decide whether to bring it up. Sure, I know what I could say to them: that the character is supposed to be a jerk, that one way they show he's a jerk is by having him say mean things about adoption, and that there are jerks in the world, and that in our family we know that there's nothing wrong with being adopted. But I'd be angry (at most) or annoyed (at least) on behalf of my kids, the way I am when the media trades on bad seed tropes, or takes pains to remind people that adopted kids must be distinguished from "real" kids at all costs. I'd get stabby, the way I do whenever someone trades in the hilarious trope that being adopted is terrible, as in this picture that frequently pops up on "funny picture" threads:
And yet — even though I am a Person of Girth, someone frequently teased for being fat as a child — I'm totally unoffended by the "fatty fatty" part of the Portal 2 character's insults. Is it clearer that it's part of characterizing the imaginary character as a jerk? Am I more hardened by our culture to fat-based insults? Am I more protective of my kids (who are far more athletic than I) than I am of myself? Am I too distracted by this delicious deep-fried bacon? Who knows. But to someone out there, the "fatty fatty" insults hurt, and the adoption ones don't. People are funny that way; our reactions are idiosyncratic. (In a similar vein, I've seen people I respect — people who themselves support adoption, people who are not generally assholes — post that "you're adopted!" pic above.)
So what, you ask? So maybe we should keep our different starting points in mind when we express offense and when we react to people expressing offense. I'm not suggesting that we should take all expressions of offense at face value, and I'm certainly not saying we should yield to the demands of the offended. There's no right to be free of offense, and the fact of offense does not justify censorship. Moreover, some people claim offense in a dramatically exaggerated way, or for personal or political gain or for attention, and we ought to feel free to explore their motives. But stating that we find something obnoxious is not the same as demanding censorship or stifling speech; rather, it's return speech, a further contribution to the marketplace of ideas. The right to be an ass does not include the right to be free of being called an ass, even if that reaction is irrational. Should we get angry and offended when someone else takes offense and demands censorship? Sure, because censorship (rationally defined) is offensive and contemptible. But getting all butthurt because someone merely expresses offense is rather silly and weak.
On the other side of the coin, if we find something obnoxious, we should say so. But we ought not race to the conclusion that our audience is made up of horrible people if they don't see it the same way. Offense is personal. Some things will offend most decent people; some will not.
I'm sure that I've said things here that offend people. That's the risk when you try to be funny or strident or aggressive. I'm fine with hearing when I've offended someone. I may not agree that I did anything wrong, I may not apologize, I may not change how I act — and I certainly won't give in to bullying censorship demands. But hearing that I offended someone only gives me information that I can use as I choose in interacting with my fellow men, bearing in mind Oscar Wilde's maxim "A gentleman is someone who never gives offense — unintentionally." Hopefully, if I've been a dick inadvertently or in the heat of the moment, I'll have what it takes to react appropriately.
Edit: Another gamer community reacts.
Adoptive parents like measured, positive stories about adoption. We like stories that promote the idea that adoption is an acceptable and normal way to build a family and that adoptive parents and adopted kids are not freaks. It's true that some of us have a regrettable preference for stories that hew strictly to the happy-happy joy-joy stance. But most of us like to see a balance — portrayals that recognize that adoption (like so many other social interactions) can involve very difficult issues, but that also recognize that adoptive families are "real families" in every meaningful sense of that term.
Unfortunately, the media likes to give us stories either in the form of insipid celebrity gossip or in the form of I-know-what's-best-for-everyone pontificating from douchebags like Mike Seate, who think that only certain family racial mixes are socially acceptable.
Part of the problem is people who think they are promoting adoption by tearing down other family choices — choices that are, to be blunt, none of their dammed business. But that doesn't promote adoption. Sneering at other paths to parenthood because they are unusual, or expensive, does not help convey the message that the unusual and often expensive choice of adoption is normal and socially acceptable. Rather, it promotes the default stance of being a judgmental asshole about other people's family choices.
Someone tell Andrea Peyser.
The New York Post pays Andrea Peyser to be an asshole, in print, to people who are famous for no good reason.** This week Peyser is employing her modest typing skills to be an asshole to Alexis Stewart, who is "famous" for the silly reason that she is the daughter of an ex-con housewares fetishist. Peyser, I believe, thinks that she is promoting adoption by savaging Stewart for pursuing various high-tech fertility methods in an attempt to have a child.
Now it's reported that Alexis (pictured right, with Mom) will get her bundle. After wasting hundreds of thousands on unsuccessful fertility treatments — and thumbing her nose at donor eggs and adoption — Alexis is going the Frankenstein route.
She's hired a surrogate, The Post first reported this week. She's picked a rural Pennsylvania woman as her rent-a-womb, wrote The National Enquirer.
A younger woman is just the trick to carrying Alexis' "dry, crusty eggs" — as she told Oprah in a nausea-provoking interview — combined with the sperm of an anonymous donor.
Martha, who nagged Alexis for grandkids to fill a void left by the death of her mother and a breakup with her longtime beau, is said to be thrilled. But at what cost?
Peyser is full of digs at Stewart both for being who she is, and for not choosing adoption:
Alexis, who takes the anti-depressant Zoloft twice a day and exercises thrice, according to the Web site of her Sirius satellite radio show, "Whatever with Alexis and Jennifer," never considered the message she sent to women: By draining all available medical resources, you, too, don't have to settle for a used kid.
Peyser wants us to think that she's promoting adoption and attributing, in what passes for irony, the "used kid" sentiment to Stewart. But Stewart hasn't said anything about adopted kids being inferior; that's Peyser's sentiment. Moreover, Peyser's mountains of scorn for Stewart demonstrate that she thinks that adopted kids really are second class: she thinks that Stewart is a freakish pill-popping narcissist, and that she ought to become a mother to a child through adoption. Huh?
Peyser offers a gesture towards quoting adoption professionals to say that there are kids out there who need homes — but does so only to savage women (not men, mind you) for pursuing biological motherhood over adoption:
People are out of work. Children are alone. But rich, neurotic women spend cash, work out mommy issues, and grab attention by having kids.
With training and therapy, Amanda Peyser could probably learn to simulate a decent human being.
I have no doubt that the various fertility and surrogacy methods that Stewart is pursuing are hideously expensive. But it's her money, and her family that she's building. Would Andrea Peyser be bashing Stewart if she spent the $27,000 per month on apartments and cars and dining out and travel and jewels? Well, probably. Because that's all Peyser knows how to do. But most of the judgmental "adoption proponent" twits who bash would-be parents for pursuing fertility treatments wouldn't care. They live in the sub-rational, my-way-or-no-way universe where it's narcissistic to spend $27,000 to have a biological kid but not narcissistic to spend $27,000 per month to live large. Would I be happy if Stewart spent $27,000 a month to buy a thousand copies of Firefly until Fox renews it? Yeah, sure. But I make an effort not to tell other people how to spend their own money. Being pro-adoption does not make me less of an asshole if I do so.
I recognize that it is silly to expect a New York Post gossiper to act decently. But Andrea Peyser's noisome column illuminates a too-frequent theme, albeit in an exaggerated way. Andrea Peyser – and her more obscure but equally judgmental imitators — are not pro-adoption. They aren't helping promote adoption. They're helping promote the social norm that there's one right way to build a family, and if you don't choose that way, everyone ought to judge you. That doesn't help adoptive parents or adopted kids at all.
** Conflict disclosure: Though Popehat writers receive no monetary remuneration, we are also tasked to be assholes in print to people who are famous for no good reason.
Occasionally life gives you pop quizzes, which you fail.
This weekend, life's pop quiz was "Hey, Ken, since it's National Adoption Month, do you think you could model how to react positively and constructively to challenging or uncomfortable adoption-related social situations?"
My answer: KEN SMASH KEN SMASH KEN SMASH.
That wasn't the right answer. Not even partial credit.
Many timeson this blog, I've talked about the social challenge that adoptive parents face in responding to rude questions in public, and how uncomfortable those situations can make us. I've admitted fantasies about telling rude people off, but maintained that adoptive parents should generally opt for education or avoidance over confrontation in order to avoid conveying to our children that there is something upsetting or shameful about adoption. It's much better for our kids to say "Actually, that's personal" or "whyever do you ask" than to say "go screw yourself, you nosy twit", however viscerally satisfying the latter is.
Yeah, well. About that.
When it came to it, on a sunny November Saturday watching my son play soccer, I blew it.
Now, I was provoked. But like I said earlier today, provocation is not an excuse.
I was sitting there in the sun when a father watching a game on the next field started up with me. He was an aging jock type, Al Bundy in sweats and a smirk. "Is that your son?" Yes. "Really?" Yes. "I mean — that kid there. He's really your son?" [smirk] Uh-huh. "Yeah, that kid?" [smirk] "Because he's — you know." Huh. [More smirks.] Then, "Hey, I'm just askin'. Am I not being PC?" No, you're fine.
If I had left it at "no, you're fine," he would have lost interest at my lack of response and wandered off. But I added ". . . I mean, considering." And he picked up on it, and followed up, and asked what I meant, and it went downhill from there. I won't describe it at length, because it would defeat the purpose of advocating against smacking down rude people about adoption in public near our kids and in favor of either educating or avoiding. Suffice it to say: (1) I said he was fine, considering his capacities, and that I supported people like him being mainstreamed, and did they bring him on a bus from his group home, and so on [I was thinking of crazy people, but in retrospect it sounds like a joke about the mentally handicapped, which is embarrassing to me], (2) he blustered and threatened and got red in the face, (3) I said a number of things that were cutting and a number of things that were merely angry or incoherent, among them "that depends on the color of your ear," [very sure I said it, seemed very a propos at the time, no idea what it means], and (4) people started to notice and look concerned and there was the possibility of getting into a fistfight for the first time in decades, and (5) eventually something happened on his son's game and he cussed at me and pointed at me and threatened some more and went off to look after his son.
So. Not my brightest hour. The saving grace: Evan was on the field and didn't notice.
Did it feel good at the time, to confront him and cut at him and score points off of him? God, yes. It felt great. But I sure as Hell didn't impress any of the parents or kids in earshot about adoption being a normal, positive thing. I made them think of this adoptive parent as being angry and out of control. And I helped solidify in their mind the idea that cross-racial adoption is somehow upsetting and Other. Plus, had my son been there, and observed it, he would have picked up that there was something very upsetting, and maybe shameful, and controversial, about me being his father.
The guy was trying to get my goat. He got it. I'll try to do better next time. But I can't promise anything.
Tonight Katrina and I watched the movie "Adopted," a documentary that depicted two journeys — a family's adoption of a little girl from China, and an adult Korean adoptee's attempt to confront her feelings about being adopted and to get her parents to understand and acknowledge them. We thought it was great — painful, but great — and highly recommend it to anyone interested in international adoption issues, which I write about here occasionally.
The movie's strength lies in comfort with contrasting views of adoption, and ultimately with its comfort with ambiguity. The adult adoptee is deeply troubled, and growing up in an all-white community without any familial understanding of the impact of her ethnicity has wounded her, perhaps irrevocably. But she's also shown to be utterly devoted to her parents and her patient, supportive brother — her alienation does not prevent her from loving them. The adoption of the little girl is depicted as joyous, and she's clearly immediately well-attached to her parents — and yet her mother is openly tormented with the idea that her joy comes at the inevitable expense of a long-term sense of loss in her daughter. Barb Lee — who I learned is a first-time director, much to my surprise — does not attempt to tell an easy story; she offers neither the popular view that international adoption is an unqualified good, nor the criticism that it is intrinsically bad. She clearly thinks that, like people, it's messy and complicated — which it is.
I also liked how Lee used cinematic techniques to convey feelings and messages with a level of facility I don't often see in documentaries. The scene in which the young couple meets their little girl for the first time in a drab government building in China is brilliant precisely because Lee used such a sparing touch in editing it. Her choice to leave in the chaotic camera movements, the nearly unendurable echoing din of babies crying and new parents anxiously trying to soothe them, and the raw chaos of the moment was uncannily familiar to us and evocative of the dislocation and loss that moment represents.
It's a good movie, but not an easy movie, for adoptive parents to watch. Lee shows powerfully how the adult adoptee's parents lack the language to respond to their daughter's feelings and questions. But she doesn't let the daughter off the hook, either. It's ultimately a very human story, showing fallible people trying with love and the best of intentions to connect, and not always succeeding.
Sometimes I tease my wife about the fact that she's got a doctorate in clinical psychology and is widely reputed among her colleagues to be a gifted child psychologist, yet is as much at sea in raising our own little hellions as I am. She tells me that it's actually somewhat a joke in the mental health profession that their kids wind up disturbed. I can live with that, I guess; at least statistically one or two of them will drop out rather than going to an expensive college, and I can buy a cool car.
There's another group widely assumed to be naturally gifted and excellent at parenting: adoptive parents. But we're just not. Adoptive parents are used to people cooing "Oh, that's so WONDERFUL that you adopted a that child," often accompanied by suggestions that the parents are "rescuing" the child, that the child is inherently better off with the adoptive parents, and that the adoptive parents are somehow noble saviors. Well-adjusted and reflective adoptive parents tend to despise this, as I've said before in the course of discussion adoption. Well-adjusted adoptive parents recognize that they are the extraordinarily blessed ones in the relationship, that the adoptive-parent-as-savior concept is poisonous to a child's self-esteem and development, and that it perpetuates a sentiment that justifies trafficking in children from developing countries. Yet people still insist on believing that a family that wanted a child enough to adopt one is somehow naturally better prepared for life's unpleasant surprises. They're not.
Russia threatened to suspend all child adoptions by U.S. families Friday after a 7-year-old boy adopted by a woman from Tennessee was sent alone on a one-way flight back to Moscow with a note saying he was violent and had severe psychological problems.
Nancy Hansen, the grandmother, told The Associated Press that she and the boy flew to Washington and she put the child on the plane with the note from her daughter. She vehemently rejected assertions of child abandonment by Russian authorities, saying he was watched over by a United Airlines stewardess and the family paid a man $200 to pick the boy up at the Moscow airport and take him to the Russian Education and Science Ministry.
It sounds as if the adoptive family was completely unprepared to deal with a child with behavioral issues. Rather than seeking help from private or public resources, the family chose to ship the child back like unceremoniously returning a defective product to the store. I'm not saying that no adoption disruption is never appropriate — sometimes a family, whether adoptive or biological, just isn't capable of addressing a child's needs. But decent people, having made a commitment to a child, ought to make every possible effort to live up to that commitment, and that includes seeking help and disrupting through official channels, not dumping the kid with a one-way ticket.
Irresponsibility is not a zero-sum game: without diminishing the parents' guilt, we can observe that the adoption agency in this case probably did a piss-poor job of vetting the family and making sure that it was capable of dealing with entirely predictable emotional and behavioral issues.
A lot of adoptive parents are quite outraged by this story. That's understandable. But the outrage should be tempered with a bit of mercy, humility (meaning recognition that adoptive parents are just as broken as anyone else), and awareness of the stance we normally take towards the birth parents of our own children. To use the currently correct term, our kids' parents "made an adoption plan"; to use the language people are using about this family, some of them "abandoned" their children. If we rail too hard at the Hansen family, our kids might wonder how we view their parents, and how they should view them. We should criticize the Hansen family and their response to their situation carefully, without dehumanizing parents who decide that they are not capable of raising their children and, out of love, seek to find them another home.
So Katherine Heigl — whose own sister was adopted from Korea — is adopting a baby girl from Korea. Best wishes to her and her husband and their daughter.
This will be an opportunity for some people to inquire whether celebs adopting get special treatment or exemptions from the rules. That is a legitimate inquiry. It may also be an occasion to explore problems with, and concerns about, international adoption; that is also a completely legitimate subject, even if it is not comfortable for everyone.
However, most of the coverage will not be serious. The loudest voices will be racist assholes like the Pittsurgh Tribune's Mike Seate, who will ask variations on "why are they adopting those ching-chong kids rather than REAL 'MURKIN KIDS." The loudest voices will tell rice and sumo and math jokes. The loudest voices, operating on the principle that "things I notice, or the media covers, represent a statistically significant trend," will push the "OMG Asian babies are celebrity fashion statements!!!!" notion. The loudest voices will be sure to use language distinguishing Heigl's baby so that nobody confuses it with a "real" daughter.
In short, the loudest voices on the topic will be douchebags.
Oh, by the way, some people will also complain that Heigl is not fit because she's to be a working mother — working on a movie soon, to be specific. I don't see a problem with that. She can pretty much let the kid graze at the craft services table. They've always got good stuff. (Unless it's an indie movie, then it's all vegan shit, like organic localvore rutabagas that have been grown in fertilizer made from the nightsoil of teaching assistants from the local community college's Comp. Lit. department.) Just make sure to put the baby on the craft services table before the teamsters get there, because they always take the donuts.
Plus, there are lots of people on-set who can supervise a baby. I mean, most of these jobs are made up anyway. "Gaffer"? "Key grip"? "Best boy?" Please. Like any of those can prove that their job description doesn't include "clean up after projectile vomiting." If they've worked on a movie with Gary Busey, they probably expect it.
Plus, I have to say that having a kid will take the pressure off of Heigl for relentlessly badmouthing her directors and writers. She bad-mouthed the Grey's Anatomy writers until [WARNING: READERS WHO ARE MY WIFE AND WAITING FOR THE SEASON FIVE DVD, READ NO FURTHER] they gave her character a brain tumor. That's why you don't annoy people who write; I'm just saying. Also, she whined about how demeaning some of the material in Judd Aptow movies were. Dude, it's a Judd Aptow movie. You were expecting it to be Chekov? Anyway, my point is that her kid can take the pressure off by her by taking over some of the bad-mouthing. She could focus on just the directors and the kid could, like, have a diaper malfunction all over the executive producer, or shriek at the writers when they try to steal food to take home to their families.
I may have wandered from the point here.
Long-time readers know that I write a fair amount about adoption, and particularly about issues like how the media talks about adoption and the tension between some adoption boosters (the happy-happy-joy-joy wing who resist discussing anything negative about international adoption) and those of us who think that it's complicated.
So I'm always happy to learn about new adoption blogs. Thanks to an email from Martha Nichols, a writer and teacher of writing, I found two more to follow: Martha's own new blog (in which I strongly identified with her experience of trying to get a seven-year-old to appreciate Star Trek), and a new blog called Adopt-a-Tude, with a promising and thoughtful first post about how the media treats international adoption. Check them out.
In the various blogs and forums where adoptive families congregate, there's been an uproar about the upcoming Warner Brothers movie Orphan. You may have seen the trailer if you've been to the movies in the last few weeks; if not, you can see a revised version (more on that later) through the link above. Orphan appears to be a run-of-the-mill psychological horror movie built around the classic changeling/bad seed myth kernel, in this case featuring a nice quiet family adopting a cute little girl who turns out to be an evil psychopath with some sort of mysterious and no doubt horrifying past.
This is nothing new. The Omen series plays on the same mythic structure. The evil adopted child/stepchild/foundling is a concept as old as the evil stepmother and just as common in folklore.
So why the uproar? Well, a few reasons. First, in fairness to Warner Brothers, the adoption community is somewhat sensitive (some would say oversensitive) to slights to begin with. Why? Well, it's because some of you are such relentlessly insensitive and ignorant assholes who don't think before flapping your big fat mouths in front of our kids. No offense.
But second, in fairness to the adoptive parents, Orphan has been marketed in a way to play up the adopting-a-kid-is-a-scary-risk angle. The trailer dwells on the spooky orphanage and scenes within it, and emphasizes that the adopted child is alien and out of place in her new family. Of course, adoptive parents get that a lot. "Aren't you afraid you'll get a child with . . . problems? "Isn't there a risk of emotional issues?" "Aren't you worried about getting a drug-addicted baby?" Etc. Etc. Etc. (As if pushing a kid out of your vagina was insurance that the kid would grow up to be a well-adjusted brain surgeon. Ask Lionel Dahmer about that one, kids.)
The original trailer also featured a line from the titular character: "It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as your own." There's a line that sets our teeth on edge, and that we also hear all too often. The inclusion of that line made it seem as if Warner's marketers were trying to demonize adoptive kids.
The adoptive community reacted in bad ways and good ways. I'm sorry to say there were calls to censor the movie — to prevent it, somehow, from being released. The fact that there was no chance of that happening does not diminish the fact that such calls for censorship are un-American and regrettable. There were also calls to exercise return speech in the marketplace of ideas — to tell Warner that they were being assholes and offending a small but extremely noisy segment of their ticket-buying audience. That approach was effective — Warner acknowledged that its marketing of the movie was sort of douchey (my words, not theirs), removed the "it must be hard to love an adoptive child" line from the trailer, and apologized. They also commented that in a world in which they get death threats for moving the date of the next Harry Potter movie, the adoption community was unusually polite in their feedback. That's nice to know.
My kids will be bombarded with cultural messages marking them as other, different, even inferior because they are adopted. Orphan adds but one small voice to that din. I'd like them to take two messages away from this affair. The first is that they are in control of their own destinies and, by taking initiative and telling people like Warner that they are being assholes, can educate and change minds. The second is that while their feelings are valid and their own, they ought not interpret every use of an anti-adoption trope as a personal assault, any more than a stepmother should get upset at every Cinderella sequel. Sometimes a mythic-theme-driven horror movie is just a horror movie.
I'm lucky. As a lawyer, sucking marrow from the bones of the fallen and feeding like a lamprey off the lifeblood of the economy, I have the financial wherewithal to allow my spouse to "stay home" with the kids rather than work. (I say "stay home" because her schedule with the kids drives her more miles per day than mine does.) I'm also fortunate to be married to someone with a temperament that allows her to "stay home" with the kids without bleeding out the ears or drowning them in a lake and fabricating a story involving a dark-skinned carjacker.
Many families are not so lucky. 51% of families with kids had two working parents in 1998. Some of those families, like mine, were built by adoption rather than by birth. Some were built by both.
Probate Judge Frank Willis of Van Buren County, Michigan thinks that's just not right. Even though the law doesn't support him, he's out to stop it.
See, Judge Frank Willis has authority to approve — or not — adoptions in his county. And he won't approve them unless the prospective parents sign a "moral commitment" pledging that one parent will stay home with a baby for a year, and that one parent will not work full-time during the kid's preschool years.
Willis requires parents who adopt infants in his county to agree that one of them will be home with the baby during the first year and won't work full time during the baby's preschool years. Willis is perhaps the only justice in Michigan to require such a pledge, which he acknowledges is not legally binding and may be offensive and outdated to some.
Oh, ya think?
Judge Willis' requirement is not based on any federal or Michigan or local law. He's made it up out of whole cloth, based on his personal views on parenting. So far he's gotten away with it. The commitment he requires, if honored, would render adoption impossible for some families. Not everyone can afford to have one parent take a year off work, or work only part-time for a few more years:
For the Shockleys, cutting in half their combined $70,000 income wasn't an option.
"It wouldn't have been possible to pay our mortgage and bills with one income," Allison Shockley said.
Allison works as a financial analyst at Welch Foods Inc. in Lawton, and her husband is a technology specialist at the Kalamazoo Educational Regional Service Agency. They both worked during the infancy of their older son, Jordan, 4, who was adopted as an infant in Kalamazoo County.
Without the Shockleys' signatures on the moral-commitment pledge, though, Willis would not put his signature on their petition to adopt.
And without the signature of the judge in the county where they live, the Shockleys' interstate adoption through a local agency was stalled.
But, Judge Willis says, this is a matter of principle, not of finances.
Or wait. Maybe not.
Willis said he does not require the pledge from adoptive parents of foster children, children with special needs or children from other countries. He restricts the requirement to parents adopting babies born in this country because "this is a babies' market; that's where the waiting list is."
Oh. So it's market-driven. Willis wants adoption of the sought-after babies to be limited to families with sufficient resources to have one parent stay home with them.
Look, there are perfectly colorable arguments that children are better off with one parent at home with them. There's a perfectly colorable argument that people work longer and harder because they want to buy things that aren't necessary. But, to be blunt, that's none of Judge Willis' damn business. There's no law in Michigan restricting adoption to one-working-parent families. It's questionable whether anyone would support such a law, and not entirely clear that it would pass constitutional muster. Willis is an oathbreaker. He took an oath to uphold the laws and constitution of his state, and he's pissing on that oath by using the power of his office to enforce his personal extra-legal social and moral views. That's highlighted by his calling this a "moral commitment" and pointing out that it is not enforceable. That's no damn excuse. He has no business enforcing moral rules from the bench whether or not the parents can break their word without consequence. His job is to enforce and apply legal rules. Willis' behavior is the essence of tyranny and the antithesis of the rule of law. The Court of Appeals and the state Commission on Judicial Performance need to slap him down.
(Via Alicia, a member of our adoption forum.)
In the latest setback for my hope that the mainstream media will treat international adoption as something other than a freakshow or a punchline, Madonna's effort to adopt another child from Malawi has been rejected on the grounds that she was apparently unwilling to fulfill Malawi's residency requirement.
"The decision came down to residency requirement and the fact that the judge believes she was being well taken care of in the orphanage," said Zione Ntaba, a spokeswoman for the Malawi Justice Department.
"For the Malawians, the fact that the child is at an orphanage, is being taken care of and is going through the school education system, that does qualify as the best interests of a child," Ntaba added.
Predictably, this is generating two species of asshattery. Species one: the sentiment that all international adoption is the product of the accessory-seeking whims of flighty rich white people. Species two: the sentiment that this is a terrible decision, because of course the child would have a "better life" with Madonna.
Certainly the child would have a more materially fortunate life with the Material Girl. (OK, sorry.) But the question of whether that life would be "better" in other ways lies at the heart of the dilemma of international adoption. Without diving headlong into the question today, I submit this: the child's life would not be "better" in a way that justifies exempting an aging pop star from Malawi's residency requirements or otherwise ignoring Malawi's sovereign right to oversee the adoption and welfare of its children.
Paula at Heart, Mind, and Seoul — an adult adoptee and adoptive parent whose writings on international adoption issues should not be missed if you are interested in the topic — has a good take on this, in which she decries the "how can you enforce residency rules when this is best for the child" sentiments and reasonably questioning why Madonna can't just hang out in Malawi long enough to satisfy the residency requirement if she is committed to this child. Getting a child — whether through labor or adoption — is not calculated to be convenient or easy, so why should we expect that it will be? As I've argued before, adoption ought not be all about the parent.
Previously I praised Miss Manners for endorsing the use of the cut direct with jackasses who ask rude questions about adoptive families. Such rude questions are a well-established pet peeve of mine. So via TJIC (who has a rather different take on it than I do), I was pleased to see her make another attempt to reassure adoptive parents that they need not be doormats, and perhaps even educate a few socially stunted twits.
The letter writer identifies the problem with coy or ambiguous responses designed to deflect the questions:
I've tried asking with the slightest of remonstrance "Excuse me?" but, of course, that just led them to believe that I couldn't hear what was being asked, and the question was repeated even more loudly.
Miss Manners offers admirable advice, which amounts (in pleasant Miss Manners speak) to responding to rude questions with "Why, it's because fuck off!"
Nosy people have already proven themselves to be rude, so you should hardly expect them to make tactful remarks. The important thing is to cut them off at the first question. The only explanation necessary is, "That's personal."
Miss Manners also aptly reminds us that assuming a general approach of civility and decency does not mean we must license all of the crapweasels of the world to walk all over us:
But you must also teach your daughters not to fall for two common arguments: that curiosity is natural and that people who don't disclose personal information must be ashamed of it. Dignified people value their privacy, and being curious is no excuse for demanding that it be satisfied. Under such pressure, they should merely smile and repeat "That's personal" as often as necessary.