WHAT ABOUT ADOPTION?
In ancient Greece, there was no such thing as adoption as we know it. Adoption was only used to secure an unbroken lineage for men without biological sons, according to a history of adoption by Peter Conn. Thus, Aristotle would not have been worried that his description of parenthood seems to bar adoptive parents from having the usual parent-child relationship with a child. It’s a firm component of our contemporary view of parenthood that adoptive parenthood is possible and neither inferior to biological parenthood, nor flawed in any way. So we urgently need to see whether Aristotle’s conception of parenthood excludes or downgrades adoptive parenthood.
Some adoption advocates think this is so, regarding any focus on biological origins with suspicion. But perhaps Aristotle’s understanding of parenthood doesn’t exclude adoptive parenthood after all. If the crux of the matter is that a child is a sort of second self, that sort of identification is possible without biological parenthood. And it’s not even out of the question that adopted kids come from their adoptive parents in an important sense. There are many ways that one person can come from another. A newborn baby—a girl, let’s imagine—comes from her mother in a different way than from her father. The mother has grown the baby in her own body for nine months; a father has contributed half of the baby’s genes and (ideally) assistance to his partner during her pregnancy. This is a big difference, yet there’s enough "coming from” for the child to feel like another self to both parents.
Adoptive parents are progenitors too. The care we give to young, dependent children is all-encompassing—a daily effort that gradually transforms helpless, squirming newborns into talkative toddlers, smart adolescents, and (hopefully) accomplished adults. To have a major hand in those transformations gives parents the same sense of miraculous creativity that biological parents have during pregnancy, when an embryo is gradually becoming a baby. My personal involvement in these transformations—first anticipated, then directly experienced, and then remembered—makes a child my child whether I am involved as a biological mother, a biological father, or an adoptive parent.
What about nannies, babysitters, and day-care workers? Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy calls these caregivers "allomoth- ers,” making them out to be a sort of mother. A nanny who raises children does have a hand in the child’s critical transformations over many years. There is a difference, though. Caregivers know their relationship with a child can end at any time, and will change drastically or end when the child is self-sufficient. They often have their own children, and take care to maintain the distinction between "mine” and "theirs.” So the alchemy doesn’t work: someone else’s child doesn’t become the caregiver’s second self.
Adoptive parents can have the parental state of mind toward a biologically unrelated child, but the majority of people adopt after first trying to conceive or with the knowledge that they can’t conceive. Compared to all women, women who pursue adoption are twice as likely to have "impaired fecundity,” according to a 2002 US study. Those who adopt after using infertility services often use them for years and years, at huge expense (adoption fees are high too, but they are a one-time expense). Some of the preference for procreation has to do with the difficulty of adopting. Adoptable children are often in short supply, especially for prospective parents who want to adopt an infant—the majority. And the adoption process typically puts prospective parents under an unpleasant microscope. Many want to have the reproductive experience from start to finish—they want procreative sex, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and a child.
Some are disturbed by the thought that their gain of an adopted child will be the result of a birth parent’s loss.
All that being said, some of the preference for procreation does relate to the core of what it is to be a parent. When a baby is in your arms, as a result of procreation, the child already comes from you. Mothers, especially, are intimately aware of that fact. Adoptive parents hold a child for the first time with the awareness that their connection to the child is just then beginning. There’s less certainty at the beginning of adoptive parenthood: will this child, born of strangers, seem to me as children normally do to their parents?
The answer, for people who pursue adoption, is almost always “yes.” In his memoir Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other, National Public Radio journalist Scott Simon gives an extremely touching account of falling in love with his daughter, adopted in China. When he and his wife first laid eyes upon her, she was dirty, crying uncontrollably, and burping up a “geyser of phlegm,” Simon writes; but he focused on her “downy baby duck’s head,” her “small robin’s mouth,” and tears that “fell like soft, fat, furious little jewels.” The pairing of parents and this baby does not seem contingent and arbitrary to Simon—he sees it as “meant to be.”
The very same phrase is used by Harvard lawyer Elizabeth Bartholet to describe becoming the mother of a baby boy in Lima, Peru. In Family Bonds she writes, “I am the complete rationalist, with no religious or mystical leanings, yet I find myself wondering at the miracle that after all the years of wandering I found my way to this particular child, this one who was meant to be mine.” It may not be that everyone could feel deeply connected to a biologically unrelated baby, but some of us can and do. Though different in various ways, adoptive parenthood is clearly not pretend or inferior.
In the chapters that follow I will usually picture the parent- to-be as someone contemplating or undertaking biological reproduction, but I will come back to adoptive parents’ parallel path to parenthood.