For a mutt of Northern European descent, I have a pedigree that is pretty traceable. My family lines go back through Ellis Island to Germany, through Illinois to colonial Virginia (and Yorkshire before that), and through Puritan New England, with notable names like Benedict Arnold, Nathan Hale, and Miles Standish in the family tree. My wife Melanie is the fifth generation of her family born in San Francisco. Just the fact that I can tell you these details indicates how much we define ourselves by our lineage.
So as I watched the excellent Philomena (insert customary spoiler alert), I tried to get my head around what it would be like if I were denied that knowledge and the sense of belonging it has provided me throughout my life. The movie is the true story of Philomena Lee, who was raised in an Irish convent in the 1930’s, and after an encounter with a dashing young man shortly after she turned 18, gave birth to a baby boy. Her father sent her and the baby back to the Magdalene Laundries, where she spent long hours cleaning the dirty linens of others, with only an hour a day to spend with her beloved son. When her son was three, he was adopted by an American couple – without Philomena’s consent. She did not even have the opportunity to say goodbye to him. Flash forward fifty years, and with the help of an investigative journalist, Philomena began to search for her son in earnest. Sadly, her search revealed that he had died of AIDS several years previously.
Much has been made of the ugly portrayal of the Catholic hierarchy in the movie, and the manner in which Philomena’s son was summarily taken from her, followed by the great lengths taken to conceal his whereabouts from her. The cruelty of their separation is difficult to watch, and while the film takes some license with the bitter old nun who wanted to keep punishing Philomena for her carnal sin (in fact, the old sister died 10 years prior to the supposed encounter at the convent), it captures the anguish of the black box that is the essence of closed adoption. That driving need to know about her son inspired her to make it a more universal journey, and to shine light on the human right to know where we come from through the Philomena Project.
It’s easy to dwell on the pain, but for me as an adoptive parent, the more intriguing part of the story was how she preserved the memory of her son and how she thought of him (and likely still thinks of him) every day. Even more, she needed to know that he also thought of her. Discovering that he was dead was not the end of her journey; much as she wanted to see and speak with her son, meeting his partner and hearing that her son yearned to know what had become of his first mother was what really gave Philomena some measure of solace in the end. I suppose that after living with her idea of him for so many years, there was not much difference in the fact that he was dead – but the knowledge that she was part of his consciousness gave her some sort of mutual relationship with him for the first time since he was taken from her.
Fortunately, the enforced separation of closed adoption is largely a thing of the past for domestic adoption in wealthy Western countries. With the new emphasis on the rights of adoptees and birthparents, open adoption is now the norm. It is certainly fraught with its own challenges, but it does not force adoptees to become private detectives to discover their origins. Open adoption also affirms that the process is not shameful, but rather an avenue of opportunity for everyone involved (at least in the best circumstances).
So now…for all intents and purposes, closed adoption has been offshored (like so many other things in American life). However, many of the people that want to keep adoption closed overseas seem to be less driven by religious conviction, and more by economic interest. There are individuals with good intentions all along the way, but there is also far too much room for corruption.
I have promised to avoid details of the Lively Lad’s personal story before we adopted him, so none of what follows is a veiled attempt to tell that story. Rather, the intent is to delve into motives for adopting internationally, and to acknowledge some unavoidable truths based on the stories of other families who have adopted from Ethiopia in particular.
After infertility struggles and miscarriages, Melanie and I decided to turn to adoption to have a family. In choosing to adopt a child internationally, we were partially trying to avoid the pain and disruption that an intrusive birthfamily could cause, after hearing enough stories about parents seeking to adopt infants through the foster system, only to have some member of the birthfamily assert parental rights. That was a heartbreak we thought would be unbearable. Our perception was that there were many orphans and unwanted children abroad who had no one to care for them other than institutional caregivers. While there are many children who fit that profile, the notion that we could avoid birthfamily complications through intercountry adoption was ultimately pretty naive. Every child has a family history, known or unknown, no matter how young they may be when adopted. And when they grow up they will most likely wonder about it, if not actively seek it out.
After our experiences in travelling to Addis Ababa to take custody of the Lively Lad, and now being involved in the Ethiopian adoptive community in Los Angeles, that veil has been lifted from my eyes. We have heard many stories from our fellow travelers on the adoption journey who discovered that their supposedly orphaned children still had family in Ethiopia, or that they had been otherwise misled about the circumstances surrounding their adoptions. Some agencies have been transparent and forthcoming, but others have been passive about determining the history of the children in their care (at best), to downright fraudulent. This is the new closed adoption, where the histories of the children have been hidden from the adoptive parents. Sometimes this is intended to protect the birthmother from social ostracism, sometimes it can be chalked up to poor recordkeeping, but all too often it is hiding unethical behavior driven by profit motive.
As I said, those histories do not simply disappear because someone doctored the paperwork, nor do personal stories disappear even for children who were genuinely found abandoned. Their story is there somewhere. This has created a cottage industry of birthfamily searchers in Ethiopia and other countries. One of the benefits of the internet – we have a means of contacting the other side of the world and trying to resolve these origin questions. Intercountry adoption makes the world a smaller place; the men and women who dedicate themselves to connecting with birthfamilies – at times, at great personal risk – have made the world an even smaller place. And a better one, in my opinion. My family now extends to Africa!
The Lively Lad is too young to even ask the hard questions, although we often speak of his birthfamily and make sure he knows that his history before adoption is not a forbidden subject. Melanie and I feel very strongly that parenthood is a form of stewardship, and that we need to make every effort to make sure LL has the means to explore his earliest years. And I dearly hope that he does.
Attribution: Family Art Studio
© 2014 Thomas Craig Elliott