As we’ve gone over before, the waiting times of foster care and adoption can leave you with a lot of energy and looking for somewhere to put it. With my extra time, I can’t seem to stop searching, buying, and checking out adoption books! If you ask Nate, I’m always asking to “just stop in this bookstore really quickly” or begging for just ONE MORE BOOK on Amazon.
Typically, I’m drawn more towards books that tell stories, like memoirs, or practical books to help prepare me for parenting children who have experienced trauma. But I came across Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption by Barbara Melosh at the library and although it seemed more intellectual than conversational, I couldn’t resist reading a thorough history of adoption here in the United States.
In Strangers and Kin, Melosh seeks to integrate primary sources from the Children’s Bureau of Delaware into the grander scheme of what was happening in the adoption world at the time. Though I was skeptical at first of applying these examples of case files and social worker testimony from one agency too universally, the author did a nice job of strengthening each section with statistics and studies from other parts of the country and globe.
The book revolves around the theme of kin–What defines it? Who defines it? Does it have to look the same for everyone? Do kin have to look like each other, period? How has the idea of kin changed over the last century in the United States? I appreciated this angle, especially given what we believe around these parts: whether blood relation or not, just as you choose to come home to your partner each and every day, you choose your family. You choose it in your words, your actions, your love, your day in and day out commitments to one another. And yes, sometimes strangers become kin.
Certain sections were more riveting than others to me, surely because I come to the world of adoption and foster care books with the eye of a future adoptive mother, and therefore I was hoping for some pieces that applied directly to my life and identity. Chapter Two, “Families By Design,” examined the role of ‘fit’ in matching adoptive parents with children and was particularly intriguing to me. As we are currently in the home study process, our every answer to the many vulnerable questions asked by our social worker could ultimately be held up as justification for our ‘fit’ to be matched with a child. It turns out that a number of personal attributes we wouldn’t necessarily consider important today were examined very closely to determine ‘fit’ in the early-mid 20th century. Potential adoptive parents were judged on their physical appearance, projections of femininity, religion and religious intentions, perceived intellect, and more.
The mid-century approach of embracing adoption as “The Best Solution” for children born out of wedlock was detailed in Chapter Three, and it was very revealing. It made me uncomfortable at times, and grateful that we are adopting in today’s more progressive society. For example, as someone who did not come to adoption via the journey of infertility, I would likely not have been accepted as an adoptive parent by agencies in the 1950s. The quotation below details some of this bias.
“The Child Welfare League of America endorsed the policy of restricting adoption to infertile couples in 1952: ‘If they can have children and do not, their reason for adopting is highly questionable.’ Such attitudes reflected postwar pronatalism, directed with special intensity toward women.
In a discussion of agency requirements of infertility, a 1957 adoption manual explained, ‘This is not merely because there are not enough children to go around. It is also because the motive for adopting, if not based on an organic sterility that precludes having one’s own children, might be a neurotic one. No matter how desperately anxious for motherhood a woman claims to be, social workers know that a potentially good mother makes every effort to have her own child before she tries to adopt one.'”
p. 112, Strangers and Kin
Wow. There’s a lot to unpack there. Not only were professional organizations, adoption agencies, and even the government convinced that fertile couples (women in particular) were questionable, neurotic, or outright liars, but the language used directly in an agency adoption manual reflects how important it is that we now embrace adoption positive language. And that was written just over sixty years ago, a relatively short time in the history of our world (and adoption). If our agency stated in a manual that ‘a potentially good mother‘ should have exhausted her efforts to have ‘her own child‘ before attempting to adopt, I think I’d flip the table. How demeaning to potential mothers, and to the children in need of permanent families.
I could see this book being particularly informative for today’s social workers, as the direct quotations from workers of yesteryear were incredibly revealing of the myriad of ways adoption has changed in the United States, and the ways the role of the social worker has ebbed and flowed. Ultimately, the primary sources I doubted enjoying initially ended up being the most revealing parts of this book. I did find myself longing for more analysis from Melosh, who instead seemed to just state the facts and move on to the next point. It seems an effort to remain unbiased instead came across as dry in places.
I also would have appreciated more examination into the advent and growth of foster care adoption. Though foster care was mentioned throughout the book, it was more in passing. I recognize that Melosh was working primarily with about 400 case files from the CBD, and they were not focused on this type of adoption, I feel that permanency planning deserved its own section. Some additional research outside of the CBD could have really helped Strangers and Kin complete the ‘history’ aspect of this book by focusing on modern approaches to adoption and the diversity of the 21st century adoptive family.
Although it wasn’t my usual style of adoption-oriented book, I’m grateful to Melosh for putting this exposition together. I can be a better mother of adoption by being a good student of adoption, and having a historical perspective on the institution allows me to appreciate how far we’ve come. Hearing the stories of what other birth and adoptive mothers have experienced over the past century both broke my heart and empowered me on this journey.
Whether 1948 or 2018, to me, this adoptive mother life is a sisterhood. If it were easy, everyone would do it, but there are those of us who have chosen this harder path because we know there is something beautiful and scary, gentle and wild to be discovered. To get there, we have to break our hearts wide open again and again, hold our most vulnerable selves up for examination, and push things aside to make room for strangers to become true kin. It’s enough to make you question your sanity and worth.
“Recognizing their position on the unfavorable side of the supply-and-demand equation, adopters generally entered the home study with considerable apprehension. As one adoptive mother recalled wryly in a  memoir, ‘[receiving] an adopted babe depends on one’s worthiness to have him. It’s the profoundest difference there is between natural and adoptive parents.‘” (p. 207)
Are we worthy?