Sunday, July 15, 2012

Trying to be Human 101: The Nature of Sacrifice

Trying to be Human 101 digs into human experience and how it effects adoption. Previously I discussed the nature of dignity and provided an excerpt from Jim Gritter's Life Givers. This is the first of several posts within the Trying to be Human 101 series.

Sacrifice is a strange concept. It is comforting to know that sacrifices are made but we don't want to get very near it. Comfort increases with distance from the individuals making sacrifices. When discussing adoption it is common to acknowledge that first families are making sacrifices. The impact those sacrifices have on adoptees is sometimes respected, but often ignored. The nature of sacrifice is left largely unexplored. If it is thought of frequently, or with depth, it is conjured into existence. Personally confronting sacrifice is an overwhelming experience. We often seek refuge by distancing ourselves from those making the sacrifices that frighten us.

It's important to understand why sacrifice is so uncomfortable. Discussing sacrifice highlights our position relative to the person making the sacrifice. There are a few different roads this can take, but most of them lead to a disconcerting feeling of selfishness or powerlessness. When discussing sacrifices made by others we often feel selfish. Mother Teresa is a good example of this experience. Compared to her work most people feel rather sheepish about their own charitable work or giving. Despite this there is also a little kick of satisfaction when  an element in our own experience is common to the saintly person. Unfortunately that satisfaction only works when there is a corollary between those experiences. If Mother Teresa cared for the sick and I volunteer to help the homeless, I can share in the good of her deeds. However, if I don't do any charitable work at all the gravity of Mother Teresa's sacrifice functions as a source of guilt. On the other hand the feeling of powerlessness comes when we identify too closely with the person forced to make a sacrifice. It's very uncomfortable to know that some people are forced to make sacrifices against their will. It may be circumstances beyond their control or direct coercion. In either case, identifying with people in these circumstances highlights lack of control in our own circumstances, and thus the possibility of being forced to make significant sacrifices ourselves.

That's why the idea of the Splendid Doormat is so appealing. The doormat who asks nothing, who needs nothing, becomes alien. We don't identify with them because they are "so strong" or "so brave" that we strip them of their humanity and their frailty. These super-sacrifices cannot be hurt the way we can. Sacrifices we can't imagine occur daily for these saints. So we don't need to reconcile our experiences with these people. We never confront the idea that these people are just like us.

Because of this we can't unpack the idea of sacrifice without personal risk. We needn't make a personal sacrifice to begin the discussion. Beginning the discussion is a sacrifice of personal security. This discussion can start if we believe the risk is for something worthwhile. That is, after all, the fundamental nature of sacrifices. provides several definitions that work well to kick off the conversation:


[sak-ruh-fahys] Show IPA noun, verb, sac·ri·ficed, sac·ri·fic·ing.
1. the offering of animal, plant, or human life or of some material possession to a deity, as in propitiation or homage.
2. the person, animal, or thing so offered.
3. the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim.
4. the thing so surrendered or devoted.

Right there in #3 we see it. The destruction of something prized for the sake of something with a more pressing claim. Applied to adoption this paints a very stark picture of what's going on for a first family. There's no sugar coating here. Something prized is being destroyed forever. Worth never enters this conversation. This is about needs, not wants or relative values. This is an experience most sane individuals don't want to get near. Jim Gritter covers circumstances of necessity well enough I won't go over it again here. But there's something else in the definition of sacrifice that muddies the waters.

Right at the top, in definition #1, "as in propitiation or homage". There is a power dynamic in sacrifice that can place the sacrificer below the recipient. The feeling that a birth family must propitiate or appease a person or group in power is dangerous but common. This illustrates another reason sacrifice is a taboo subject; social dominance and power structure is not discussed in polite society. Since sacrifice carries with it an implied subservience, anyone connected to it is in danger of moving down the social ladder. More importantly, discussing socially and economically enforced power schema is taboo in most societies today. But perhaps most nefarious of all, if a first parent must appease someone, that implies they have done something wrong. This reinforces the idea that it's acceptable to receive a child, but unacceptable to place one for adoption. That means the adoptive parents are morally superior to the birth family. In this case sacrifice carries the stigma of moral degeneracy.

Sacrifice is fundamentally overwhelming. Confronting personal sacrifice is incredibly difficult. Surprisingly, the difficulty is not in overcoming our own discomfort or pain. The hardest part of making a sacrifice is encountering its global experience. The commonality of sacrifice is only overshadowed by its necessity. Because sacrifice is born of need it shows us our powerlessness. The pervasiveness of sacrifice is a reminder that we cannot control our own lives. Each instance of making a sacrifice is a discrete reminder of that constant and difficult truth.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Yay or Nay

Several people have asked me whether I am pro or anti adoption. Before discussing my feelings, let's look at the politicking behind these terms. (This is a rough, "party line" style review, not a case study. Please understand the statements that follow are generalizations. Your experience may differ)

To be "Pro-Adoption" means adoptions are useful, necessary, and ultimately beautiful. They allow the creation of families that would otherwise not exist. This stance means supporting networks that help place children in strong families that can properly care for them. This view is realistic in its acceptance of "circumstances of necessity" in which parents cannot raise their children.

Being "Pro-Adoption" also tends to belittle the horrendous experiences of the first family and the adoptee. It ignores the fact that adoptions can only begin with incredible pain, and many leave significant baggage for the child to deal with later. Being blindly "Pro-Adoption", only seeing the beautiful, wonderful, miracle of adoption not only ignores, but in fact condemns, anyone who speaks the truth of their painful experience. It also undermines our appreciation of families without children. Many people who choose to adopt describe a deep need to parent. Some, however, talk about how much they "want a family". This ignores that most of these people already are a family. The difference is raising children. I'm not coming down on hopeful adoptive parents. But I am highlighting a big social message sent to families that they are incomplete without children. There are a lot of people who have children because it's the next thing to do.

Birth fathers tend to be pushed aside for fear they will derail an adoption plan. He may be allowed to participate if he fully supports every decision made by the first mother, but if he desires direct input he will usually be shamed or threatened into leaving. This is for fear the father may with to parent, thus destroying the beauty of a prospective adoption.

To be "Anti-Adoption" means seeing through all the salesmanship of adoption agencies and recognizing the truth; adoption hurts. Everyone involved gets scarred in one way or another. This view is usually accompanied by a dogged determination to see nuclear families maintained and given the resources necessary to provide stable homes for their children. It's about keeping children with their parents and keeping women protected. Many adoption agencies are for profit businesses. They provide service to their customers while attempting to reduce their output and expenditures as much as possible. Who are their customers? Future adoptive parents. This reduces birth mothers and children to commodities. Women are taken advantage of, children are bought, and the adoptee is usually left to pick up the pieces.

Being "Anti-Adoption" typically ignores one, blatant, truth; many parents are not capable of raising their children. For all the arguments about the way things "should be", lobbying government to change adoption laws or increase funding for WIC doesn't help the children who are in need now. This view also tends to have a very rigid view of what families are and can be. Very often there is a huge focus put on keeping children with "their real parents". This is a devastating message not only to adoptive parents, but also to step- and extended family members. It tends to ignore the things that adoption can get right. Instead the focus is on victimization and pain. This focus can be so intense that it actually victimizes people who speak of a positive adoption outcome. The "Anti-Adoption" rhetoric is less frightened of men than it is angry at them.

First fathers tend to be condemned if they participate in an adoption and if they allow the mother to parent alone. Anything less than a wedding ring is unacceptable. This ignores how many relationships between men and women are unstable.

The question stands; am I pro or anti adoption?

I'm neither. I'm pro-child.

I neither support nor protest the institution of adoption, nor adoption agencies as a whole. I support ethical behavior, and well scrutinized decisions. Each child's needs are different, and each family's situation is different. To be either pro or anti adoption across the board means keeping some children from what they need to be happy and healthy. No matter what, someone is losing. The only way to avoid this is individual discernment. Every situation must be taken on its own as something new. There is no cookie cutter solution.