Another Peculiar Institution

Another Peculiar Institution

Slavery – more specifically, the enslavement of African people in the U.S. antebellum South – was bestowed with the euphemism “peculiar institution.” According to Wikipedia:

“Peculiar,” in this expression, means “one’s own.” That is, it refers to something distinctive to or characteristic of a particular place or people. The proper use of the expression is always as a possessive, e.g., “our peculiar institution” or “the South’s peculiar institution.” The phrase was in popular use during the first half of the 19th century, especially in legislative bodies, as the word “slavery” was deemed improper and was actually banned in certain areas.

As a birthmother involved in what has become an open adoption for 23+ years, I find adoption also quite a strange phenomenon. Please make no mistake – I am in no way conflating adoption with slavery. It was just that in thinking about the bizarre mechanics of adoption, the concept of “peculiar institution” came to mind because there really is no other relationship like adoption. And when you get right down to it, it’s quite peculiar – as in odd.

I can only speak for myself and the interactions I’ve had with my son and his family. Ours has always been a particularly positive experience. Not perfect – and not without challenges. But positive and honest. For one thing, Kathy and Bruce were at the hospital hours after Eric was born, reassuring me I’d made a good choice in wanting parents who’d already gone through the newborn process at least once. As a result, Eric has always known he was adopted – and he’s always known about me and his birthfather. I’ve read heartbreaking stories about people in their 40s – and older – accidentally finding out they were adopted. I’ve also read of the struggle some well-meaning adoptive parents have with explaining adoption to their children. It’s so easy to (accidentally) paint birthparents with a tarnished brush – yet it’s just as easy to find reason to take offense.

Looking at this peculiar institution through the lens of a birthmother, one thing seemed often to come up in conversations with prospective adoptive parents: a certain sense of resignedness about having had to resort to adoption to create their families. No one was judging them, and yet they seemed to feel insecure, incomplete, and defensive. That’s more than likely where the “What do you mean your son?” comment from my last post originated.

This is politically incorrect – but the truth of the matter is that in an adoption transaction, the baby is really no more than a commodity. The prospective birthparents have lots of say about what happens during the adoption process as long as that kid is still unborn, but they lose all of their leverage the moment they sign those papers and the baby officially belongs to someone else. And in their efforts to protect their relationship with prospective adoptive parents, agencies seem fairly skittish about what they will say to the people who, in most circumstances, are footing the bill. They’re as honest as they need to be, but no more so.

One thing I was able to do when I would speak to groups of prospective parents was to cut through the bullshit. I remember explaining, on more than one occasion, what seemed so obvious to me, but always startled the hell out of these would-be parents: “This baby is never going to be your biological child. He or she will bear no blood relationship to you. He or she was conceived and carried by another couple – and they will always have a tie to your child that you don’t. That doesn’t make you bad or deformed as a parent – it just means that your relationship to your kid is different. And the sooner you come to terms with that – the sooner you stop resenting the birthparents for doing something you couldn’t – the better off everyone will be.”

For the entirety of my son’s life, only one person I’m aware of has ever really captured this same sentiment and shared it unabashedly with prospective adoptive parents. Sharon Roszia is an internationally renowned adoption educator and author, and it was in one of her early books that she described adoption as a continuation of the infertility process, not a panacea. She probably had more finesse in her approach, but the message is the same.

It just so happened in my adoption situation that my son’s parents were not dealing with infertility issues. In fact, at the time they adopted Eric, they had a 10-year-old biological daughter. Even so, they’ve never treated Eric like anything other than a full part of their family. And we never had to deal with quite as much stress or anxiety as it seems infiltrates some adoption relationships. Sure – they still had to come to terms with the non-biological aspect, but there was none of the envy from Kathy that I heard in the voices of some of the other prospective adoptive mothers I spoke with during my selection process.

As Kathy likes to tell Eric now, he’s just lucky. He has a birthfather, an adoptive father, and for all practical purposes, a stepfather in my husband. Not many kids have two moms and three dads. One thing is sure: this kid is loved.