In my last post about reproduction, I tried to explain why we may reproduce, even in a crowded world, in terms of the right of self preservation.  Having a child (and I don't mean 10 children) is a means of survival. Not literally, of course.  We don't lengthen our own lifespans by having children.  But children feel to their parents a bit like second selves, so mortality is easier to face, knowing they'll be around when you're not.  This has a lot to do with the genetic connection between parent and child.  A child feels like a second self because a child comes from my genes and (for the mother, especially) from my body.

It occurs to me that this picture of parenthood raises some uncomfortable questions.  If the "meaning" of biological parenthood involves survival and genes in this way, then what about adoptive parenthood?  Here are some things one could say about it:

(1)  Adoptive parenthood is experienced in the same way as biological parenthood, so has all the same meanings, but without the biological basis.  Analogy:  for Thanksgiving dinner, we don't have a turkey, but we make something to which we voluntarily give the same significance.  We don't eliminate the turkey-role, we just fill it with something different.  Along the same lines, it could be the case that adoptive parents don't eliminate the biological child role, but rather fill it with an unrelated child.  If this is right, biological parenthood is primary in some sense, and adoptive parenthood imitates it.

(2)  Alternatively, you might see parenthood as an umbrella term, with biological and adoptive parenthood simply two forms--not related as primary to secondary, or original to imitation.  Marriage might be like that, with love-marriage and arranged-marriage two forms, one no more primary than the other.  The "in law" relation is clearly like that.  I have the in-law relationship both to my brother's wife and to my husband's sister--two different relationships falling under the same heading, one no more primary than the other.   On this view there are differences between adoptive and biological parenthood, but one isn't "the Platonic form" of parenthood.  For example, adoptive parents may have a "meant to be" feeling about connecting with their child (or so it appears, from the adoption narratives I've read), while biological parents focus on biological connections (my husband was delighted to see his crooked little finger on our children's hands when they were born).  It's all parenthood, just in two different forms.  Survival "meanings" might be more a part of biological parenthood, but other equally profound meanings are part of adoptive parenthood.

(3)  Another view is that adoptive and biological forms of parenthood are not importantly different.  It would be silly to talk about black and white parenthood as if those were deeply different types of parenthood. Likewise, on this view, it's silly to distinguish types of parenthood based on how parents link up with children.  It just doesn't matter where the kid comes from--parents are custodians of dependent children in either case.   The irrelevance of origin doesn't completely exclude the possibility that children make mortality easier to face.  If people can feel better about their mortality because they've left behind books or paintings or businesses they invested themselves in, why not because they invested themselves in children simply by caring for them?  This view says biological and adoptive parenthood are not "separate but equal"--as in (2); they're trivially different "realizations" of the same relationship.

I've been thinking about adoption with the help of the book Adoption Matters (edited by Sally Haslanger and Charlotte Witt).  Some authors in the anthology (e.g. Janet Farrell Smith) take it as axiomatic that biological parenthood is in no way primary.  So (1) is out of the question.  Some authors also see nothing special about genetic ties.  For example, Jacqueline Stevens calls sperm "largely useless" and proposes we recognize mothers (who give birth) and parents (the person or persons, of whatever gender, to whom a mother grants custody--possibly herself), but not fathers.  Genes, she think, do nothing but establish species characteristics (a million twin studies notwithstanding).  So (2) is out, since it countenances significant differences between experiencing a child as "mine" by genetic connection and "mine" in some other way.

I sense, to be honest, a sort of ideological commitment to (3) in the book--driven by the thought that nothing but (3) could possibly allow adoptive parents to be satisfied as biological parents, and adopted children to be satisfied as adopted children.  We must refuse to countenance differences, or someone's going to wind up with a smaller slice of the pie.   This requires all sorts of mental contortions. Somehow you have to buy into a level of "anti-essentialism" (the word is strange--"innate" and "essential" don't actually mean the same thing) I find bizarre and anti-scientific.  Sperm just ain't "largely useless."  Nor can we make it true that the structure of the family is completely culture-driven just by repeating the phrase "socially constructed" over and over again.  Like animals are innately wired to bond and deal with offspring in pre-specified ways, there is an innate component to the way human parents deal with children, and children respond to parents. 

I can't see having views on parenthood that denigrate adoptive parents or adopted children, but I don't see that (1) or (2) do so. We can be egalitarian without refusing to see differences.  (Wait--that's what I said in my animal book!  It's true here too.)  So--all three views seem to be in the running.  Maybe (not to be wishy washy, but...) they can actually be combined in a complex picture of adoptive vs. biological parenthood.


Jeremy Bowman said...

The folklore of the world (like “Cinderella” in Europe) tells of the mistreatment of adopted children and stepchildren. We ignore these and similar signs at our peril – or rather, the peril of children. It is not a foregone conclusion that non-biological parents will treat children with less solicitude, of course, but evolutionary theory suggests it is much more likely, and it seems to be borne out by biological observation of other animals and by human social statistics.

Martin Daly and Margo Wilson have an interesting little book on this topic in the Darwinism Today series called The Truth about Cinderella: a Darwinian view of parental love.

One of the most interesting aspects of this topic is the way art and anecdote are, as always, much wiser than wishful thinking or political ideology. It is considered “nice” and “correct” to assume that adoptive parents are every bit as solicitous of children as biological parents. Because we are supposed not to think or speak openly of the other possibility, it tends to be ignored, often at great personal cost.

Jean Kazez said...

Great book suggestion-- thank you very much. I'll get my hands on that. If it says adoptive parents compare negatively, I'll be very surprised ... but intrigued.

By the way, I think it's a bad idea to compare adoptive parents as a group to biological parents as a group, as far as parenting ability is concerned. It's not an apples-to-apples comparison, because adoptive parents will typically have a much stronger desire for children, considering that many children just show up unplanned. What you need to compare is (perhaps) adoptive parents and parents who use assisted reproductive technologies. These are equally determined parents, presumably. I'd be very curious what differences there are between the two groups.

Jeremy Bowman said...

Yes, it’s great series of little books – i.e. books students will actually read! Peter Singer’s A Darwinian Left (from the same series) is a real work of art, I think.

I have a special interest in the topic of adoption for various reasons. My wife was adopted (and was told the truth from day one). Her adoptive parents were brilliant, in my opinion, by reminding her that she was chosen for her obvious intelligence, charm, etc. – unlike plain old ordinary children who are foisted upon their boring regular standard-issue biological parents... That was a good way of telling the story, it seems to me, even if it did involve a bit of “spin”. It made it all seem a bit magical, something children love and probably need.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of it, for me, began about 5 years ago when we met her biological mother (who had been too young to accept the normal role of mother) for the first time. (We have all since become constant close friends.) The “coincidences” go far, far beyond shared interests, mannerisms, tastes in art, etc.. In fact they are stunning, and often quite eerie – the sort of thing Dickens wrote about. As I don’t believe in the supernatural, I have to believe in genes. I don’t mean to argue for “genetic determinism”, but anyone who doubts the depth and power of genes to shape our lives should try to talk to closely-related people who have been separated at birth.

My wife’s adoptive parents are both dead, but her biological mother and subsequent family are very much alive, and we are all very close.

Although I think we must acknowledge the differences between adoptive and biological parenting, I’m very much in favor of adoption. Even with a less-than-ideal family, a child’s life is generally better than in an orphanage. These places are a living hell for children.

It’s funny to hear people arguing against gay marriage on the grounds that gay people might not make as good parents as biological parents. I would argue for gay marriage for many reasons, not the least of which is that more children can be adopted, which would bring more of them out of the nightmare of orphanages.

Wayne said...

Maybe if we look at the issue from another angle... What exactly >is< parenting? Its kinda like teaching, except in a much more intimate and broad way. Whereas teaching is usually specific (in school its divided into subjects) and non-intimate to a degree (teachers don't wake up at midnight to ease nightmares nor care for students when they are ill). On top of educating, you have your typical, provide for, and protect obligations as well. Teachers have this while students are in their care (maybe not so much in terms of provide).

If adoptive parents do these things, then they are parents. If biological parents fail in these tasks, their children are taken away from them.

Maybe as parents instead of emphasizing genes, we should emphasize a kind of meme... I pass my knowledge of how to navigate the world to my children (I certainly don't do that to my students).