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A Revolutionary New Look At Adoption

An Interview with Adam Pertman,
Author of "Adoption Nation"

Interview By Allison Martin

Adam Pertman is the author of the acclaimed new book, "Adoption Nation : how the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America,'' which addresses a wide range of issues in adoption today. Adoption Nation won the prestigious Leonard Silk Journalism Fellowship from the Century Foundation and which was recently named Book of the Year by the National Adoption Foundation. A well known author in the adoption field, Adam Pertman also received the Year 2000 Journalism Award from Holt International Children's Services. In 2001, he was given awards by Dave Thomas Center for Adoption Law’s first Public Awareness Award as well as the American Adoption Congress. Adam Pertman has been a journalist with The Boston Globe for 22 years. He and his wife have two children (both adopted).

Your book "Adoption Nation" provides a new approach to the discussion of adoption. What do you hope to accomplish?

My aim is pretty simple, though I know the work certainly isn't. Basically, I just want to educate people about adoption's realities: that it's far more extensive than is generally understood (it touches the lives of 80 million to 100 million Americans in their immediate families); that its just as healthy and rewarding a way to form families as any other (second choice does NOT mean second best); and that its participants are not stereotypes (alas, mostly negative in our culture) but normal folks with some different concerns and mostly the same ones as everyone else in any sort of family. The bottom line for me, in writing the book, was to piece together the many varied issues relating to adoption and show what picture they form - that is, of an institution that is changing radically for the better, and is affecting all of America and its inhabitants in the process.

What would you say are the key issues in adoption today?

There are so many that it's hard to know where to start, but I'll pick just a few that provide important insights into what's happening in this "revolution." Pretty strange to tell Americans that they're in the midst of a revolution they haven't noticed, isn't it? But I think the research is pretty clear on this, and the stories I use to illustrate these points, I hope, are compelling and personal enough to drive the points home without being academic or polemical.

Secrecy. We're finally realizing, as a culture and as individuals, that we keep secrets about things we're ashamed of and embarrassed about. So adoption and its participants are rejecting the secrecy of the past - should we ever have been ashamed of our kids and where they came from? - and working their way through the complexities of living with the truth. That means more and more relationships between birth and adoptive families, learning more and more about developmental, medical and other needs for adoptees, and embracing the cultures, nationalities and other components of our complicated families in ways and to extents we never have done before.

Changing families. Adoption is literally and figuratively changing the face of America, yet most demographers and sociologists and historians and journalists barely understand the degree to which it's occurring. Not only is adoption contributing in very visible ways to the creation of more multi-ethnic, multi-national, multi-racial families headed by infertile people, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities - and on and on - but it's also altering the way we all understand family itself; that is, because it's so visible when, for example, a white woman raises a Chinese child, it has a penetrating and permanent impact on our views of "blood ties," nature versus nurture, etc. Not to mention that, as a result of adoption, the definition of "extended family" is growing (more rapidly than most people realize) to include birth parents and siblings, sometimes birth grandparents, and on and on.

Money. I write in "Adoption Nation" that money threatens to supplant secrecy as adoption's worst enemy, and I think that's happening at an alarming rate. Adoption, other than from foster care - another important area that also is undergoing a complicated revolution - is getting so expensive that it prevents too many potentially good parents from becoming parents and, most important, prevents too many children who need homes from getting them. Attaching so much money to a process that involves human beings also turns children into commodities, or at least leads too many Americans to perceive them that way and for too many practitioners to treat them that way. It's a system that grew up underground, unregulated and unmonitored, and we need to fix all of that before new stigmas and stereotypes replace the old ones that we're finally shedding.

Closed records. Adoptees are the only people in America, including mass murderers and telephone solicitors, who cannot gain access to their own original birth certificates and other records; I'm not talking about children here, but adults - 20, 40, 60 and 80-year-olds who are automatically blocked from seeing a piece of paper everyone else in the world takes for granted. It's an insult to their intelligence and their dignity, because the ostensible reason is that their birth mothers were promised anonymity - and they'll use the documents to find those poor defenseless women. Well, all the research shows that the women were never promised anonymity, that 90-96 percent of them want to be found, and that these adult adoptees are not stalkers or children in search of new mommies or daddies. They have parents already, their adoptive parents; all they want is what everyone else gets as a birthright: to know where and who they came from. This practice started at a time when "illegitimate" was stamped on birth certificates and single motherhood was socially taboo; neither of those things is true today, and it's long past time we changed all of our states' laws to reflect reality.

What advice would you give prospective parents who wish to adopt? What pitfalls should they try to avoid?

I'll mix the advice and pitfalls and just ramble a bit: I'd say, first and foremost, get educated. We take so much time to learn about a new doctor when we're choosing one, or about all the types of dealers and cars there are before buying one, etc. But too often, we pre-adoptive parents (my wife and I certainly fit into this category when we started out) just pick a practitioner out of the phone book or in some other way without doing much if any homework. And then we know so little, and feel so insecure, that we take whatever we're told as gospel, don't know what questions to ask, or are reticent to ask questions because we're afraid that doing so will put off the lawyer/agency/facilitator and then he/she won't give us what we want. This is not a good starting point for family formation. So read a good book or two, talk to friends who have adopted, get on a chat line, do the stuff that you'd normally do in other, less sensitive areas of life.

I just mentioned being insecure. I think that's a root of many adoptive parents' problems, before and during the process. I think dealing with our own insecurities - whether they stem from infertility, or from uncertainty relating to whether we have the right to parent children born to other people, or from the stereotypes and stigmas relating to adoption - makes us better consumers while we're in the adoptive process (consumers of legal, social and bureaucratic services and NOT EVER of children, who are not for sale) and makes us better parents once we've got our kids and bond with them. Yes, just as securely and permanently as if we'd given birth to them, and vice versa.

It's hard to learn and internalize the truth when it's been a secret for so long, and when myths pervade our consciousness. And they are absolutely myths: that our children will forsake us if they search for their birth parents (of course not, but they are normal people who want to know who they are and where they come from); that birth mothers are either terrible people who want to jettison a problem and hide or vultures who will swoop back to get their kids (pure nonsense on both counts since they're typically women who love their babies so much that they make the sacrifice of giving them good homes, but still want to know where they are and if they're okay); and many others too numerous to name here.

Finally, for now, I'd advise people to think long and hard about what kinds of families they want and what kinds of issues they're going to address. If they want to adopt an infant, for instance, I'd strongly suggest they learn about the value of honesty and openness (both for themselves and their children) so they're prepared to have a relationship with and respect for the birth parents (the extent of the relationship will vary and will be up to the adults involved); that way, everyone's needs and dignity are addressed, a lifelong flow of medical and genealogical information is maintained, and everyone becomes comfortable with their own normal life rather than feeling they need to resort to secrets or lies. If they want to adopt internationally, for instance, learn the importance of keeping the child connected to his/her heritage and national roots (among many other issues), and be prepared for dealing with any special needs that might have developed as a result of your son's or daughter's time in an orphanage. And if they're thinking of adopting from foster care, which more people should consider - especially since the negative stereotypes about these kids are also exaggerated and the process is virtually free, compared to the tens of thousands of dollars the others can cost - they should likewise prepare for any special needs the children may have.

Those are just examples. I hope anyone considering adoption, as I said before, also does some good research and talks to a good practitioner and/or social worker. Most of all, I also hope prospective parents don't see adoption as either "second best" - another corrosive falsehood - or as so problematic that they can't face it. Whether anyone adopts or not, or has a family in any way, is entirely up to them and I fully respect that choice. But we should base our decisions on reality and not myths or stereotypes; and now that adoption is coming into the open, we can think it through honestly. Biological family formation can include miscarriages, stillbirths, extended hospitalizations and medical complications, etc. And complex families - whether they include divorced parents, half-brothers, stepsisters, grandparents raising children, single mothers, whatever - all come with their own unique issues. And so does adoption. That's all there is to it, and the families themselves are just as loving, just as secure and just as legitimate as any others.

What issues are important for parents who have adopted? What is crucial for adoptive families?

Let's be honest with ourselves and our children; and let's celebrate both our commonality and our differences. In the bad old days (and still sometimes today), adoptive parents tried so hard to pretend that everything was the same as if they'd given birth, that white parents raised, say, a Korean daughter to be a wonderful and loving person. But every time she looked in the mirror, she was surprised and disappointed that a white face didn't look back. Who could that possibly be good for? And let's treat our children's creators with dignity and respect. Currently, we as a culture say that women who carry their babies to term and place them for adoption are courageous and wonderful; then we turn around and ask, "How could any woman give away her own flesh and blood." Well, we can't have it both ways. This sort of thinking extends to foster and international adoption, and it's not healthy for anyone involved.

What are your plans for the future?

A few months ago I left my job at The Boston Globe, after more than 22 years, in order to write and lecture about adoption, children and family issues. My hope and prayer is that I can make a living doing those things, because I do truly hope my job can become changing my kids' world for the better. So I'm planning to write another book or two, write op-ed columns about these issues (because they're not dealt with often enough, accurately enough, or incisively enough in the popular press), and do more research and public speaking. I truly don't have a clue whether I'll be able to bring together all those desires, but I'll give it my best shot.

Copyright Allison Martin 2001

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