What is adoption? Now that's simple - it's the taking of a child someone else gave birth to as your own. In our times, that means entitling it to all the love as well as the legal rights any biological child of yours would have gotten. Not a small decision, in other words.
In fact, adoption as a subject is neither small nor simple. There are many parties involved - birth parents, adoptive parents, and, above all, children. Of course it has many sides to it. Of course it raises many questions. This writeup humbly attempts to answer a few of them.
Adoption has two main purposes. In our society, its primary aim is to provide a stable, loving family for a child who would otherwise have none. The other aim is to give children to people who cannot have them.
Most understand the need for certain people to have children, even though nature has not given them any. A wealth of fairy tales deal with the aging couple who, having given up all hope, miraculously gets a child. In our times, that miracle is handled by agencies and social workers, and called adoption.
Other adopters are driven by idealism, living out their faith or following an urge from within. They hope to make the world better for at least one deserted child, and often succeed.
Finally, there are the step parents - someone who wants to take on full responsibility for their partner's children. This is not uncomplicated, but different from the "full" adoption of a child into a new family. I will therefore keep it out of this writeup.
Adoptive parents, like all people, can go from the extremely selfish to amazingly unselfish, and from being very capable to somewhat less able. On one end of the scale, there is the couple that has everything except a child, who want a newborn after their specifications: pretty, clever, of their own skin colour, burdened with no physical or mental defects. Someone they can pass off as their biological child with pride. And there is the equally unbelievable, too-good, loving family who adopts their fifth handicapped child, a mentally retarded deaf-mute with stunted limbs, ready to shower it with patient understanding.
Clearly, people on either side of the spectrum are rare. Reasons for adopting are as motley and mixed-up as for bearing children, if not more. There is a great variation in the kind of people who adopt, and their backgrounds. However, there is a tendency for adoptive parents to be wealthier than the average, and also a bit older.
This follows naturally from the way adoption works: Many view it as a last resort, and don't try it before all natural and unnatural ways of growing their own children have been tried. Others adopt children after their biological ones are grown. And, while many a child is born somewhat planned and unexpected, while its parents are still young and struggling, adopting a child is a much more thought-through process which must be controlled and approved by governmental institutions along the way.
So rich, old, powerful people in need of an heir stand as symbols of adoptive parents. Roman emperors made a habit of it in order to secure a successor they thought proper. Popular culture has given us Miss Havisham and Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks - rich, somewhat eccentric, but not exactly parent-like.
Adoption agencies, especially government-run ones, are struggling to change the conception that you have to be rich in order to adopt. There are so many children in need of a home, and simply not enough millionaires to take them on (in fact, there never were). In the UK, social services adverties that you don't need to own your home to adopt - renting is fine. What these children, who have all sufferered some great loss, need more than material goods, is stability and normalcy.
While being an unwed mother was earlier reason good enough to give up your child for adoption, today single, resourceful people are encouraged to consider adoption as a way of getting a family. Even gay couples are seen as a resource in certain states and countries, albeit not in others.
Who gets adopted?
Adopted children sometimes ask themselves, was it something about them that made their parents give them up? There rarely is, except in the case of severely handicapped children. Children are usually given up from circumstance, often in some way caused by poverty. Many children are not given up voluntarily, but ordered away from their parents because of abuse or neglect. They tend to blame themselves for this, too. Children will do that.
There are few true orphans. When both parents die under tragic circumstances, their children are often taken care of by relatives. Instead, adoptees are usually children whose parents were unable to cope with them, because of poverty, abuse (of the children, or of substances), or sometimes because they were too young and the children too unplanned.
In earlier times - let's call them the 1950s for the sake of convenience - mothers who bore children out of wedlock were encouraged and coerced into relinquishing their children for adoption, as the young "bastards" would inevitably be much happier with two lawfully married parents. In our morally lenient times, much less women in difficult circumstances choose this option, often preferring single parenthood instead. This has led to several changes in the adoptee demographics. While earlier, almost the only type of child that could conceivably be adopted, was an infant, today adoptable babies are few and far between. That is, in Western countries. In countries with more of both poverty and strict social codes, many more small children are put in orphanages, and many of these have found themselves taken into a plane, a new family, and a new world through adoption.
Meanwhile, children who are not adorable toddlers get shuffled around in foster homes and institutions. The longer they wait, the less hope they have of a family of their own. Nobody - or at least, not enough people - wants their emotional baggage. As a result, the people who finally take on special needs children often accumulate a massive family, sometimes as many as 20 children.
How does one adopt?
The procedure on how to perform an adoption is different from country to country, although it is becoming more regularised. Generally, prospective adoptive parents contact a governmental or private agency which will then perform a home study to make sure the people will make good adoptive parents. Often, the agency will also educate them about what adoption entails, and what issues they are likely to meet in adoptive children.
If they are accepted, the parents-to-be will detail what kind of a child they want to adopt; what age group, whether they can accept any handicaps or psychological problems, etc. They will then have to wait until they are assigned a child.
In some countries, it is also possible to adopt directly from the birth mother, with the help of a lawyer. This can be good for the birth mother, if she wants to influence the decision on who gets to raise her baby and perhaps keep in touch with it. On the other hand, these arrangements can be abused: Parents who shouldn't have a child, get one without any control; the birth mother may play it false and promise her baby to several parents in return for gifts and money; and of course, it comes dangerously close to buying and selling children.
What kinds of adoption are there?
Of most importance to the birth parent is whether the adoption is an open or a closed one. In an open adoption, there is a varying degree of contact between birth parent and adoptive family throughout the child's upbringing. This can be beneficial to everyone, in that it answers a lot of questions about both the past and the present to both birth parents and adopted child.
Closed adoptions were the norm earlier, and are still common. In these adoptions, all ties to the original family are severed. This is necessary in some cases, for instance where the first family hurt the child, and is directed by circumstances in other cases: Staying in touch with a family on the other side of the earth isn't very easy. Many children have grown up happily in a closed adoption, but others fight for answers their whole life.
The adoptive parents make the choice whether they will adopt domestically or from abroad. There are advantages and disadvantages with both. Foreign children will have to adjust to a foreign language and culture, and they will inevitably get out of touch with their roots. If they have lived in an orphanage for a long time, they might have attachment issues. However, they get opportunities they would never have had in their first country.
Children from the same country, on the other hand, are considered more likely to have an iffy past. If they have lived in many homes, they too are likely to have difficulties attaching properly to their "forever family". Older children may feel resentment against their new family if they've been taken away from their old one, even if it was for their own good.
Finally, there is the issue of race and adoption. The 1950s policy in the US was called "matching" - an adopted child was supposed to look like the biological child of its parents. Pearl S. Buck worked hard against this policy when she realised it meant a lot of children went without a family because they were of the wrong race. With international adoption, there is usually a race difference involved - so what would be the problem with trans-racial domestic adoptions? The reason this is still an issue follows shortly.
Where did you get those from?
One would think adoption would always be a positive thing, helping poor orphaned(ish) children who would otherwise be thrown out into the street to fend for themselves into caring families. However, it can be abused quite badly.
Two infamous examples come from those large melting-pot societies, the United States and Australia. Both countries were presented as empty promised land, to be had for the asking - but like most promised lands, they were far from empty. As the countries filled with colonists, it became clear that some solution would have to be found to the native problem. While some preferred annihilation, others recommended assimilation, and in this pursuit, adoption was a wonderful tool.
If a child is taken away from its family at an early age, chances are good it won't remember any of their customs. You can quite efficiently eradicate a whole culture in such a way. This method was tried, and proven, against Australian Aborigines and Native Americans. Some would call it a form of genocide - without any blood, but with plenty of tears.
To avoid the same thing that had befallen many Native Americans happening to their minority, the Union of Black Social Workers rose against adoption of black children by whites. This had the unfortunate side effect of leaving a lot of black children without any parents whatever, black or white. The "final solution" has still not been found in today's United States .
Is adoption good for the child?
For a child living in impernanent homes and uncertainty, fluttering with the wind, the answer is clearly yes. Every child has a right to feel safely anchored somewhere, and not to feel like they always need to behave, or they'll be sent away again. Many adopted children get better chances in life than they would ever have had with their biological relatives, whether they were adopted from abroad or domestically.
On the other hand, they may have identity issues that most of us can hardly imagine. Many adopted children don't know their biological parents' name, some of them don't even know their original one. In some countries - including most of the United States - adopted children can't see their original birth certificate without a lengthy court battle.
It may not seem such a great thing to know that you have inherited your ability to play the piano from Aunt Carrie and a tendency to gout from Great-Uncle Arnold. However, for the child who has no family anecdotes or any medical history from their birth family, the can become burning. Some grown-up adoptees feel that their life has been stolen from them because of their being taken away from their roots. According to the 1950s ideology, children should be adopted seamlessly into the family, and their origins should be secret to as many as possible, sometimes even to themselves. Those who pestered their adoptive parents with questions were dubbed abnormal by most authorities on the subject. Even foreign adopted children, who looked significantly different from their parents, were supposed to become assimilated, and ask no questions of their native country. And let's not even get into the ridiculous notion that these children ought to be grateful to their adoptive parents, who saved them.
Because of all these half-baked theories, many of which are still floating around, adoption can be a mixed blessing. Thankfully, we have learnt something from years of failing. There is now a lot more openness about adoption, and knowledge, and hopefully it actually does benefit the children.
Is adoption good for the parent?
Many people, without knowing anything whatsoever on the subject, will violently reject the idea of adopting. Blood is thicker than water, after all, they say, perhaps thinking of the bloody story of history's most famous ungrateful adoptee, You Too Brutus. Or they will claim that you can't possibly love a child that doesn't have your genes as well as you could your own.
Yet some people, inexplicably, manage to do just that. Perhaps they are very special people. Or perhaps they have understood, somehow, that if an adoptee is not thought of as some fortunate who ought to feel grateful, but simply as a child, it will become their child.
In short, an adopted child is as likely to turn on you, stab you in the back, and burn your house down as is a biological child. It happens, but so infrequently as to make big headlines. If you are at all of the parenting kind, adopting a child will prove as rewarding - and challenging - as bringing up a self-born one.
And what about the birth parents? Do they stop being parents once the papers are signed? Well, no. Relinquishing parents react in different ways. Some put their child in the back of their head, where the sun rarely shines, others think of them more or less every day. Their reaction usually has a lot to do with the circumstances of their relinquishment. If they were persuaded into it using bad arguments, they're (obviously) more likely to regret it. If they genuinely thought they did the best thing for their child, they will see less of the darker days.
Is adoption good for society?
Does society as a whole benefit from adoptions? On a small scale, probably yes. Children who grow up in structured homes are less likely to turn into anti-social criminals and break things. Getting them into such homes can therefore be seen as an investment.
On the other hand, simply taking children away from a home that is not good for them does not take away that home. The birth parents can easily have more children without becoming more capable. If the problem arises from poverty or social injustice, adoption will not do much to balance the scales - it can't obliterate poverty.
Just like distance adoption, where you sponsor a child in a developing country so that it can get proper care and education, the adoption of a single child could be the making of that child. No more, no less. For the "just one person" that it touches, it can mean the world.