When we don't fully understand something, we're prone to make mistakes when dealing with it. This not-very-profound truism popped into my head a few days ago as I was thinking about how to lead into a new commentary -- the one you're reading right now -- about the negative repercussions of the secrecy, stigma and shame that permeated adoption for generations and, alas, sometimes still do.
Here are just a few of the examples I was considering as a jumping-off point, and I did not make any of these up: A new reality show called I'm Having Their Baby, which films pregnant women as they agonize over the decision of whether to place their newborns for adoption; a headline in a New Jersey newspaper, "Did They Adopt Their Killer?" atop a story about a 26-year-old man accused of murdering the father and grandmother who had brought him up "as their own" for two decades; and an online poster of two infants, the laughing one assuring the crying one, "Dude! I'm joking, you're not adopted!"
Ah, welcome to the wonderful world of adoption, a place where women are baby-delivery devices for other parents, where men slay the people who raise them because they are not biologically related, and where the very idea of having entered a family in this way is so unnerving that it makes you weep.
It's tempting to look at all this and conclude that the problem is the media, which too often succumb to the sensational without doing their homework -- or caring -- about the accuracy or consequences of their seize-the-second hyperbole. So, for example, was the status of that New Jersey family relevant in any way to the murders that were committed, because that's the implication of the headline, and what's the message it sends about adoption generally? And, of course, the internet provides a forum for every kind of random notion anyone can conceive, and there are lots out there that are far more toxic than the suggestion that being adopted is an insult; but it's worth asking what that poster's impact might be on adopted people (especially children) and, again, what's the message it sends about adoption generally?
While the media play a significant role in perpetuating misinformed myths and negative stereotypes relating to adoption, however, they obviously did not create those beliefs and I'm confident they rarely transmit them with bad intent. Rather, journalists and television producers and regular folks who post pictures on Facebook primarily reflect the perceived truths of their culture -- and the unfortunate fact is that we are still living with the remnants of the bad old days of adoption, when unwed mothers were routinely pressured to give up their babies; it was common not to tell children they were adopted (remember: we keep secrets about things we're embarrassed about or ashamed of); and adoptive parents were often viewed as having second-best families that might even include "bad blood."
Combine all those elements with another truism about secrets -- that it's very hard to learn anything about them -- and here we are. That is, we're learning more and more about the realities of the tens of millions of people affected by adoption but, as a culture and as individuals, we retain some of the lingering misconceptions that can undermine their lives.
The title of the new cable show I'm Having Their Baby is one of the best examples I've seen in a long time, even without getting into its content. I genuinely believe the creators of that program did not mean to transmit any hurtful messages relating to adoption; I'm sure, instead, they saw an opportunity to get strong ratings with episodes chock-full of drama, pathos and empathy, all the while demonstrating just how excruciating the decision to part with one's child can truly be.
My professional life is all about educating the world about adoption's realities, including the tough ones, but pregnant women serving as baby carriers for other people? That emphatically should not be among them. Use this title for a show about paid surrogates, not one about women whose options -- and, vital to keep in mind, whose preferences -- also include parenting the children to whom they give birth.
For the women on screen, is simply participating in something called I'm Having Their Baby not-so-subtly letting them know what they're supposed to do? Will it unwittingly serve as a message to other pregnant women, and to prospective adoptive parents, as well? More broadly, will it communicate to everyone watching that this is what adoption is all about? In 2012, after we're made so much progress on women's reproductive rights and on best practices for everyone involved in adoption, am I really still asking these questions?
Adoption is not just about child placement. It is also about family diversity, about equal rights, and about treating everyone involved with respect and dignity. We couldn't do that very well during an era when we lied to our own children, drove women underground and shamed nearly everyone else involved. Looking back, we can argue -- whether it's a rationalization or a fact -- that those practices simply reflected the mores of their time and, besides, there was a lot we didn't know.
Well, the times have changed, and we know very much more. So now what's our excuse?