Friday, February 24, 2006

a few thoughts on adoptive breastfeeding

afrindiemum inadvertantly set off a little firestorm when she posted about her plans to breastfeed the next child placed with her for adoption. i have to say, the responses were pretty eye-opening to me.

i think that maybe the issue of adoptive breastfeeding is a flashpoint that can serve to illuminate a lot of the bigger issues in adoption. ethical issues, such as the degree to which current infant adoption practices are coercive, for example, become even starker when adoptive breastfeeding is added to the mix, because yes, the fact that a potential adoptive mom is preparing to breastfeed could absolutely add to the coersion a pregnant woman considering adoption might feel when matched with a couple hoping to adopt before giving birth. adoptive breastfeeding can also be seen as a litmus test for a potential adoptive family's ethics around open adoption, and their respect for the mother of the child they hope to adopt: do they plan to tell the mother about their plans to breastfeed, even knowing that they risk losing the placement over this issue? is the potential adoptive mom planning to breastfeed because she wants to "pass" as the baby's biological mother? because she wants to deny the existence of, or importance of, the baby's first mom? does the potential adoptive family believe that breastfeeding will make a child they adopt more "theirs?"

in my mind, if the answer to any of these questions is "yes," that's a problem. but here's the thing: i don't think the problem is adoptive breastfeeding. the problem is the underlying ethical issues which simply get illuminated, or writ large, by adoptive breastfeeding. so, for example, say a woman would lie to a pregnant mom about her plans to breastfeed, or she really did want to breastfeed in order to diminish the role of her child's first mom. and then for some reason she decided not to breastfeed. it was too difficult. or it just didn't work. or an ugly comment from someone scared her off. so she doesn't breastfeed. does that fix any of the underlying issues? of course not. on the otherhand, say a potential adoptive mom is completely forthright about her plans, owns them as her own, goes to great lengths to make her adoption as ethical and uncoercive as possible, and breastfeeds her baby with the full knowledge and blessing of the baby's other mother. is breastfeeding still somehow wrong, or unethical? i don't think so.

i also suspect that adoptive breastfeeding illuminates the problems of adoption from the perspective of mothers considering adoption for their children. i can't help but think that if a pregnant or newly post-partum woman can't even imagine her child being nursed by another woman; that if her visceral reaction, her mama-instinct, is that this is wrong wrong wrong; then that's a huge red flag that she shouldn't be placing her baby for adoption in the first place. because if she can't imagine another woman mothering her child at the breast, then what it seems to me what she really can't imagine is another woman mothering her child. period. an ethical agency ought to listen to that, and help this mother find the resources to parent. an ethical potential adoptive mom will listen to that and say, "you owe me nothing. you need to make this decision based on what is best for you and your baby." of course, that doesn't often happen. but again, i don't think that adoptive breastfeeding is the problem; rather the problem is that all too few agencies, and all too few adoptive families, really have adoption ethics first and foremost in their minds.

over at afrindiemum's there were a wide range of reactions to adoptive breastfeeding, including some very ugly ones from people who have no relationship to adoption whatsoever. and what those reactions illuminate for me, as an adoptive mother, is that these people and people like them don't really believe i'm a mother. the arguments that adoptive breastfeeding is "unnatural," that it is "predatory," that it is "selfish"; the implication that breastfeeding, and especially the non-nutritive aspects of breastfeeding, have not been "earned" through the hard work of pregnancy and childbirth -- these arguments rest on the underlying assumption that an adoptive mother is not really a mother, not in some deep-down, essential way.

and i can't argue with that. i have no genetic connection to either of my children; they are both legally mine only through adoption (trixie through a second-parent adoption; micah through domestic infant adoption). i can't and won't make the argument that motherhood for me is "just like" motherhood for someone who gave birth to her children. i can't know that, for one, and i suspect that it isn't true, for another. i would argue, in theory anyway, that my experience of motherhood, while different, is equally as profound. that it is a deep spiritual practice. that through my children, through splitting my heart and my sould wide open to these two human beings who are not my "flesh and blood," who are not of my body, for whom no hormone or instinct or primal, genetic connection creates an attachment -- that through mothering them i have truly experienced god in my life, found a vocation, done my absolute best work. that it is inconceivable to me (literally and figuratively, as it happens) that i could love another human being in such a deep and awe-inspiring way. but even that argument is theoretical, because i have nothing to compare my experience to. not even in my imagination: i am barren, i will never give birth to a child. so maybe women who have given birth to their children really are more "real" than i am. maybe their souls have been lifted and transported to places i'll never know. on the other hand, unless those women have also adopted a child, they can never know what i have experienced, so no more can they argue that my experience is somehow less than theirs.

what i suspect, though, is that each of us is truly a mother. a biological mother who is raising her children. a first mother whose children are being raised by another mother. an adoptive mother raising children born of another mother. we can argue until the cows come home about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or we can all stand in awe of each other, and be moved by the depths of each others experiences. and realize that it's not a competition -- or at least it shouldn't be. bowing to the mother in you does nothing to diminsh the mother in me.

i bow to all of you mothers.


At February 27, 2006 7:19 PM, Blogger M. said...

Thanks mamamarta. This is a beautiful post.

At February 27, 2006 9:27 PM, Blogger sster said...

beautiful. said it.

At February 28, 2006 6:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yup, beautiful.

And as someone who has done both (born a child and adopted a child), I can say that it's not different. I don't have identical relationships with both children - but that has more to do with who we each are - not whether they are genetically related to me (each child is different, and my relationship with each is not identical). My relationship with my adopted child is no less profound....motherhood gives you that relationship, not pregnancy or breastfeeding. Perhaps it's because she is adopted via second-parent adoption rather than any other route but I doubt it.

But you make some points I hadn't thought about....perhaps one counter-argument to the "not real mom" thing is that barren women have to work so damn hard to BECOME a mother that in a way they are "more" than others. If you're going to look at things as "more" or "less" than anyway. Which you don't - but it's a side of the picture that is ignored in the biology argument. The choice and focus and drive and heartbreak has got to count for something, KWIM? --Sara

At February 28, 2006 10:33 AM, Blogger Jo said...

mamamarta, you blow me away.

At February 28, 2006 11:44 AM, Anonymous mamacate said...

Thank you Marta. Your perspective is beautiful, illuminating, and true.

I didn't read the debate to which you refer (no time), but I suspect there's also a measure of discomfort with breastfeeding. This idea that it's somehow sexual, that it's an inappropriate intimacy, and that it should be done for nutritive purposes only and then cut off early--the kind of thinking that makes people nurse for 6 weeks and then stop because it seems like it has been going on for too long. There are lots and lots and LOTS of people who BF but are coming from that place, and they're just doing "what's best" but haven't really challenged the anti-nursing ideas that are out there in the world. And the idea that those people haven't really thought through adoption ethics either, well, it makes a lot of sense, doesn't it.

Me, I'm a forever-fan of bfing adoptive moms. And you'll get a standing ovation (and fedexes of milky where available) from me every time. ;)

At March 01, 2006 4:59 PM, Blogger afrindiemum said...

just beautiful. you are amazing.

thank you.

At March 01, 2006 7:13 PM, Blogger susan said...

wow. What a wonderful post.

At March 03, 2006 9:54 PM, Blogger The Imperfect Christian said...

Could you please email me information regarding breastfeeding adopted children? I have a newborn infant I would LOVE to breast feed, but I have NO idea where to go for informaton!!

At March 07, 2006 11:59 PM, Blogger LilySea said...

Perfect! Thanks!

At June 03, 2006 6:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You need to read the article at

At June 03, 2006 6:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At November 30, 2006 6:00 PM, Blogger Charlie Cory said...

I have to say that the first thought that came to my mind reading this is why would a Mother who cared enough to breast feed her child, then want to have that child adopted? It just doesn't compute with me I'm afraid.

Adopting an Infant


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