Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Saviour or Seeking to be Saved?

As adoptive families of internationally born children, we see our world through the eyes of our unique perspective. We often fail to realize that others may see us differently. Are we seen as noble families that have provided a home to a needy child, or are we seen as members of a group that is taking advantage of the financial inequalities around the world to feed our own interests in raising a child we often can't obtain otherwise. In other words, are we seen as a Savior, or as needing to be saved.

The following essay, written by an adoptive parent of a Chinese daughter, addresses this question by drawing on the extreme example of Vanessa Beecroft. Her insight helps explain the looks we all receive from those around us, and may explain some of the questions we all receive.


The lines to adopt a child from developing countries, especially China, have lengthened beyond what anyone could have predicted. People are spending a lot of time, energy and money to become parents to a child from another country. Many outside the adoption community ponder what this lure could be about. As an adoptive parent, I understand many of the intentions behind the decision to adopt internationally. I have heard many different motives on why people have chosen to adopt trans-racially: some seem quite valid, and some are incomprehensible.

The issue of white privilege is one that many in the adoption community repeatedly refuse to accept. We just can’t see it in ourselves. And what is white privilege anyway? Could it be that we have lived a life free from exploitation and oppression and we fail to understand why it is that others reject our acts of goodwill? But we should accept the possibility that by trying to help another person, we can actually create even more harm than good.

I do feel this is often the case. People want to feel better about their own identity. They want to open up their hearts and welcome more love into their life. People are overwhelmed by images of starving, homeless and orphaned children and an inner feeling emerges -- a feeling that seems so well intentioned yet can cause people to act in the most impulsive and irrational ways.

Our society teaches us that we need to help others. We are taught to care for all people on earth and it is our duty to take care of those who are without. I do feel that there are times when people are torn between wanting to share and help, and also wanting a payoff in the end. It isn’t enough to just give anonymously. Many crave that recognition and use it to fill the void that is within.

There is a line that is crossed when a simple act of good nature turns into exploitation for personal gain.

Vanessa Beecroft is one person who has chosen to exploit children from Sudan for her financial and personal gains. Overcome by engorged breasts and her swollen ego, she spilled her white privileged breast milk into the mouths of two innocent children. As if this was not bad enough, she then decides to strip them of their clothing and stages them for a picture that sells for $50,000 per print.

Overcome by the lovely feeling that giving offers, Vanessa allowed her white privilege to go a bit further and rather than just breastfeeding these orphaned children and going home empty handed, she decides she will “save” them and bring them home with her. She spends months pursuing an adoption of the Sudanese twins without her husband’s knowledge, assuming he will feel the same urge to save as she has.

Her husband, Greg Durkin, is a social anthropologist and was horrified when he heard of her actions. He states: “Is adopting these two children from this village helping them? Saving them? Is that the best we can do as a family? I don’t know. I think that’s kind of almost like a short-cut, it’s almost too selfish. I can fill my needs by bringing them into my world because it’s far easier for me to deal with things in my world.”

Vanessa explained her feelings: “I want them, but do I deserve them? I’m afraid of the judgement of the people. The Bishop, the Dinkas, the world. ‘Ah here she is’ - not that I’m important – ‘another white woman wanting something exotic.’”

Vanessa returns home to New York, still trying to convince her husband that they should adopt these children. Greg’s position is clear: “Just because they don’t know the certain things we call luxuries it doesn’t mean that we’re better than them. I don’t see that dimension at all.”

This story is actually not all that unusual. Many couples do not agree on the issue of adoption and especially the issue of transracial adoption. In a developed country, many feel compelled or perhaps drawn towards offering help to those who they deem as less fortunate. Yet one must wonder whether those who are hungry or orphaned need us or is it our need to feel validated that drives us to want to adopt? Are there not better ways we can help others without having to get such a huge payback in the end?

Vanessa’s story actually paints an amazing picture of what international adoption may look like on many levels to many people. Is she the “white Madonna Saviour” or the desperate and depressed wife with a void to fill? Which are we? Or are we neither? And why did we adopt? Can any of us be honest about our motives and can we admit it if they were less than admirable?

When I see this picture, I can only see exploitation. It is hard to look at, yet equally as hard to look away. Does that make me a voyeur? Intrusive? I am not sure. One thing I am sure about is that Vanessa shows the side of international adoption that reinforces a dangerous stereotype. She evokes a feeling within not only the adoptive parents but also those who were adopted internationally. She represents so much about what is wrong in this system and the many reasons why we all need to look internally on why it is we chose to adopt and the consequence it may cause on our children.

Will Vanessa or others in the adoption community ever recognize that all of their well-meaning behaviours were actually self-driven to some extent? Driven to fulfill a personal desire for more -- More love, more life, more of whatever it is people crave. Sometimes it seems that the void is endless and can never be filled.

Or as Greg puts it “Just because they don’t know the certain things we call luxuries doesn’t mean that we’re better than them.”


Sallymander said...

yes, i'm sure most adoptive parents adopted out of selfishness, unfortunately, either to get children as a second choice to not being able to conceive or unknowingly because they are trying to fill some void (most often it's the former situation).

i am able to physically have children and choose not to have any...why produce children when the world already has enough unwanted children? i actually would think it would be much easier for us to turn a blind eye to orphans and not adopt...my husband and i have a lovely, easy life w/out kids who can cause problems and distress, and i don't need recognition from others as it doesn't mean much to me to get recognition from mere humans in all their pathetic humanity (i am also a pathetic human)...that's why i've always been labeled as different or viewed with contempt for stepping out from the crowd. we are adopting because we think it's sick that people let orphans suffer in orphanages...and that's what they do physically when they don't have the proper nutrition and mentally when they don't have a steady caregiver to attach to, love, interaction, and a normal life outside of confinement.

what's better...being judged by selfish people who are assuming we only adopted for selfish reasons like they would or coldly letting kids rot in orphanages? i think the answer is clear. if this woman who adopted from the village in africa could have gotten in touch with the parents and the parents would have raised the children if given assistance to raise the child, then of course she should have done that instead of adopting them.

however, what about the children in orphanages whose parents are not known? how can we connect with the parents of those children in order to support them? there's problems with that. 1) are orphanages going to agree to be a part of a program to get kids back to their parents? certainly not chinese orphanages that profits from IA. 2) are the parents going to actually use the money for the child or for something else? and perhaps they will have more children to get more "assistance to keep their children." perhaps b/c of ignorance about or unavailable birth control, they'd use assistance for the one child and have another anyway. perhaps they didn't care to lose the child, as was pointed out in the "myth of the grieving mother." 3) while a hypothetical program like this might be going on, there will still be children growing up miserable in orphanages without parents...most in russia turn to gangs and prostitution after they age out of orphanages.

do we turn a cold, blind eye to orphans because we believe they should stay in their villages? staying in an orphanage is not growing up in the village...it is disturbing confinement. and they will stay in the orphanages and age out of them as mentally delayed and unstable individuals unless people adopt them.

yes, we can support poor communities so that poverty and thus orphans are reduced. we def. have to do this. child sponsorship programs such as those thru world vision and other reputable orgs are great. i think every person on earth who can afford it, should sponsor a child and donate to orgs that help communities build themselves economically and teach AIDS prevention. at the same time that we do this, there will still be orphans growing up in institutions who deserve to have a normal life and love and who need to be adopted.

people who think children need to stay in their villages instead of being adopted need to first prove they are supporting an impoverished community; otherwise, they have no grounds for finger-pointing. they also need to come up with an alternative for the orphans growing up w/out care. critics who are not doing anything to help orphans are like hypocritical SUV-driving americans who don't bother to recycle yet complain about the gov's role in our environment.

this finger pointing may be accusing adoptive parents of being selfish but how many of the finger pointers are selfishly being critics because they want to make themselves feel better about not adopting and perhaps make themselves feel better about not doing a darn thing? it is very hard for selfish people (most people) to understand that there actually are some people out there who have compassion on others and want to help them because of compassion and not because it will earn them points on earth with others or earn them points in heaven or because of some other selfish need. therefore, they come up with theories as to why compassionate people do the things they do to help. yes, they are right about some people who "help," but not all. compassion and love without strings and kickbacks do exist.

i believe we need to work to build communities economically and work to help reform corrupt systems, but at the same time, we can't turn a cold, blind eye to orphans who are already orphans and, despite the reasons we attach to them being orphans, who are orphans in need of a loving home now.

how about you, brian? why did you adopt 4 chinese daughters? what was your motive? was it selfish? and if it was, what steps are you taking to right such a wrong? do you feel you selfishly took your daughters away from their country? and if you did, when did you discover that and what are you telling your daughters?

thank you for the post...it's important to hear many perspectives.

Sallymander said...

p.s. i do agree that the photo is detestable for article's said reasons.

Sallymander said...

ok, it's me again. i just read your post explaining your agenda and i now understand you better. i can't believe that guy who accused you of being self-serving in adopting, especially when he also adopted. how can we have the right to judge or guess another person's motives?

when did it become unselfish to want to complete a family over wanting to "save" a child? i think people are failing to make a distinction between the motives of those who simply want to provide a child in need with a loving, healthy environment and those who want to be patted on the back for doing so and want their children to feel like their parents "saved" them. it's a good thing to help and to want to help where help is truly needed, but it's the WHY of helping that matters. if i expect something back from someone or think highly of myself for helping, it's not actually help...in that case, it IS self-serving. people sure get judgmental and in a huff when they don't like something someone has to say.

after reading your agenda post, i now can see why after many days of praying, God led us away from waiting for a healthy baby girl to our special needs boy. i consider his needs minor, but actually, he was even hard to place with parents who were looking for special needs kids and was on an online page dedicated to hard to place children.

thank you for all the research and work you do. i can't wait for the finding ad for our son.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Sallymander. What an elaborate rationale you have constructed.

Anonymous said...

This is an area of great contention and good to see those who adopt participating. Adoption is complex, not simple, either/or and not about love being the answer.