Read an Excerpt
Weaving a Family
Untangling Race and Adoption
By Barbara Katz Rothman
Copyright © 2005
Barbara Katz Rothman
All right reserved.
This book is about how we weave a family, how we weave ourselves
into the world through familial ties.
Mostly, that's the kind of thing people don't even notice. We
just do it. We take our kids off to grandma's, drive six hours to
wherever our sister lives with a quart of cranberry sauce for
Thanksgiving, stop everything and do a bedside vigil when a
mother-in-law is dying, wrap endless piles of gifts for our nieces
and nephews for birthdays and Christmas or Chanukah or
whatever potlatch we celebrate.
The ice-cream truck rings and the little children swarm to
the street and cluster at the truck with their assigned grownup.
Two kids and a woman with dusty jeans come out of one house,
one kid and a guy with a dishtowel out of another, three and a
woman with her hair tied back with a flowered scarf out of the
third house down, a really little one carried by a woman with
her shirt buttoned wrong out of the house next door.
Mostly we "read" these clusters as families. Or not. That
woman with her hair tied back-she's black and the three kids
are all blonde, their straight, wispy hair flying from matching
ponytail holders. Oh, that one's a nanny. A quick glance at them
and we think we've "got"the story. And we probably do.
Victoria and I come out. She's about five years old. When the
ice-cream guy turns to me I give her a look, her last chance to
change her mind yet again, and then I order the weirdest, bluest
thing he has, preferably with a bubblegum nose. He hands it to
me, takes my two dollars, gives me my quarter back, and turns
to Victoria: And what do you want? She looks at me, shakes her
head and says, "I hate when that happens."
What happened was that we were not seen as a family. That
wasn't actually my block I described-I don't think you could
find three blonde kids on my block, in this decade. And my ice
cream guy knows us. But that is the story of our lives together.
We don't look like a family. I'm white, and Victoria is black. So
we've learned, over the years, the little tricks we need, to make
you see us as a family I learned to stand behind her with my
hand clearly on her shoulder when we rang the violin teacher's
door. "Hello, I'm Barbara and this is my daughter Victoria," I
say before the teacher can so much as open her mouth. And put
her foot in it. I call Victoria "my daughter" like a newlywed on
a fifties sitcom said "my husband." Often. With a big smile.
Straight at you.
Victoria and I "do" family, "present" as family, the way that
a transsexual does gender, presents as female. We're just doing
what "normal" people do, but we know we're doing it.
I think of Agnes, a transsexual that Harold Garfinkel interviewed.
Garfinkel was an ethnomethodologist, developing an
approach to sociology that tries to "unpack" how people get
through everyday life. Part of how we do it is to explain ourselves
to ourselves, construct narrative, make a coherent story-as
I am doing in this book, making sense out of my life as a
mother. Ethnomethodology, in this close look at the everyday,
shows how we do ordinary things, how we make things seem
natural. Agnes did it with gender: she presented herself as a
woman. But she did it with a man's body, and so for her it was a
real accomplishment. But when you stop to think about what
it is Agnes had to do-how she had to use her hands, angle
her head, move her legs and eyebrows, how she had to present
as a woman, you realize that's what women do too. Gender,
Garfinkel was showing through Agnes's account, is a social
accomplishment. It is an accomplishment for women doing
"woman" as a performance, and it is for men doing "man," just
as it is for those who are border-crossing. Garfinkel showed us
that Agnes took the most taken-for-granted actions of daily life
and made them obvious.
For those who are doing what they are expected to do, ordinary
girls and women doing the expected gender stuff, the
accomplishment is hidden, naturalized. Even we don't realize
what we're doing most of the time. That doesn't mean we're not
doing it. That doesn't mean that we can't recognize the things
we do if you call them to our attention. It just means we don't
have to think about it.
So it is with family. If you are an ordinary family, an expected
family-a mama bear, papa bear and the little bear cubs born to
your type of family-you don't think about presenting yourself.
It just seems obvious. You don't think about how you construct
the family, weave the relationships between the various parts,
and present the seemingly solid fabric of your lives to the world.
But if you're a family like mine, a family that mixes race in
unexpected ways, it's not obvious. If you're a family in which
the mother's in a wheelchair that the kid is helping to push,
you're going to have to make clear that you're a mother and her
child. If you're a family that does different things with gender-two
mothers or two fathers-then you're going to be called
upon to account for yourselves. If you look old enough to be
your kid's grandmother, or young enough to be her sister, you're
going to have to explain yourself. If you're not ordinary, you
have to show just how ordinary a family you indeed are. That
"ordinariness" is an accomplishment. You're going to be aware
of what most people take for granted.
I've been raising kids for so long. More than half my life, and
I'm not young. They're widely spaced, my kids-fifteen years between
the youngest and the oldest-so here I am, three decades
into motherhood, and I still have a kid, a child at home. And I'm
a sociologist. So what with one thing and another, I've had time
to think about it. And it's striking how much of what was ordinary,
unquestioned, not really thought about with the first two,
my white kids, had to be constructed more overtly, tenderly and
lovingly and strategically, with the third, my black kid.
I've had other moments of marginality-we all do now and
again. I brought Daniel with me to share the celebration when I
was elected president of one of my professional associations. He
was about twenty at the time. And I overheard a bit of gossip
about what a young husband I had. I had to (or felt I had to) clarify
that one. I can still remember this odd moment from my
teens: I was with a boyfriend, and a kid came over and asked if I
was his brother. I must have done the white girl hair-flip thing,
something to show I was a girl. I got pushed around in a wheelchair
for a little while once, with a badly broken ankle, and saw
how totally dismissed I was as any kind of real person-mother,
worker, anything. Irving Kenneth Zola, the person who established
"disability studies" within sociology, called me the day
I got home from the hospital, and said, "Barbara, this is carrying
participant observation altogether too far!" But actually it
wasn't; it was just far enough. I learned what I needed to know.
Years ago, before I had adopted, I was at some meeting somewhere
when a little black toddler darted out and was reaching
up to pull on a tablecloth. I dashed over to keep him from pulling
the table over on himself, and scanned the room. A white
woman was right there in front of me, but she didn't register-until
she scooped up the baby, smiled at me, and said: "It's OK,
it wasn't obvious."
I've used her line a million times since, and thank her for it.
When things are not what people expect, it's not obvious.
And so you have to think about how to make obvious who you
are, who you are with, what you are doing.
If you think about your life, there will undoubtedly be those
little moments, sometimes comical and sometimes not, when
you too were just a bit off-center and got a fresh glimpse of
how the world works, because you had to make it work. If you
step just an inch off "ordinary" family-the inch that adoption
moves you, or the extra inch that an "obvious" transracial adoption
gives you-you get a fresh angle on family.
Adoption is probably interesting enough in and of itself. As
is race. As is motherhood. But what is so interesting to me is the
way that putting these things together shows you ordinary,
taken-for-granted, obvious stuff in American life.
We have race, and ethnicity, and community and family, and
the nation and the global economy-but we mostly don't see
them. We don't see ourselves establishing our place in the family,
the world, the communities in the in-between levels. Take
a kid from a Chinese orphanage and put it in a middle-class
"Euro-descent" American home, and a lot of what parenthood
is about in America is put into sharp relief. Take an African
American kid and put it in a white home, and the same thing
happens: you can see how race and family are put together in
America. They're put together-race constructs family and family
constructs race-when a black woman is raising a black child
and when a white woman is raising a white child, but it's almost
invisible. It's that water-to-a-fish thing. But move across that
race line in your mothering, and the relationship between
motherhood and race jumps right out at you.
Each person has a place in families and friendship groups and
communities and ethnic groups and races and nationalities and
the global economy. We have our place in those social systems
when we are part of "ordinary All-American families" and when
we are not. When we are not, we become very aware of how we
fit ourselves in. We notice that we are doing what other people
think they are just being.
Fitting in, finding your place, belonging: these are important
to everybody. They're crucial to kids. No kid wants to stick
out, to "not belong." I love Sesame Street; they did many, many
good things. But they did screw up on one. There's this song
Three of these things belong together
Three of these things are kind of the same
Can you guess which one of these doesn't belong here?
Now it's time to play our game, time to play our game!
In reading the literature of transracial adoption and of
mixed-race families, and just plain hanging out with people
who grew up on Sesame Street, I've heard more complaints
about that song! All those little kids, identifying with the one
that "doesn't belong." They tried to make it better, the Sesame
Street people being far from stupid. When they sang about kids,
they never said "doesn't belong," but "is doing his own thing."
That's not what the now-grown kids I've been reading and
listening to remember; they remember that the odd one out
We belong. Our kids by birth and by adoption belong. They
belong to us, they belong right where they are, however they got
there. Our families belong. We belong to the larger families and
the communities we're in-however we got there.
But it's not obvious.
I profit from American racism. More than almost anybody I
know, I am a beneficiary: I have Victoria.
I am one of the white Americans who has adopted a black
baby. Fifteen years ago Victoria came into my life, a perfect,
healthy, beautiful baby with world-class dimples.
That makes us part of what is called "transracial adoption,"
the placement of black children into white homes. In theory,
a lot of other things might be thought of as transracial adoptions:
the Chinese girls being brought to America, the Korean
adoptions of some years back, maybe the kids being brought up
from Central and South America to North American and European
homes. Or, in a better theory, nothing could be considered
transracial adoption because race is a useless, meaningless category,
biologically speaking. But we don't speak biologically, or
accurately, very often. We recognize race as a very, very important
social category, and no racial distraction is as important in
America as the one we know as the "color line" between black
and white. So, while much of what I write about transracial
adoption in this book applies to all of these border-crossing
families, much is also specifically about black/white families.
And similarly, much is specifically about adoption, because
that's where my experience comes from, but much is also about
nonadoptive border-crossing families, however they are formed
and whatever borders they transgress.
Transracial adoption is a good example of what Ms. Magazine
used to call "mid-revolutionary mores." It's the way we have
to act in a world that hasn't gotten it right yet, but is moving in
that direction. In a more overtly racist system, in a no-holds-barred
racist system, there wouldn't be any transracial adoption;
the color line would be hard and fast, and the state wouldn't be
doing adoptions like ours. In a completely nonracist system, the
concept wouldn't make sense because we wouldn't think of people
as grouped into races.
In our system we have enough racism to recognize race, to
categorize babies and adopting families by race, but enough of
an attempt to overcome our racism to place children in homes
across the race line. It's an awkward moment that's lasted almost
fifty years now.
We also have enough racism so that it is black babies and children
that disproportionately are up for adoption, and white
families that disproportionately have the wherewithal to adopt
-and enough racism that it is hard to imagine the circumstances
in which a black family would/could adopt a white baby.
And so here we are.
I came to the decision to adopt out of my work as well as out
of my personal life. I had given birth to my first two children,
aged fifteen and eight by the time Victoria arrived. My early decision
to have home births and my subsequent interest in midwifery
brought me to my dissertation and my first book; my
work in that area brought me to my work on prenatal diagnosis
and genetic counseling, the subject of my second book. And
that work, which was more or less on reproductive technology,
had me on a lot of reporters' and television producers' rolodexes
when the "Baby M" surrogacy case arose in the late 1980s. In that
case, a woman hired as a surrogate, a "rented womb," found herself
unable to go through with the contract once the baby was
born. She tried to keep the baby; the state sent police after her,
took the child, and turned it over to the contracting father.
I found myself part of the media circus. Arguing against surrogacy,
arguing that every woman is the mother of the child
in her belly unless and until she chooses otherwise, I found myself
arguing alongside a sometimes strange assortment of colleagues.
Priests and religious leaders of other denominations
were on my side, while, bizarrely (to me anyway), some feminists
sat on the other side, talking about women's rights to enter
into contracts, and the necessity to hold them to those
contracts. The TV people particularly liked to have two people
labeled as "Feminists" (literally labeled, the white caption
beneath our names when we first spoke) arguing against each
other. Hoping for a cat fight? Just enjoying anything that would
heighten controversy and so, hopefully, raise ratings?
I found little common ground with the priests and other religious
people talking about "women's natural spheres" and
"maternal instincts" and what an awful thing "choice" had now
led us to. I had more in common, much more, with the feminist
opposition. They had their own problems in these debates,
stuck on their side of the argument with the brokers, the guys
making money off of the deals. One of the feminist women on
the "other side" and I invented a game we'd play: I'd get a point
when the awful man on her side said something that made us
cringe; she'd get the point when the awful man on my side did.
We racked up points pretty quickly.
Excerpted from Weaving a Family
by Barbara Katz Rothman
Copyright © 2005 by Barbara Katz Rothman .
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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