Thursday, January 27, 2011

DNA doesn't make a family

A WONDERUL post, When DNA isn't just DNA, from adult adoptee Anne (who usually posts about her work as a doula) in response to a blogger who wrote, "DNA doesn't make a family."  Anne responds:
Simple statement, yes? But even seeing the title and the opening lines, even before reading the rest of the post itself, my gut was protesting. No, DNA alone - whatever that could possibly mean - does not equal Family.

But DNA is almost always more than just DNA.

I understand the importance of the nurture portion of the equation. It's what my parenting decisions are based on, in fact. But the ability to make statements like the above is a luxury that only non-adopted people* can make.
(The asterisk is to Anne's recognition that she is not the "spokesmodel" for all adoptees, and that other adoptees might feel differently.)

Anne's statement really resonated with me; being dismissive of DNA, ancestry, biological connections, is something done almost exclusively by those who are quite aware of their ancestry, who can look at their parents and see a mirror of themselves.  Having my dad's eyes and, heaven help me, the Mississippi-farmwoman physique that was my biological destiny, is something I've always known simply by knowing him and my grandparents and my aunts and uncles.  It's something my children don't have, and it's something they long for, especially Zoe, who so wants to know what her birth parents look like.

Then in talking about a film her birth sister is making, Anne makes this insightful comment:
So, returning to the post that got my own wheels turning. During my own interview process, both on film and in outside discussions, Kate and I spent some time discussing the Standard Public Narrative of adoption, the one where adoption is an inherently virtuous act, where adoptive parents are the shining armor benefactors, the baby is lucky to be rescued from what would surely be a terrible fate, and the birth mother is, if anything, an afterthought - an afterthought who is often commended for her courage and/or thanked for her sacrifice, but ultimately doesn't really count. Because DNA doesn't make a family.
See the power of this simple statement -- DNA doesn't make a family -- in the standard adoption narrative?  Anne notes that that is what allows for this kind of conversation:
Point out that it would be better if babies could remain with their mothers, in an ideal world - and people will seriously say "But what about all the wonderful infertile couples out there who can't have children of their own?"
I've had those conversations, have you?  "DNA doesn't make a family" allows us to forget that the natural order of things -- the thing that happens as God and biology designed it -- is for  babies to be raised by their biological parents.  In saying, "DNA doesn't make a family," we make family a social construct rather than a biological one, where mothers are fungible and it doesn't matter who raises whose baby. 

I don't have a big problem with egg donation, sperm donation, embryo "adoption," gestational surrogacy, adoption, to build a family (so long as all ethical rules are followed and parents are prepared todeal with it, instead of ignore it, with their children).  But when we say "DNA doesn't make a family," we don't need to concern ourselves with the biological beginnings of children. We can ignore birth parents, proclaim that as the "parenting" parent, "I'm the only real parent" in the equation, and ignore our children's loss and grief. Privileging nurture over nature grants permission to ignore what happened in our children's lives before we met them.

"DNA doesn't make a family."  Not such a simple statement after all. . . .

20 comments:

Amanda said...

DNA doesn't make a family, yet law does. That is what I just can't understand. Sharing genes, features, and a heritage with other people is irrelevant....yet my 5th cousin twice removed, that I've never met, is family because the law says so? That's what is basically being said when someone says DNA doesn't matter and that only the new family ties do. It's silly.

Saying DNA doesn't make family is just another way of the Adoptive Family trying to be like the Biological Family. One set of parents, one lineage, one family--forsake all ties elsewhere because the biological family doesn't have any--neither should you. It's not just about nature vs. nurture. We forget that some people adoptees are unquestionably allowed to be related to are so related simply by law. If only nurture makes a family, then I only have two family members: my mom and my dad. I didn't grow up with a large extended family readily involved.

The best thing is to let the adopted person decide for themselves, rather than it be dictated for them. I could go on for hours (most of my thoughts are summed up here: http://www.declassifiedadoptee.com/2011/01/what-is-family.html)

Dou-la-la said...

Thank you so much for sharing this! :O) I'm officially a new follower, too.

Amanda, great thoughts. I'll head over to read your post during the kiddo's nap today!

Jessica said...

How can anyone ignore DNA in the equation that makes up a human being? Impossible.

In the same vein, Malinda, thank you for adding: "egg donation, sperm donation, embryo "adoption," gestational surrogacy" to the discussion. These methods of family-making are almost always overlooked in the adoption dialogue.

Linda said...

"Donor kids" are coming of age, and "most" have the same identity issues "most regular" adoptees have.

I agree with Jessica- donor kids are overlooked...and their voices are starting to be heard.

Amanda nailed it, too.

Being in reunion for 24 years confirmed my lifelong suspicions. DNA is JUST as important as the courtroom procedure known as adoption, and that procedure will NEVER erase, nor will it trump my DNA.

Jennifer Grant said...

Great thoughts - and I agree that sometimes parents by adoption use that kind of phrase (DNA doesn't make a family) when they are - on some level - working to ignore their child's early life. I agree that it's so important to look squarely at the circumstances around your child's adoption, share them with your child, and always to honor and remember the first/birth parents who placed your child for adoption. Did they face injustice? Poverty? Are there ways to make the world a better place for people like them? Sorry for the ramble!
All best,
Jennifer Grant
loveyoumorebook.com

Nora Jane said...

Interesting. I always say "Biology doesnt make a family, love does". And in my head, it has nothing to do with adoption. It has everything to do with the fact that biological relatives don't get to be a part of my life just because we share DNA.

When I put it in the context of my children, adopted and bio, I feel the same way. I do not have a right to be a part of their lives just because we are related (by law or DNA). I have to earn that, and I try every day to make sure our relationships are not taken for granted.

Anonymous said...

Of course DNA plays a role; to imply otherwise is ridiculous.

I agree too that its something easily overlooked by those who do have the luxury of intimately knowing their heritage and biological roots. I see it touted by an equal number of adoptees in reunion as I do AP's or those that simply like to write about the subject.

I daresay however that whenever something like this is broached, it always turns into a backhanded slap at AP's. And for the record I'm an adult adoptee.

I find Amanda's thoughts intiguing but tiresome; the same old, "adoptive families attempting to be the same". I think we can all agree once or all, that each family is unique, regardless of its origins. Yes? Frankly, "being the same" seems redundant.

@ Linda, having followed this site now for quite some time as well as other blogs you frequent, your assertations of supreme "right" to the child you lost ( or gave up) to adoption and the notion that your DNA gives you bragging rights as #1 Mom are also ringing hollow. You seem to brandish that argument with growing frequency and one wonders of its validity in the face of constantly needing to assert it time and again. How are your over eager "claims" of ownership to said child different than that of AP's or other parents? Does DNA equal ownership then?

As for me? Well sure, I wonder what my bio. family looks like or I have over the years wondered; quite likely they look a bit like I do- pieces of the puzzle, just arranged differently.

But I'll take the family created by law and through love & commitment any day.

For me, being adopted doesn't invalidate my core DNA OR provide a sacred link to a ghost family. I feel for those that believe it does.

DannieA said...

I'm a 50/50 split on this....of course DNA matters. This past month I've been to the pediatrician multiple times ruling things out (nothing major thank goodness) because I don't have the best medical history for my daughter, so I know frustratingly well how much DNA does matter in the medical sense...I also know that while not the best topic to talk about DNA matters when you have to be blunt with your child and say that they could be prone to instant addictions, even if "we" (the APs) aren't.

I will stop at saying "DNA is what matters" if it's an excuse for a kid to make poor choices....oh he/she is like that because you don't know what "genes" they carry. DNA is one thing, choices that make for character building are a different story. My house will have uncomfortable rules I'm sure during the teen years and I will make no apology for it....different DNA, I can understand, but in daily matters I'm the mom. In the general scope of things I'm one of two.

(disclaimer...I'm not advocating that ALL birthmothers are addicts by my above sentence, my glasses are skewed by only knowing about foster care and it's issues)

Sandy said...

Anon,

I believe you are correct in stating Linda is a mother but she has never given up a child to adoption...pretty sure that would NEVER happen...EVER...

Perhaps you should get your facts correct...

Campbell said...

"But the ability to make statements like the above is a luxury that only non-adopted people* can make."

It has an entirely different ring when it's said by a "non-adopted" former foster child who has aged out.

There are people out there who can say, without flinching, DNA did not make a family for them and have a pretty valid case.

Linda said...

LOL and BWAHAHAHA @ Anon.

"@ Linda, having followed this site now for quite some time as well as other blogs you frequent, your assertations of supreme "right" to the child you lost ( or gave up) to adoption and the notion that your DNA gives you bragging rights as #1 Mom are also ringing hollow."

Yeah, ummm- I am an adoptee. The "child I lost" was MYSELF. I have the supreme "right" to speak for myself and how adoption damaged myself, my first Mother, Father & the rest of my first family, my adoptive family, and my children.

If I ring hollow, ignore me...but it seems my position is threatening your beliefs, and that's ok.

"You seem to brandish that argument with growing frequency and one wonders of its validity in the face of constantly needing to assert it time and again. How are your over eager "claims" of ownership to said child different than that of AP's or other parents? Does DNA equal ownership then?"

Quite the contrary, because I am adopted and knowing hundreds of adoptees, I believe ADOPTION equals ownership. We are bought and paid for, then expected to stay silent.

Adoptees who are brave enough to speak the dark side of adoption aren't welcome, because it makes people uncomfortable. Too bad. Losing your family, identity, culture, heritage, language or country IS uncomfortable. The experiences of adoptees who don't sing the happy praises of adoption and wish to examine and expose fraud, coercion and the motives of some adopters are valid. And we will continue to speak out and write about it. To do nothing is irresponsible.

"As for me? Well sure, I wonder what my bio. family looks like or I have over the years wondered; quite likely they look a bit like I do- pieces of the puzzle, just arranged differently. But I'll take the family created by law and through love & commitment any day. For me, being adopted doesn't invalidate my core DNA OR provide a sacred link to a ghost family. I feel for those that believe it does."

And your feelings/experiences are just as valid as mine.

But first family is NOT a "ghost family". They are my REAL family, just as my adoptive family is my REAL family and I feel sorry for anyone who believes that. Putting limits on love and whom you call family is sad...and quite ironic for an "adoptee" to say.

Linda said...

@ DannieA-
You DO realize that not just the "bad things" come from DNA, right???

Yes, adoptees are a product of both nature AND nurture...but our DNA is not changed through adoption. EVER.

Your adopted children have certain traits that are in their genes...musical ability, athletic ability, being mathematically inclined...it's not just hair color, freckles or those pesky addiction issues.


Whether YOU are "split on this" doesn't matter. It's the kids who matter. They are hardwired with DNA BEFORE they were born. Respect their DNA. Respect that they are not like you in the genetic sense of the word. Trust me- they WILL appreciate it in the end.

Anonymous said...

Well, As a good little greatful adoptee, DNA never mattered to me.... Until it did. When I got breat CA at 40, it mattered alot. Every MD, every visit asked me about my family history. Can they never look at that paperwork we fill out? All of a sudden it seemed DNA was necesary to provide the best treatment options for me.

That was what finally made me look at the feelings I had buried so deep I did not know they were there.

Amanda said...

Anon, both intriguing and tiresome? Now there are two interesting emotions to experience simultaneously.

Campbell, Dou-la-la's blog entry was in response to another blogger, whom when I read her entry, seemed to press the stereotypical rule "DNA doesn't make a family--for anyone." For someone who is biologically-raised, it is an element of privilege to be able to say that. What frame of reference do they have to REALLY know DNA can't make a family, for anyone, when they are related to the same people by nurture, nature, and by law.

Who is family is up to the person. People feel the need to defend biological ties because adoptees are consistently told that biology doesn't matter. To some, it does, and that's OK. To some, it doesn't, and that's OK too. To each their own.

I am not a huge fan of the man who fathered me. But I value my heritage through him. I still consider his sister my aunt and my brother through him my brother. I'm the one who has to figure these things out, it makes it worse when people lay it out for me--when it's a reality I live when they don't.

Elaine said...

The underlying or implicit argument that 'biology is destiny' here makes me very uncomfortable. I have yet to be convinced that there is a biological necessity for the person who gives birth to a child to raise that child, or to be that child's "mother". "Mother" in quotes because mothering varies across cultures and is socially, not biologically (or universally) constructed.

If y'all want to make arguments about how important it is for people to know their genetic connections/relations/parents, please don't make these arguments from biology/science. Make them from culture. Yeah. It is important to the ways that we construct identity in contemporary North American culture - particularly middle class white culture. That's fine and there is nothing wrong with that. Just be careful.

I hold that bodies and biology and genetics and genetic connections do not have "natural" or "predetermined" meanings are always given culturally specific meanings - poststructuralist that I am.

Adoptive mother that I am, I do want my children to know their genetic connections. I take a great deal of comfort in looking like my favorite Auntie, for instance. But I recognize that as a cultural construction not some sort of essentialist biological impulse.

Why important? Think a bit about the ways that biology = destiny have been used in the past - and present. That's *dangerous* territory.

Mei Ling said...

"There are people out there who can say, without flinching, DNA did not make a family for them and have a pretty valid case."

I'll play Devil's Advocate here and mention:

Yes, DNA did make a family for them, quite literally. I never said it was a *good* family. :P

"Think a bit about the ways that biology = destiny have been used in the past - and present. That's *dangerous* territory."

It's just as dangerous to want to believe the adoptive family was destined to be together. Regardless or whether or not it is considered true by the adoptive parents or the adopted child themselves, its base function is meant (no pun intended) to dismiss any argument.

Saying adoption isn't destiny is very akin to saying to Christians that God doesn't exist.

There is no argument.

@Linda: Actually I think I understand what Anon is getting at - the idea of a ghost family, a family that exists but one which an adoptee has never known.

DannieA said...

@Linda

--of course there is good things that come from DNA...I'm intrigued by many things that comes out of DNA which includes Musical ability, math, science, drama and arts, deep thinking abilities.

My comment was based on last month's experiences alone regarding the slim medical history and on common negative phrases some older generation people I've heard make growing up if putting an ear to adult conversation.

Elaine said...

@ Mei LIng who wrote:
"It's just as dangerous to want to believe the adoptive family was destined to be together."

Absolutely. My point - I think - is that nothing is "destiny". My point was about biological or genetic destiny. Yours is about God's will. In either case there is an absolute claim being made that no one can refute. This woman gave birth to me, therefore she is destined to be my mother OR God willed us to be a family. They are similar *kinds* of claims in that they cut off any response/questioning or consideration otherwise, as you said, to cut off any argument.

The more interesting thing, I think, would be to think and talk through WHY it is so important to have connections to our genetic relatives, what it means for us not to have them and what that might tell us about how we think about and construct our own identities and our families. Why does Zoe want to know what her birth parents look like? And also, why does my Zoe (about the same age as the other one) does not want to know the same thing?

I think that if we resort to arguing about nature vs. nurture we miss too much. I, for example, need to seriously question why knowing my family tree back to the early 18th century is important to me AND why, at the same time, I categorically did not want to have biological off-spring. That is admittedly weird, I think.

The question of 'what makes a family' is still and probably will continue to be, a very contested one in American culture. And in law too, from what I can gather. The original post about the complexity of saying "DNA doesn't make a family" is all about that contention.

Anonymous said...

it is amazing the wounded passions and judgement that this topic has brought out in the comments her.

Most of you missed the point of the topic completely. In fact, most of you appear to be using the topic as a method to vent internal wounds that actually have nothing to do with the topic.

for example:

"I agree that sometimes parents by adoption use that kind of phrase (DNA doesn't make a family) when they are - on some level - working to ignore their child's early life."

or

"Saying DNA doesn't make family is just another way of the Adoptive Family trying to be like the Biological Family"

Get over yourself.

generalize much? This is a statement that you can only validly make on a case by case basis when you know for a fact this is what the parent is doing.

Unfortunately, these parents who adopt are often attacked in discussions just like this for being somehow less deserving (or capable) of being loving parents to children becasue they have no DNA connection to the child. It's BS, and it is disgusting.

Some adoptees it seems in particular like to attack parents on these grounds. Convenient, but usually for reasons that are actually unrelated to the topic in any way. Why not address the real reasons you feel the way you do, rather then meta-project through unrelated topics?

The fact is, DNA is one component (one of many in fact) that contributes to family. But it is in fact only one component not THE. And when you fixate on it as THE family premise, you ignore important and pivotal components in the life of a child that are so very important to "family" and ultimately to their core identity as they grow and become adults. Like love, nurturing, teaching, playing, learning together, experiencing life together. The list goes on and on and in actual fact most of these other components ARE more important to a child's growth and well being then DNA. Adoptive parents are able to provide all of these while being absent of a DNA connection. In many cases, better then the birth parent who gave them up for adoption. Any honest and sincere person here can distinguish the differences in a child's life as they grow up to become adults when they are deprived of all these non-DNA factors in family. And frankly, parents of adopted children should not have to defend themselves against the DNA persecution that some are so willing to nail them with.

Sandy said...

Anon,

Your first quote was made by an adoptive mother...

The second quote was made by an adoptee...

I have no idea what your point is in regards to the either article even though you needed to ensure the "adoptees" were chastised for not getting the point...

Did you even read the original article and the second article written about the original article?