The Pentad of Adoption: Putting Fathers Back In The Picture

6 August 2014

I received my original birth certificate today, which confirmed one of my better guesses (based on genetic testing and genealogical research) about the identity of my genetic mother. However, as I had been forewarned would likely be the case, the document contained no information about my father, since (as in many states) birth certificates in Washington contain no information about the genetic father when the couple is not married.*

Presumably this sort of state of affairs exists because the patriarchy of the nation-state (to say nothing of political entities that pre-existed the nation-state) will require no male (unless married) to have to take responsibility for a child strictly on the word of a woman. It’s as if a tacit “women are sluts” premise creates and very doggedly protects a presumption of “reasonable doubt” and “innocence” where paternity is concerned.**

For people who were adopted (and for people in general with regard to the place, i.e., the womb, of their origin), this “epistemological barrier” throws an almost overwhelming emphasis on the mother. One can say, whether for better or for worse, birth is virtually only an affair of the mother and it would seem patriarchy has leveraged this fact to write fathers almost entirely out of the picture.

Certainly, in the bogus “triad” of adoption (which obliterates the “fourth” presence of the child itself), we should speak instead of an unholy pentacle: two genetic parents, two adoptive parents (to whatever extent these individuals are present to the event) and one human trafficker who mediates between these two devilish horns.

Whether we imagine the genetic mother as a dupe (innocent or not) of the adoption pentad or as a cold-blooded mercenary who recognises the value-added she can extract from her eggs and womb, the genetic father seems precisely the “(none named)” I find on my original birth certificate. But even when we construct the genetic mother as a victim of adoption, this strikes me as anti-feminist and paternalistic—it makes the mother pitiably culpable in a situation where abstract “forces” have taken advantage of her, even though those forces do, in fact, have some male name somewhere. Meanwhile, and more often, the orphaned seem to principally direct their animus at this “abandoning” (or “pitiful”) woman and would most often demand of her—not of their father—“why did you give me up?” (or, if not quite anything quite so strident, then a less dramatic inquiry about one’s natal origin). We expect “her” and not “them” to bear the full burden of providing an explanation.

But maybe I have the wrong impression; maybe orphans in fact do often express tremendous animus towards the “dick” responsible for their existence. But if by all of this I seem to suggest that any notion of “source” should shift its locus from a “maternal” to a “parental” emphasis, I do not intend by this to impugn the work and the fact of child-bearing that the mother does. If I would increase the “paternal” presence in the “parental,” I do so to increase the weight of responsibility on the genetic father’s part, which currently seems deliberately too lightened by long use, tradition, and the law.

Prior to genetic testing, the only responsibility demanded of men devolved to those children duly sponsored by marriage, whether procreated or accepted legally by adoption. Outside of that, the sexism of patriarchy permits us to harangue mom for being a damn slut, as if she alone (and not her and some male) were “at fault”. Clearly this is a “law” written by and operating in favour of males, and it shows itself in the adoption discourse and world in the vast emphasis on mothers on both sides of the adoption pentad. And yet even on the side of those adopting as well—most horribly in the role they sometimes play as sexual abusers—adopting fathers should not be overlooked as “negligible players” any more than genetic fathers. Here again, if we allow the discourse of adoption to be dominated only by (patriarchally constructed) females, this strikes me as implicitly and suspiciously sexist.

As my original birth certificate makes evident enough, if I did want to grind an axe on someone’s neck, the only one available is my genetic mother (at this point). And just because a “father” is a veritable impossibility to find, this only explains why mother-bashing becomes a first (or at least an easiest) order of the day, but it doesn’t rationalise or justify it.

What kind of sexist assumptions comes with all of this? In so much in life, we permit (or suffer) men to get away with all kinds of shit, which simply provides another reason to pay less or little (or no) attention to the father, absent or not, where adoption (and birth in general) are concerned.

Nonetheless, what weight of sexism does this encode? And how does it bear particularly on the experience of people who were adopted? Why is there ever any sense of betrayal by (or pity towards) the mother for the loss of whatever we do not get to experience from her, but nothing of the same sort of sentiment toward the father?


*An unmarried male in Washington (at the time) could get his name placed on a birth certificate by submitting some quantity of additional paperwork. From what I can tell, this didn’t happen much.

**I don’t think this is merely a “reasonable” or “rational” habit based on the fact that whichever womb a child emerges from is always 100% the mother’s while the identity of the father remains, in theory, potentially never actually establishable; that is, one can attain 100% certainty about the identity of a mother, but never about the father–at least not prior to the advent of genetic testing.


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