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Solomon’s Dilemma

July 9, 2015

Scan 4

A story titled “A Father’s Struggle to Stop His Daughter’s Adoption” appeared earlier this week on The Atlantic Monthly’s web site. It’s a riveting read about a birth father’s quest to gain custody of the daughter he loved from the beginning and whom he intended to raise. Unbeknownst to the father, and without his consent, the birth mother gave the baby up for adoption. The father, Christopher Emanual, got the child back nearly three months later, but with laws and cultural attitudes stacked against single fathers, and in this case, a father of color and a child of mixed race, you get the feeling that he could just have easily not gotten the baby back.

The very title of the article speaks volumes. It’s not called “A Father’s Struggle to Gain Custody of His Daughter.” It’s called “A Father’s Struggle to Stop His Daughter’s Adoption.” Wait, what? Stop adoption? As a journalism professor, I’m well versed in the short attention span of readers and the power of provocative headlines, so I understand the magazine’s choice of wording on that level. On another, though, it pokes at a narrative about adoption that continues to hold firm in American culture. It’s a headline designed to compel the reader to dive into the extraordinary madness of a stopped adoption. I mean, who in the world stops adoption? And why?

When I was younger, this article would have stirred a familiar panic, however irrational, that somebody out there was going to take back my twin and me, was going to yank us from our family, our life, our identity. Then, our birth family did not have names or faces. They were flat, undeveloped characters in a story shaped by partial truths and deceptions and, mostly, by my own imagination. The only one who inspired any kind of sympathy was my birth mother, and even then, I was sympathetic toward a stock character, toward an ideal. Back then, I understood adoption in these simple terms: It was a process by which those who could not care for their children gave to those who could, and everyone was better off for it. End of story.

My twin and I were better off for it, but adoption is never the end of the story. That’s what I’ve come to realize most keenly in the last few years as both my reunion with my birth family and my broader understanding of adoption have chipped away at my naiveté. People go on living in various stages of heartbreak and recovery for the rest of their lives. And the child who was adopted and becomes the adult who was adopted isn’t the only one plagued by what if’s and if only’s, by the different versions of life left on the cutting room floor.


My birth father and me.

Our birth father has long maintained he would have raised us if he had known about us. In 1970, that would have been difficult. Men did not have rights to children they conceived outside of marriage. He would have been pushing against a cultural mountain that privileged my married adoptive parents over him and my birth mother, despite the fact that my birth parents eventually reconnected and wed 10 months to the day after my sister and I were born.  And the awful, selfish truth of the matter is, in my desire to keep all that is good and dear to me, I’m almost grateful I was born in a time where my birth father never stood a chance. On the flip side, when my birth father went on to adopt three of the four children he raised, he was the good guy again, the guy with rights, the guy everyone would have rallied behind, including me.

Recently, my birth father wrote to me, “You will always be a daughter that I didn’t have the opportunity to raise and enjoy.  I’m sad about that….” I’m sad for him, too. Somehow, I can manage to feel both his devastation over what he lost and a fierce, self-preserving rejection of it.  Because to be the daughter he raised and enjoyed, I could not also be my own father’s daughter. I couldn’t belong to both.

My father and me.

My father and me.

Isn’t that the crux of these recent stories of contested adoptions that make headlines? Too many people–birth fathers, too–want the baby for their own. It’s a modern take on King Solomon’s Dilemma. In this case, though, nobody is willing to cut the baby in two–though the various sides might make a go of it rhetorically. You also can’t, as Solomon did, so simply root out the wrong parent or the wrong life even if the law eventually favors one side or the other.

So in the absence of a clearly horrible choice, and without the evidence of a future life reviewed in hindsight, King Society and King Law, mired in their own socio-political moments, must decide between two decent possibilities, between two potentially happy lives. And whatever King Society and King Law decide, that is the life, and the father, the child is handed; that is the person she becomes.

And so here we are, ordered, adjudged, and decreed.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Letitia Rickards permalink
    June 9, 2016 1:12 pm

    Very well spoken. As an adoptive parent, it has caused me many tears, to recognize these truths on behalf of my beloved son. The alternate reality is so unknown, but so real. Adoption is hard choices. My joy was built on someone else’s pain. The person who really matters did not get to choose, and will never really know which world would have been best.

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