International Adoption: Why I Don’t Believe in Fate

When the current issue of the New Yorker arrived in my mailbox, I opened it to the table of contents, did my usual quick scan—a form of mental bookmarking, to help remember what to read later—and my attention snagged on “The Last Babylift: Adopting a Daughter from Haiti” by John Seabrook.

I sat down. It didn’t matter that I was on my way to a doctor’s appointment. Within minutes, I had skimmed it, hunting for damning details, wondering if another writer who’s an adoptive parent got it right—or wrong—absorbing the emotional sense of the piece.

Seabrook does get it right, mostly. There’s only one thing that disappoints me, and it has to do with his notion of fate.

But first, the part that’s right: A detailed report about the “shifting narrative” of international adoption, as the related New Yorker podcast calls it. Gone are the days when pulling orphans away from wars or natural disasters can be seen as a purely humanitarian act. The caption on the article’s drawing implies an economic transaction: “We had never thought of ourselves as Rose’s saviors. We wanted a child, and Rose needed a family: it seemed like a fair trade.”

Adopting internationally is now the topic of heated public debate, and it should be. In fact, the peak of the international adoption trend passed years ago (although I’d argue it was never the boom that journalists, even Seabrook, have claimed it to be). As Seabrook emphasizes, the ethics aren’t clear, even when you strive for the high ground.

This past January, he and his wife were about halfway through the official process of adopting Rose from a Haitian orphanage when the earthquake hit. The orphanage, run by the venerable adoption agency Holt International, is located outside Port-au-Prince, and so escaped much of the damage. The children were unharmed; they had water and food.

But despite the setbacks faced by American prospective adoptive parents already well into the process—the quake destroyed their paperwork in the National Archives in Port-au-Prince, for instance; then there were the spectacularly benighted attempts to hustle Haitian orphans out of the country by Governor Rendell of Pennsylvania and Baptist missionaries—Seabrook admits that, once he was in Haiti to see about expediting his waiting daughter’s adoption, “At the back of my mind was a thought I didn’t even want to articulate—that we were benefitting from this tragedy.”

Seabrook brought Rose home to America at least a year earlier than planned. Before the quake, a Haitian adoption could take up to three years. A lengthy waiting period allowed birthparents to change their minds, even after an adoptive family accepted a referral. Seabrook and his wife were supposed to meet Rose’s birthmother before the adoption was final.

The earthquake literally smashed the bureaucratic procedures in place. In Haiti, Seabrook realized he was on a rescue mission, however reluctantly. As he left the orphanage with Rose, he writes, there was no chance to meet her mother. His rationalization conveys the devil’s deal we adoptive parents make:

“[W]ho were we to gainsay her decision to relinquish her child? One can argue that no decision made in the straits of crushing poverty can ever be truly free, but shouldn’t a woman, regardless of her circumstances, have the right to choose what she thinks is best for herself and her family?”

Seabrook’s story of the pros and cons of this decision, one that includes not just well-to-do adoptive parents but poor birthparents in a developing country and his young adoptee, feels honest to me. This morning, I read the article through with my first cup of coffee, and his telling seemed even more powerful than when I’d first skimmed it. From a journalism perspective, he was on the spot during a news story; but rather than compromising his reporting, his personal involvement adds necessary emotional richness and complexity.

That’s why I was so disappointed to come across the standard evocation of fate—also known as “it was meant to be”—in the personal part of his account. Before the earthquake, when Seabrook and his wife Lisa first received the referral for their daughter from Holt, they were told that the child’s name is Rose. Here’s how Seabrook describes his response:

“I froze. Rosalie was Lisa’s mother’s name, and that was what we had been planning to call the girl we never had. I knew, gazing at the photograph [the agency worker] e-mailed after we hung up, that I was looking at our daughter. Lisa felt the same way: it was fate.”

In almost all memoirs by adoptive parents, writers evoke some version of fate or the “red thread,” as it’s known in Chinese adoption circles, that connects a child through another woman’s body to his or her eventual parents. Yet as Seabrook himself notes, a number of adult adoptees have written counter-narratives in recent years. Even those brought up Christian (maybe especially so) actively wrestle with how they came to be raised by alternate families.

The problem with calling on fate to explain the emotional response of an adoptive parent is that it implies nobody was in charge of this decision. But the only one of the adoption triad who really has no choice is the child. And adoptive parents, with superior resources and far more access to the mainstream press to tell their stories, are in charge more than anyone else.

How you make meaning of so many uncontrollable pieces is complicated, I know, and Seabrook does emphasize economic inequalities, ethical conundrums, and the dissonances that are part of transracial adoptions. On the podcast, in referring to his white family with a black child in Brooklyn, he says, “we’re waiting for the day when someone accuses us of cultural genocide.”

I admire his courage. I’ve long enjoyed his writing for the New Yorker. Yet in dismissing Korean adoptee Jane Jeong Trenka’s The Language of Blood as “just bitter,” for example, he reveals his own blind spot: his privilege as a white male journalist to frame this story as a story.

The arc of his tale is essentially a happy one, although he acknowledges the challenges ahead. By establishing early on that he and his wife felt fated to adopt Rose, Seabrook gives them the kind of unshakeable stock motivation that undercuts his journalistic accounting of why international adoption is so fraught.

And Trenka’s work can’t be reduced to bitterness or what he calls a “kidnap narrative.” She deliberately tosses out a linear story structure because her life and identity are in-process; the ending isn’t happy, but the story isn’t over yet. Decisions were made for her—and I use that passive construction deliberately—but in her writing, she seems to be reinventing herself every day.

When I first met that baby’s eyes in a Vietnamese orphanage, I also thought, “Here is my son.” This is a story he likes me to tell (he’s eight now), and I do. But I didn’t think fate had sparked our instant connection. Of course it’s oh-so-tempting to put a neat red bow on an extraordinary event, to explain why such a bureaucratic process involving two different national governments can end up feeling natural.

But the twist was in my son’s assessing stare, when he became real to me. He was no longer just a photograph, a name on a piece of paper, a phantom of my own longing. I sensed his personality, even at five months of age. He was fully present then, and I still don’t think he belongs to me. We are a family, but he belongs to himself, to his first parents, to Vietnam, to whatever life he chooses.

When you decide to adopt internationally, it is like leaping into space—but we adoptive parents do decide. If there is anything transformative about what Seabrook calls this “remarkable experiment in human kinship,” it is how much we learn to care across biological and tribal boundaries. It is in the capacity we humans have to open our hearts and, perhaps, to reinvent who we become.