La Nourrice (The wet nurse) 1802 by Marguerite Gérard
“Is that your real father?”
I was asked this again recently, by a well-meaning friend. People in adopted families are hit with this loaded question quite often.
What is real and what isn’t depends on your definition of parenthood. But I’ll let you in on something: The Western idea of adoption is not remotely in the realm of normal elsewhere.
In a list of things foreigners find fascinating/bewildering about Americans, one item noted by a Muslim from Bangladesh was that we will adopt children, even if we already have biological offspring, and treat them like our own. He was saying this in a positive way, but he still found it perplexing. In the West, to adopt is to assimilate. The “as if born to” clause means that legally, spiritually, and culturally, the child is the same as if born to the adoptive parents. This is incomprehensible to the rest of the world. They do not adopt as we adopt. It is just that we have the current predominant culture, so we think we’re right.
Recently on Facebook, there was a discussion that got lost in translation on who was a “real” son or daughter in Muslim culture. A Muslim woman stated a child cannot be a “real” child unless breastfed. Others were outraged by this, thinking this was an excuse for non-biological incest, or that she was saying adoptive parents aren’t “real”. But what she meant was, in most of Islamic society, there is no adoption at all. Some strict interpretations of the Qur’an say guardianship is permissible but to call a child not born to you is not:
“…Nor has He made your adopted sons your (biological) sons. Such is (only) your (manner of) speech by your mouths. But Allah tells (you) the Truth, and He shows the (right) Way. Call them by (the names of) their fathers; that is just in the sight of Allah. But if you know not their father’s (names, call them) your brothers in faith, or your trustees…” Qur’an, Surah 33:4-5
The Qur’an can appear contradictory (much like the Bible), but the overall belief is that although there is only one official mother and father (the biological parents) there are others who can be called “mother”
• a suckling mother, or wet-nurse, who gave her breastmilk for an infant, but who may not have had anything to do with the child after he/she was weaned;
• a foster-mother, who raised the child, cared and provided for him/her emotionally and materially for part or all of his/her childhood;
• an adoptive mother, who adopted the child to be counted as their own, with all legal rights and obligations as biological children.
It is the last description that is the rarest, since legal adoption is rarely allowed or even necessary. To be a true orphan is highly unusual in extended families. The Arabic word for adoption (“kafala”) literally means “to feed” and it is considered a fostering relationship, not meant to take the place of the original parents. Even if an infant’s parents die and the child is breastfed and raised exclusively within a non-related family, they are not considered part of that family; the adoptee does not take the family name and inheritance still comes via the biological father. They are, however, considered “mahram” or unmarriageable kin, because of the wet-nursing. “What is forbidden by reason of kinship is forbidden by reason of suckling.” (The Prophet Muhammad) This is because the mother’s milk is thought to become part of the child’s bones; so the wet-nurse’s DNA binds with the child’s.
This is why adoption is so rare among Muslim immigrants. They are still grappling with this new and strange idea, wondering if it is even right to adopt, rather than foster or claim guardianship. In other words, they’ve got it. They understand that is is inherently wrong to say a child is yours when you are not the biological parent.
That is what we are doing, and what we expect the world to do along with us: Pretend that adoptees are the biological offspring of the parents who are raising them. To the point of changing official documents to make the false real, and the real false. All to save the adoptees from the shame of illegitimacy, the adoptive parents from the shame of infertility, and the birth parents from the fact there ever was a child.
(from “Eyewitness to History” by John Carey 1997. Paul Gauguin marries: Tahiti 1892)
Famous painter and lover of young Polynesian girls, Paul Gauguin found out who was really in control in Island society when, on a whim, he decided to take a wife. After being invited into a home he was passing by, he is offered a girl by her mother with no preamble whatsoever. It would appear mothers in Tahiti had no regard for their children but first the girl had to accept his proposal of “Would you like to live always in my hut?” It was her decision. When she said yes, M. Gauguin was beginning to feel trapped in his own plan. But they then went to another hut some distance away where he was presented to another woman also called the girl’s mother. Both women ask the same thing: “Do you promise my daughter will be happy?”
The matter of two mothers worried me. I asked the old woman (previously described as a “fine Maori woman of about forty”) who had offered me her daughter, “Why did you tell me a lie?” Tehaurana’s mother answered, “The other is also her mother. Her nursing mother.”
This was an example of fa’a’amu, again literally meaning “to feed” or “given to eat.” There was no adoption as we know it, only child sharing or fostering. Biological ties were never broken. But obviously, ties between the child and the “other mother” were very strong. So strong that permission to marry was needed from both families. The bride in question, only thirteen, was relaxed and self-confident, knowing her mothers would stand for nothing less than her happiness. She had, as Gauguin described, “the serenity of a thing deserving praise.” Her nursing mother, with tears in her eyes, even stipulated that Tehaurana would visit one week after the wedding, and if the girl was not satisfied the marriage would be over.
“You can have only one mother,” my co-worker explained to me, condescendingly. “You white people do not know anything about compassion,” spat a woman from the tiny Polynesian atoll of Sikaiana to an anthropologist, where everyone has more than one family and fosterage is the norm.
In some parts of Africa there is the same sort of foster arrangement, not due to any misfortune of the biological parents, but because it is thought to benefit the child and the community. Having intertwined families strengthens society. The fostering family does not take priority over the first. There is no pretending. There is no competition. The renowned Nelson Mandela was in such an arrangement.
During Argentina’s “Dirty War” of 1976-1983, an estimated 500 children were taken from “subversives” and given to members of the military or some other party to be raised as their own, the childrens’ true identity hidden. A woman who thought she was María Sol Tetzlaff, daughter of Lt. Col. Hernán Tetzlaff, had to be convinced by a court and DNA testing that she was really Victoria Montenegro, daughter of resistance fighters Hilda and Roque Montenegro. The father she considered a war hero actually tortured and killed her parents, kidnapping her at the age of four months. The Roman Catholic Church supported the “appropriation” of these children:
“They thought they were doing something Christian, to baptize us and give us the chance to be better people than our parents. They thought and felt they were saving our lives.” But, Ms Montenegro continued, love “doesn’t kidnap you, it doesn’t hide you, it doesn’t hurt you, it doesn’t lie to you all of your life. Love is something else.”
Victoria was an orphan, made one at the hands of her “adoptive” father. The parents she knew fed, clothed and sheltered her. They probably even loved her. The Church gave its blessing as did the government. By Western standards, they would be the “real” parents.
In 2011, Hana Williams died at the hands of her adoptive parents, a nice Christian couple from Washington State. She was found naked, facedown in the cold mud outside her home. A report on her death concluded she’d died from “a culmination of chronic starvation caused by a parent’s intentional food restriction, severe neglect, physical and emotional abuse and stunning endangerment.” Supposedly the parents thought she was rebellious and disciplined her to make her a better person. These were her “real” parents.
The word for adoption in several languages around the world translates “to feed,” which would also imply to nurture, love and protect. There seems to be no word for the opposite. If parenthood hinges on nurturing, why do we call these criminals not only parents, but “real” parents, as if they are still an improvement on the original family?
Parenthood should not be a privilege that can be bought. This is exactly what is wrong with present-day adoption. As long as we cling to the secrecy and power-mongering as good things, nothing will change.
Back to the original question. She asked, “Is that your real father, or your adopted father?”
I said, “Yes.”
Elle Cuardaigh is author of The Tangled Red Thread