Refiguring Kinship in the Space of Adoption

By Yngvesson, Barbara | Anthropological Quarterly, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Refiguring Kinship in the Space of Adoption


Yngvesson, Barbara, Anthropological Quarterly


Abstract

International conventions and domestic adoption laws in Euro-American nations regulate the construction of adoptive families through a series of legal fictions. The most significant of these is the principle of the legal clean break, which cancels a child's ties to pre-adoptive kin and incorporates him or her into the adoptive family (and adoptive nation) "as if" s/he were the family's (the nation's) "own." Drawing on research with transnationally adopted adults and their families in Sweden and the United States, and on memoirs and films produced by adopted adults who have reunited with (officially nonexistent) kin, I focus on the productivity of this space of erasure, where biology is both cancelled and discovered anew as a site of surface (dis)connection, and continuity is produced over time in a series of returns. This work has implications for our understanding of what Foucault (1997) describes as "the biological-type caesura" in the production of "what appears to be a biological domain" in the adoptive nations to which adoptive children are sent and those to which they return. At the same time it suggests some of the ways that familiar cultural forms (the nation, the family, the Swedish, and so forth) are reconfigured by the presence of a child (and later an adult) whose quality as "almost the same, but not quite" confounds any sense of what a biological family (or native land) might naturally be. [Keywords: adoption, globalization, biopower, identity]

"In anticipating the future of families like my own, I consider the plasticity as well as the potency of idiomatic kinship a hopeful sign."

-Laurel Kendall, "Birth Mothers and Imaginary Lives" (2005:177).

(Birth) Mothers and Daughters

In May 2006,1 visited Stockholm to give a series of talks about my research on transnational adoption in Sweden.1 While there, I spent time with several adopted adults whom I had interviewed over the course of the previous 8 years regarding trips they had made to visit their birth countries and in some cases their birth families. Since my previous visit, a number of these adoptees had given birth to children of their own, an event that carries a particular emotional charge in the context of a parent who was herself "abandoned" by her mother at birth or shortly thereafter. Two young women, one in her late twenties and the other in her mid-thirties, had 5-week old daughters. One was living with her "sambo" (an unmarried partner with legal standing in Sweden), while the other was married to the father of her child. I spoke with each of them about their experience of pregnancy and giving birth.

One of the women, Katarina, who was born in Chile in the early 1980s, explained that she had felt no desire to have children until she re-united with her birth mother in 2004. At this reunion, which began with an awkward encounter in the hotel in southern Chile where Katarina, her boyfriend, and her adoptive mother were staying, concluded with a visit to the house where her birth mother lived with her husband and children. Katarina described a powerful moment when her feelings about giving birth changed. Holding open an album with pictures from the trip, she showed me a picture of her birthmother with her left arm around Katarina's shoulders and her right hand on her abdomen. Katarina explained that her birth mother had whispered an endearment to her and touched first her (Katarina's) chest, then her abdomen, and held her close. She said, "At that moment, I thought, Of course I can have a child.'" And on her return to Sweden, she "unexpectedly" became pregnant.

Sweden has excellent pre-natal care and Katarina told me that she made plans as her pregnancy progressed for a delivery that she described as "a voluntary caesarian." Caesarians are said to be far less common in Sweden than in the United States, and voluntary caesarians (caesarians that are chosen although there is no medical reason for them) are unusual. …

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