Heg emony of the Nuclear, Heterosexual Family
How does a woman such as Rebecca, typically in her late thirties to early forties, end up the mother of a different-race child? Biological motherhood prevails as the dominant way in which women become mothers; adoption remains a second best alternative. Sociologist Katarina Weger, in her article “Adoption and Kinships,” observes that in the U. S., adoptive mothers are often stigmatized as “inherently less capable of providing ‘good mothering”’ due to “the assumption that mature, healthy womanhood is intricately linked to biological motherhood” (p. 46). Further, those with husbands are part of a two-parent family, which many believe will provide a greater network of support than would a single parent.
The ranking of parental desirability within the adoptive system speaks to broader assumptions about women and men. Women without husbands appear to be incomplete—even though all women are accepted as having the emotional qualifications essential for mothering. Unspoken is a tacit cultural agreement that only women who successfully build and maintain a marriage prior to adoption are capable of mothering, even if they are not the biological parent. A woman proves she is worthy of approval for an adoption through the initial love and nurture of a husband—still the foundational building block of the contemporary U. S. family. Single women are suspect, presumed incapable of providing stable family lives. Conventional wisdom holds that family stability rests on the heterosexual two-parent partnership because it offers a child both men and women as role models, as well as a way of interacting with both sexes. Therefore, the adoption system is more sympathetic to married couples not only because they are less “risky” parents but also because, ideologically, adoption will allow them to fulfill their marriages by creating families. In this way, the adoption system supports and legitimates marriage and its obligations to procreate.
The reach and power of the adoption hierarchy, which places married couples at the top, is substantiated by these women’s own comments. As Rebecca explained, “I wouldn’t pick me. I would pick a family. I think my daughter would be much better served with two models, with two parents, with two different people to learn from. . . . But I’m still hoping to find a man and a dad.”Marli told of a rumor that exists among U. S. parents who adopt Chinese children that
“adopted girls who are the prettiest are placed with single mothers to counter the lack of a father in their lives.” The assumption is that a pretty face, and the advantages that come with it, will help compensate for the missing dad and corresponding lack of opportunities for the child.
In addition, cultural myths—based upon publicly known, media-based stereotypes of divorced families and poor teen mothers—perpetuate the assumption that single mothers will produce juvenile delinquents and adults who might not be fit citizens. In short, single women are perceived as at risk for producing social misfits; only single men fare worse in the adoption hierarchy. Gay couples also are contentious as potential adoptive parents, and some states continue to ban gays from adopting.5
The white adoptive mothers in this study said they would have chosen white U. S.-born infants if that choice had been available to them. But only one woman in this study, who worked in the system, was able to adopt such a child. To hold on to their dreams of becoming mothers, the women thus had to expand their searches, answering the question What kind of child am I willing to adopt? ” The women in this study began to explore the possibility of adopting an “at-risk” child, a catchall term that includes children with physical disabilities, older children, and siblings in the foster care system. They also began exploring adopting children of a different race and/or children from another country. Women who adopted internationally were matched to children and brought them back to the United States much more quickly than women who adopted domestically.6
By contrast, black and Hispanic women could more easily adopt children of the same race because there were more children of color available in the United States. But they were told that couples would be given priority for babies and that they should think about adopting toddlers or older children or go abroad in search of an infant.
Single women’s stigmatized status in U. S. culture as a whole and subsequently in the adoption system, which reflects deeply cemented beliefs about the superiority of marriage and family, forces women into a narrower position of choice in creating families. Private agencies are more likely to work with single mothers and cater to their special needs, but the cost of adoption through a private agency averages $20,000.7 In many cases, the women’s privileged backgrounds offer them the financial means to adopt children that otherwise would be out of reach for single women. Adoptive mothers are typically well established in careers that offer stable incomes and good benefits. Additionally, the majority of women who adopt are more likely to have grown up in a middle – or upper-middle-class two-parent family than women who select other routes to motherhood, and the women’s parents are thus often able to contribute funds for adoption fees and child care costs.
The hegemony of the nuclear family—an invisible power that draws its legitimacy from historically entrenched gender relations—frames adoptive mothers’ needs for stable financial situations and guides their personal decisions. Women also often consciously or subconsciously hold off on their dreams to become
mothers in hopes that a suitable partner will enter their lives and instantly improve their desirability as adoptive mothers. Many of these women’s “waiting – periods” last into their mid to late thirties or forties, which means decreased fertility and often leaves adoption as the only route to motherhood.
As this study shows, adoptive mothers are also more likely to form transracial families than women who have biological children. In their journey toward motherhood, the importance of biological kinship fades.8 Questions of family identity and the acceptance of an adoptive child are further complicated by the international and/or transracial circumstances of the adoption. These women must negotiate a very different path en route to motherhood.