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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.
(Birth) Mothers and Daughters
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.
While we sat in a park and I recorded our conversation, Katarina jiggled the elaborate carriage in which her baby was lying, when it became fretful. She talked about her disappointment in the failure of this baby to make her feel connected, either to her adoptive family or to her birth family. "I feel as though my mother would prefer to have a grandchild that is her [biogenetic] daughter's baby. I know this is only an idea in my mind, that it is not the way she feels. But that is the way I feel. And my birth mother doesn't know me at all, so the baby doesn't connect me to her, either."
I visited the second woman, Birgitta, who was adopted from Ethiopia in the early 1970s, a few days later. Birgitta's daughter was born in late March, and as we sat in her comfortable Stockholm apartment sipping raspberry soda and eating pastries from the shop on the first floor, her daughter slept, snuggly wrapped in a swaddling cloth that Birgitta had wound carefully around her own body. She told me about her last trip to Addis Ababa, together with her husband, Peter, a few months before her baby was born, to visit the hospital where her own mother had died giving birth to her. And she described her fear as she gave birth to her baby in Stockholm, that she, too, might not survive, and her elation when she realized that her daughter had been born, and she was alive.
These two stories are not representative, but illuminate the work involved in creating kinship (Carsten 2001), whether the kinship is termed "biogenetic" or "adoptive." In the first case, Katarina becomes interested in pregnancy after a long and determined search for her birth mother and following a meeting when her birth mother's gestures seem to affirm Katarina's connection to her "by birth." When Katarina herself becomes pregnant, however, she opts for a form of delivery and of feeding her child that is evocative of her relationship with her adoptive mother (who neither gave birth to her nor was able to nurse her). Although this effort to "connect" (as she put it) had not succeeded, and she was convinced that her adoptive mother would prefer a biogenetic grandchild, Katarina implicitly accepted the fact that connection requires work (it is not a biogenetic given); likewise, she believed that she could not (yet) connect to her birth mother because she did not really "know" her. She planned to return to Chile with her daughter when the baby was old enough.
For Birgitta, the second woman, visiting the hospital where her mother had died in childbirth, while she herself was carrying a child, can also be seen as a way of realizing kinship, in this case (backward) to her birth mother and (forward) to her unborn child. Here, the work of return (to the hospital) becomes the basis for creating both a backward and a forward link, connections through which she herself is able to take her place in the world. The given child (Birgitta) and the kept child (to whom she subsequently gave birth) are metaphorically and materially joined in this moment. The presence of her husband (the baby's father) also contributes to "making" this family, a process in which the historical connection of Sweden to Ethiopia is enacted in Birgitta's return and transformed in her giving birth to a Swedish-Ethiopian child.
These narratives suggest the power of discourses of "blood" or "biogenetic" connection in practices of adoptive kinship, even as they point to the kinds of work that are involved in producing new forms of relatedness. In Katarina's case, a long-anticipated meeting with her birth mother and her choice of a seemingly less "natural" way of delivering and nursing her "biogenetic" daughter are the ground through which she attempts to refigure and constitute an experience of kinship with her adoptive mother. By contrast, Birgitta, in returning with her unborn child to the site where she herself was given away, established a relational ground for kinship with her birth mother and her own (future) daughter. In both cases, the stark contrast of blood versus conduct or law that underpins distinctions between biogenetic and adoptive kinship is unsettled, even as the power of blood is acknowledged, if only in struggles of adoptees such as these to rework its conventional meanings.
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