The Pentad of Adoption: Putting Fathers Back In The Picture

I received my original birth certificate today, which confirmed one of my better guesses (based on genetic testing and genealogical research) about the identity of my genetic mother. However, as I had been forewarned would likely be the case, the document contained no information about my father, since (as in many states) birth certificates in Washington contain no information about the genetic father when the couple is not married.*

Presumably this sort of state of affairs exists because the patriarchy of the nation-state (to say nothing of political entities that pre-existed the nation-state) will require no male (unless married) to have to take responsibility for a child strictly on the word of a woman. It’s as if a tacit “women are sluts” premise creates and very doggedly protects a presumption of “reasonable doubt” and “innocence” where paternity is concerned.**

For people who were adopted (and for people in general with regard to the place, i.e., the womb, of their origin), this “epistemological barrier” throws an almost overwhelming emphasis on the mother. One can say, whether for better or for worse, birth is virtually only an affair of the mother and it would seem patriarchy has leveraged this fact to write fathers almost entirely out of the picture.

Certainly, in the bogus “triad” of adoption (which obliterates the “fourth” presence of the child itself), we should speak instead of an unholy pentacle: two genetic parents, two adoptive parents (to whatever extent these individuals are present to the event) and one human trafficker who mediates between these two devilish horns.

Whether we imagine the genetic mother as a dupe (innocent or not) of the adoption pentad or as a cold-blooded mercenary who recognises the value-added she can extract from her eggs and womb, the genetic father seems precisely the “(none named)” I find on my original birth certificate. But even when we construct the genetic mother as a victim of adoption, this strikes me as anti-feminist and paternalistic—it makes the mother pitiably culpable in a situation where abstract “forces” have taken advantage of her, even though those forces do, in fact, have some male name somewhere. Meanwhile, and more often, the orphaned seem to principally direct their animus at this “abandoning” (or “pitiful”) woman and would most often demand of her—not of their father—“why did you give me up?” (or, if not quite anything quite so strident, then a less dramatic inquiry about one’s natal origin). We expect “her” and not “them” to bear the full burden of providing an explanation.

But maybe I have the wrong impression; maybe orphans in fact do often express tremendous animus towards the “dick” responsible for their existence. But if by all of this I seem to suggest that any notion of “source” should shift its locus from a “maternal” to a “parental” emphasis, I do not intend by this to impugn the work and the fact of child-bearing that the mother does. If I would increase the “paternal” presence in the “parental,” I do so to increase the weight of responsibility on the genetic father’s part, which currently seems deliberately too lightened by long use, tradition, and the law.

Prior to genetic testing, the only responsibility demanded of men devolved to those children duly sponsored by marriage, whether procreated or accepted legally by adoption. Outside of that, the sexism of patriarchy permits us to harangue mom for being a damn slut, as if she alone (and not her and some male) were “at fault”. Clearly this is a “law” written by and operating in favour of males, and it shows itself in the adoption discourse and world in the vast emphasis on mothers on both sides of the adoption pentad. And yet even on the side of those adopting as well—most horribly in the role they sometimes play as sexual abusers—adopting fathers should not be overlooked as “negligible players” any more than genetic fathers. Here again, if we allow the discourse of adoption to be dominated only by (patriarchally constructed) females, this strikes me as implicitly and suspiciously sexist.

As my original birth certificate makes evident enough, if I did want to grind an axe on someone’s neck, the only one available is my genetic mother (at this point). And just because a “father” is a veritable impossibility to find, this only explains why mother-bashing becomes a first (or at least an easiest) order of the day, but it doesn’t rationalise or justify it.

What kind of sexist assumptions comes with all of this? In so much in life, we permit (or suffer) men to get away with all kinds of shit, which simply provides another reason to pay less or little (or no) attention to the father, absent or not, where adoption (and birth in general) are concerned.

Nonetheless, what weight of sexism does this encode? And how does it bear particularly on the experience of people who were adopted? Why is there ever any sense of betrayal by (or pity towards) the mother for the loss of whatever we do not get to experience from her, but nothing of the same sort of sentiment toward the father?


*An unmarried male in Washington (at the time) could get his name placed on a birth certificate by submitting some quantity of additional paperwork. From what I can tell, this didn’t happen much.

**I don’t think this is merely a “reasonable” or “rational” habit based on the fact that whichever womb a child emerges from is always 100% the mother’s while the identity of the father remains, in theory, potentially never actually establishable; that is, one can attain 100% certainty about the identity of a mother, but never about the father–at least not prior to the advent of genetic testing.

4 thoughts on “The Pentad of Adoption: Putting Fathers Back In The Picture

  1. I am glad you have that one piece of paper that Minnesota will not give me – and all my parents are deceased. What hell they put us through!

  2. The sexism of it is deep and heavy as you say. I remember once getting into an argument with one of the nuns at my orphanage. I was there with another adoptee, and the argument was triangulated through her. I was as patiently as possible listening to the litany of reasons why I should count myself among the “grateful”, when the sister launched into “You need to think about the…” at which point I thought that she was going to say, “mother”, that I need to think about the woman who, as you are describing, faced with a devil’s bargain, still came out on the bottom. I was almost praying that she would say, “mother” at which point I might ascribe to her, as the “fifth” and “trafficker”, a minor semblance of humanitarian sensibility, if not a feminine “bond” with the woman who brought me into this world.

    Instead she said the following: “You need to think about the father, who maybe is a well-known businessman, and his reputation, which can’t be jeopardized”.

    It was such a startling moment of truth that I was really taken aback. The fathers are “less revealed” because their “reputations” are given more value and thus they have less incentive to come forward, or otherwise present themselves.

  3. If you were born before the 1970’s, men did not have any rights in regards to the baby. The law, specifically in Washington state, denied any notice be given to the father, if the mother was unwed. The only way he had rights, was if, he married the mother and that actually requires consent of the mother.

    On the other hand, the law before the 1970’s did not require either parent to support an illegitimate child, unless the parent held themselves out as a parent publicly (which usually was the mother, if at all). Father’s in aspect got off the hook in regards to child support laws (such as they were then), they did not apply to illegitimate children.

    Nor could an illegitimate child inherit from, receive insurance payments stemming from a death, or accident to a parent, sue for wrongful death of a parent, receive federal death benefits, veterans benefits, etc.. The laws allowing for illegitimate people to be discriminated against started changing about the same time as other civil rights laws did in the 1960’s, but until then, the right to openly discriminate someone based on the fact they were illegitimate, was were part of many different laws, it took years to get them removed completely.

    It is actually the fathers that started the change in adoption laws in the early 1970’s, asserting their rights as the parent as well, and receive notice. It really shook up the world of adoption, newspaper articles bemoaning that fact were written, and quoted people from the big agencies.

    I’m thrilled you received your original birth certificate.

  4. The power of patriarchy cannot, I think, be over estimated. Bastardy laws, whether of religious or secular origin, generally protected the property and reputational interests of males while objectifying females and children as pieces of property over which males exercise dominion and control.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s