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Central American Child Migrants: Why Are Kids Arriving Unaccompanied? What Should Happen with Them?

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by Liz Oglesby

Here’s why Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson is exactly wrong on the Central American migrant issue.

Two questions are relevant here: why are Central Americans crossing the border, and why are kids coming without adult relatives?

To the first question there are numerous answers, some structural and some immediate. Poverty, inequitable land tenure, lack of opportunity, violence and the local-level political economic effects of free trade are all structural factors that propel Central American migration. US policy in the region has a decades-long legacy of exacerbating these structural inequities , and the current humanitarian crisis on the border is most definitely a kind of “blow-back.”

There are also immediate reasons for the sharp rise in Central American children crossing the border. I agree with Secretary Johnson on the key role of smuggling networks in misinformation campaigns directed at Central Americans, spreading false information about minors being able to secure “permisos” to stay in the United States.

But why are kids making the dangerous trek unaccompanied by their parents or adult relatives? During last week’s House hearings, I heard no effort to analyze that question. Yet based on research I have done, as well as other important research done at the University of Arizona by Murphy Woodhouse, Jeremy Slack, Geoff Boyce, Richard Johnson, and others, here’s why these kids are coming without their families.

The kids are coming unaccompanied by relatives because of the militarization of the US border that has occurred since the mid 1990s and especially since the mid 2000s. The details of this militarization are well known, and the bottom line is that as the trek north has become riskier (walking days through the treacherous desert), it has also become a lot more expensive. It currently costs between $8,000 and $12,000 for one person to make the trip from Guatemala to the US. In the past, there was a lot more circular migration from Mexico and Central America; parents could work in the US and return home, or travel to pick up their kids for the journey north. “Coyotes” were not drug smugglers, but usually just people from the community who knew the routes.

These days, what is the choice for parents who are already in the US? In many cases, the choice is either to arrange for the kids to come north on their own via ever more dangerous networks, or never see them again.

And so, why is Secretary Johnson exactly wrong on this issue?

In last week’s hearings, he stressed that the “key” policy tool would be to ramp up Mexico’s “deterrence” capability vis-à-vis Central American migrants.

First of all, it’s hard to see how the migrant routes could possibly become more militarized, but even if that were to happen, it would only push the Central American children ever more tightly into the clutches of criminal trafficking networks. And it would make it more likely—not less—that children would travel unaccompanied by an adult relative, since the cost to migrate would become even more prohibitive.

Of course, stopping Central Americans before they reach Mexico’s northern border has long been a goal of US policy. But this doesn’t solve the humanitarian crisis; it merely displaces it out of range of US television cameras.

I could write another essay on why Joe Biden’s offer to increase funding to Central America via USAID anti-gang programs is useless to stop out-migration (this is just more of the same top-down development policy, and these funds will go to government agencies and large NGOs and will have little or no effect on the communities of migrants).

Why should US citizens care about this?

Besides the humanitarian debacle playing out on our border, which we had a decisive hand in creating, a significant amount of money is being wasted in this “security theater.” Research shows that punitive measures taken against migrants don’t deter migration, they just increase people’s suffering.

The Central American kids won’t stop coming no matter how many National Guard troops we put on the border or how much we coerce Mexico into persecuting them along the way. They will only stop if conditions change in Central America, and to support that, we should have a much broader discussion of US policy toward the region.

In the meantime, why not treat the Central American migrants the way we treat Cubans? Why not simply let them stay? Given our nefarious history in the region, it is the least we can do.

Liz Oglesby is Associate Professor of Geography and Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She has worked in Central America since the 1980s. She is a former editor of Central America Report (Guatemala City) and co-editor of The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

Russia’s Adoption Ban

Russian baby

The Russian adoption ban and the US Magnitsky Act offer all the absurdity of the Cold War, with less geopolitically at stake. Both sides are claiming the other is cruel to children, and neither is making much sense. There are real issues to talk about related to the care of children, but the conversation in the blogosphere and the press on both the Russian and U.S. sides relies on caricatures of each other, children, and adoption.

In early December, Congress passed and Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, which was aimed at Russian officials responsible for the death in prison of Sergei Magnitsky. a lawyer who had supposedly uncovered a tax fraud scheme by Russian officials against Hermitage Capital Management, a U.K.-based financial company that lobbied heavily for the Act. It also imposed visa and financial sanctions against all Russian officials responsible for “gross violations of human rights.” It’s unclear at best what this means, but it does seem to violate US and international law—Russian officials apparently could have assets frozen and even be incarcerated if they set foot on US soil, based simply on allegations by U.S. NGOs.

Russia responded by denouncing the hypocrisy of US complaints about Russian human rights standards as long as Guantanamo’s prison was open, and its parliament passed the Dima Yakovlev Act, which banned U.S. NGOs from operating in Russia, including those involved with adoptions. Dima Yakovlev was an adopted Russian toddler who died when his new father forgot to drop him off at daycare, and left him strapped into a hot car in July, 2008 for nine hours in a Washington, D.C. area parking lot. The case made headlines in Russia when the father was acquitted on manslaughter charges, joining a steady stream of other terrible cases reported regularly in the Russian press of adoptees beaten, neglected, and killed by their U.S. parents, time and time again igniting calls for an international adoption ban. While the actions of a mother in Tennessee, who put her seven-year old adopted son from Russia on a plane back to that country in 2010 made headlines in the U.S., for Russians it was just another in a long series, a steady drumbeat of distressing stories about serious abuse of Russian adoptees. While there is little doubt that it was the Magnitsky Act that precipitated the ban on U.S. adoptions from Russia, it wouldn’t have been possible to mobilize so quickly to stop them if there were not already a great deal of pre-existing political sentiment in this direction.

The whole thing seems like nothing so much as the Nixon-Krushchev kitchen debate, the 1959 exchange between the two leaders about a washing machine in a model house they were touring with press in tow. Krushchev accused the U.S. of “capitalist attitudes” that exploited and oppressed women in the home. Nixon touted the U.S. standard of living, and said that while misogynist attitudes were universal, the purpose of things like washing machines was to make things easier for “our housewives.”

The Magnitsky-Yakovlev exchange mirrors this conversation in all its foolishness. The trouble with the U.S. position is that it is entirely too sentimental about how great the nuclear family is for children, while the Russian side is too cynical. For one thing, the U.S. press keeps talking about Russian “orphans.” But almost none of the children living in large Russian institutions—about 120,000, according to most estimates—is actually an orphan. They are, like the 400,000 children in the U.S. child welfare system, victims of variously bad circumstances, from parental homelessness to alcoholism or mental illness to abuse. Some have physical or emotional disabilities that make it very difficulty for them to live in a family. Certainly the Russian child welfare system has few things to recommend it, being among other things severely underfunded. (One possibly productive side-effect of all of this is the promise of more funding flowing to Russian child-welfare institutions.)

On the U.S. side, after our own experiments with large-scale institutions for children through the 1960s, we have swung to a new anti-institutional extreme that is informing our desire to “rescue” Russian “orphans.” We imagine that virtually all children—no matter what their history, their emotional or physical state, or the likelihood that their parents might return for them or at least visit—would be better off in a nuclear family. This is sentimental and naïve. While most adoptions of children from Russian institutions go well, post-institutional children or those dealing with the aftermath of abuse, whether from U.S. foster care, Russian orphanages, or any number of other places sometimes have extremely challenging behaviors, outside the box of normal childhood challenges. Some are frighteningly violent, which accounts for some (although by no means all) of the reports of U.S. parents responding with terrible violence of their own to Russian adoptees. The Tennessee single mother who returned her son to Russia had told the local sheriff in her town that the seven year-old had made credible threats that he would burn the house down while she and her other children slept. She got no help. As the viral circulation of the blog post known as “I am Adam Lanza’s mother” made clear, we have few supports and essentially no idea what to do when families say they are afraid of their children’s violence. This, alongside a rejection of the therapeutic culture that seems to have little to offer either parents or children in these situations, provokes a certain acquiescence and even support for the kind of “spare the rod, spoil the child” parenting that can lead to horrific abuse.

The Russians, like Krushchev in 1959, imagine our families as places that exploit the weak and vulnerable—children, this time.

There is nothing good about the Magnitsky-Yakovlev exchange, nor what it produces for institutionalized Russian children or adoptees in the U.S. But wouldn’t it be interesting if we could use it to talk about real issues facing children, parents, and states in the U.S., Russia, and across the globe?

Missing Mila

One of the most remarkable books I’ve read this year is Missing Mila, Finding Family by Margaret Ward, which leaves me with a strong sense that the adoption debate could be—should be—different. It is also a profoundly particular—and hence human—story about how two families, one Salvadoran, one  in the U.S., work through their understanding of a wrenching series of events, including death, adoption, and the loss of a child, and somehow come out the other side with an extraordinary measure of grace.

The world is full of adoption narratives. They tend to be sentimental, to dwell on falling in love with a to-be-adopted child, to either romanticize the birthmother’s relinquishment or ignore her altogether, and to emphasize the as-if-born-to quality of the newly created adopted family, although recently, with a proud acknowledgement, too, of its (slight) difference. Missing Mila doesn’t do any of these things. Mila is the birth mother of the child Ward adopts, and the “family” they find is the gradual bringing together of all Mila’s children, from Salvador, Costa Rica, and Massachusetts, their birth father, grandmother, and all the people who raise them into one remarkable group who genuinely care for one another and look after each other.

Ward’s story of how she and husband Tom first came to learn about the child they called Nelson, then spend several weeks in Honduras as guests of Diana Negroponte (wife of US ambassador John Negroponte), is peculiarly flat and factual, preoccupied with what they knew and when, particularly about John Negroponte’s awareness of—and participation in–Honduras’s role in the wars in Salvador and Nicaragua. Peculiar, that is, until Ward tells us later that the first people she wrote that account for were his Salvadoran family, whose understanding at that point was only that there was a baby, Roberto (Nelson), who had disappeared when his mother, an FMLN militant, had disappeared and had probably been killed. It’s hard to write about joy and tragedy in the same lines, and it suggests a great deal about the affective work of the sentimental in covering over violence (as feminist scholars have long argued) that it can have no place here.

Instead, what takes the place of the emotional crescendo of that encounter is another, in 1997, when Nelson was 16 and his U.S. family flew to Costa Rica to meet his relatives. It is a wrenching, tearful meeting, and Nelson (and ultimately his adoptive brother, Derek as well), form particularly strong bonds with Roberto/Nelson’s bio-grandmother and father, but also “their” siblings, two sisters and a brother. The Ward’s gradual process of coming to understand how Nelson had come to be available for adoption is wrenching—that his mother had been shot by Honduran security forces, that he had a grandmother who had never stopped looking for him and a father, too. Understandably, they are terrified that they will lose him, that this is a challenge to the legality of the adoption in Honduras (it is), and perhaps also to their family and living arrangement, despite the gentle assurances to the contrary by his bio-family, whose very first letters, sent into the void in hopes of locating their Roberto, assure them all that they understand that Margaret and Tom are Nelson’s “real” parents.

The rest of the book weaves together the voices of virtually everyone involved, as Margaret Ward first sought to build a record for Nelson, but ultimately with an awareness that she would write this book. Over the course of more than a decade, the children grew, completed higher education, helped each other in business, and wrote a blog together. Margaret spent months in archives, collected oral history from family and friends, and tried to “find” Mila, in a quest that perhaps became more important to her than to the children. They celebrated holidays, birthdays, the anniversary of Mila’s death, shared vacations. In short, remarkably, they all became a family.

A final chapter on the disappeared children of Salvador tries, and to a considerable extent succeeds, in giving us a history of human rights efforts to find and demand justice for the children disappeared during the war, including prominently the work of La Asociación pro Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos. This is a real service, because that group’s careful work in documenting the fates of children in the post-war period, and their meticulous work in helping communities—and families on both sides of the adopter/lost child divide—become reconciled in the aftermath of the conflict has been little documented by historians and scholars. We have a great deal from and about Argentina’s Abuelas de Plaza de Maya, but aside from Pro Búsqueda’s own books, in Spanish, there is nothing about the comparable (and almost certainly much larger) effort in Salvador.

The greatest contribution of this book, though, aside from the fact that the Ward’s and Escobar/Coto’s families’ stories are compelling in their own right, is the telling of an ultimately courageous narrative about what is possible in the aftermath of atrocious human rights violations in Central America. Not just gangs of torturers, mafias of demobilized militaries, the victories of neoliberalism, and mass migration, but rich, complex lives marked by possibility and—if one can say it without being trite—healing.

The other thing it does is make us aware of how incredibly, depressingly limited the conversation about adoption usually is. Families in the U.S. regularly confess in online adoption forums that they adopt from overseas to avoid the “problem” of birth families. In fact, much of the policy discussion of adoption continues to insist that the whole subject is about “orphans,” as if by pretending that adoptable children have no parents the parents can be made to not exist. What if, instead, we imagined that it really is possible—not always but sometimes—to have rich, meaningful, and sustaining relationships between adoptive families and birth families?

Class binders and illegals

Amidst all the hilarity about binders on Facebook and Tumblr, which I’ve enjoyed as much as anyone, Tuesday night’s debate was actually fascinating for what it told us about what could–and couldn’t–be said about women’s rights, race, and most of all, class.

The question about women’s unequal pay opened up a robust national space to talk about feminism in a way that was not reduceable to abortion rights for the first time since, I don’t know, about 1980. The targeted polling that has told both Romney and Obama that they need to win women’s votes has mapped onto them at least talking about feminist agendas, but they are talking about very different ones.

Romney, aside from being English-language challenged and honesty-impaired (he didn’t solicit the binder, it was pressed upon him and he made a campaign promise to use it), laid out the executive-class agenda for feminism: flexible work schedules for mothers (though apparently not fathers) and affirmative action hiring strategies, where if the applicant pool doesn’t reflect the demographics of who’s out there, you affirmatively recruitment women (and people of color, although Romney didn’t say that). The next day, his campaign released an ad saying he supported abortion rights in cases of rape and incest and did not oppose contraception “at all,” although Planned Parenthood promptly issued a rejoinder pointing out that he had threatened to outlaw abortion entirely and supported the Blunt amendment, which would limit insurance coverage of contraception.

Obama, who referred to Romney’s threat to “get rid of” Planned Parenthood at least four times, laid out a broader, more middle-class agenda, claiming a series of victories on feminist issues: access to the courts for women with equal-pay claims under the Lilly Ledbetter Act, child-care tax credits, insurance coverage for birth control, and support for legal abortion.

Lest we might think that Romney just forgot to mention his support for women who are not well-off, he clarified his views on working-class women a few moments later, when he explained why our country is riven with gun violence and there is nothing that can or should be done about it at the federal level: the problem is single mothers (he said, “and Dads,” but that fooled no one. Mothers are 85% of the single parents out there, but that number is much higher if you exclude divorced parents. Mitt quickly clarified that he meant out-of-wedlock births, which is code for an old conversation in this country: the supposedly loose morals of Black women.) So it turns out that gun violence is the fault of Black mothers. Surprise, surprise.

Interestingly, Romney also made the exact same kind of class argument about immigration. When asked about Dream Act eligible kids, he said no, he wouldn’t support a pathway to citizenship for them. Instead, he made a distinction between “illegals” and the good immigrants whom he would like to invite into the country–foreign nationals with a college degree. Never mind his claim that “it would definitely help to be Latino” in this campaign, the charge that he went on Univision in brown-face, or his confusion about whether Mexican is a nationality and race (as the child of Mexican-born parents, Romney is eligible for Mexican citizenship). Romney is not polling well with Latino voters; in recent Pew poll, 61% saw Democrats as more sympathetic to their issues, while only 10% said Republicans were. This may account in part for the fact that one poll found Obama 2 percentage points ahead of Romney in Arizona.

This is actually a little surprising, given the evidence from California’s Proposition 187 campaign (which was the opening salvo in the war to deny public benefits, like access to schools and hospitals, to those without papers) that a distressing number of U.S.-born Latinos are willing to support measures that punish undocumented immigrants. In other words, his class agenda for immigration ought to poll at least middling among US Latinos. However, Romney’s claim Tuesday night that he did not support Arizona’s SB 1070–which is a little fishy; a truer statement would be that he has neither supported nor condemned it, trying to win the white racist vote while not quite supporting the full measure of their craziness–may give a truer picture of why his support among Latinos is so anemic. US Latinos hate SB 1070 because it targets them–it invites racist cops to harass anyone who looks like they might be undocumented if they have been stopped for another reason. The thing is, anyone who has lived in Arizona is familiar with law enforcement’s willingness to stop people for the crime of driving while brown. The stop doesn’t have to result in a charge, or the charge doesn’t have to hold up in court, especially not if your real goal is to check someone’s immigration status. And of course, immigration status is not a precise thing, nor something that can reliably be proven, especially at a traffic stop–my suburban WASP mother has a defective birth certificate that kept her from flying for all of 2001; the Violence Against Women Act (VOWA) creates a class of people who may be temporarily deportable but ultimately eligible for a green card; and it is well-known that ICE accidentally deports thousands of US citizens every year. Unless Romney is willing to denounce it, he’s toast with Latino voters.

Meanwhile, because it was a question about Dream Act kids, Obama got a pass on that question, and didn’t have to answer the question of why his administration deported a record number of people in 2011. Or rather, he addressed that issue in a way that spoke to middle and working-class Latinos–by claiming he was deporting the gang-bangers whose activities affect working-class communities more than anyone else. What he didn’t acknowledge was that many of the “crimes” for which people were being deported were invented by the Bush administration: using false IDs.

While Romney’s closing statement renounced his 47% claims, his class agenda just didn’t change in the debate. It just got more subtle.

Mommy wars and the New York Times

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Dennis Mojado photo, http://photography.mojado.com

What is it about the New York Times and feminism? I know this is a stupid question; other people routinely point out that the Times is anti-feminst. But for some reason, I keep being shocked.

Lots of press outlets have been selling the “Mommy Wars,” featuring career women (and feminists) vs. stay-at-home mothers. Most recently up: Hilary Rosen, who was jumped by the Romney people for saying that since Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life” she shouldn’t be Mitt’s advisor on women’s economic issues. See? Those career women/feminists don’t think mothering is work. Radio host Joe Scarborough explained the gaping chasm between Democrats/feminists and Republicans/mothers this way, “It’s amazing,” he said, “the divide between professional women, on one side, unmarried women or married women without children — predominantly Democratic. The other side of the divide? Married women with children who stay at home — predominantly Republican.” Rosen and Romney, he continued, represent this very divide. The problem–both for Scarborough’s argument and for Democrats–is that Hilary Rosen is a mother. A lesbian mother of two biracial children. Huge surprise: Obama denounced her comments and said she should apologize.

More recently, the Times and its bretheren have been getting wound up again about the English translation of Elizabeth Badinter’s The Conflict, which, as we know, argues for a minimalist approach to mothering as a solution to the conflict for women between paid work (and sexy and/or public persona) and parenthood. Last month, this got neatly boiled down in the Times “Room for Debate” blog page to the basic conflict of “motherhood vs. feminism.”

Really, with that kind of press, it’s no wonder so many people think feminist is a dirty word. The only other folks I can think of who are routinely characterized as being “against” children and motherhood are pedophiles and, less often now, queer folk.

A couple of weeks ago, I was happy to see what should have been a bit of a corrective: significant articles about the work of two feminist stalwarts in the paper of record for their work on childbirth and the gendered and classed labor of parenting. Except both pieces went on to ask whether these women hated feminism, since feminists are, after all, against motherhood. Seriously?

One was called, you can’t have guessed it: Mommy Wars: The Prequel. It’s a largely sympathetic piece about Ina May Gaskin and the “Farm,” where Gaskin, a lay midwife, delivers babies “naturally.” Gaskin, like the Our Bodies, Ourselves collective and feminist anthropologist Robbie Davis Floyd, is a critic of the routine medicalization of childbirth. She argues for low-intervention, gentle and even “spiritual” and (potentially) orgasmic birthing. The Times spent two paragraphs contrasting Gaskin’s work with feminism–Shulamith Firestone’s technocratic fantasies, Simone de Beauvoir’s unease about pregnancy, and Gaskin’s own story about being booed by feminists at Yale. Gaskin has told that story elsewhere, but described the reaction as “not feminism,” and talked about how powerful the slogan “Sisterhood is powerful” was in her own life as a young mother. Perhaps it’s true, as the Times and her own Birth Matters: A Midwife’s Manifesta suggest, that Gaskin has felt alienated by feminists and feminism, but she also is clearly well aware that feminists like Barbara Katz Rothman and Genea Corea are very much on the same page as she is, as she cites them in another interview. Above all, she seems to be arguing for a change in feminism, or, to put it in my own terms, to be characterizing a split in feminism. Furthermore, when Gaskin gets criticized–as in this blog post by an OB who argues that home birth has an unacceptably high rate of neo-natal death–it’s as a “feminist anti-rationalist.” (The question of whether rates of birth accidents are too high in home births is one feminists debate, too, by the way.)

The second was a review of Arlie Hochschild’s new book, The Outsourced Self. In it, Hochschild talks to the elder-care specialists, wedding planners, childcare providers, and commercial surrogate mothers who, she argues, have taken over our emotional and caring labor. If Gaskin’s relationship to feminism is complicated but complimentary, Hochschild’s is absolutely clear: she’s been one of the faces of feminist sociology, and in fact, has been one of only a handful of feminist academics who has been widely read outside of academe. Her books include an edited collection with Barbara Ehrenreich, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home, and The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work. Hochschild has been one of our most reliable chroniclers of how families and households have coped with what’s happened to “women’s work” as declining real wages have pushed virtually all adults–notably white middle-class mothers who previously could evade it–into the paid labor force, while the U.S. American workplace has changed almost not at all. She has asked whether men do housework and childcare (less than you might hope), and then how that labor has been outsourced and globalized.

How does the Times reviewer, Judith Shulevitz, turn H0chschild into a critic of feminism? Here’s the quote, at length:

“So does Hochschild deplore feminism? No. But she does think it has been “abducted,” as she has put it in an essay published elsewhere, by the logic and demands of the marketplace — what she provocatively calls “the religion of capitalism.” Feminism has coincided with a drastic lengthening of work hours and a steep decline in job security, and in America those stressors have not been alleviated by social supports like paid family leave and universal child care, at least not in comparison with most other Western nations. As a result, too many bonds of family and community are left untied by anxious, overworked couples, too many familial functions have to be subcontracted, and too many children perceive themselves as burdens. (One of Hochschild’s finest essays, also published elsewhere, is called “Children as Eavesdroppers”; it describes how children listen closely to their parents’ haggling over child care, and conclude that they are unwanted.) Feminists once dreamed that the work of mothering would be properly valued, maybe even reimbursed, once some portion of it had been redistributed to fathers. Instead, a lot of it is being handed off to strangers — although, to be fair, American men do more than they used to.”

Somehow, its not that the logic of capitalism has bulldozed the feminist desire for meaningful work that included but exceeded child rearing, but that feminism itself has become complicit in the outsourcing of emotional labor.

To say I’m skeptical barely scrapes the surface. In fifteen years as a Women’s Studies professor (and an educational career that got me all the way to 24th grade), I’ve never once read a feminist meditation on how great the logic of the market is, or how the US workplace and social policies are contributing to the building of a feminist utopia. On the contrary, Hochschild’s critique puts her in the mainstream of feminist accounts of what’s happening to the relationship between intimate labor and paid labor.

The thing that makes this all so annoying is not just the routinized feminist-bashing. It’s that feminism is one of the intellectual and political spaces where people have thought long and hard about childbirth, parenting, and intimate labor. Articles like these, in the Times and elsewhere, borrow many feminist insights and hard-won critiques while dissing the movement that brought them to the fore. And if we want to forge an alternative to the anodyne “work-life balance” that corporate HR offices offer us, that implies its our fault if we can’t make it all “balance,” or corporate medicine’s risk-management approach to childbirth, with its 33% C-section rate, we need feminism.

Mom, enough

Time, Martin Schoeller photo

The photo of Jamie Lynne Grumet and her 3-year old son, Aram, on the cover of the May 21 Time magazine seems to have inspired an almost endless amount of commentary about how we in the US feel about breastfeeding beyond the first or second year, children sleeping in the family bed, and (implicitly) the related questions of sex and desire. I hesitate to think what would have happened if the Time photographer had photographed her with her oldest son, Samuel, who she is also still breastfeeding–who was adopted from Ethiopia. Can you imagine? For all the hoopla about whether Grumet is thinking clearly about the effect on Aram of this kind of (over-)exposure in a sexualized pose, she’s clearly setting some limits on how her family is going to channel the national Id (Samuel wasn’t on the Today Show, either). She’s willing to be a provocation for a conversation about extended breastfeeding, but not adoption or race.

In spite of myself, I find I like Grumet. She may be a gun-owning, evangelical Christian, stay-at-home, transracially adopting mom who is trying to save children with an NGO, the epitome of the kind of people I think are engaged in a culture war against feminists, queer folk, working moms, those of us who believe that the state has an obligation to people, and the postcolonial and anti-racist account of how intercultural adoption is both potentially exploitative and definitely produces impure and hybrid families, but she won’t stay true to type. She’s smart, sexy, and often vaguely feminist. She celebrated “Ethiopian Christmas” on January 6. She blogs against racism and homophobia. She posts drink recipes, refers to her husband as a stud-muffin, and worries about people deciding to adopt because they were inspired by Angelina Jolie. She has an edge.

Interestingly, I don’t like Elisabeth Badinter nearly as much, the self-described feminist whose book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, recently translated from the French, argues against exactly the kind of mothering Grumet stands for. Badinter argues that French motherhood, long protected from the very US American idea that “the ideal mother is enmeshed with her child bodily and mentally,” is under threat from a “new essentialism” that exalts breastfeeding, cloth diapers, and maternal instincts. Where French mothers have long been able to enjoy smoking, drinking, sex, and careers unencumbered by this kind of emmeshment with children and maternity, this standard is now endangered.

I’ve never personally wanted to breastfeed–I was horrified when our reprotech doctor suggested I consider taking hormones so I could breastfeed after my partner gave birth to our baby (what is the point of being a lesbian if not to divide that labor according to who wants to do it?). Still, what has struck me about breastfeeding since our son was born is how very difficult it is to do–that everything from hospital practice to obscenity statutes to workplace culture mitigates against it.  I’m sympathetic to Badinter’s complaints about what she calls “the ayatollahs of breastfeeding”–though I would pointedly rephrase that in a less racist way as “the fascists of breastfeeding.” But it seems to me that this perfectly emblematic of the double-bind of motherhood: you have to breastfeed whether you want to or not or you’re a jerk and a bad mother who is going to consign your child to a lifetime of bad health, obesity, and cancer, but you can’t because you have to work and will get chided for doing it in public because breasts make us think about sex especially when your child is older and breast pumps suck (in every way) and the only place you can pump is in the bathroom which is unsanitary and possibly so horrifying that your milk won’t even let down.

In fact, both “sides” of the Grumet vs. Badinter debate reek of the double-binds of maternity. Since the 1970s, declining real wages in the US have meant that for a steadily increasing percentage of the population, having a middle-class existence (or sometimes even bare survival) means having two adults in the workforce. While by 1980, the majority of mothers of preschoolers worked out of the home, the US American work place has not changed to accommodate mothers, or parents in general. In fact, US Americans on average are working more, not fewer, hours than we were in the 1970s. So we have a lot of small people who need full-time attention to manage basic safety and bodily functions, a society that benefits from the unpaid labor of parents–we do collectively have an investment in reproducing ourselves, after all–and what is our plan for who is going to watch the children? With a few interesting exceptions (see Madeleine Kunin on Oklahoma and California), we haven’t publicly subsidized daycare since World War II (when Roosevelt did), and daycare costs are astronomical–the not-great one down the street from me, the one with hardly any books costs more than my tuition, room, and board at a fancy private college did in the 1980s. And Jerry Brown is proposing to end subsidized daycare in California. We don’t even have federally mandated paid sick days. So, basically, the expectation is that it will all come out of mothers’ hides–in unpaid days off, jobs lost, not enough sleep. Or, mothers will work part-time or be underemployed while their children are young–which many have argued is the underlying cause of the drastic difference between men’s and women’s wages, to say nothing of the appalling rates of female poverty at all phases of the life cycle, but especially in old age, when all those years of not contributing to a pension or earning Social Security really bites you. And given that school gets out at 2 or 3, and half-days and school holidays are as common as dirt, have “young” children encompasses the entire period until they are old enough to look after themselves (which I think is actually 30; let me tell you about my 24-year old…).

Basically, we’ve privatized the reproduction problem. Increasingly, mothers are delaying childbearing until their late 20s, 30s, and even 40s, hoping to be established enough in a career or even a job to have some flexibility to have a child…which in turn has given us rising rates of infertility and impaired fertility. The other common “private” solution is the nanny, whose wages are lower (or more “competitive”) if she’s an undocumented immigrant who has left her children in her home country. We’ve not only privatized the problem, we’ve transnationalized it. Should it surprise us that our family policy resembles our corporate culture?

So while I agree on some level with Forbes guest blogger Helaine Olen about attachment parenting being the opposite of something one could do with a job, I also think we should be furious about the impossibility of combining work and children. I don’t think Badinter’s clarity and polemic on the subject gets us where we want to be. What I keep thinking about in all of this is early 20th century feminist advocates of the eight-hour day and an end to child labor. People like Jane Addams, who imagined eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for family and community. Not just parents but everyone has, or ought to have, an investment in leisure, in work and activism to build better communities. We need to find ways of saying “enough” to the demand that we work all the time, and begin to imagine a world where decent wages AND motherhood, health care, pensions, AND leisure, can coexist. That, it seems to me, is the core issue about the cultural politics of breastfeeding.

Happy mother’s day.

Trayvon

Palm Beach Post photo

 

As the national debate about the shooting of Trayvon Martin ebbs, it strikes me that we in the U.S. are increasingly divided between those who see Trayvon as “somebody’s child,”  and those who see him as “not my child.” This is what Obama picked up on in his “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” And what Newt Gingrich, keeper of the right-wing Id, understood when he contorted that to say that Obama only cared about were Black children. It matters that the shooting of this unarmed African American child took place in a gated community–the location of defensive white retreat, the longed-for home of Black flight. It’s happened hundreds and thousands of times before, a police officer or a white man who claimed he was threatened (or woman, probably, but somehow I can only remember men), and we are made to understand that he justifiably felt threatened enough to kill the boy because he was holding a wallet or boisterous or drunk. But for some reason,  this time it wasn’t ok (maybe, cynically, because Zimmerman was a white Cuban), and the voices of those who mourned were not drowned out. Trayvon Martin got a name, a little brother, parents in the popular media, and all sort of young men said, “I am Trayvon,” and parents who didn’t know him mourned.

Although all sorts of unarmed Black young men have been shot by police or civilians, like Ramarely Graham in the Bronx last month, killed in his bathroom in an incident that remains murky–police say he was fleeing them, surveillance video shows him walking calmly–it’s been a long time since the killing of Black mothers’ sons has attracted this kind of attention. In fact, the only think I can think to compare it to is the death of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy who flirted with a white woman and was murdered in 1955 by local white vigilantes in Mississippi. His mother, like Trayvon’s, demanded that the world know that killing a Black mother’s son was a brutal, violent injustice that would not be quietly forgotten, and held a very public open casket funeral.  The event galvanized the emerging Civil Rights movement.

It is telling how many right-wing bloggers have insisted that the larger issue in the Trayvon Martin shooting is single motherhood, or, in the alternative, how important it has been to the Justice for Trayvon movement to put his two divorced parents on stage together. Both sides seem to be tacitly acknowledging that his death signifies differently if he has two parents who are grieving together; that mothers alone raise dangerous, violent boys, while two parent families raise innocent children whose shooting could only be unjustified and racist. President Obama did much the same thing with his “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon” speech, being daddy-in-chief and casting Martin as a child who deserved protection. The problem with this move, as I’m sure virtually everyone in the Justice for Trayvon mobilization is only too aware, is that it casts Martin as worthy of protection only by virtue of enclosing him within our ideologies of innocent childhood.

I remember when I first understood the visceral fear that parents of children of color often feel: sometime in the first year of raising my daughter, born of Mexican parents, who came to me when she was 11. It wasn’t any one thing, it wasn’t even a particularly egregious thing, but one day the slow accretion of thoughtless, unhelpful, or damaging things that teachers, social workers, and other parents had done to my child reached a tipping point. I flinched when a strange white person came up to my child, tensed for problems. I didn’t when a person of color in some similar role approached her. My anxiety wasn’t always well-placed, but it was often enough that it became a habit, a strange racial dis-identification that made brown and black folks the people I trusted more quickly and easily. About a year after she came to me, I said that to an audience, and I was stunned as one after another, white mothers of non-white and mixed race children came up to me and said that they felt the same way.

I learned two things from this. One, it is a powerful experience for white people to see racism through the lens of loving a non-white child. Two, it is depressingly common that children of color are treated so harshly by the world that it can cut through the denial of people who want to believe differently.

Somebody’s Children

I recently published a book called Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption. I chose that title for a nummber of reasons, but the main one was that I wanted to think about the mothers that often get discounted. When scholars and journalists and policy analysts write about adoption, they almost always ignore the birth mothers. When we talk about adoption from overseas, we refer to “orphans”; when we talk about kids in foster care, and why Black children should be adopted by white parents, we say they are “languishing,” waiting for an adoptive family. But the reality is, full orphans–those who have lost both parents–are quite rare, especially when you are speaking of infants and young children. When international aid agencies talk about millions of orphans, they mean those who have lost one parent. Almost all of the children who become available for adoption in or to the United States have parents or a parent. We just don’t want to talk about them.

There are exceptions, of course. Increasingly, adoptive parents groups talk about the “adoption triad” of birth mother, adopted child, and adoptive parents. Those of us who are adoptive parents inevitably have to answer questions about where the little people and grown children in our lives came from–questions that come from adoptees and from the world around us. It used to be that we were routinely counseled to lie to our children. But we’ve learned a lot from groups like Concerned United Birthparents, which beginning in the late 1970s gave voice to birthparents’ experiences of losing their children, often under considerable pressure to relinquish their babies. Organizations of adoptees challenging sealed adoption records, like the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association and Bastard Nation also challenged us to tell the truth.

But these movements focused predominently on the mostly young mothers who relinquished babies in the U.S. (think Juno). People don’t talk much about birth parents when we think about foster care (one major policy book about foster care and transracial adoption was entitled Nobody’s Children), and even less when we are considering transnational adoption. I wanted to write a book that took seriously the racial justice, feminist, and international politics contexts and questions that surround how birth parents–usually mothers–find themselves in situations where strangers are raising their children.

One of the places the title of the book came from is the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life.

It’s a Wonderful Life gets tagged as a sentimental piece of Christmas, but it deserves more credit. These days, as the middle class continues to lose its footing as the central piece of its wealth–home ownership–gets transferred to big banks as foreclosure, the story of the Bailey Savings and Loan ought to get our attention as the careful piece of social analysis it is. It also tells a story about children and survival. In a scene that defines the film’s moral compass, young George Bailey, confronted with a moral dilemma about whether to respect adult authority even when it is wrong and will cause harm, runs to his father for advice. His father can’t talk to him then, though, as he is in a confrontation with big banker Mr. Potter. When George enters the room, he is privy to this bit of conversation:

HENRY POTTER: Have you put any real pressure on these people of yours to pay those mortgages?
PETER BAILEY: Times are bad, Mr. Potter. A lot of these people are out of work.
POTTER: Then foreclose!
BAILEY: I can’t do that. These families have children.
POTTER: They’re not my children.
BAILEY: But they’re somebody’s children, Mr. Potter.

George leaves without asking his father his question, but learning the answer anyway: do the right thing by other people, and other people’s children even when authority tells you not to. It’s this lesson that allows George to grow into someone who could inherit the responsibility of running  the Savings and Loan, and, the movie tells us, in so doing he prevented Bedford Falls from becoming Pottersville, a place of steep class divides, alcoholism, exploitation and despair.

I feel strongly about community-based banking (my money’s in a credit union), but I also like what the film says about the “somebodies” and their children whom Bailey is not going to kick out of their homes.

A lot of politics in recent years has taken place under the rubric of how some people–especially mothers–don’t count. Welfare mothers, crack mothers, single-mothers raising the underclass. From Newt Gingrich suggesting we take the children of welfare mothers and put them in orphanages to sociologist Charles Murray talking about how single mothers are responsible for the downfall of white people. David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a column on Murray that was, among other things, designed to refute economist Joseph Stiglitz and Occupy Wall Street’s objection to the the 1% number, and the contention that it has been obscenely enriched in recent years. Instead, he suggested that 70% of us are doing okay, but 30% are really a mess–unemployed, uneducated, criminal. They are (surprise, surprise) the children of single mothers and those mothers themselves. (Charles Pierce at Esquire wrote a truly funny rejoinder if you want better reading.)

Fifty-six years after It’s a Wonderful Life, banking and the children of the poor are still surprisingly entangled.

It might seem like a reach to link the politics of impoverished mothers and children and international banking. But after ten years of thinking about adoption, I suspect that watching what happens, rhetorically, to mothers who don’t count tells us a surprising amount about politics of all sorts: economic, international, gender, race, immigrant, queer. That’s why I wrote the book, and why I’m writing this blog. I’m interested in the “somebodies” who don’t have children, of course. But I also think that “somebody’s children” give us a really powerful and interesting lens for analysis.

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