Adoption, foster families, and Fictive Kinship

As a professor of Anthropology, I teach students about marriage customs, the importance of kinship to the fabric of societies, and cultural norms surrounding the social obligations one has to the people around you.

Every culture does it differently, but all cultures have what’s called “Fictive Kinship.” From the root “fiction”, fictive kinships are forms of kinship or social ties that are based on neither consanguineal (blood ties) nor affinal (by marriage) ties. But they are hardly “fictional”.

I have a strong personal reason for studying this particular characteristic of kinship, as both of my children are adopted. Every society handles the “legality” of adoption differently. In the historical past, it was uncommon for complete strangers to become responsible for your blood children – family members, no matter how “remote”, were expected to take responsibility for you (think Pollyanna). But when the need for families to take children grew as orphanages of the 19th century fell out of favor (in the U.S. in particular, foster homes began to be preferred by the 1950s, and Foster Care agencies gained government funding by the 1960s – https://www.americanadoptions.com/adoption/do-orphanages-still-exist), more and more people began legally adopting children as their own.

Fostering has a long history of acceptance, however, as a way to grant a poor relation social status or teaching them a trade, more in the line of the idea of a “patronage”. In the 16th century, England passed laws allowing the children of parents who were sent to almshouses (effectively homeless shelters, but much, much worse than those of today) to be put into indentured servitude with a family or business until adulthood, usually 18. https://nfpaonline.org/page-1105741 This practice was then picked up by the young United States of America, and indentured service was still practiced for the children of the poor into the early 20th century.

It’s important to stop here and talk for a moment about how adoption has been used throughout history and in this country as a means of cultural genocide. It wasn’t that long ago that our own government had a formal policy of taking Native American children from their parents for the most ridiculous of reasons and giving the child to a white family to legally adopt, thus forcing Native peoples to “assimilate” into the larger European-based culture in the U.S.

Boarding schools were another way the government tried to force this assimilation, indoctrinating Native children into “white culture” by not allowing them to speak their native languages or learning about the tribal history and tradition (https://www.cpr.org/show-segment/when-native-american-children-are-adopted-by-white-families-it-isnt-always-a-happy-ending/). It’s a shameful legacy of the concept of the “Melting Pot”, affecting thousands of children and families.

In the “Western” cultural system of Lineal Kinship (https://umanitoba.ca/faculties/arts/anthropology/tutor/fundamentals/lincolat.html), where there is a strong understanding of the importance of “mothers” and “fathers”, and an almost culturally entrenched definition of who is or can be “Mom” and “Dad”, adoption was kept secret until just recently. Horror stories of the extremely rare occasions in which the law has taken children from adoptive families to re-place them with birth parents, coupled with a fear of not being perceived as the child’s “real parents”, plus the shame associated with the birth mother “giving away” her child and perhaps the adoptive mother’s own inability to have children, fueled this secrecy. With kinship being so fundamental to our human condition, is it any wonder that it’s so complicated?

The need for all that secrecy, and the shame involved, is still a perception that’s out there today, however, with the first season of Once Upon A Time outlining the fight between an adoptive mother and the birth mother who feels her child is being abused. “He’s my son!” adoptive mother exclaims. “No, he’s MINE!” birth mother yells back, somehow winning the argument with just those words. Can you tell that I’m still a little salty about that scene?

So what does “parenthood” actually mean? What does it mean to be a child’s “mother” or “father”? To be called “Mom” or “Dad”? I’ve actually had people ask me how I planned to create the “maternal bond” between me and my children, as I didn’t give birth to them, and they weren’t originally from any blood relatives, so…. I still am blown away by this question. It’s the idea that it might be “unnatural” to love a child as one’s own that you have no close blood connection to. I will never understand that idea.

I’ve also had many a person ask how my children will be able to create a “sibling bond” between them, as they again are of no close blood relation to each other. To this, I can easily respond with “Sweetie loves Little Dude”. She said from Day 1 that he’s “our baby”, and she even had say in what his name would eventually be. They are truly sister and brother.

I’ve also, though, had many people share with me their own stories of being adopted, or of informally “adopting” others as parents when the relationship between their own legal relations disintegrated. If you’ve ever fussed over what to get someone for a holiday present, that’s a bond that might just be socially binding, meaning that if you shirk your social obligations, there could very well be social consequences.

And there’s the difference between “fostering” and “adoption”: nonwithstanding the “legal” aspect, but when the relationship is recognized within the larger social order, when you have obligations to that person that are socially recognized, that’s a true relation. It might seem a bit “scientific” to boil down relationships this way, but when you hear your child call you “Mama”, the very reason that that’s so special is because you know all of the cultural meanings behind that word, and what it means for this child to call you that name. It means a lifetime of commitment, of worry, of beaming pride, of tears and joy.

-dlp