A new book by Riitta Högbacka, docent of sociology at the University of Helsinki, presents a study of the forgotten side of international adoption: the biological mothers of the children. This is the first study of its kind to focus on adoptions made from Africa into Europe, and on the inequality between the global north and south in this arena. It explores both international adoption and the broader topic of how poverty and inequality impact a person's right to be a mother.
The adoption system has a strong focus on the western nuclear family, consisting of precisely two parents and their children.
"This means that the biological mothers and families may be entirely excluded, and they lose all rights to information about the child after the adoption," Högbacka explains.
According to the study, many of the biological mothers had a different concept of family, in which a child may not always live with the mother, as the extended family is more involved in child-rearing.
"Most of the mothers wanted some information about their children; they thought about their children far away and expected that they would return at some point to search for their birth family," Högbacka explains.
Adoptive parents draft a strategy
The perspective of the biological mothers was significantly different from that of the adoptive parents or the social workers who represented the adoption system. Adoptive parents had to wait for years for a child to become available. They had to be strategic in their choice of country and to try to predict the length of the wait for each country before a child could be adopted.
"The focus on where a child could be acquired as quickly as possible meant that the situation of the biological mothers was overlooked. The same phenomenon was repeated in the practices of the social workers handling the adoptions. For them, the work became about finding an adoptive family for the child instead of finding care in an extended family," Högbacka states.
Support for biological mothers to keep their children
According to the researcher, the international adoption system must change to become more fair and to also consider the original families of the children.
"We should support the rights of the biological mothers. They should primarily be offered concrete help to keep their children. This would ensure that a permanent transfer of the child would not be the first solution offered to temporary financial troubles.
"There would still be children who need adoption, because there will always be children who cannot live in their birth families. For them, adoption is the only chance for a family," Högbacka says.
Both researcher and subject
For the study, Högbacka interviewed 35 mothers who placed their children for adoption from four different areas of South Africa, 10 South African adoption social workers and 30 Finnish adoptive parents, half of whom had adopted from South Africa. Högbacka has herself adopted a child from South Africa, making her a subject of her own research. The study was partly conducted through reverse interviews, in which the biological mothers could ask questions from the researcher, no matter how personal.
Riitta Högbacka: Global Families, Inequality and Transnational Adoption: The De-Kinning of First Mothers. London: Palgrave Macmillan