(This post needs editing in a bad way. For one thing, I don’t remember the show as well as I thought I did. Maybe check back tomorrow if you want the coherent, accurate version?)
So there’s this TV show. The snurchin watched the first three seasons and has currently lost all interest, but she remembers it pretty well, and (warning!) is about to spoil some of it for you.
On Downton Abbey, one of the noble Crawley family’s three daughters, Edith, has a baby out of wedlock. She does what wealthy women in such a situation did back then: flees to France to give birth in secret, leaves the baby with a rich family, and “gets on with her life.”
However, the show currently takes place in (I think?) the 19020s, so this is not an adoption. When Edith changes her mind, she simply goes and retrieves the baby. She can’t keep her, of course; she moves her daughter from France to live with a family on or near the Crawley estate, so she can interact with her.
And Dr. Russell Saunders of The Daily Beast hates that, because he’s adopted a kid and attempted another adoption. He wishes Downton could be a bit more modern about these things, like it was about that one gay character. He knows “it would be ridiculous to expect contemporary mores about adoption to apply” to this situation, but he goes right ahead and demands them anyway.
Then he’s sad when he gets them, because they’re too contemporary. Make yourself comfy; this is gonna be a long one.
First, the lack of contemporary mores: Dr. Saunders apparently wishes the show had considered the grief of the first “adoptive family” for no reason other than to see the grief of a contemporary adoptive family. We have no evidence they grieved; even Saunders can only muster “presumably loving” to describe them. Perhaps they thought of themselves as fostering a child, not parenting it. Perhaps they thought of themselves as helping someone out of her trouble. Perhaps they were relieved to not have to raise the girl. Who knows? What we do know is that they did not adopt. So when Dr. Saunders’ “thoughts immediately turned to the family that had loved the baby and lost her,” he was definitely wishing Downton Abbey would portray them as a contemporary pair of PAPs whose adoption fell through after years of waiting and hoping and wishing and praying for someone like Edith to get knocked up and give them the greatest gift a couple can ever receive….and for no reason at all. Not only is it probably not realistic, these are incredibly minor characters. I can’t even imagine where the scene would go or how incongruous it would seem. (“Hey, remember those French people? They’ll never be part of the story again, but we need you to know they’re real sad now.”)
But it really bugs Dr. Saunders that “[t]here was scarcely a mention that Edith’s change of heart would wreak havoc in theirs,” even though there’s no reason to suspect any heart-havoc happened. And he knows that, and he knows it’s wrong to ask that it change, but he really wants it to change. I see can that he relates to those barely-even-characters, and feels for them. And so, it seems, he wants
his their pain to be part of the story.
It hardly occurs to him that we don’t see this couple because they are not part of the story. The Lady Edith’s baby Downton Abbey plot thread is not about that first family. It is not about an adoption. It is certainly not about an adoptive couple and what they went through and how long they waited and their special deal with god and their adoption that fell through and their trip overseas and their RADish and their adoption that “disrupted” (all by itself) and their book and their blog and their blahblah snore fart noise. It’s not about them.
I think that’s what really annoys Dr. Saunders, not the fact that the show didn’t project contemporary values back in time for his pet issue (as I’ll eventually argue, it sort of did). He’s finally encountered a conversation addressing something vaguely like adoption that isn’t about him, the adoptive parent. I am entirely sincere when I tell you that, should they choose to do so, adoptive parents can still easily live their whole lives without encountering such a conversation, if they want to. And some of them still want to.
The use of “What about the adoptive parents?” in conversations about adoption is starting to remind me an awful lot of “What about the men?” in feminist circles or “What about the white people?” in conversations about race. What ABOUT you, Dr. Russell? Conversations about adoption are expected to be all about you and your feelings. You are the people with the power and the voice, and yet the minute someone doesn’t pay proper fealty to you, an injustice has been done, even if only to fictional fucking characters.
Back at Downton, “another family is now raising [Edith’s baby] as their own, and loving her just the same.” (Did anyone else just read an invisible “So there!” just now?) Dr. Russell should be pleased with her, right? This second family is shown to care about the baby very much–i.e. they are being presented as the good, progressive adoptive parents Saunders wanted to see. They even took in a child from a sort of “disrupted adoption”! They even have a form of “open adoption”! What could be more contemporary while still being reasonably true to its time?
As a bonus, our sympathies are with this couple as well as with Edith. They are loving people! We’re even expected to consider their suffering, as he just requested for the first couple! Isn’t it actually better for all involved that Edith placed the baby with them? No, Sirree, not to Russell Saunders.
Why? Because the “progressive” adoption story he said he didn’t want but really does want is too progressive: It does not feature the proud new adoptive couple as the One True Pair of parents. What Dr. Saunders really wanted was a nice, contemporary-flavored Downton Abbey story about adoption featuring a nice, nuclear, Baby Scoop Era adoptive family–not a contemporary, progressive one. But this “adoption story” is going all wrong! Why can’t the baby’s “second adoptive father” (he isn’t) and Edith see “the damage they are doing”?
To what “damage” does Dr. Saunders refer? The damage wrought when the “second a’father” asked Edith, the child’s wealthy, noble mother, to be more involved in her life and to be her godmother. This hurt the “second adoptive mother’s” feelings, because the child already had a godmother. If you were a pig farmer raising someone else’s kid, especially if you loved her, wouldn’t you want her to have friends in high places, mother or not? And if you were the kind of loving, educated, contemporary, progressive adoptive father Mr. Saunders said he wanted to see, might you not you feel it would do your daughter good to grow up knowing her heritage and her mother? (Oh Hell no, that’s going too far. That woman’s hurt feelings are too important, and we are going to turn this time machine around and go back to the 1950’s RIGHT NOW.)
“When the farmer’s wife objected that the child already had a godmother, I could feel her frustration and anxiety. Her love for her daughter has weight, too, and the show owes it to her character to honor it.”
If the show/actress makes it plain that this love exists, isn’t it already being honored? Or would true honor for that love require Lady Edith to turn her back on her daughter and stay out of this couple’s lives forever like a “good birth mother” of the 1950s or 1060s? I think it would require that; in fact, I can’t think what else it would require in Dr. Saunders’ mind. Because I got something wrong about him. I thought he wanted to see a story that would show us what contemporary APs might feel in this situation, i.e., pain. But no. Toward the end of his essay, he says very clearly, “I don’t want to see the little girl’s adopted parents [sic] in pain.”
(Fuck Lady Edith’s pain. Fuck the baby’s pain, which it will obviously never feel because these two would do such a good job of parenting if that cow would just get out of the way.)
Imaginary people who remind Dr. Saunders of himself him should not have to feel pain at all. Saunders needs for the APs to be the two and only real true parents because they are like him. And when people like him appear in adoption stories, they have always been the main characters and the good guys. Good guys don’t get hurt–they get rewarded. And the reward of adoption was supposed to be the gift from someone else of a baby that has never, ever, ever been anybody else’s. Not this “pain” bullshit.
Meanwhile, the people who actually want change in adoption are speaking out and have been for some time. Adult adoptees and our first families want to tell our truths about our stories in our words. You still have most of the power, Dr. Saunders, but you can’t be the main character in every story that involves (or almost involves) adoption anymore. I don’t care very much how you feel about that.