Transnational adoption and the exclusiveness and inclusiveness of families
by Dr.Riitta Högbacka


Department of Sociology

University of Helsinki


Paper presented at the Interim meeting of family sociology of the European Sociological Association in Helsinki, Finland, 26-29 August 2008.


Looking at unusual (but increasingly visible) types of family formation can reveal a lot about the “normal” family. Also, the changing face of the family that these unorthodox families represent has a bearing on common understandings of the family. Transnational adoption involves biogenetic as well as ethnic and national dislocations. Until now the prevalent notion of the family that adoption legislation is based upon has been the Euro-American exclusive family. And the acknowledged experiences of it have been those of Western adoptive parents (see Howell 2006; Volkman 2005; Wegar 2006). However, contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of children involved in inter-country adoption are not orphans, but have living birth mothers or other kin somewhere (Cantwell 2003, 71; Hoelgaard 1998, 230), and fhe far-away birth mothers are gradually becoming more visible (see Bos 2007).

In this chapter, I will explore the familial realities and narratives of Finnish adoptive parents and South African birth mothers concerning parenthood and the family. What are the meanings of family in these two cases and what are the implications to the Western concept of the family? First, I will present two models of family that help us understand the narratives of adoptive and birth mothers (and some adoptive fathers). I will argue that the prevalent exclusive model of family formation in transnational adoption collides with the more inclusive understandings of South African birth mothers. Pressure towards inclusivity also comes from the lived experience of adoptive families.

The chapter draws on thematic interviews with 15 Finnish adoptive families (altogether 19 parents) collected in 2005 and 2006, and 31 South African birth mothers collected in 2006 and 2008. Instead of a fixed set of questions a list of broad themes was used in the interviews. The themes in the adoptive parent interviews were: pre-adoption situation, the adoption process, becoming parents, life with the child, birth culture and origins, and the attitudes of family and friends. All in all, I interviewed seven women, one man, three couples together, and four single women who had adopted children from China, Guatemala, the Philippines, Thailand, Russia, South Africa, India, Colombia and Romania. In addition, I received one interview of an adoptive father from a student (see Akpi 2006) with the interviewee’s permission. The parents’ ages varied between 33 and 55. The majority lived in the Helsinki area, but some were from smaller towns or rural areas. The length of interviews varied between 90 minutes and two hours.

From my larger South African material I am here utilizing interviews with black birth mothers: 8 pregnant women who had made adoption plans and 23 women who had already relinquished a child for in(ter)-country adoption. About half of those who had relinquished had done so several years ago (some more than 10 ten years previously), whereas for half of the women the relinquishment was more recent. The ages of the women were between 14 and 43, the majority being between 19 and 25. In all but three cases the interviews were done in English by me alone. The interviews were conducted at four different locations in South Africa (Durban, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria). The length of interviews varied between 20 minutes and over an hour. The interviews covered the informants’ life before and after relinquishment, giving special attention to experiences and meanings of pregnancy, birth, motherhood, kinship, and relinquishment. I also make some references to my interviews with ten social workers working with birth mothers.

For the purposes of this article, I have looked at 1) adoption stories, in particular how adoptive parents talk about their family and the child’s previous family, 2) stories of relinquishment, in particular the birth mothers’ understandings of motherhood without a child. Two questions are investigated in both the adoptive parent data and the birth mother data: family formation (reasons for adoption/relinquishment) and family boundaries (clean break with past relationships/continuity).