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Double Issue: 9.1-9.2: Fall 2010 / Spring 2011
Guest Edited by Rebecca Jordan-Young
Critical Conceptions: Technology, Justice, and the Global Reproductive Market

Adoption and the Politics of Modern Families

Jessaca Leinaweaver

Article note [1]

This article examines the politics of family by focusing on the politics of reproduction. These politics are brought into focus when family members or 'dependents' require care; when individuals or couples want to 'start a family;' or when families are forcibly broken apart. In the examples I've chosen to illustrate these issues, I have centered on family choices that are associated with the white middle-class—hiring childcare, entering into surrogacy, or international adoption—and I have drawn from media representations in order to do so. This is because, as Laura Briggs recently wrote in S&F Online, in order to make sense of the differential values attributed to infants and adult women from the same Third World nations, one must analyze them alongside the value placed on the white, middle-class women who adopt the first and employ the second.[2]

Caring for a Family

I will first consider the challenges of caring for one's dependent family members, wherever they may live. I use the example of childcare, but many of these points are also applicable to those who care for aging parents, parents-in-law, or other disabled family members. The classic example anthropologists of reproduction use to illustrate this comes from the work of Shellee Colen, who studied childcare workers from the West Indies employed in Manhattan.[3]

Colen tells us that white, middle-class New York women saw West Indian women as phenomenal nannies, perhaps due to their upbringing in a cultural context where child-raising and children are highly valued. This fact, along with the hiring of the women themselves, has three important implications. First, if children are highly valued in the West Indies, it is probable that most of the migrant women have left behind children on whose behalf they are quite explicitly laboring (relying on the good will of female relatives to care for the children, most likely, and hence, they too are struggling to care for their dependents as best they can). Second, if the Manhattan moms were hiring childcare workers, it is likely because many of them planned to work outside the home. This speaks both to the devaluing of reproductive labor in the Manhattan context (in that women, to be fulfilled, needed to find paid work rather than be 'just a mom') and to the economics of reproduction. In other words, it can cost less to 'outsource' childcare to an employee than to give up an income. Finally, a further implication of hiring childcare workers is the existence of a child—and here, we can note that despite the devaluing of reproductive labor, there is still something of a cult of motherhood in which babies are a fashionable and necessary commodity.

The concept that Colen comes up with to explain this chain of unequal reproductive decisions is "stratified reproduction." By using this term, she draws our attention to the ways that reproductive labor is differentiated, and differently valued, according to inequalities of gender, class, race, nationality, and other cross-cutting strata. When West Indian women work as nannies for white children in Manhattan, they are performing stratified reproductive labor. They are caring for someone else's children. The reason they're caring for the kids of Manhattan moms, and not the other way around, has to do most of all with globalized inequalities between nations. That means, for example, that you can make a lot more money in Manhattan than in the West Indies. But race and class are also implicated. When the female relatives of the West Indian nannies care for those nannies' children back home, they are also involved in a chain of stratified reproduction, in that they are lower in the global hierarchy of nations, and they didn't have the capital (economic or social) to migrate themselves. The transnational system in which different households have vastly different access to resources stratifies experiences of reproduction for workers and employers.

In the remainder of this article, I examine how Colen's insights about stratified reproduction can shed light on two other aspects of the politics of family: making a family, and disassembling one. In both of those projects, how are the different roles that people occupy when making or disassembling a family differently valued depending on the various inequalities and hierarchies within which they occur?

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