The Danger of the “Suitable” Parent Narrative

Who is considered a “suitable parent” in American society? Whenever I examine this question, I find myself bouncing between stereotypes and reality. We know there is a correlation between parents’ socioeconomic status and their children’s educational outcomes. We know, too, that parents with a higher socioeconomic status can pass that on to the next generation, supporting their children’s educational success and ability to accumulate wealth. But we also know that our definitions of “positive outcomes” and “opportunities” are rooted in Western capitalist ideas of success. So, getting high-paying jobs, traveling for pleasure, being able to buy nice things – these are the benefits that we are essentially saying adoptees will have because of their adoptive parents’ endowment. It follows that because their birth parents likely could not provide one or all of these things, they could offer nothing of social importance to their child. So adoptees are “better off” growing up away from their birth parents.

This is a brutal iteration of the narrative we are taught as young adoptees. “Your birth mother gave you up because she knew she could not provide for you.” “Your birth parents wanted you to have the best opportunities, so they gave you to someone who could offer them.” “You are so lucky to have been adopted.” To many of us, at a young age, these explanations made sense. Why wouldn’t we want more opportunities, a better future? But what didn’t sink in was the implication that only our predominantly white, upper-middle-class adoptive parents could provide such things. Even when I learned more about American racial and economic inequality as a teenager, it still made some sort of sense that my poor, brown, single birth mother could not offer to me what a married, straight, white, upper-middle-class couple could.

It was in college that I first saw a severe flaw in this conception of the world. I made more friends of color than I had ever had in my life. My friends came from a variety of familial backgrounds – single parents, immigrant parents, interracial parents. These backgrounds came with their own complexities, everything from racial discrimination to poverty to lack of education. These parents could have decided to give up their children, knowing that the odds were against them. Instead, they chose to try their best under the circumstances, and their children were now my intelligent, accomplished peers in higher education.

The question was more of a conviction by the time I wrapped my mind around it. Could my birth mother have raised me after all? Was she misled by the system into believing she was not a capable or “suitable” parent? My friends had, of course, overcome many barriers to get to the same place that I had reached with relative ease. I do not want to suggest that I would not have struggled in certain ways had I not been adopted into a highly educated, well-off family – I am not here to deny statistics.

However, I think it ties back to my earlier point about our cultural definitions of “positive outcomes” and “opportunities.” My friends’ parents had imparted cultural knowledge and experiences upon their children, most of which I lost out on as an adoptee. I was not surrounded by racial and ethnic pride, and I was taught virtually nothing about my own heritage. I also lost what many of my friends of color say their parents taught them intuitively throughout life: how to navigate this racist, xenophobic world as a person of color. These are things that only a parent of color, only an immigrant parent, would even think to teach their children. But because all of this knowledge does not satisfy our capitalistic ideas of intelligence and education, it does not hold the same social value as the “exceptional educational attainment” and “socioeconomic success” of our white adoptive parents.

Our limited conception of the “suitable parent” is dangerous. It underlies much of the toxic “you should be grateful” narrative transracial adoptees are taught from a young age. It also upholds capitalist values of financial gain and official educational attainment as the only legitimate forms of success. Well, I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it because the intense sorrow of a transracial adoptee cannot be healed by material wealth or fancy degrees. I have experienced a tremendous loss of culture, of community, of human connection. A loss that is compounded by the adult realization that there is nothing I can do to truly fix it, to go back in time and grow up surrounded by the cultures of my people. And I also recognize the tragic loss of those birth parents who were marginalized by a system that never believed in their capacity to parent nor saw their skills and knowledge as valuable. The concept of a “suitable” parent under this system discourages us from questioning the social inequalities that reinforce its definition. I refuse to allow the current narrative to bury these deeper concerns under statistics and traditional capitalistic definitions of success and opportunity.