“Interrogating Genealogy in Childhood Studies”

by Carol J. Singley

Thank you, session organizers Allison Giffen and Lucia Hodgson, for this opportunity to reflect on Childhood Studies, a field that has flourished over the past few decades. It’s rewarding to see how Childhood Studies has moved from considerations of social construction to child rights, agency, and advocacy to child activism. It’s equally gratifying to see how this burgeoning body of work reflects awareness of critical categories such as class, race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual preference as they intersect with age. Today I’d like to draw attention to another critical category, genealogy, and propose it as a productive lens through which to study the assumptions of identity that surround children and families. Blood kinship is a critical marker of difference, but we often are oblivious to, or tend to dismiss, our anxieties about variation from genealogical norms, and as a result we continue to narrowly define the child and childhood.

My point is that a heightened awareness of the preeminence of biological connection can infuse the study of texts and culture with new meanings. Such awareness might also promote a more radical understanding of the self, and of the relation of the self to the nuclear family, community, and the nation.

Let me explain with a short anecdote. In January, 2019, in a National Public Radio interview, journalist Dani Shapiro described her new book, Inheritance, which is about her discovery that the father who raised her was not her biological father.[1] Her mother had used a sperm bank in Philadelphia in the 1950s known for “mixing sperm,” and DNA testing established Dani Shapiro’s biological link to another man, a donor at the sperm bank. In the interview, Shapiro describes her shock and dismay upon realizing that she and the woman she thought was her half-sister in fact “are not siblings.” This broken biological chain carried a larger cultural and religious import, as the family is Orthodox Jewish. Shapiro writes of the jolt she experienced when she learned that “Paul Shapiro, was not her biological father, and the Orthodox Jewish heritage that she so prized was not her own.” 

The story is interesting because it points out that DNA testing is a double-edged sword that both validates the primacy of blood and potentially frees an individual from it. 

But I call attention to this story because it seems noteworthy that the act of discovering that a father who performed the roles of fatherhood is not a father in the biological sense—a true father—should be worthy of a book and its attendant publicity. Shapiro’s story points to the cultural privileging of biological kinship in defining the child, and it provides an opening through which to explore the tacit understanding of the child as gaining its identity from, and to a great extent belonging to, a biologically based nuclear family. As a literary scholar who has done extensive work in the field of adoption studies and as an adoptive mother in an open adoption, I have often confronted the normative operations of family as a biological construct. The difference of adoption—practiced throughout history with fluctuating terms of openness or secrecy and putative goals to serve child, family, or community—serves to underline the normative values attached to genealogy.

Secrecy has accompanied adoption to greater and lesser extent throughout the course of western history. In ancient times, adoption was a transparent act designed primarily to protect patriarchal lineage. In modern history, the stigmas associated with adoption led to varying degrees of secrecy, reaching their height in the early- to mid-twentieth century with the rise of social work, sealed records, and efforts to “match” adoptive parents and children according to appearance, race, or ethnicity. These practices show the strong cultural investment in biological lineage, and even the shame associated with being related by adoption rather than by blood. Indeed, Dani Shapiro, in her interview, struggles with a central question of identity and secrecy: “who were we to each other, my parents and me? What did they know, and did they keep this a secret from me my whole life? . . .  The institute must have fooled them. . . . [I]t was much more comfortable for me to feel that we were all in the dark together.”[2]

What does all this have to do with childhood studies? Robin Bernstein’s recent New York Times op-ed piece makes the case for letting black kids just be kids; it references concepts of childhood innocence that have historically excluded black children.[3] We need to understand those histories to know about this moment. Similarly, how have we excluded the histories of adopted children, and kept children’s identities circumscribed in an ideology of biological essentialism that serves an outdated patriarchal social structure?

If we open the discourse of childhood to adoptive as well as biological kinship, we open ourselves to potentially radical shifts in our understanding of identity and affiliation. What is at stake is not simply adoption reform, although happily this has evolved over the past decades with the adoptee rights movement, open adoption, birth mother advocacy groups, and unsealed records. What is possible is a reexamination of the terms of family itself, and of the assumption that a child “belongs” to a given family.

The call for redefining family owes much to the work of feminist scholars. They help us to see that the hegemony of genealogy—what I’ll venture to call the tyranny of genealogy—as practiced in western civilization is also a construct, a powerful one practiced within patriarchy. Feminism can offer alternative frames for new understandings of family connection and personal identity.

Adoption itself has implications for redefining parenthood, as Janet Beizer, Drucilla Cornell, Judith Modell, and Mary Lyndon Shanley have all noted,[4] because it redistributes parenting roles by providing the child with two sets of parents and thereby focuses attention on issues of identity formation that are often taken granted with a biological family model. As Holly Laird, editor of a special issue on adoption in Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, notes: “We who adopt live in questions; and . . . it is impossible to live immune to questions about how, why, and wherefore we parent children in this world; it is only possible to [answer,] evade or deny them.”[5] Adoption complicates the notion of motherhood, in particular, by disengaging birth from nurture. As Sara Ruddick notes, “Adoptive or stepmothers are no less qualified maternal workers because they have not given birth. Nor is giving birth sufficient grounds for undertaking maternal work or doing it effectively.” Similarly, “all mothers are ‘adoptive’” in that they offer the child essential protection, nurturance, and social training.[6]

Moving adoption to the center of human experience, or minimally to the next stage of a process that begins in birth, has far-reaching implications, in Ruddick’s view, for world security and peace:

A mother completes a birthing woman’s labor by adopting her infant and thus protecting in the world the physical promise and vulnerability she has created. To “adopt” is to respond to an infant’s trust that “good and not evil will be done to him.” To adopt in and for the world means resisting “in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed” anyone or any policy that cruelly or carelessly violates that trust. To adopt is to make a space, a “peace” where the promise of birth can survive. In this myth of peacemaking, birth is the beginning of a world; all mothers-in-the-world are adoptive; all adoptive persons are peacemakers.[7] 

Another important feminist reconsideration is Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now, a bold book that asks whose interests do female “labors of creation and destruction” serve, and that calls for more not less surrogacy, for taking collective responsibility for children, and for radically transforming our notions of kinship.[8]

Deeper interrogations of children in relation to genealogy can lead to a radical exploration of Christian teachings that inform our sense of the nuclear family, and that have been operational in the U.S. from John Winthrop and Cotton Mather onward; as well as a review of class and race as quiet but persistent markers that shape the ways that children are either secured in a birth family unit, or transferred from family to family and nation to nation. Social, religious, and economic systems of childhood circulate within these genealogical constructs, which foster biased views of children and limit childhood agency.

What would the child unfettered from genealogical bonds look like? I welcome scholars to imagine and explore the possibilities.

[1] Dani Shapiro, interview by Melissa Block, National Public Radio, All Things Considered, podcast audio, January 19, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/01/20/687045387/; Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love (New York; Random House, 2019), Print.

[2] Shapiro, interview by Melissa Block.

[3] Robin Bernstein, “Let Black Kids Just Be Kids, The Opinion Pages, The New York Times, July 26, 2017, https://nyti.ms/2tJ6sDd

[4] Janet Beizer, “One’s Own Reflections on Motherhood, Owning, and Adoption,” The Adoption Issue, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 21.2 (Fall 2002): 237-55, Print; Drucilla Cornell, “Adoption and Its Progeny: Rethinking Family Law, Gender, and Sexual Difference,” in Sally Haslanger and Charlotte Witt, eds., Adoption Matters: Philosophical and Feminist Essays (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), 19-46, Print; Drucilla Cornell, “Re-Imagining Adoption and Family Law,” in Julia Hanigsberg and Sara Ruddick, eds., Mother Troubles: Re-Thinking Contemporary Maternal Dilemmas (Boston: Beacon, 1999), 208-28, Print; Judith Modell, Kinship with Strangers: Adoption and Interpretations of Kinship in American Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), Print; and Mary Lyndon Shanley, Making Babies, Making Families: What Matters Most in an Age of Reproductive Technologies, Surrogacy, Adoption and Same-Sex and Unwed Parents (Boston: Beacon, 2001), Print. 

[5] Holly Laird, Preface, The Adoption Issue, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 21.2 (Fall 2002): 236, Print.

[6] Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace (Boston: Beacon, 1989), 51, Print.

[7] Ruddick, 218.

[8] Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (New York: Verso, 2019), 125, Print.

Carol J. Singley (Ph.D. Brown) is professor of English at Rutgers University- Camden, where she helped design the nation’s first Ph.D. program in Childhood Studies. She is author or editor of nine books in childhood studies including the authored book, Adopting America: Childhood, Kinship, and National Identity in Literature (Oxford UP, 2011) and the co-edited collection, The American Child: A Cultural Studies Reader (Rutgers UP, 2003). She co-founded the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture (ASAC). An internationally known scholar of Edith Wharton, she is General Editor of The Complete Works of Edith Wharton, in thirty volumes by Oxford University Press.


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