The Fading Norm

What is a normal family? How can one start to define a normal family? In Broken Links, Enduring Ties by Linda J. Seligmann, she addresses the concept of a normal family by relating it to the “ideal” family or, in her words, the biogenetic model. American kinship is made through this model, which is defined as a heterosexual procreating couple living with their children. In my class, we talked about how the concept of family as blood (“blood ties”, “blood relatives”) is very dominant in U.S. families today, though my teacher mentioned only 20 percent of families display this model (Delcore). In our culture, we create expectations or starting points to how we set up our family (trying to resemble to biogenetic model), even when our conscious thoughts tell us not to. As Seligmann presents in her book, adoption practices challenge this social structure of the biogenetic model.

Anthropologists have debated the influence and prominence of the biogenetic model in today’s society. David Schneider saw biology as the template from which American families are built. Judith Modell found in her studies that adoptive families tried to replicate certain characteristics associated with biologically constituted families, while also trying to be recognized by their distinctiveness as adoptive families. Seligmann agrees with Modell in that she believes that biology and “blood ties” remain important aspects in American family making; however, she addresses how many practices have emerged to challenge this biogenetic view of families.

According to Seligmann, the challenges and changes to this biogenetic model is called agency. “They have begun talking and moving across these boundaries, sustaining discussions in forums over long periods of time about painful topics, engaging thorny issues, confronting schools, and trying to change their own behaviors. Their families resemble less a given than a work in progress, less a closed circle than a network whose density thins out as it expands-across residential neighborhoods, churches, playgrounds, grocery stores, sports arenas, and schools. It also stretches over oceans and national boundaries” (287). This quote summarizes the huge gains that adoptive parents have made to fight against the structures in place for adoption. A more specific example she gave in the book is when she discusses the influence of the school environment on adoptive children. They are communicating a norm to the other children about the biogenetic model and teaching them what they feel is the “normal.” Parents have pushed back against school as structure by addressing this issue. By asking for modification of the assignments and telling the children that biological connections aren’t the only way you can make a family, parents are asserting a challenge to the biogenetic model. It is the love and interaction with her adopted daughter, Ashley, that makes her Ashley’s mom as Amber, a mother who was studied by Seligmann, discussed with the author (214-15). Amber worked hard to give her daughter a chance to respond to questions being thrown at her from her peers; she wanted to show how a family doesn’t always mean you are the same race.

In Chapter 9 of her book, the U.S. phenomenon of adoptive children searching for their birth parents is discovered to be unique to the rest of the world. In cultures where the biogenetic norm is not as strictly followed, the children don’t show the need to search for their birth parents. In the U.S., they think that to conform to the norm, you need to find and seek out “who you are.” Seligmann called this the search for the missing links. The search for links to their biological families shows how strong and prominent the biogenetic model is in our culture specifically. The need to have blood ties and to not struggle with “discontinuities, loss, exclusion, racism, and ghosts that they sense in the narratives” shows the biogenetic model in action (25). A lot of this is primarily due to schools and institutions that project this model.

Seligmann shows many examples in her book revolving around this model. Russian adoptive (RA) families show, in many ways, how the biogenetic model is a goal to achieve when in the process of family making. This is seen when white children are targeted to help with family’s privacy and prevent inquiries into their life, as well as, how there is a preference for infants because they want immediate bonding between adoptive parents and children. Seligmann noticed more times than not that RA adoptive parents wanted to “pass” their family off as a biogenetic family (20). She concludes that, “interactions with RA adoptive parents quickly led me to conclude that both mothers and fathers were motivated to adopt from Russia because they wanted “white” children, conforming to enduring American ideas about ideal family composition” (18-19).

In contrast, Seligmann shows examples in her book that counteract the biogenetic model. She says how the process of open adoptions shows a fade away from the traditional nuclear family. African American (AA) adoptive families are an example because their case shows an opposite expectation of traditional family with their relation to the concept of “blood ties”. Another example of the deviation from the biogenetic model is when Seligmann states, “in trying to deal with these broken links, the children themselves served as catalysts for alternative modes of family-making” (27). This simply means that the adoptive children themselves have challenged the stigma associated with adoption. They do this by conveying a want to form their own families through the adoption process.

With all of this in mind, there is no other way to answer the question I stated at the beginning other than saying there is no such thing as a “normal” family. The U.S. is filled with diverse families that don’t fit with the biogenetic model (approximately 80 percent of families). Biology isn’t the only way to form families. Adoption is only one reason to why we see this model slowly fading away from the “norm.”

by Robin Draper

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