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Like Our Very Own: Adoption and the Changing Culture of Motherhood, 1851-1950. (Reviews).

Like Our Very Own: Adoption and the Changing Culture of Motherhood, 1851-1950. By Julie Berebitsky (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2000. viii plus 248 pp. $34.95).

The history of adoption has been one of the most neglected topics in the field of social history. Perhaps this is because it is also an intensely interdisciplinary subject, requiring historians to be conversant in the law, social work, child and adult psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology, statistics, women's studies, and anthropology, though it is possible to produce excellent work within a single discipline. (1) There has also been the problem that the basic primary sources necessary for writing such a history--adoption case records--have been sealed by tradition and state law. This has been an almost insurmountable barrier: no sources, no history. But in the past decade, historians have become better trained and have overcome the obstacle of inaccessible primary sources, producing a spate of new studies. (2) Julie Berebitsky's Like Our Very Own is a welcome addition to this growing body of work.

Berebitsky explains in her introduction that she is unconcerned with providing a historical narrative of adoption practices, though she adds much new information to that history. Instead, her aim is to recover the thoughts and feelings of prospective adoptive parents between 1851 and 1950 as the adoption system was transformed by the law and by social work professionals. Her second aim is to examine "adoption for what it reveals about Americans' changing understanding of the family" (p. 6). By adoptive parents, Berebitsky means adoptive mothers, hence her subtitle, for as she states, "the history of adoption ... is necessarily a history of women" (p.9). In pursuit of these goals, Berebitsky has conducted a prodigious amount of primary source research, uncovering the hitherto unused case records of several adoption agencies, and putting to good use an overlooked treasure trove, buried in the National Archives, of letters that adoptive parents mailed to the U. S. Children's Bureau.

Like Our Very Own consists of five chapters that read like stand-alone essays. The first chapter, covering roughly the period 1880-1913, ably demonstrates how both adoptive parents and adoption officials wrestled with the problematic meaning of adoption by contesting the nature of its legality and the very nature of its purpose The next chapter, a microstudy of the popular women's magazine the Delineator, analyzes its four year "Child-Rescue" campaign (1907-1911) and concludes that the series was "instrumental in popularizing and destigmatizing adoption" (p. 74). Chapter 3, a venture in intellectual history, traces how American culture moved away in the 1920s from idealizing mothers and equating motherhood with biology rather than nurture, which stigmatized adoptive mothers. Instead, after 1920, adoptive mothers put forth a more positive view of adoption, expanding the ideal beyond blood and emphasizing choice, their desire for motherhood, and their ties of care and commitment to motherhood, or what Berebitsk y calls "a modified understanding of 'maternal instinct"' (p. 77). Chapter 4, an original contribution to knowledge, documents that until roughly 1920 American society considered single women fit for adoptive motherhood, as long as they were celibate and believed in traditional gender roles. But by 1940, experts denounced the practice for a multitude of reasons, from concerns about the stability of the traditional family to fears about lesbianism, "and single women lost their chance to experience motherhood through adoption" (121). The last chapter shifts its focus from adoptive mothers to social workers and their changing ideas and dominant role in forming adoptive families between 1910 to 1950. Here Berebitsky blames them for changing the culture of adoption from one that tolerated diverse adoptive families to an obsession in the 1940s with homogenizing adoptive families by "matching" children physically and intellectually with adopted parents and modeling them on the nuclear family.

While one of the strengths of Like Our Very Own lies in the reader's ability to profit from any one of these chapters, read consecutively the chapters do not constitute an integrated book. This is due to Berebitsky's decision to write several of the chapters topically rather than chronologically. As a result, themes developed in early chapters are dropped or go unexplored in later ones. For example, in chapter 3 Berebitsky suggests that adoptive mothers have altered the culture of adoption or become agents in their own right but in chapter 5 she ignores these developments and in a moralizing tone, uncharacteristic of the book as a whole, impugns the motivations of professional social workers and writes about adoptive mothers as if they were victims.

There are a few other problems with this work. Too often Berebitsky makes statements about "Americans," "adoptive mothers," and "social workers" without using statistical analysis or representative samples. Admittedly, this is a difficult task to achieve in a work of this kind: culture is always hard to quantify, and Berebitsky did not gain access to the records of a modem adoption agency. Berebitsky also has a habit of making statements based on anecdotal evidence drawn from different time periods. For example, when in the late 1940s, prospective adoptive parents complained of the red tape surrounding adoption, she cites sources drawn from popular magazines of the 1930s. Closer attention to sources might have alleviated this problem. In addition, Like Our Own abounds with speculative interpretations that flow from prescriptive literature. For example, Berebitsky asserts that the Delineator's "Child-Rescue" campaign was successful in "popularizing and destigmatizing adoption" (p. 6). Perhaps. But she present s no evidence beyond the sales of and response to the campaign itself to suggest that Americans' views toward adoption actually changed. On the contrary, census reports for the next several decades reveal that the national rates for adoption remained static until the mid-1930s, while orphanages remained the dominant type of care for dependent children until almost the 1950s, strongly suggesting that American's acceptance of adoption was slow, hesitant, and resistant to kinship not based on blood. Nevertheless, Berebitsky's chapter on the Delineator merits additional research into the actual behavior of Americans toward adoption during the Progressive period.

These qualms aside, this deeply researched book adds much to our knowledge of the history of adoption, while raising valuable questions about the social construction of motherhood and the family.


(1.) See for example, Stephen B. Presser, "The Historical Background of the American Law of Adoption," Journal of Family Law 11(1971-1972): 443-516; Jamil S. Zainaldin, "The Emergence of a Modern American Family Law: Child Custody, Adoption, and the Courts," Northwestern University School of Law 73 (1979): 1033-89; Michael Grossberg, Governing the Hearth: Law and the Family in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill,, 1985), chap. 7.

(2.) Recent publications, dissertations, and research in progress in both history and literature, include E. Wayne Carp, Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption (Cambridge, Mass., 1998); Carp, ed., Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives (Ann Arbor, 2002); Marianne Novy, ed., Imagining Adoption: Essays on Literature and Culture (Ann Arbor, 2001); Judith S. Modell, Kinship With Strangers: Adoption and Interpretations of Kinship in American Culture (Berkeley, 1994); Julie Berebitsky, "'To Raise as Your Own': The Growth of Legal Adoption in Washington," Washington History 6 (spring/summer 1994): 5-26, 105-7; Brian Paul Gill, "The Jurisprudence of Good Parenting: The Selection of Adoptive Parents, 1894-1964" (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1997); Jill R. Deans, "'Divide the Child in Two': Adoption and the Rhetoric of Legitimacy in Twentieth-Century American Literature (Ph.D. diss., University of Massachusetts, 1998); Patricia Hart, "A Home for Every Child: A Child For Every Home: Relinquishment and Adoption at the Washington Children's Home Society, 1896-1915 (Ph.D. diss., Washington State University, 1997); Barbara Melosh, Strangers and Kin: A History of Adoption in the United States (forthcoming). A pioneering work in the field is Jamil S. Zainaldin and Peter L. Tylor, "Asylum and Society: An Approach to Industrial Change," Journal of Social History 13 (fall 1979): 23-48.
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Author:Carp, E. Wayne
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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