Anticipating Adoption: Mariner’s “Contingent Kinship”

Contingent Kinship: The Flows and Futures of Adoption in the United States, by Kathryn A. Mariner (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019).

reviewed by Jessaca B. Leinaweaver, Brown University

In domestic adoption in the contemporary U.S., an expectant mother often selects the future parent(s) of the child she will give birth to – signaling the potential for a continuing relationship between the child’s adoptive and birth kin. But when the expectant mother changes her mind and decides to parent the child herself, those possibilities for relationships are foreclosed. Hopes raised, money invested, and plans made, all come to an end – this is the phenomenon of the “fall-through,” which Kathryn A. Mariner examines in her accomplished new book, Contingent Kinship.

Contingent Kinship’s key site is First Steps, a small Chicago agency founded in 1992 to arrange the adoptions of African-American and biracial children, mostly by white families. The ethnography unfolds in five chapters. The first three focus on members of a triad, a classic concept familiar to adoption scholars that links birth parent, adoptive parent, and child. Mariner recasts this conventional triad, however, to comprise instead expectant mother, prospective adopter, and social worker. Expectant mothers are ethnographically captured in their absence, being never as numerous nor as predictable as staff and prospective parents might have wished. One staff member characterized the process of attempting to adopt domestically as itself a kind of “high-risk pregnancy” (p. 36, 97), because expectant mothers were legally and morally entitled to change their minds at any point in the process, prior to the adoption’s finalization seventy-two hours after birth. For their part, prospective adoptive parents are inspected by social workers who attempt to predict their future parental aptitude. In an elegant analogue to social workers’ efforts to predict an expectant mother’s eventual decision, here, staff work to assess and ratify the assumed goodness of the prospective adoptive parents. Finally, social workers themselves are shown to invest affective labor in managing prospective adoptive parents’ experiences of contingency. They try to make the unknowable imaginable – for instance, displacing uncertainty onto temporality, so that “we have a sense of what will happen; we just don’t know when” (p. 99).

In contrast to the emphasis on roots and the past in much analysis of adoptive kinship and identity, then, the focal point in Mariner’s study is the future – in part because the child, typically, does not yet exist during most of the preparations she witnessed. Mariner coins the concept of “intimate speculation” to characterize the emotional and financial investments in future possibilities made by expectant mothers, prospective parents, and adoption professionals alike (p. 7). The possibility of a fall-through highlights how contingent, risky, and uncertain the adoptive kinship outcome remains throughout the process. Building on this insight, this book as a whole examines the “practice of preparation for a future that is far from certain or logical” (p. 200).

The final two chapters, together, are a significant contribution to economic anthropology. It is well-established that adoption costs money and yet – as Viviana Zelizer, among others, has noted – it is essential for the functioning of adoptive kinship to distance monetary exchanges from the child’s circulation between parents, so that adoption is kept distinct from child trafficking. In Illinois, prospective parents can cleanly transfer “legally allowable birth parent expenses” to expectant mothers to support their gestational labor. In chapter four, Mariner shows how this transfer occurs in the context of class inequality between expectant and prospective parents. When expectant mothers vanish after receiving the payments, it triggers a range of moral approbations. Was the absence of the expectant mother a twitch or a wink – a scam or a change of heart? A definite answer is usually inaccessible. But, as Mariner points out, these economic investments in potential children – which may or may not bear fruit – make adoption “a sort of risky and intimate form of futures trading” (p. 149).

Chapter five is about the closure of the agency Mariner studied, “the institutional version of a fall-through” (p. 13), in the context of the 2008 mortgage crisis and the bankruptcies of the recession that followed. Certainly, a reduction in the “supply” of infants had a direct impact on the agency’s bottom line. But closure was also an unexpected outcome of adoption reform. In 2005, Illinois legislated that adoption agencies be not-for-profit (explicitly and legally de-linking kinship from economy), and small private agencies had to buy out, or take on a debt to, their owners. First Steps met this legal reform by making payments in regular installments to its founder – an “added weight” (p. 168), like IMF-mandated debt payments or college loan payments, that meant the agency struggled economically. Mariner’s analysis of the costs of the transition from profit to non-profit is eye-opening and accomplished.

This is a beautifully written, gripping ethnography. Mariner’s attention to physical characteristics and body language pays off in the depth of her interpretations, as when a prospective adoptive mother’s spine curves as she speaks of putting away private objects prior to a home study visit (p. 86). Mariner is equally attentive to language, tending patiently to key terms to unpack their layered meanings. For instance, studded throughout the book are a richly varied range of dictionary definitions for variations on the word “end,” from the “remnant” of the prologue (p. 4), to the “death” that is said to be analogous to the unannounced disappearance of an expectant mother (p. 44), to the “object” that is the reason sometimes intrusive home studies are endured by prospective adoptive parents (p. 63).

I often thought of David Schneider’s book on American kinship (though, perhaps surprisingly, it was mentioned only once in the text) because Mariner, too, has a clear-eyed focus on kinship that drives to the heart of US culture. As Schneider did, she highlights key symbols of US culture as they are mobilized to create, manage, and cancel kinship. For example, metaphors of transit and mobility permeate her fieldsite, from a bus whose arrival time is uncertain (p. 112) to the bumpy road of running an adoption agency that is burdened by debt (p. 163).

Mariner identifies herself as having been adopted domestically, via some of the processes that she plumbs in this text – intimately linked in this way to her objects of analysis, and at times actively co-opted by them as they invite her to weigh in from the perspective of an adult adoptee (e.g., p. 53). She writes compassionately and thoughtfully about how her perspective shaped her interactions with those in her study. This brings weight to her observation that “the social workers at First Steps operated within a structure that was – and remains – a great deal more violent than they ever were as individuals” (p. 33).