The following op-ed appeared in the November 18, 2017 print edition of The New York Times:
Giving to charity makes you happier, healthier and even richer.
That’s what I found in my research for a book I was writing back in 2003. Data clearly showed that giving and volunteering have a positive impact on givers’ health, wealth and life satisfaction — especially when we can see the faces of the people we are helping. Was this the secret to building a better life and happier world?
Excited by these findings, I discussed them with my wife, Ester. Always practical, she suggested that we put my research to the test in our own lives. “I just read that there are millions of abandoned little girls in China,” she said. “I think we should adopt one of them.”
My immediate response: “Hey, it’s only a book!”
Many people are anxious about adoption, although the source of those anxieties has changed over the decades. In a study in the 1980s, the sociologist Charlene E. Miall surveyed a large group of childless women. Many of the interviewees reported a widespread perception that the lack of biological ties must hurt the parent-child bond. They feared that society saw adopted children as second-rate, and adoptive parents as not “real” parents.
But today the most common concerns about adoption have shifted from cultural worries to financial and logistical ones. According to the National Foster Care Adoption Attitudes Survey, by 2013 the top two of eight potential concerns for those considering adoption were coping with paperwork and expense.
This shift in concerns is excellent news, however, because it means the government can help provide solutions. That is what President George W. Bush sought to do when he signed a 2001 bill raising the maximum adoption tax credit to $10,000 from $5,000 to help offset what often costs families three times that amount, especially those adopting from abroad.
Foreign adoptions by American families were already increasing in 2001, and with an assist from the new policy, the number hit a high in 2004. According to the State Department, 22,884 children were adopted that year from overseas, compared with almost 6,000 a year in the early 1980s and about 16,000 in 1999.
Like thousands of others in that wave, and over my initial objections, Ester and I started the process of adopting a child from China. That meant we would be adding a daughter to our brood, because girls made up 95 percent of the Chinese children who were waiting to be adopted.
In the summer of 2004, along with nine other families, I boarded a plane to China to pick up our daughter from an orphanage in Fujian Province. While the rest of the group was made up of couples, I was traveling alone. One of us had to stay back with our young children, and Ester was not yet an American citizen (and thus could not legally execute the adoption).
To complicate matters, I had been warned by the orphanage that our 16-month-old daughter — whom I had never seen, except in a grainy photo sent a couple of weeks earlier — was especially shy and afraid of men. They told me not to be surprised if she panicked as soon as she saw me; she typically screamed in fear any time a man entered the orphanage.
When the moment of truth came, my name was called, I entered the room, and a Chinese official plopped a baby into my arms. I braced myself, and — nothing happened. She didn’t cry. She didn’t scream. She just held onto my shirt with her tiny fists and stared up at my face. To me it was as if we had been together since the moment of her birth.
Back in the United States with our new daughter, Ester and I felt we were part of a foreign adoption movement. We were sure that enlightened public policy would continue to loosen regulations, which would make for more and more miracles like ours. Blended international families of choice were the wave of the future, we thought, and a reflection of an increasingly shared belief in a radical solidarity that transcended borders and biology.
We were wrong. The year we adopted turned out to be the high-water mark in foreign adoptions and the number has dropped ever since. By 2016 it had fallen 77 percent from its peak, to 5,372. This is the lowest total in three and half decades.
What happened? The answer is not a lack of need. Indeed, according to the Christian Alliance for Orphans, there are more than 15 million children around the world who have lost both of their parents.
Part of the reason is the policies of foreign governments, which have made foreign adoption harder, both for nationalistic reasons and because of worries about corruption and human trafficking. Our own government has contributed as well: Foreign adoption plunged all through the Obama administration as the State Department imposed new hurdles in the name of curbing abuses, which are a significant worry for parents adopting from some countries (although not China, where virtually all the children, like my daughter, were abandoned at birth).
Motivated by good intentions or not, these changes have left thousands of orphans unadopted. This is too high a price to pay for bureaucratic screw-tightening.
Meanwhile, while it may or may not materially affect the foreign-adoption statistics, adoption has been vilified by the political fringes in the United States. Alt-right social media light up with attacks on transracial adoption. And some on the far left attack “the propaganda put out by the mega-billion-dollar adoption industry that there are thousands of orphans ‘languishing’ in orphanages waiting to be rescued or saved.” Big Adoption, corporate villain.
Today, my daughter is a freshman in high school. She spends too much time on Instagram but is killing it in her classes. And what about our giving experiment? In truth, I don’t know or care what my daughter has done for my income or health. But my happiness? It spikes every time she looks at me and I remember the magic day we met.
That’s something more dads, moms and especially kids deserve in this unhappy world.