Love Isn’t Enough: some things you need to know about adoption

Adoption is a hot issue in American Evangelicalism, and while rates of international adoption have drastically declined recently, I don’t think a culture of adoption is going anywhere, anytime soon. Since November is National Adoption Month, I wanted to take some time to explore some aspects of adoption– for families thinking about adopting, who have adopted, or who know someone thinking of adopting.

In the past decade, adoption has become a hallmark of Evangelical Christianity in the United States. On one hand, I think this is fantastic– “defending the cause of the fatherless” is one of the issues that has been closest to my heart. On the other, I think we need to be honest and admit that in some Christian circles, adoption has actually become trendy.

This, I don’t think is entirely bad– if something is going to become trendy or faddish, I’m glad such a beautiful thing is becoming a trend. However, because of the trendiness of adoption, a lot of families who perhaps should not have adopted did, a fact that is resulting in various countries slowing down or closing off international adoptions.

Like marriage, adoption is one of those issues where people don’t always tell us what we need to know on the front end. Yet, after the honeymoon is over, we realize there’s a bit of missing information we wish we were given access to earlier. As a passionate advocate for the orphan and as an adoptive parent who was “baptized by fire” into adoptive parenting (you may want to read the rest of my adoption story, here), I wanted to share some encouragement and hard truth with those thinking of adopting, or who have recently adopted.

First, I have to admit– it’s true that adoption is basically the most amazing thing ever. I mean, see for yourself– this was the first time my daughter had ever tasted tacos:

But, this isn’t what adoption looks like every day. Adopting because you see others externally who seem to have it great, is like getting married because you see other couples appear to be living the high life. In either case, what you are seeing externally is NOT the full reality. Adoption isn’t always dancing because you’ve discovered tacos. So, before you adopt, there’s a few things you should know:

Children are not souvenirs.

Went on a mission trip to Mexico and came back with a new heart for the people of Mexico? Fantastic– that’s God working in your life. This doesn’t mean, however, that he’s necessarily asking you to go back and to bring home a child. Make sure you think long and hard about this “calling”. Adoption is often romanticized, and it would be easy to make a poor decision when your emotions are high coming back from a missions trip. Kids are not souvenirs, and you shouldn’t decide to adopt one lightly.

Don’t do it to “bring the mission field to your home”.

I am primarily a Missiologist, so I’m all about the “mission field”. However, don’t adopt because you want to “bring the mission field” to you. These aren’t people to be converted, they are children who need families. Sure, if you’re a Christian family you’ll obviously teach your kids Christianity– fantastic, I do that too. But don’t approach this as you’re bringing a potential convert into your family– that is dehumanizing. This child or children will have a host of other needs that will take priority to any spiritual needs. Remember: love with an agenda or strings attached isn’t love at all.

Don’t adopt if your primary motivator is to meet your own emotional needs.

People adopt for a lot of different reasons, many of which are good and valid reasons. However, as a loving caution, please don’t adopt because you are expecting this child to meet a need in your own heart. It is our job to meet their needs; it is not their job to meet ours. It is not fair to put this kind of pressure on a child, and most likely, the child is going to fail to meet whatever those emotional needs were. If you’re thinking of adopting because you think a child will meet this need or that need, PLEASE work these things out in counseling before you bring your child home. Viewing a child as the fulfillment of your own unmet emotional needs is a crisis waiting to happen. Instead, only adopt when you are healthy enough to realize that you exist to meet their needs, and not the other way around.

Remember: adoption looks like a beautiful miracle to those around you, but adoption is a sign that something in the story has already gone way, way wrong.

Sometimes people reference my daughter Johanna and say, “it’s clear that God planned her for your family from the beginning.” Unfortunately, that’s just not true.

She was born into a family, but all that fell apart. Adoption became the mechanism which gave her life a chance at healing and restoration. People on the outside see healing and restoration, and completely forget that adoption is born out of horrible, unspeakable loss. While adoption points to something beautiful, it also points to the fact that something already in her story went way, way wrong. Before you adopt, you need to realize this: you’re walking into a story that is steeped with brokenness. Your role is that of the “ministry of reconciliation”– which is a beautiful role, but one that only exists because something really, really bad has already happened. Know that the job of reconciliation isn’t all butterflies and ponies– the work born out of an adoption is really, really hard and emotional work.

Know that not everyone is called to do this– there are other ways to “defend the cause of the fatherless”.

Whatever you do, please don’t adopt because everyone in the culture around you is doing it. Just because it’s a great thing to do, doesn’t mean this is YOUR thing to do. This is NOT for everybody. If something in your spirit is telling you that this isn’t the role for you, please listen to that still voice. Just as negative results can come from doing something bad we weren’t supposed to do, negative results can also come from doing something good that we weren’t supposed to do.

Don’t worry– there are other ways to support orphans and vulnerable children– you don’t have to adopt in order to be someone who advocates and cares for them.

Please don’t ever strike your adopted child… ever.

Yeah, I get that your parents did it and everything worked out fine, but you need to understand that raising adopted children is NOT the same as raising biological children (not that it’s okay to hit them, either). However, please consider: you don’t know your child’s background. I don’t care what the papers say, or what the orphanage said, you do NOT know their full history. What if every time you “discipline” your child, you’re actually re-traumatizing them? What if every time you “discipline” your child, you’re actually disrupting bonding and attachment? What if your actions are actually damaging them in ways that you will never fully understand?

PLEASE, do not strike or spank your adopted child. Also, if you told your homestudy worker that you would NOT do this, but reversed course or plan on reversing course the minute the adoption is legal, please consider that this is actually lying, and this would be a sin. I’ve know many Christians who felt justified lying during the homestudy on this issue– please consider the hypocrisy of spanking your child for lying when you lied in order to get approval to adopt them.

Start thinking of more creative ways to raise and discipline children before you adopt so that you can avoid doing horrible damage to them emotionally. And, please realize that if you insist on physically punishing your kids, you are actually making it harder for the rest of us to adopt. There are countries who are currently closing doors to American adoptions because of the trend of Christians abusing children they’ve adopted.

You need to know that nothing about adoption is convenient.

From the paperwork to start it, to finding the $30,000-$50,000 to complete it, and then actually getting started on the real work, nothing about any of this is convenient. If you’re going into this thinking that it’s the perfect way to build a family, please take a step back and reconsider things. Adjusting to a new culture (even if it’s just a new family culture), new language, a new school, and all of the other transitions which simply mark the beginning, is hard work (just the language part is about a 7 year commitment). Then once you settle in, you have the fun job of exploring identity issues, abandonment issues, and other stuff that’s bound to come up. None of it will be on your time table. The work will be the most rewarding work you’ve ever done, but none of it will be convenient– so know that before you get into this.

Be prepared to be a life-long advocate in ways that you might not have to be with biological children.

I had no idea that I was about to become an expert on English Language Learning (ELL) laws in schools, that I’d be researching Special Education mandates, that I’d be calling emergency meetings to re-write an IEP, or that I’d have to teach my child what to say to the little Tea Party children at school when they tell her “you can’t be here, you don’t speak English”.

Know that you are going to have to advocate for your children in ways you can’t imagine– the cards are going to be stacked against them without you. Adopting is not like cooking on a grill where you can “set it and forget it”– you are about to enter a life-long process of advocacy to help ensure that your children get a fair shake, and have all the tools they will need to make it in life.

Be prepared to see the world differently.

Adopting has changed the lens through which I see the world around me– be prepared to see the world differently. Being a bilingual, trans-racial family, I now realize how much of the world I did not see when I viewed the world through the lens of white privilege. If you’re a white family and are adopting children of other races, be prepared to be shocked as you will encounter racism that people had told you ended in the 60’s. Be prepared to realize that your children will have different challenges in the world that as a parent, you’ll need to confront. For example, if your children are black or Latino, be prepared to have conversations with them about how they dress and interact with police— conversations you don’t have to engage in with white children. Realizing that the black and Latino experience is so different than what mine was in America, is perhaps the single area where I was the least prepared to parent. Be prepared to start thinking and seeing the world differently.

Don’t do this alone: get support

Hillary was right all those years ago– it does take a village. Don’t go through the adoption process alone, and don’t try to raise your children in isolation. If available locally, make sure you connect with other adoptive families who are more seasoned so that you can glean from their wisdom and experience. If not available locally, there are a host of opportunities online to develop relationships with other adoptive parents. Also, having a routine check-in with a therapist who has experience working with other adoptive parents, can be a lifeline and will give you space to work out some of the issues that are bound to come up. Adopting will bring things up inside you that you weren’t expecting, so be proactive in getting professional support– you don’t need to be in crisis mode to have a therapist.

Finally, please consider that as much as you’d like it to be…

Love isn’t enough.

Love is a great baseline, but love isn’t the full package. Let “love” springboard you into tangible actions.

I am a lover of adoption, and I’m happy that in so many circles we’re seeing a “culture” of adoption. Adoption is both the most wonderful thing I have ever participated in, as well as the most painful and difficult thing I have ever participated in.

Adoption is the only life for me, and I couldn’t imagine living any other way.

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  • Danna Watkins

    I loved this article! I don’t have adopted children but have friend who do and agree wholeheartedly with everything that you said. As a teacher there have been many times that I have been tempted to rescue a child, but as I prayed about it I realized it was my emotions calling not God. At that point I have found peace by asking God to send protection and a family to that child. He is big enough to do what we cannot do. That has been my comfort many, many times.

  • https://ryanrobinson.ca/ Ryan Robinson

    Great article, thank you. My wife and I plan to adopt in a few years. For us the decision came when we were engaged and doing the usual getting ready for marriage questions. We agreed we both imagined having 2-3 kids. With that in mind, it was a quick jump to say that we would look at adopting them instead of (or as well as) having our own biologically. If we are going to commit to the hard work of raising children, we felt, we should look at helping those who are already out there in need. We would probably do it for children here in Canada, not internationally, because we didn’t want to just do it because of the current trendiness of it and because there are plenty already here who need it.

  • Greg Diercks

    My husband and I adopted our son 7.5 years ago. He was a month old when we brought him home from the adoption agency.

    I would like to make three points:

    Please become, if you are not already, an advocate for same-sex parent adoption. There are so many children that deserve a loving home and so many gay men and lesbians willing and anxious to become such parents.

    I feel too many evangelical Christians adopt for the wrong reason (including several members of my extended family) – they adopt to ‘save’ the child.

    Please make domestic adoption your first choice. There are 10s of thousands of children in our foster care system that want forever homes.

  • fiona64

    Please make domestic adoption your first choice. There are 10s of
    thousands of children in our foster care system that want forever homes.

    Yep. Latest AFCARS statistics indicate 100K children in the US for whom the goal is adoption. Most of those kids will “age out” of foster care without ever having permanent homes. That’s a sorrow and a pity.

  • http://unitingforchildren.org/ Andy Gray

    I appreciate your post and all the points you raised, but I wish you had gone further. People need to know that many countries have closed down adoptions due to human trafficking, not bad parenting. This is important, because you have people applying pressure from America to get these countries to resume adoptions, and they need to stop.

    The reality is that international adoptions create a market for babies, and in many countries, people can exploit this market easily. For example, adoptions were shut down in Cambodia for this reason. Today if international adoptions to America were to resume in Cambodia, babies would be bought and sold. Yet last year Senator Landrieu from Louisiana came to Cambodia (where I live) and applied pressure to change the law. I’m appalled by such insensitivity and callousness in the name of compassion. Another case in point, advocates in Uganda are scrambling desperately to combat human trafficking there, a direct consequence of the adoption fad in America. Please understand, I have good friends who have adopted, who I respect and care for, and I don’t question their processes. What I am saying is that every time we laud international adoption, we need to tell this side of the story, and urge people to take care not to harm children and families in their zeal to help.

    I’d also like to invite you and your readers to visit http://www.unitingforchildren.org and help spread the message about this awareness raising website. Thank you.

  • http://www.formerlyfundie.com/ Benjamin L. Corey

    I completely agree– thanks for bringing that up. Adoption harvesting is a very serious issue and one that I’ve wanted to write about for some time. This is why when we adopted, we went through a country that had signed onto the Hague Convention, in hopes that it would not contribute to some of the harvesting practices we see throughout the world. Thanks for bringing this up!

  • gimpi1

    Thank you for the warnings in this article. My husband and I decided long ago not to have children, for both genetic and personal reasons, but we considered adopting. We finally decided against it, for for some of the reasons you mention.

    You see, I was pretty-much born a care-giver. Both my parents were severely disabled, my mother due to polio and rheumatoid arthritis (which I inherited, genetic issues) and my father due to brain-damage suffered in an industrial accident before I was born. From the time I could toddle, I was running errands around the house. By the time I was 10, I was the main housekeeper – gardener – child-care provider for my younger sister. By the time I was 15, I was pretty much running things. My mother passed away when I was 22. I took care of my father until he passed away when I was in my mid-30’s. I don’t regret my childhood, I don’t resent my parents, but it was difficult.

    I guess I feel I’ve done my stint as a nurturer. I give to child-centered charities, I volunteer professional services to charities, and I’d rather give back to the world that way. After a hyper-responsible childhood and early adulthood, I just can’t face the kind of responsibility that an adoption would entail. And yes, I feel a bit guilty about that. And, given those feelings, I don’t think I would be doing a kid any favors, bringing them into that situation.

    Thank you for warning people that they need to understand the depth of the commitment they are making. Thank you for understanding that there are other ways to help children around the world and at home. And thank you for the wonderful gift you have offered the children you have adopted.

  • Jill Roper

    This is such a hot topic Ben. We had decided before marrying that we would adopt children that were at the back of the line as far as being adopted was concerned. We ended up adopting 7 different times. Five were just babies when we got them and 2 were much older,10 and 14 years old. We did foster care for over 20 years for at least 30 other children. Your statement, love is not enough needs to be shouted from the rooftops. Our 14 year old son at age 17 went and found his birth mom that he said he hated. They ended up in a seriously dysfunctional relationship using cocaine together. Our 10 year old ended up spending over a year in a treatment center at age 14 and wouldn’t stop abusing alcohol, drugs and young girls. He now sits in jail. There are some wounds that will never be healed in this lifetime. No matter how good a parent you are. It breaks our hearts but that is the truth.
    Your covered sister,
    Jill

  • Erin

    I needed to read this. Thank you.

  • Rebecca

    Great article…At 15 and pregnant I chose my son’s parents with great care…however I have never recovered from the loss of my son…you are right…”Adoption is born out of horrible unspeakable loss…Before you adopt, you need to realize this: you’re walking into a story that is steeped with brokenness.” If you choose adoption please remember this and remember that in many cases the gift of your child comes as a result of profound grief, trauma and loss. I made the right choice for him (30 years ago) and am thankful his parents honored me by speaking of me to him with great respect and love. They shared as much of me as they possible could and in this way they honored me and the heritage that went with him. I am also thankful they prayed for me and still do.