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

Love Isn’t Enough: some things you need to know about adoption November 20, 2013

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.

But it’s not always dancing for tacos.

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