In this last installment of the series, I wanted to address the topic of how we talk about God in the context of adoption. Many adoptive parents are partly motivated by religious reasons. None of our adoption classes or training talked about this subject, but I often see God referenced in both secular and Christian blogs and adoption chat rooms. The subject of God comes up when people at church talk to us about adoption, or in a more general way with strangers who are usually remarking about what a blessing we are to our daughter. With strangers, these kinds of comments usually fall under the "she is lucky to have you" type of conversations.
I'm going to rely again on the expertise of Jane Brown, MSW. She conducts workshops with teen and adult adoptees, and the things she shared on this topic are all drawn from what older adoptees themselves have said. I really appreciate the window she is providing into the perceptions of adoptees -- many times, I have been surprised by how differently adoptees perceive things compared to my perceptions as an adoptive parent. I know that every child is different, and not every adopted person will experience things the same way . . . but I'm grateful to hear some things that would not have occurred to me. I hope it will make me a better and more sensitive parent.
Many of us make comments to others about how our family was "meant to be," or that God planned for our children to be part of our family. Jane Brown encourages adoptive parents to be careful with our words, because they may unintentionally cause confusion in our kids:
While young children accept that at face value, and may even say it too, the teen/adult adoptee may very well see this quite differently. Many to most think to themselves that if that is the case, then God had to have also intended for their first family to be destroyed, just so that you could be their parents -- and are NOT terribly thrilled with that image. . . .
What I say to my children is that HUMANS make the problems that separate children from their original parents. God holds us in His capable hands when we are hurting, alone, without a family. . . . God held them until we made that decision and the timing was such that they were available just at the time that our paperwork was completed. Adoption -- for a child -- yields both gain and grief over who they were separated from and who they otherwise might have been. . . . Our lack of sensitivity to the fact that adopted kids see and experience adoption far differently than we, their parents do . . . gets in the way of kids being able to claim and express their all-too-real feelings, which helps them stay psychologically healthy.
This was difficult for me to read, but I can see how a child might wonder whether God meant for their first family to be so poor that they couldn't care for him, or to die of HIV/AIDS so they could join our family. I do believe that God cares about and has a plan for each person's life -- but I will be careful how I talk about that. I think that the idea of "beauty for ashes" is a metaphor that includes the idea of God's sovereignty, but also encompasses the difficult human circumstances behind the need for adoption. God specializes in turning sadness, difficulties and pain (ashes) into something redemptive and beautiful -- story after story in the Bible fleshes that out -- without forgetting or diminishing the painful parts of the story.
I hope that this idea will resonate differently than the less complex "meant to be" interpretation, especially when my daughters are older. I think it's significant that the resurrected Jesus still bore the wounds of his painful death -- that pain is one of the very things that makes His love so amazing and inexplicable. In the same way, our children may still grapple with the painful parts of their stories, even while appreciating the fact that they are beloved members of our families. (Or not -- they may resent us completely as they grieve the loss of their birth family, and our job is to love them well through that.) Pain and joy can co-exist for them (and for us), if we give our children permission to acknowledge and express all the facets of their experience.
The other word that we have chosen to be cautious about is "orphan." Many Christians are passionate about caring for "widows and orphans," as described in James 1:27. There are ministries devoted to "orphan care" which do terrific work around the globe. There are many countries ravaged by AIDS or war in which children are literally orphans; but that isn't the case for all children living in orphanages. The reality is that Anya Rashi is not an orphan. Our daughter does have living birth parents, and so we choose not to reference "orphans" at all when we talk about her adoption. It can be confusing to a child to know she has birth parents, but hear adoption discussed in terms of caring for orphans, so that's the reasoning behind our decision. When she is older, she will likely be able to understand better that there are a variety of reasons children are placed in orphanages or foster care -- but for now we want to create a foundation of clarity about her own story.
The idea of her birth parents is something Anya Rashi has struggled to understand. When she was four, she told me, "I know what the birth mother does, but what does the birth father do?" (Gulp.) We did have a good discussion last week about her birth mother. After her bath, Anya Rashi asked me what belly buttons do. We had a great talk about how she was connected to her birth mother through her umbilical cord, and was fed through it, and received oxygen that her birth mother breathed. She was pretty fascinated by the idea, and it seemed to make her birth mother more real to her. I must say that I never thought a belly button could lead to a profound adoption discussion. ;)
* * * * * * * * * *
I want to thank Jane Brown for giving me permission to share what she has learned from adoptees themselves -- some of it is difficult to hear, but I am glad to have my eyes opened to how adoptees might perceive things very differently than I do. Thank you so much for reading along, and for sharing some of your thoughts or experiences in the comments!