Friday, August 17, 2012

Adoption culture

Something I write about far less than I imagined I would is adoption--in spite of the fact that I have four adopted children.  There are probably several reasons why I don't gravitate towards this subject, but one of them is that I don't feel particularly connected to the culture of adoption.

This may sound strange coming from me, especially if you know that some of my closest friends in real life are raising adopted children, and that I have countless Facebook friends who are also adoptive parents.  I've attended assorted adoption-related conferences and seminars over the past several years, and was one of the first people blogging about Ethiopian adoption in particular.

But still, I'm a little bit on the outside.  And that is by choice.

The present-day culture of adoption seems to operate on two opposite spectrums: my-healthy-adopted-baby-will-have-no-issues contingent, and the medical/developmental-needs-are-SO-no-big-deal, so adopt a waiting child camp. 

One group thinks adoption is the best ever because oh my goodness, babies are so sweet, and the other believes everyone ought to be adopting waiting children because any and all issues are completely correctable and workable.

Both sides love to emphasize how we are adopted by Christ, and that this supplies the mandate necessary to embark on the process of making an orphan your child.

Both sides miss the mark, in my opinion.

Because the fact of the matter is that adoption is hard.  I repeat, adoption is hard.  And I don't mean the process, I mean the act of taking a traumatized and hurting human being into your home and incorporating him or her into your family.  I mean the transition period as well as the years to follow, the unending attempts to diagnose behavioral issues and foster attachment and correct for learning disabilities.

It is, ultimately, the long and hard work of love.

That is the crux.  That is why adoption is hard.  Because love is a choice, it is taking the long view, it is borne out in actions and also in silence, it is independent of feelings and it does not follow any one timeline.  It demands sacrifice, self-giving, nurture and structure, and daily reliance upon God.

And adoption in particular tests our character because it illuminates the struggle to put another first, above ourselves.  We must stare brokenness and vulnerability square in the face, our child's face.  We must make decisions and rethink any and all conventional parenting strategies, and in the end accept a new definition of success...while still clinging fiercely to hope.

We must become very small.

This is what, I believe, so much of the adoption culture misses.  To claim a child as one's own, we sign up to enter into a world of pain and sorrow and grief--some of which may never fully be healed this side of Heaven.  This world is often filled too with cognitive impairment, impulsivity, developmental delays, congenital heart defects, Asperger's syndrome, and the like.  These things do not fit neatly into the "cute baby" or "it's no big deal" categories.

For they are, truly, a most very big deal.

But this world is also filled with redemption.  We must take care not to miss the work of Jesus, especially in the small things, because otherwise we will only see the big, hard things.  We must continue setting standards for each of our children, and helping them to reach their potential, in spite of their difficult start in life.

It's no secret that I believe adoptive families ought to be open to waiting children.  I confess that my sympathies do indeed lie more closely with that side of the spectrum.  But we must go in with eyes wide open, and reject the idea that any and all effects from institutionalization or Cerebral Palsy or ADHD will be corrected with just a little time and love.  Some will, in fact, not be.  Because when you raise a child, adopted or biological, it is the work of a lifetime, not a list of milestones to be checked off until the age of 18 when the child disappears into the void.  And many (most?) of our adopted children have essentially sustained brain damage--whether due to undernutrition or trauma.

It is the work of love. 

And love is long-suffering, it perseveres, it forgives and it remains.  It is the very essence of God.

So while I count it a great privilege to talk to people about adoption, and wish for families to think long and hard about whether there might be room in their home and hearts for a child without a family, I also know that once the dust settles, adoption simply becomes the toil and joy of parenting.  It is exhausting and exhilarating, all at once, and will call you into a deeper and more difficult love than you have known.  God has called some of us to this journey and most of us regularly wonder why.  We feel woefully inadequate when it comes to such a humbling and beautiful task.

And yet, we know.

We know that our children would quite literally have nobody else were it not for us.

We know that our children faced abuse of all kinds in their respective orphanages.

We know that our daughter with Down syndrome would have lived a much shorter life were it not for receiving open heart surgery in America two months after joining our family.

We know, first-hand, how very important love is.

We know it is life, and we know it is mercy in action.

We know it is good.

And that is the adoption culture that I believe must be cultivated.  This is the paradigm that is sustainable over time.  It breaks through the unrealistic expectations while standing in awe of the miraculous.  It is filled with hope and beauty while acknowledging hardship and yes, occasional suffering.

It is, in many ways, merely representative of life itself.

And maybe that's part of the gift, this being called by God to participate in adoption.  Maybe He is giving us a unique glimpse into life that we would simply not otherwise have.  Not only are we able to see the world through the eyes of a precious child, but we have a front row seat to healing, raw grief, and the importance and value of belonging.

Several years into adoptive parenting, I am more convinced than ever that we parents receive far more than we could ever give. 

And this is perhaps the best-kept secret of adoption culture.


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