When I was a child, I could not imagine what it would be like to get married but I knew I wanted to adopt a little girl. That was my vision for a future family: me, my little girl, and our cat. Decades later, after finally meeting that someone I liked enough to want a mini version, I have wrestled with the idea of adoption to the point of not wanting to consider it at all. Yet, aside from the expense and bizarre economics that intersect with racialized bodies, I couldn’t quite articulate what–exactly–was so disconcerting. Until now.
I recently ran into two pieces on adoption, both from the perspective of adoptees (both happen to be young women adopted from Asian countries). The first was a riveting slam poem that explored the challenge of not quite ‘fitting’ one’s name. The second article laid it out like this: “Adoption can be a very good thing for an individual child, but it is not charity. It is not a religious crusade. It is never a ‘miracle,’ the hand of God at work, when a child ends up living without their original parents.” Just like that, the writer articulated the very thing that makes me so uneasy about the adoption industry: the presumption that I–by virtue of being a middle class, educated, white woman–would provide for someone else’s child better. But, as the writer questions, better than what? better than whom? So often the process of adoption skips over entire households of relations to place a child with perfect strangers.
The desire to raise a family for so many women is a visceral longing–so intense it feels like a calling. Our churches support the vision of loving families that provide and care for not only their own flesh and blood but others who are no less deserving of a stable home. Yet, here’s the problem with much of the language we hear: it is one sided. A newborn cannot ask to stay with her biological mother, whose scent and voice are the only things she knows.
I once overheard a young woman in church sharing about the infant foster child she had just received in her home. She was so excited for this child, and was (understandably) nervous about the tenuous nature of fostering. Then she commented that the mother was in rehab–one of the requirements to be considered “fit” to get her baby back–but she still hoped to be able to keep the child. I am not suggesting that she wished the mother ill, but for her and her husband to ‘keep’ this child would mean for the mother to fail at getting treatment and turning her life around. What struck me in this moment was how we have constructed a child welfare system that breaks down far more than it builds up.
And we, as Christians, help perpetuate this system. We even have scriptural justification. In Romans 8 Paul uses language describing the Spirit of adoption God has extended to us. Somehow we equate bringing a child into our home with God’s saving grace that unites us in Christ with God’s household. Adoption then becomes a means of saving children, but at the expense of a meaningful connection with relatives, geography, culture (except for those families who are very intentional about maintaining some kind of connection).
Yes, I have outlined a rather sullen perspective on adoption. I certainly do not mean to say the system needs to be done away with altogether. But I want to stretch the canvas bigger. Rather than zooming in on the portrait of a “needy” child, what if we acknowledged the other people in that child’s life, starting with their biological parents? This quickly gets complicated, but the most significant issue I see with adoption is that it requires commodifying children as individual units with virtually no relations. (Again, there are exceptions.) A child’s story began long before they were born–how could we possibly know that without developing some sort of relationship with their family of origin?
Reflecting on the gospel narratives of Jesus, many of the stories remixed household dynamics. Paul went even further to turn oppressive household codes on their head in Colossians. How then might we consider what that looks like for us today? Another way to think of it: are we looking to create family friendly churches or familial churches? Family friendly churches tend to support the individual units composed of parents and children who live in the same house. Contrast that with a church community that sees itself as an extended family to any and all who gather together. I know I have benefitted from the latter, and hope to continue nurturing familial relations wherever I end up.