Someday Is Here was my first speaking engagement for a conference. I deliberated for a long time about what I needed to share about transracial adoption. Or, rather, what other transracial adoptees needed to hear. Because this conference centered the voices and experiences of Asian American Christian Women, I tailored my message accordingly. I spoke about common elements in the transracial adoptee growth and healing journey. In other words, the things all transracial adoptees should know.
Click here for a video preview of my presentation.
I hope that those who attended the conference will find this post and use the links I share here as resources for further learning. Because in my 25 minute presentation, I cover a lot of ground. And depending on where someone is at in their journey…my presentation may create more questions than provide answers.
I know I just teased my presentation topic without further explanation. Not fair. Here is a basic outline of the things I discussed.
These resources are tools I consider essential for transracial adoptees and our families.
For understanding the larger contexts of adoption:
For adoptive parents and other white people in the lives of transracial adoptees:
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”Romans 12:2
I am a Christian. I’m an adoptee. I don’t believe adoption was God’s plan for me. Yes, I have had a great life in many ways. I do believe my adoptive family was loving. So how is it that adoption wouldn’t have been God’s plan for me?
At this point, the “pattern of this world” (aka the dominant cultural view) is to see adoption as a win-win-win situation and, if you’re Christian, to see it as part of God’s will and God’s purpose in your life. Even though adoptees have long been speaking up against the inaccuracy and danger of this perspective, this theology of adoption persists. And it’s still hurting adoptees and our families.
Christians, we need to “renew our minds” on the relationship God has with child adoption. What might that look like? We should think critically about how we talk about God’s will. What is God’s will, really, and what is not God’s will but human choice?
Let’s start here. These are a beliefs about God I’ve seen emphasized in (usually white, evangelical) Christian discussions around adoption.
So the logic of adoption goes something like this:
…then God must have planned for this (i.e. adoption) to happen all along.
This is the logic of “meant to be” and “God’s plan” with adoption. This is the dominant Christian view of adoption when things seem to have worked out for the adoptive family and the child.
On the whole, the Christian view of child adoption is that it gives a child a loving family and prevents them from living a more difficult or less-loved life. I’ve already written a lot about how Christians see a flawed (re: false) parallel between adoption and salvation.
But what about us adoptees? For those of us raised in these Christians homes, it’s a difficult logic to contradict. After all, if I love my adoptive family or love the life I have now…or if I can see God using my adoption story for the healing and wholeness of others…then my adoption must have been God’s plan from the beginning. Right?
The experience of being an adoptee isn’t static. It changes as we grow and learn new information about ourselves and/or our families. So it’s only natural that our view of our adoption and our feelings about it will shift with time. It is natural for adoptees to question and wrestle with the reality of life as an adoptee.
However, the view that our adoption was God’s plan immediately puts the adoptee at odds with the Divine if we dare to question or wrestle. Trying to hold on to the idea that it was God’s plan and yet incorporate our new perspectives can lead to host of confusing ideas:
Of course these things bring up more questions, like:
Does God want families separated to form new, adopted families?
Does God want me to have lifelong struggles with adoption trauma, abandonment or rejection?
Typically, Christians will say, “Of course not…” and then start the mental gymnastics to justify the trauma that makes adoption possible. In other words, they will try to preserve their view of adoption as being God’s plan for everyone (the mom, the child and the adoptive parents).
The answers given tend to fall flat, especially for the adoptee who realizes they cannot pray their pain away.
How could God have wanted me to experience this lifelong trauma?
How could God have been OK with my first family’s suffering and pain?
When we try to validate this view of adoption, we skew our view of God and we fail to support adoptees.
What we believe about God shapes what we believe about ourselves and the circumstances we are in. We can believe that God has a good and pleasing will for us and yet God also allows us to make our own choices (freewill) that differ from or conflict with that will. Theologians call it God’s Perfect Will vs God’s Permissive Will.
Perfect will is what God desires; e.g. our salvation and collective restoration.
Permissive will is what God permits; e.g. human choices and consequences.
Family separation and adoption is a result of human choices. Here are a few examples of what I mean by that:
Often those choices are made within the context of larger, man-made issues, for example:
The are just a few things that are connected to families being in crisis and children being adopted. They are the result of human choices and actions that are not inline with God’s will or desire for us. Family separation and adoption might be something God allows to happen, i.e. its God’s permissive will. That doesn’t mean God orchestrated adoption.
Even if something good comes from adoption, it is only evidence that God can always create beauty out of brokenness; not that God planned the brokenness or desired it.
Sometimes adoption has positive outcomes for an adoptee; they grow up in a loving home and have access to opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Sometimes adoption has tragic outcomes for an adoptee; they grow up in an abusive home with less love and support than they would’ve had otherwise.
This is why adoption is not gospel; because if the gospel is not good news to everyone then it is good news to no one.
Just because there are or might be some positive outcomes from our choices doesn’t mean that what we’ve done reflects God’s perfect will. We need to be careful not to put God’s name on OUR choices. This is taking God’s name in vain.
It is true that God is able to take what we meant for evil and use it for good. God can incorporate our hurtful or just unhealthy choices into the timeline without altering the outcome God desires.
Wait, isn’t it the family separation that is bad, not the adoption?
You could argue that adoption IS God’s plan for addressing the hurtful human decisions and conditions that caused family separation. Therefore adoption can still be part of God’s perfect will, right? Well, let’s think about what God’s perfect will is.
The Bible shows God carrying out a plan for the restoration of all creation through Christ. God’s perfect will is restoring our relationship with God and with one another and with the earth. It is wrongs being righted, broken things being mended and lies being exposed so that truth can restore us, heal us and make us whole.
Is adoption part of God restoring a family that was in crisis to a healthy and whole place? No.
Adoption actually assumes that the permanent destruction of the family is what’s best for everyone. Adoption leaves the broken circumstances that led to adoption broken. For example, instead of addressing the financial insecurity of a young single mother, adoption takes her child and leaves her more broken than before as she now has to deal with her trauma of child-loss.
God’s perfect will is that we care for the [orphan + widow] + the poor + the foreigner. Remember the orphan + widow = a child and their mother; because once the father had died a child was considered an orphan.
The Bible has already told us to provide for those slipping through the cracks of our society; the marginalized, the exploited, the forgotten. We should clothe them and feed them, i.e. make sure they have what they need to be healthy and whole. If we did this for families in crisis, their children would not need to be taken or away or relinquished.
God’s will for restoration requires we cultivate a holy imagination and resist fatalistic views of the world. We can only believe adoption is the best option if we first accept that there are some people and situations that God simply cannot or will not restore. So either God is not all-powerful or some people are just “throw away people”. Again, this is skewing our view of God or others to fit the narrative that adoption is God’s plan.
I’m a Christian. I’m an adoptee. I don’t believe adoption was God’s plan for me. In my case, adoption was a human attempt to make the best out of a difficult situation. The results are mixed and ultimately, there is a great deal of pain.
That pain is not on purpose.
That pain does not need to have a purpose.
I do not need to put a spiritual spin on that pain to believe God is good or to give God credit for the good things that have happened in my life after being adopted.
God does not rebrand my pain. God does give me Christ, who is able to enter into the pain with me. Christ knows abandonment and rejection and displacement. Christ knows what it is to walk between two identities and different families.
God can also give me purpose in my pain. Not always, but sometimes my healing is bound up in being a participant in the healing of others. Finding that I can have purpose in my pain is not the same as saying that my pain was purposefully created. It is not evidence that adoption was God’s plan for me, but that restoration is and God is able to work toward that no matter what.
Nothing I said here is new but perhaps it’s the first time you’re hearing it said this way. And no, I don’t believe all adoptions are bad. That’s another overly simplistic and unhelpful view. So don’t focus on that. Focus on this next bit.
If we shift our perspective on God’s role in adoption, we lose our ability to ignore the social inequities and injustices that lead to family separation. We lose our ability to pretend we didn’t know and absolve ourselves from doing something about it. We lose our ability to celebrate someone’s child being available to a another family without asking the disturbing questions about why this keeps happening.
More importantly, if we shift our perspective on God’s role in adoption, we gain the ability to confront and acknowledge the pain and suffering of all broken families. That means we gain the ability to enter into lament and mourn with those who mourn. We cultivate our empathy for our fellow humans, and from that we gain the ability to have real solidarity with the marginalized and forgotten. We gain an opportunity to join in God’s work and support them toward their own restoration, healing and wholeness.
“Forever Family” is a term popular in the human adoption industry (it’s “furever” in pet adoption). Many adoptees have expressed discomfort with the term, especially those who know firsthand that adoptive families do not always last forever. The terms we use are incredibly important, especially when stewarding a child’s growth and development. I propose we drop “forever” and take up “Entrusted Family” instead.
FOREVER FAMILY SOUNDS FUN AT FIRST,
BUT IT’S NOT ACTUALLY REAL.
AT BEST, AN IDEAL,
AND A JAB TO THE ONES TWICE REJECTED AT WORST.
ENTRUST FAMILY SOUNDS REAL AND FAIR.
IT’S PROVING WORTHY OF THE NAME,
NOT STAKING A CLAIM,
AND EARNING ANOTHER SOUL’S LOVE WITH TIME AND CARE.
It’s great to have ideals. Shouldn’t all families aspire to be “forever”? However, as an ideal, “forever family” is a term that centers the adoptive parents by making a claim about who they are.
It implies that they will always be a healthy and safe place for the adoptee. It implies that a family bond and sense of belonging is a forgone conclusion; inevitable as soon as the deal is done and the adoption is finalized.
This family is the right family because they are the kind of people who will provide a forever home.
And since this term contributes to a narrative that centers the adoptive parents and implies their perpetual commitment and worthiness, if the relationship does end or change in a negative way, the fault for that tends to tip toward the adoptee.
For example; “They just needed more than what the family could reasonably offer” or “They chose to distance themselves from the family.”
“Entrusted family” is a commission that is focused on the care of the adoptee. All families, biological or adopted or otherwise, have trust bestowed upon them by God and by the children themselves, to care for the children.
It implies that the adoptive family’s value to the adoptee is contingent upon their ongoing fulfillment of their responsibility to provide a loving, nurturing and safe family environment. Entrusted isn’t about who they are but about what they have been given.
“Entrusted family” allows for a change in the relationship between the adoptee and adoptive family at any time. It allows for either side to be the initiator of that change as well. Either the family was no longer worthy of the adoptee’s trust and care or the adoptee chose to no longer extend their trust for other reasons.
By the time we’re adults, starting our own families, it seems people don’t believe our separation and subsequent adoption can be relevant anymore. The struggle, if there is any, for the adoptee is supposed to happen during our childhood development years.
If we’ve reached our 20s or 30s and we’re still in good relationship with our adoptive family, then case closed! Stamp us with the seal that says “Forever” and everyone can feel good about it.
The reality is, that adoptees are allowed to begin to wrestle with any aspect of our adoption at any point in our lives. We can change our perspective of our own life at any point in our lives. The relationship with our adoptive family can change or completely break down at any point in life.
We don’t need a fairytale forever in order to find comfort in a loving home. Especially when so many adoptees learn that forever doesn’t last as long as promised.
Adoptees need families that recognize they are not entitled to our love or our lives because they were decent enough to give us a home, but that an adoptee’s love and desire to be in relationship depends on their ability to earn and keep our trust.
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It wasn’t until I was in my 30s and about to have my own child that I started wrestling with the fullness of my experience as an adoptee. I can’t help but wonder why it took me so long? I can’t help but think if I’d wrestled with these things when I was younger, my adoptive parents would’ve handled it better. So far, I’ve come up with 4 reasons I didn’t acknowledge adoption loss.
My relationship with my adoptive mother was marked by a lot of raw and vulnerable conversations. As a teen and young adult, I felt safe and comfortable telling her exactly how I felt and hashing out all kinds of things. My adoption was just never one of those things.
In fact, I knew I was adopted before I even knew what “adopted” meant. My parents were very open about it. I met my first mom when I was around 9. I had ample opportunities to ask questions and explore my feelings about being adopted, but I didn’t. I assumed that it was all good, never acknowledging the possibility of adoption loss or trauma.
I’m now doing this work as an adult and suddenly finding it impossible to connect with my adoptive parents, unable to broach the subject with them. I’ve been mining my memories, searching the mindset of my younger self for answers as to why it took me so long to face the complex reality of being adopted. Here are the 4 reasons I’ve come up with, so far.
When they explained my adoption with the common positive, religious spin in a matter-of-fact manner, I believed their words were gospel truth. It didn’t occur to me that there could be another perspective. It’s in my nature to be loyal to an authority I trust. So I resisted asking further questions, figuring if they knew more they’d have told me. I resisted entertaining any feelings that did not fit with their positive adoption narrative.
What could my parents have done to help me know it was ok ask questions? I think they would have literally had to say something like, “You know if I were you, I might have a question about __[insert adoption related thing here]__. Are you curious about that?”
And I might have said no the first time and refused to think about it further. Eventually though, with regular prompts, I might have felt comfortable questioning things.
They also could’ve said something like, “While our experience of adopting you has been wonderful, you might find your experience of being an adoptee is sometimes confusing or difficult. We want you to know it is okay to feel that way and we want you to tell us if you do.”
My family was very spiritual. Very Christian charismatic. There was a pull to believe my adoption was part of God’s plan for my life and as such, it wasn’t something I felt I could question. How could I question God?! If He wanted something to happen then it must be good for me.
What would’ve helped? If my parents had taught me the difference between what God approves of (perfect will) verses things God merely allows to happen (permissive will) and applied that to my birth and relinquishment, that would’ve helped. I could’ve understood this by high school and it might have opened up space for me to begin to acknowledge adoption loss. However, I suspect they thought that since I didn’t show signs of wrestling with my adoption, there wasn’t any loss to grieve.
As a transracial adoptee, there were racial things that happened in my childhood that didn’t get properly assessed and addressed. Why? There was no person of color in our life (at least none willing to take the risk) to point out what was not ok and explain why. I believe I sensed that being racially different was uncomfortable and tried my best to fit in. That meant not questioning what the majority thought or said. That also meant internalizing the racism that I wasn’t taught to recognize as such.
I needed my parents to know things that they didn’t know they needed to know. In the 80’s, being racially colorblind was the moral and Christian (e.g. “God looks on the inside, not the outside”) approach to racial difference. At least for most white people. So while I know it would’ve helped if they’d found an Asian American community and learned to prepare for racial issues, I also know its unrealistic to think they would’ve known to do any of those things. I don’t blame them for not knowing what they didn’t know, but the result of that was still harmful for me.
Adoption, I thought, was something that happened the day I was born and then I just lived the rest of my life like nothing was different. In some ways that naivety provided a buffer from pain. However, this made us resistant to the idea that my adoption could/should inform how we assessed and addressed any issues I had growing up. I got used to looking for any other reason aside from being an adoptee or being racially different to explain adverse experiences or feelings.
What would’ve helped? To help me understand that being an adoptee was going to continue to impact my life in different ways, we would’ve had to have heard that from adult adoptees. We would’ve had to have found someone who knew they were adopted, had come out of the fog themselves, and had the desire and ability to talk about their lived experience.
First and foremost, I hope other adoptees might find something they resonate with and maybe hearing me articulate my experience will help them better understand how to communicate their own.
Secondarily, there are a lot of folks out there who love an adoptee and I hope this sheds light into the reasons why some adoptees do or do not or maybe just have not yet felt the need to acknowledge or process adoption loss.
When you see or hear an adoption story, please keep these things in mind.
By “story” I mean the circumstances of my adoption, who my birth parents are and what happened that led to me being adopted, and how adoption has played out for me. I do not mean the perspective of my adoptive parents about my adoption story.
That story holds an enormous amount of power in our lives.
When others take up our story and use it, even with good intentions, it becomes a weapon that cuts at the dignity of the adoptee and fights against learning a broader view of adoption. Many times it is adoptive parents who over-share. I grew up hearing my story shared a lot with people outside our family. I always smiled back at the listeners and kind of enjoyed being the center of attention for a moment. As a kid, I didn’t realize I was learning other things during these interactions.
I learned to see the details of my life as somehow “belonging” to others. I learned to feel obligated to satisfy other’s curiosity. When I sense people’s uncertainty about my background, the urge to dump all the details is strong! I think, if I do, maybe they’ll accept me and feel more comfortable with me. So I learned to over-share my own story also, even though doing so hurts me.
It leaves me exposed and drained. People react in a variety of ways and sometimes I have to reassure them. My story is a gift but not everyone sees it that way. Unlearning this is hard.
As Stephanie Tait pointed out in a (Facebook) post, over-sharing might be done to justify the adoptive parent’s choices, to explain why this adoption is a good one, to counter the not so pretty side of adoption they don’t want to acknowledge. In other words, over-sharing is usually a way to make people feel comfortable again with the adoption situation or with the adopted child.
Adults might over-share a child’s story to encourage others to adopt or to evangelize. The “good intent” of this is used to dismiss the harmful impact of their actions and words on the adoptee.
Over-sharing is also done by relatives or family friends. Unfortunately, they only know the adoptive parent’s perspective. They also rarely ever question whether or not there is another side (or two) to the story. The’ll reveal details about the first mom’s situation and decision and never consider a bias exists.
While we are children, our parents need to help protect and steward our stories, revealing more facts to us when they’re age appropriate. Relatives and friends need to be explicitly told that the details of the adoptee’s first family and placement are not theirs to share. Ever.
Owning our adoption story helps ground us and build a positive adoption identity. It is part of forming a more complete sense of ourself. Even if the details are sad or difficult to swallow. When we are ready to share, it can help heal some hurts. Sharing our story is the only way we can learn to let others share our burdens. Knowing our story belongs to us and we have control of it helps us move through life more easily, a life that will always be discovering how adoption has impacted us in ways we didn’t expect or think about before.
Adoptee stories are powerful. In other’s hands they can be a weapon. In our own hands, they can become an anchor and a sail.
*During NAAM or National Adoption Awareness Month (November) I posted a lot on social media about the adoptee voice, which is often silenced and missing in discussions about adoption. NAAM was created as a government initiative to encourage people to adopt children in the foster care system and the messages during NAAM are usually the ones that portray the positive side of adoption, advertising to potential adoptive parents. Over time this month also because a time where adoption was just celebrated in general.