What does adoption mean? It is a legal process whereby an individual acquires the same status and rights as biological children within a family. It is a wonderful mirror of what God has done for us in Christ, and in several places the Bible uses the adoption analogy directly. (Romans 8, Galatians 4, Ephesians 1)
Several things have made me think a little more about this lately. Firstly was the observation of a friend that our family is often not included when people pray for families we know who have adopted children, even though our adopted child is somehow more ‘obvious’ in that he is black and the rest of us are white. Secondly has been attending several local networking events for families who have fostered or adopted children. What I have noticed is that many of these families are very ‘issues based’; virtually every child has acquired a label of some kind or other, and the families seem to face a constant battle to get the right provision made for their special child within the educational system. There may of course be a bias here; it may be that the families who are likely to attend such networking events are those for whom adoption is somehow a big challenge or problem. Conversely, families like ours, who really don’t think about the fact that one of our children was not biologically born to us (hence I think this is the first time in over two years of blogging that I've even mentioned it), may see no need. But a recent conversation with a friend who hopes to adopt in the near future raised some more alarm bells as she told me that a lot of the pre-adoption screening process warns you that there are very likely to be major psychological or behavioural problems with the adopted child, and that you are basically trying to fix something that is badly broken. She suggested to me that families are almost geared up to look for problems, and that if any problems arise, the tendency will be to blame these on a traumatic early life.
This bothers me for quite a number of reasons:
Firstly, I know some adoptive families who seem unable to move beyond anger and blame at circumstances, previous foster carers and the social work department for irreparably damaging their child. I find that quite hard, because if a biological child were to have special educational needs or behavioural/ psychological problems, one might consider potential underlying causes but the main focus of energy would be in accepting the limitations and helping the child to overcome these and function as well as possible as a member of our community.
Secondly, how does anybody really know what the root of a problem is? How can one be certain what results from in utero substance exposure, from a neglected infancy, from a specific traumatic event etc and how much is genetic or a propensity of that individual child? I see a tendency amongst families who have adopted to blame almost every problem on the adoption and somehow take a step back from it as though they are somehow absolved of responsibility. When I look at my adopted son, now nearly five years old, I can see some difficult behaviours that I find hard to understand – for example a persistent, wilful disobedience with an impish grin on his face, which he knows will lead to withdrawal of privileges (ie pudding!) that will upset him. He tends to hit out and not always understand physical boundaries. And at other times he can be quite clingy and insecure (my other two are quite happy to keep playing in a friends’ garden, for example, whereas he will follow me to the bathroom!). Much of this is probably normal childhood boundary setting, and we work with him to be more confident, to communicate better verbally rather than shouting and crying or becoming physically aggressive. We seek to find his strengths and encourage him in these. It doesn’t matter to me why he behaves as he does at times, but it does matter that we help him through this.
A third reason I feel frustrated by the labelling and potential attribution of blame is that it might really restrict the child in the longer term. As I child I suffered various kinds of abuse and was eventually taken into care; when I went straight from that environment to medical school shortly after my seventeenth birthday, I am very glad that there was nobody watching out for me as a ‘care leaver’ or a ‘looked after child’, or perhaps even worse, as an ‘abuse victim’ or maybe ‘survivor’ (personally I also feel frustrated by the term ‘survivor of abuse’ since although it is intended to express a powerful overcoming of adversity, to me it still forces a person to be defined by a previous bad circumstance). For me, such labels would have hindered me in moving forwards. Now I am a happily married mother of four, and enjoy a relatively successful medical and scientific career on a part-time basis. I don’t see myself as the mixed up teenager I once was, and am grateful that I was never forced into a box by labelling and low expectations.
But underpinning all of these points is something greater by far. Does a traumatic early life really have to lead to life-long challenges and struggles? Do our early years really shape us to the extent that we can never move forward and know true healing? I do not wish to minimise how difficult these issues can be, and I acknowledge that I struggled greatly with some of the more common sequelae of abuse during my teens and twenties. But the Bible does make it clear that ‘if anybody is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come’. (2 Corinthians 5:17) There are many passages where it talks about the ‘old man’ or the ‘old person’ or ‘your former self’ and many sinful activities and attributes are listed; I can identify with so many of these, and there were years when my life was full of darkness and futile attempts to escape from that. But what actually happens when a person becomes a Christian? A complete transformation from the inside. A changed heart. Power to overcome. The will and the help to resist temptation. Many people attest to the ability to change habits when they become Christians – perhaps smoking, swearing, some besetting sin that they have tried in vain to overcome in their own strength. This is evidence of the power of Christ. For some people, it does seem that a miraculous transformation occurs, and for others, the rest of their life is a process of gradually overcoming but sometimes continuing to really battle against the sinful world that we live in, and against the hurt and psychological damage from earlier life. But even in that struggle, there is always hope.
Our relationship with God, through Christ, is described as an adoption. We are no longer lost, confused, helpless, damaged orphans, but now are established into His family, with God as our Father and Christ our Brother. What could be greater than that? In the spiritual realm, we have a perfect inheritance waiting for us, through His gift of grace. Many Christians who have endured all kinds of trauma and trial can attest to the great things God did through those times, and how His love enabled them to stand in the face of it all. The Apostle Paul described it as ‘light and momentary afflictions which are not worth comparing to the weight of glory that will be revealed in us’ 2 Corinthians 4:17. Elsewhere we are told that we, ‘with unveiled faces are being transformed into the glory of the Lord’ 2 Corinthians 3:18
The adoption of children into our families cannot ascend to this degree of perfect restoration. But it should reflect some elements of it. The child is no longer in a bad situation, but is safe within a home and within a family. The child no longer needs to earn love and try to manipulate for attention or approval, but should come to see that they are loved unconditionally, just as a biological child should be (I use the word should – because I also accept that in our fallen world, not all children are loved unconditionally by their parents). The child should be able to change, and to grow in an atmosphere of grace and forgiveness. I am concerned that some of the attitudes towards adoption that I have recently encountered place a stumbling block in the path of such ideals. Certainly families should know where to turn for support and encouragement, and medical and psychological help should that be needed; but I think the pendulum has swung a little too far to the point where the child becomes defined by their pre-adoption life, rather than the newness and restoration of their ‘forever family’.