Love Isn’t Enough: some things you need to know about adoption

Ben Corey Some Things You Need To Know About Adoption

Adoption is a hot issue in American Evangelicalism, and while rates of international adoption have drastically declined recently, I don’t think a culture of adoption is going anywhere, anytime soon. Since November was National Adoption Month, I wanted to take some time to explore some aspects of adoption– for families thinking about adopting, who have adopted, or who know someone thinking of adopting.

In the past decade, adoption has become a hallmark of Evangelical Christianity in the United States. On one hand, I think this is fantastic– “defending the cause of the fatherless” is one of the issues that has been closest to my heart. On the other, I think we need to be honest and admit that in some Christian circles, adoption has actually become trendy.

This, I don’t think is entirely bad– if something is going to become trendy or faddish, I’m glad such a beautiful thing is becoming a trend. However, because of the trendiness of adoption, a lot of families who perhaps should not have adopted did, a fact that is resulting in various countries slowing down or closing off international adoptions.

Like marriage, adoption is one of those issues where people don’t always tell us what we need to know on the front end. Yet, after the honeymoon is over, we realize there’s a bit of missing information we wish we were given access to earlier. As a passionate advocate for the orphan and as an adoptive parent who was “baptized by fire” into adoptive parenting (you may want to read the rest of my adoption story, here), I wanted to share some encouragement and hard truth with those thinking of adopting, or who have recently adopted.

First, I have to admit– it’s true that adoption is basically the most amazing thing ever. I mean, see for yourself– this was the first time my daughter had ever tasted tacos:

But, this isn’t what adoption looks like every day. Adopting because you see others externally who seem to have it great, is like getting married because you see other couples appear to be living the high life. In either case, what you are seeing externally is NOT the full reality. Adoption isn’t always dancing because you’ve discovered tacos. So, before you adopt, there’s a few things you should know:

Children are not souvenirs.

Went on a mission trip to Mexico and came back with a new heart for the people of Mexico? Fantastic– that’s God working in your life. This doesn’t mean, however, that he’s necessarily asking you to go back and to bring home a child. Make sure you think long and hard about this “calling”. Adoption is often romanticized, and it would be easy to make a poor decision when your emotions are high coming back from a missions trip. Kids are not souvenirs, and you shouldn’t decide to adopt one lightly.

Don’t do it to “bring the mission field to your home”.

I am primarily a Missiologist, so I’m all about the “mission field”. However, don’t adopt because you want to “bring the mission field” to you. These aren’t people to be converted, they are children who need families. Sure, if you’re a Christian family you’ll obviously teach your kids Christianity– fantastic, I do that too. But don’t approach this as you’re bringing a potential convert into your family– that is dehumanizing. This child or children will have a host of other needs that will take priority to any spiritual needs. Remember: love with an agenda or strings attached isn’t love at all.

Related: Katie Davis, 25, Adopted and lives with over one dozen girls in Uganda (Interview)

Don’t adopt if your primary motivator is to meet your own emotional needs.

People adopt for a lot of different reasons, many of which are good and valid reasons. However, as a loving caution, please don’t adopt because you are expecting this child to meet a need in your own heart. It is our job to meet their needs; it is not their job to meet ours. It is not fair to put this kind of pressure on a child, and most likely, the child is going to fail to meet whatever those emotional needs were. If you’re thinking of adopting because you think a child will meet this need or that need, PLEASE work these things out in counseling before you bring your child home. Viewing a child as the fulfillment of your own unmet emotional needs is a crisis waiting to happen. Instead, only adopt when you are healthy enough to realize that you exist to meet their needs, and not the other way around.

Remember: adoption looks like a beautiful miracle to those around you, but adoption is a sign that something in the story has already gone way, way wrong.

Sometimes people reference my daughter Johanna and say, “it’s clear that God planned her for your family from the beginning.” Unfortunately, that’s just not true.

She was born into a family, but all that fell apart. Adoption became the mechanism which gave her life a chance at healing and restoration. People on the outside see healing and restoration, and completely forget that adoption is born out of horrible, unspeakable loss. While adoption points to something beautiful, it also points to the fact that something already in her story went way, way wrong. Before you adopt, you need to realize this: you’re walking into a story that is steeped with brokenness. Your role is that of the “ministry of reconciliation”– which is a beautiful role, but one that only exists because something really, really bad has already happened. Know that the job of reconciliation isn’t all butterflies and ponies– the work born out of an adoption is really, really hard and emotional work.

Know that not everyone is called to do this– there are other ways to “defend the cause of the fatherless”.

Whatever you do, please don’t adopt because everyone in the culture around you is doing it. Just because it’s a great thing to do, doesn’t mean this is YOUR thing to do. This is NOT for everybody. If something in your spirit is telling you that this isn’t the role for you, please listen to that still voice. Just as negative results can come from doing something bad we weren’t supposed to do, negative results can also come from doing something good that we weren’t supposed to do.

Don’t worry– there are other ways to support orphans and vulnerable children– you don’t have to adopt in order to be someone who advocates and cares for them.

Please don’t ever strike your adopted child… ever.

Brave New Films

Yeah, I get that your parents did it and everything worked out fine, but you need to understand that raising adopted children is NOT the same as raising biological children (not that it’s okay to hit them, either). However, please consider: you don’t know your child’s background. I don’t care what the papers say, or what the orphanage said, you do NOT know their full history. What if every time you “discipline” your child, you’re actually re-traumatizing them? What if every time you “discipline” your child, you’re actually disrupting bonding and attachment? What if your actions are actually damaging them in ways that you will never fully understand?

PLEASE, do not strike or spank your adopted child. Also, if you told your homestudy worker that you would NOT do this, but reversed course or plan on reversing course the minute the adoption is legal, please consider that this is actually lying, and this would be a sin. I’ve know many Christians who felt justified lying during the homestudy on this issue– please consider the hypocrisy of spanking your child for lying when you lied in order to get approval to adopt them.

Start thinking of more creative ways to raise and discipline children before you adopt so that you can avoid doing horrible damage to them emotionally. And, please realize that if you insist on physically punishing your kids, you are actually making it harder for the rest of us to adopt. There are countries who are currently closing doors to American adoptions because of the trend of Christians abusing children they’ve adopted.

You need to know that nothing about adoption is convenient.

From the paperwork to start it, to finding the $30,000-$50,000 to complete it, and then actually getting started on the real work, nothing about any of this is convenient. If you’re going into this thinking that it’s the perfect way to build a family, please take a step back and reconsider things. Adjusting to a new culture (even if it’s just a new family culture), new language, a new school, and all of the other transitions which simply mark the beginning, is hard work (just the language part is about a 7 year commitment). Then once you settle in, you have the fun job of exploring identity issues, abandonment issues, and other stuff that’s bound to come up. None of it will be on your time table. The work will be the most rewarding work you’ve ever done, but none of it will be convenient– so know that before you get into this.

Be prepared to be a life-long advocate in ways that you might not have to be with biological children.

I had no idea that I was about to become an expert on English Language Learning (ELL) laws in schools, that I’d be researching Special Education mandates, that I’d be calling emergency meetings to re-write an IEP, or that I’d have to teach my child what to say to the little Tea Party children at school when they tell her “you can’t be here, you don’t speak English”.

Related: How the Christian Orphan Care Movement may be Enabling Child Abandonment

Know that you are going to have to advocate for your children in ways you can’t imagine– the cards are going to be stacked against them without you. Adopting is not like cooking on a grill where you can “set it and forget it”– you are about to enter a life-long process of advocacy to help ensure that your children get a fair shake, and have all the tools they will need to make it in life.

Be prepared to see the world differently.

Adopting has changed the lens through which I see the world around me– be prepared to see the world differently. Being a bilingual, trans-racial family, I now realize how much of the world I did not see when I viewed the world through the lens of white privilege. If you’re a white family and are adopting children of other races, be prepared to be shocked as you will encounter racism that people had told you ended in the 60′s. Be prepared to realize that your children will have different challenges in the world that as a parent, you’ll need to confront. For example, if your children are black or Latino, be prepared to have conversations with them about how they dress and interact with police– conversations you don’t have to engage in with white children. Realizing that the black and Latino experience is so different than what mine was in America, is perhaps the single area where I was the least prepared to parent. Be prepared to start thinking and seeing the world differently.

Don’t do this alone: get support

Hillary was right all those years ago– it does take a village. Don’t go through the adoption process alone, and don’t try to raise your children in isolation. If available locally, make sure you connect with other adoptive families who are more seasoned so that you can glean from their wisdom and experience. If not available locally, there are a host of opportunities online to develop relationships with other adoptive parents. Also, having a routine check-in with a therapist who has experience working with other adoptive parents, can be a lifeline and will give you space to work out some of the issues that are bound to come up. Adopting will bring things up inside you that you weren’t expecting, so be proactive in getting professional support– you don’t need to be in crisis mode to have a therapist.

Finally, please consider that as much as you’d like it to be…

Love isn’t enough.

Love is a great baseline, but love isn’t the full package. Let “love” springboard you into tangible actions.

I am a lover of adoption, and I’m happy that in so many circles we’re seeing a “culture” of adoption. Adoption is both the most wonderful thing I have ever participated in, as well as the most painful and difficult thing I have ever participated in.

Adoption is the only life for me, and I couldn’t imagine living any other way.

But it’s not always dancing for tacos.

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About the Author

Ben Corey

Ben CoreyBen is an author, writer, speaker, minister, and tattoo collector. He holds a Master of Arts in Theology from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, a Master of Arts in World Missions (Cum Laude), also from Gordon-Conwell, and is currently a doctoral student at Fuller Seminary for the degree of Doctor of Missiology. Ben also serves as the Scholar in Residence for the Foundation for Hope and Grace and is a co-founder of the Not Here Justice in Action Network. He currently lives in Auburn, Maine with his wife Tracy and their Incan Cowgirl, Johanna (11). The Coreys are looking forward to the day when they will welcome more girls into their family (hint, hint). You can find more of Ben's writing on his blog, Formerly Fundie over at Patheos.View all posts by Ben Corey →

  • John

    I really enjoyed this, Ben. Very eye-opening. Going to try to throw in “dancing for tacos” at some point, just so I get to explain. :)

  • Mom of 7

    Thank you. These are such honest clear thoughts, and so many people never want to say them out loud. I am an adoptive mother and I can’t imagine my life any other way, but there are people in this world who aren’t cut out for this life. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just the way the world works. The other thing prospective adoptive parents need to remember is now is not the time to try to be a “hero”. It’s time to be brutally honest with yourself, what you can and can’t do. What your own personal issues and prejudices are. Can you handle a child with AIDS or a child who has been abused and all the work it takes to heal? Doctors, psychiatrists, counselors, speech therapists. Have a clear honest discussion to learn about yourself and your partner, and what and how much each of you can you handle. And then you can start making decisions.

  • Anytime we “do good” we want to do it as a hero. This is a great reminder that being “the hero” is unhealthy. When people adopt, they need to be ready to face their weaknesses and get help and support from others.

    The part about spanking is also very important. This “sacred cow” needs re-examined.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    You were talking about international adoption, but at least three points you made struck home with me, as we consider special needs domestic adoption:
    “Remember: adoption looks like a beautiful miracle to those around you, but adoption is a sign that something in the story has already gone way, way wrong. ”

    This is an extremely important thing to remember about ALL adoptions. For all of the pro-life rhetoric claiming that this isn’t second best to a child raised by their biological parents, it absolutely is. That doesn’t mean that adoption shouldn’t be done, it should. But in the total spectrum of child raising, it’s easily second best.

    “Don’t adopt if your primary motivator is to meet your own emotional needs.”

    This is my main argument against homosexual adoption. It quite often seems these children are being placed with homosexual couples to fulfill an emotional need to have a child- which is naturally blocked by, gasp, being homosexual. But it’s also an important thing for heterosexual couples to remember. I have an aunt who adopted to meet her own emotional needs. Her daughter, whom I consider my cousin despite the adoption, has been in and out of jail her entire adult life, and is on her 4th marriage, I believe. Her son, also adopted, got married and moved 3000 miles to serve in the military and get away from her. It simply doesn’t work.

    “Please don’t ever strike your adopted child… ever.”

    This is extremely important. Both my wife and I were raised with traditional corporal punishment. But we now run a state-licensed daycare- a license we’d lose even if we spanked our biological son. So we developed other methods. I can’t say that it has worked as well, but it does work. My favorite we came up with is the Daddy time out- for those times when the child is too upset for a normal time out. That level of anger/crying needs more- it needs parental presence. It needs love. So in a way, I’ve come up with my own physical punishment for this- sitting in the largest chair in the house, I restrain/hug the child, for the number of minutes their age is. If the tears haven’t stopped by then, I give it another number of minutes per year of age, until they do. When the child stops struggling, I release immediately- but keep cuddling the child until the tears stop. THEN we talk about why they ended up here to begin with- only after the tears stop.

    I’ve only had one parent ever object to this methodology. BUT, know your child’s history- would be horrible to do this to a victim of sexual abuse, for instance.

    • Kaira

      I don’t understand your argument here. Surely heterosexual couples have children to fulfil an emotional need to have a child too? Look at the numbers who try IVF etc if they encounter fertility problems- they don’t just abandon the thought of having kids because they can’t naturally. Personally I feel what is most important is whether there is the ability to be a good enough parent, with the maturity to understand it’s ultimately about what the child needs.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        I’m as against IVF as I am against contraception, as against extra sacramental marriage heterosexuality as against homosexuality. There is no ability, in these situations, to have the maturity to understand it is ultimately about what the child needs- many people don’t grow that maturity until the child is 5 or 6.

        But the primary maturity our entire culture is missing, is obedience to God- and accepting what God gives us naturally. We’d rather be in control- our entire civilization is about taking control away from God and giving it to the individual, often with disastrous results.

        Power over life and death belongs to God, not to man. When we exclude Him from procreation, that’s when second-chance schemes like adoption become necessary in the first place.

  • jonathan starkey

    We’ve adopted internationally. This a very good article.

    People often want to come up to us and say, “You’ve done a noble thing, or you are very noble.” I’m like, “Stop, my child is not my project.” It kind of goes the same way, about serving amongst the poor… “These people aren’t my project.” If you’re doing these things because it is the Christian thing to do, … you’re missing the point.

    But, when I think about love not being enough. It’s about the idea that I just need to “love” my child and nurture them, and they will grow up fine. “The 5 Love languages,” if you’ve read it, is kind of on the mark. If you’ve been married to your wife for 20 years, and you’ve been giving her flowers on every payday, but she likes cards. Have you been loving.

    With children and international adoption, and even as a Christian you must make attempts to leave your bubble your place of comfort.

    There was a white family, who adopted a Korean girl, in rural white America. They raised this girl with love, but they raised her as a white child. They never mingled with other Koreans, or even ventured into a Korean restaurant. When the girl expressed her loss of her Korean side, her parents were offended, and said “We always loved you.”

    Ulia De Beusobre, writes that, “love will leave it’s side of the tracks, and will go to the other side, and will stay even if the other person never comes back to the right side of the tracks.”

    Chris Hueretz, says, “if you want to know whether or not you live in a Christian Ghetto or bubble, just look at the numbers in your phone list.”

    I guess this gets into empathetic listening, front loading, solidarity… It even ventures into the myth of the idea colorblindness when it comes to culture. If I say I don’t see your skin color or gender, it means I also don’t value the uniqueness of who you are.

    I would also say, that adopting today isn’t like adopting 10 years ago, I mean they really drill you with this stuff. So in order not to be exposed to the realities, you really have to be blind (self-righteous).

    We adopted and we felt like we were criminals for doing so.

  • jonathan starkey

    It’s always so easy to talk about how other people should parent. One wrench doesn’t fit all sizes.

    Lord have mercy on us all.

  • Cindy

    As the international adoptive mom of five from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, I wanted to cheer as I read this post! You are spot on, and I have found myself feeling conflicted over the “missionization” of adoption. Our children are not a Mission Project, and in my 15 years of experience, I have found that those who approach the adoption of a child from that prospective are ill prepared for the realities of life as an adoptive family.

    Your admission that adoption may look like a miracle on the outside (and in some ways, I think it may be), but it means something has already gone horribly wrong is the way I have always viewed adoption. Many want to tell me how we were meant to be together, and on one level I can see that, but I ALWAYS maintain that our children were not meant to be neglected, abused or abandoned, and their adoptions simply brought them back to Ground Zero. If our children had been born into solid families that could love and provide for them in their native countries, that would have definitely been best. The loss of culture, the loss of birth families, the questions that have to be lived with forever are huge for anyone…and I love them so much that I wish they had never suffered those losses, even if it means we had not ended up as their parents.

    The idea that a child is a Mission Project is abhorrent to me. It reduces a child to nothing more than a way to “do good”, and it is easier to walk away, either physically or emotionally, from a Project that goes awry than it is to walk away from a relationship you desperately want to see work. Children are not projects, and adoption is not easy. Everything you stated is so true! The possible lifetime advocacy (we have one that is possible for), the gut wrenching emotional healing work, the ways in which God will break you down and rebuild YOU…all of it is exhausting and amazing…but it is never, ever easy and it is NEVER a mere “project”.

    Thank you for sharing such incredible wisdom, for saying on a national stage some of what I would say to others individually about the trendiness of adoption. Love is not enough…but the rewards are beyond measure.

  • Heather Pollock

    So I’ve recently been working in child protection…and this really resonated with me. Thanks for writing.

  • thelittlebookwormbean ofasgard

    I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this article but I am glad you adressed the issue so rationally and level-headedly. My family has adopted twice from China, two girls, both with “special needs.” It has been a beautiful thing, yes, and I truly don’t regret the adoption. But it has been hard. My 9 year old sister has uncontrollable beahvorial problems, speech issues, ADHD, a epilepsy. She throws about 7 tantrums a day–very large ones. Medical bills are hard. It isn’t a picnic and I don’t say this with a heart of anger or regret, but a warning. Do not adopt simply to have company or because everyone else is doing it. Adopt when you feel that it is what you are being called to do and try your darned hardest to be prepared. It isn’t perfect and it isn’t always beautiful. You get angry at God sometimes; at the child; at the unknown parents of the child; at the government, at the orphanage. It isn’t right, but it happens. You sometimes question whether it was worth it and while you end up at the strong answer of “yes”, it puts you through a lot. I would never go back and not adopt. No matter what it came to. Never. I love my sisters very much and I think that adoption is an immensely beautiful thing. But be sure before you adopt and don’t just adopt to fit with the trend others at your church may seem to be following. Adoption, while wonderful and a Godly thing, is not for everyone.

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