Today is National Adoption Day. This is the only Saturday of the year that the juvenile courts in Pittsburgh are open, and they are open specifically to finalize as many adoptions as they can, to honor the celebration of adoption going on around the country. Today, hundreds of children around the country will participate in a ceremony that will legally bind them to the parents who have loved them for months, years, even, in some cases, decades. But today is not their happy ending. It’s more like my Calvin graduation ceremony: it marks the end of one tough thing, but looking back I know that it was the beginning of half a dozen others.
My supervisor once told me “All adoption begins with loss.” I’ve chewed on that phrase for months, and the flavor hasn’t yet gone out of it. Every child who is adopted has lost their parents, and that is a loss they take with them forever. It is a grieving process that, like all other grief, is not time bound. Some children who were adopted as infants still suffer from fears of abandonment when they are in their thirties. Sometimes there is nothing their foster or adoptive parents could have done differently to prevent that feeling within them, anymore than someone could have prevented me from sobbing uncontrollably when Professor Vande Kopple died. Pain demands to be felt. And felt. And felt.
Every parent who adopts a child has lost something, as well. The child welfare system is not kind to foster parents. Many parents are involved for years before they are even allowed to consider adopting a child. Many parents become emotionally attached to multiple children, only to have them taken away and returned to their birth parents. Many parents undergo investigations, lose friends, alienate family, spend thousands of dollars, get manipulated by agencies or caseworkers, and even quit their jobs just to get a chance to raise someone else’s child.
Some parents who adopt begin the process after a long, painful experience of discovering, fighting against, and finally accepting infertility in their relationship. My supervisor also once told me “Adoption does not cure infertility,” and parents have to grieve the loss of the children they will never have before they can be comfortable facing the world of adoption. And like the children who have lost their parents, the loss of children who will never be born is one that people carry with them forever. They will see onesies at the flea market and feel a lump grow in their throat. They will go to baby showers and cry themselves to sleep. They can be parents, but they can also always feel the loss of something they always wanted.
And every birth parent whose child is adopted has experienced great loss, the kind of loss that Jochebed felt when she swaddled little Moses and asked the Nile to guide him to safety. But unlike Jochebed, birthparents don’t go down in history as having sacrificed their own needs for their children; usually just the opposite. In my experience, many people in the child welfare system equate “birthparent” with “bad parent.” And while no perfect parent would ever have their children taken away by the government, the forces that play into the removal of a child are so much more complicated than merely “bad parenting.” Every parent who knows that they are a parent never stops knowing that. But for some, the reminders are painful, because they go back to a time when their identity was permanently altered, and now the world sees them as childless.
This is some of the brokenness of adoption. There is more—adoptions that are disrupted, placements that are abusive, children who are never adopted, illnesses and deaths that could have been prevented—but the brokenness of disenfranchised grief is the most pervasive, most universal experience of every person who has ever been any part of the child welfare system.
And unlike the Disney Magic Fantasy Land that has somehow become the face of adoption, this brokenness mirrors the brokenness of Christian life. Because if you are Christian, you believe that you have been adopted by God. And while yours is a placement that will never disrupt, and yours is an Adoptive Parent who will never disappoint, the losses are still there for all parties. We have all lost innocence, we have all lost confidence, we have all lost self-assuredness, and we have all lost the ability to go through this world without feeling the pain of others and without seeking the hard truths. And God has lost, as well. Like a mother suffering infertility, he lost us in the fall. Like a foster parent, he lost his perfect family in the garden. Like a child, he was abandoned by those who were supposed to love him. And like a birth parent, he lost his Son.
As Christians, we each have an adoption finalization day. Was yours just a happy ending? Would you have wanted it to be?
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.