In the summer of 2013, my husband Josh and I flew to Uganda to adopt two small children, a brother and sister, ages 3 and 5. We spent 5 weeks learning, crying, laughing, and praying as we navigated the process of legally adopting and making these kids our own.
We sat in front of a judge, we waited for new passports, we took the kids to have medical examinations and TB tests and we amassed two massive folders of paperwork that basically said, “these two Mzungus (white people) can take these kids home with them.”
In the meantime, our two biological daughters, then 3 and 4, were back at home hanging with their grandparents and aunts and uncles, missing us, but generally enjoying life as they swam and played and were doted on.
Even now, as I look back on that month, my stomach twists as I remember just how incredibly terrified I was. In the lovely videos and pictures that people post, it always appears that adoptive mothers are confident, brave, strong, and loving. I was anxious, fearful, and desperate.
Why on earth did God call me, of all people, to this? And how, how, are these strangers to become my children? What are we DOING?
But of course, time moved us forward. We came home, and the process of bonding and adapting began. In truth, the transition was easier than I had anticipated. Within six months the language changed from Luganda to English. The kids were siblings. God created a new family, and we rejoiced.
Now, four and a half years later, we have a lot of great memories to look back on. We have four funny, crazy, precocious children. They laugh and play and fight with the best of them. Oh and now that the girls are getting older they feel. ALL THE TIME.
We get to see the wonder of children who accept adoption, and having siblings of another ethnicity, as the norm. And it’s beautiful. Like when our Charlotte was asked by a classmate how he was her brother. And she responded in confusion, “Uh…because he’s my BROTHER.”
Or when my brother and his wife, both white, had a baby and our Eva was genuinely surprised that the baby was white. Because in her mind, white parents can have black children and that’s that.
But all beauty and bonding and lovely stories aside, these years have been HARD. We’ve seen psychologists and battled severe educational delays. I’ve had anxiety attacks and discovered the anger issues I thought I had so tightly reined in resurfaced with a quickness.
Discipline has been a total crapshoot, like throwing spaghetti against the wall to see if it sticks. Will this work? How about this? Maybe this? All the parenting lessons we’d learned – out the window.
We experience the inevitable effects of abandonment, neglect, and the death of a parent. We must reassure again and again and again and again and again. We are in over our heads.
World Adoption Day and Orphan Care Sunday were both several weeks ago, with both striving to draw attention to the need for, and beauty of, adoption, fostering, and orphan care; I thought it an appropriate time to share a bit of our own story. But beyond that, I want to share a few of the lessons we’ve learned.
We’re only four years into this thing, so I’m sure these lessons will change or become obsolete as our experience grows and deepens. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t relevant today, and hopefully they’ll bring some encouragement to those who need it.
We Are Not Awesome
Something interesting happens when you decide to adopt. People think you’re amazing (not the people who really know you. They’re not fooled). But the typical bystander thinks you’re brave and selfless and spiritually deep. They think you have a superpower that they just don’t have. They say things like:
“You guys have such big hearts.”
“Those kids are so lucky to have you.”
“Wow, I don’t think I could ever do that.”
Because we are fallen creatures and pride is our natural fleshly bent, I can’t tell you how easy it is to begin to believe this. “Man, we ARE awesome. Look at this beautiful thing we did. Go us.”
Here’s the hard-learned truth, though. We are as sinful and as in need of the gospel as we ever were. We are sinners who adopted kids. That’s it. If our hearts are big, it’s because our God has enlarged them with his indwelling presence. Any good in us comes from Him.
Our kids aren’t “lucky.” They are sinners living in a fallen world, too. They, too, need the blessing of salvation even more than the blessing of food and shelter and love.
As far as whether or not anyone else can do this: who are we to say? It’s funny to watch people get so nervous when talking to us about adoption, as though we think everyone everywhere should do it. If anything, we are very familiar with what a life-altering, difficult decision it is.
I think that in order for the church to really embrace adoption and foster care, we must do away with this notion of “special” people being called into it. It’s become an easy thing to point to in order to avoid really praying about and considering it. It also sets adoptive parents on a pedestal, which they certainly don’t need.
Normal sinners adopt. God is the one who works the miracles that make it possible.
We Are Not Owed Anything
As a Christian, I believe that adoption is an earthly shadow of what our Heavenly Father did for us when He sent His son. The Bible says in multiple places that when we call on Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we become adopted children of God. We are co-heirs with Christ, born again into a new life.
I think we can all get our heads around that imagery when we see the adoptive parents drawing their new children into their arms, removing the label of orphan and giving new identities and new lives.
However, where I’ve really seen the gospel picture most clearly is in the worst moments. I’m ashamed to admit it, but deep down there was something in me that felt I was owed something. What I never say out loud, but feel deep down, is, “How could you doubt that I love you? Don’t you see all that I’ve done for you?”
Where is God’s love most clearly displayed? “God demonstrates His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” He saves the prodigals, the children who say again and again, “You don’t really love me. I don’t believe you.”
That’s adoption. Just like the Israelites in the wilderness looked back on Egypt with longing, so the orphan will doubt the parents’ goodness again and again. So we doubt God’s goodness again and again.
If I respond as I ought, it’s because He supplied the ability to do so. If I doubt Him and refuse to obey, He welcomes my repentance and bestows mercy and grace once more.
This is what it is to adopt a child. Orphans are needy and desperate they will rely on your kindness and grace repeatedly. Don’t put a burden on them that your Father in heaven has lifted from your own shoulders.
This not only applies to our children, but to others as well. Too often I’ve read blog posts by adoptive parents that demand that other people “get it,” or tiptoe around their experiences. I find this to be fairly unhelpful. It’s a given that others will have questions, and sometimes express those questions in unintentionally awkward ways.
Be gracious, be kind, and remember how many stupid questions you’ve asked in your life. Little is accomplished by expecting one with no experience in orphan care to meet your standards.
There Is Only One Expert
Look, guys. You can read a million things about how to adopt well. There are huge books written on the subject. There are guidebooks and memoirs and stories and blog posts and articles. Some of it may be helpful. Some of it, not so much. In the end, here’s what I know. You are a unique parent to your unique children.
This is true for biological and adoptive parents, but I think is an especially important thing for parents of adopted children and special needs children to understand. The one who knows your child best is God. Then after that, you.
Learning this lesson doesn’t mean we haven’t sought professional help. In fact, we have. We’ve gotten so much from it. We’ve also learned that even with all of the research available, the experts don’t totally understand what childhood trauma does to development. But there is an all-knowing God who does understand everything that we don’t.
In our desperation to always know and control, we can forget that we must trust God and allow Him to speak and instruct. He does this through His church, His Word, and His Spirit. He also does it through the provision of experts and professionals, but those shouldn’t replace the three primary sources of His grace, but rather supplement them.
His Grace Is Sufficient
Perhaps this is the lesson of every parent, but I’ve found it to be particularly true as I’ve entered into brokenness and murky histories and baffling behavior. I am not enough for the task. No adoptive parents are. But the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is.
Where I succeed, his gracious provision has made it possible. Where I’ve failed, He’s showing my need for it all over again. Most of the time I feel like a huge mess, navigating a hopeless parenting labyrinth. Thankfully, the end is clear and bright, and it’s not up to me to get myself there.
There are no guarantees of wonderful, well-turned out children, biological or adopted. But the grace of God to walk through whatever is coming is a sure and steady promise.