For many people today, globalization is happening at the dinner table. My wife and I, both of Irish-American descent, stare across the table every day at two exquisitely Chinese faces. As toddlers, both our daughters traveled halfway around the world to be at home with us, their hope-filled parents, whose original ideas about parenthood and home life have been delightfully abolished. When once upon a time St. Patrick’s Day figured prominently in family celebrations, today it is Autumn Moon Festival and Chinese New Year. For us the world has become small, because any part of it might be the current home of our next child.
Our experience, like that of many adoptive parents, began in heartache: the inability to conceive. Few experiences challenge faithful Catholics as much as infertility, which even in light of contemporary biblical theology still feels like alienation from God’s greatest gift. Because so much of Catholic theological reflection on marriage and family life centers on the theme of procreation, the experience of infertility can be a wrenching call to examine the very vocation to marriage itself. Even after writing a doctoral dissertation on Catholic marriage and sexuality, I found it difficult to mine from the traditional resources much that deals directly with the emotional, psychological and theological challenges associated with infertility.
Over time, though, what emerged from our experience was a more profound understanding of the paschal mystery, the mystery of God’s invitation to move through death to new life. In our case, the response to that invitation came from my wife’s past, a past in which she had been falling in love with the idea of adopting an orphaned girl from China. I, like many other eventual adoptive fathers, was resistant. For me adoption seemed like resignation instead of courageous fighting for successful conception.
Yet when it became clear to us that the choice was between expensive and uncertain medical interventions or adoption, the latter emerged as the more life-giving. We began the paperwork that led eventually to our trip to China in December 2000. It was there, in a hotel in a modestly sized industrial city, that we saw the face of Jesus in a scared, wailing 10-month-old baby. By that point, our conversions were complete, and only a short time passed before we began the paperwork again and traveled a second time to China to adopt a 1-year-old girl in September 2003. Today, the idea of a medical intervention for a possible conception seems to us like a second-best option when compared with the adoption of a child who needs a loving family, because we have come to celebrate the communion of our hopes as parents and the needs of our children.
For Grace (now four) and Kate (two), there lie ahead the many challenges of negotiating their dual identities as Chinese and American. Our commitment as their parents is to create a home in which they will feel safe during these negotiations. Already they have experienced the benign curiosity of other children trying to figure out why they look so different from their parents. Yet in response, our daughters will continue to learn that their birth in China was perfectly normal, even though their parents were born in the United States. As they continue to look out at the world around them, they will continue to ask serious questions: Why do some children grow in their Mommy’s tummy? Did I grow in someone else’s tummy? These and other questions remind us that the experience of the paschal mystery does not leave us without wounds.
Our experience, though still the subject of much attention in our hometown and workplaces, is far from uncommon. Today, tens of thousands of families have experienced international adoption, a comparatively new phenomenon that has cast new light on the practice of adoption in the United States. A glance at the major media finds more images of parents and children who come from different ethnic backgrounds; more schools are becoming sensitive to issues that affect children raised in families encompassing different races; a significant number of support groups and organizations have formed in recent years to respond to the new challenges of adoptive parenthood.
These changes, while positive, are often responses to still-lingering negative attitudes toward adoption in general and international adoption in particular. The most prominent of these attitudes is that adoption represents a second best option after genetic parenthood, an attitude that I once held. My thesis is simple: an authentic Christian vision of family life ought to be complemented by the consideration of adoption. There are two prevailing points in support of this consideration. The first is the overwhelming need of children around the world. Unicef estimates that at the end of 2003, there were 143 million orphans worldwide, and 16 million of those were orphaned in 2003 alone. With the spread of AIDS in Africa and Asia, moreover, these numbers will increase dramatically.
The other consideration is Jesus’ call to love those who are most in need of it: Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me. In Jesus, we see a person who challenges contemporary understandings of the family. His comments on the relationships between children and parents, though few, are surprising. Who are my mother and my brothers? The most intimate relationshipsthose that truly contribute to the full realization of the kingdom of Godare not, he suggests, those determined by blood. They are instead those relationships governed by willingness to do God’s will. And in light of the fact that around the world there are millions of children without families, Christians everywhere are challenged to reconsider whether genetic parenthood is the only way or even the best way to fulfill God’s will in family life.
My frequent encounters with other adoptive parents, both young and old, give me great hope about our decision to adopt. In adoptive families I see people who have assumed others’ burdens as their own, sharing in their suffering in order that they might bring from it life. There are the two couples, one from New Jersey and one from Ohio, who are parents of Chinese girls. They met after learning from mutual acquaintances that their daughters are twins. They have continued to foster a relationship between the girls so that their daughters will always know love for each other. There is the little girl with a cleft lip, whom I met in a Chinese orphanage. Recently I met her again living with her happy parents in Pittsburgh after surgery. There is the mom who learned Spanish in order to go live in Guatemala as a foster parent to the little child she would eventually adopt. There is the widow in Connecticut in her 50’s, who after her husband’s death discerned that she had much life to live and share as the single mother of an adopted 3-year-old. There is the couple in Nebraska who, with great medical difficulty, eventually had two children, biologically their own, and then adopted a child of different racial background. There is the family in Virginia who, when called on the spur of the moment to adopt a 7-year-old Ukrainian boy, said, Let it be done. (They have since adopted an infant girl.)
Adoptive parenthood represents the kind of love that Jesus preached, because it represents willingness to give one’s life for a stranger. Many in the adoption community are fond of this proverb: A woman who mothers another’s child is like a cloud that gathers moisture and then travels great distances to nourish a lone tree in the desert. Adoption represents the willingness to cross boundaries for the sake of love: boundaries of language, race, culture, age, disability. Adoption can be seen as a unique kind of participation in building the kingdom of God, for it mimics the action of a loving adoptive parentGod.
Catholics who profess the need to build a culture of life must demonstrate that they are willing to undertake sacrifices in their own lives to make it possible. In particular, openness to adoption demonstrates a commitment to providing an alternative to abortion that benefits the birth mother, the child and the adoptive family. On the political level, such an action sends a message to mothers considering abortion: Give birth to the child so that he or she may give joy to a new family.
At present, those who experience infertility are frequently led first to consider many reproductive technologies that are invasive and, in many ways, dehumanizing. In addition to the very serious ethical questions many of these procedures raise, there are more basic questions. Are reproductive technologies the best use of money and effort, when there already are so many children already alive who need loving families? Why do insurance companies cover reproductive technologies, but not the legal expenses of adoption? Why do people who seek out in vitro fertilization, to name only one common technology, feel such social pressure to have a genetically related child? Is medical intervention in reproduction healthy for a married couple? Adoption is, in contrast, a simple, life-giving choice that is not prone to the difficulties of any medical technology, and furthermore is not subject to the significant market-driven nature of the reproductive technology business, which has exploded in recent years.
I think the current world-wide abundance of orphaned children demands that Catholics in the United States re-assess their beliefs about family life. I have focused here primarily on married couples at the age of traditional child-rearing. Yet my experiences among adoptive families persuades me that those in nontraditional situations for raising families can also fulfill this Gospel imperative to consider adoption. In a comparatively wealthy nation like the United States, in which adults often stay active and healthy until ages that once would have been considered advanced, many more people are in a position to parent adopted children. Among adoptive parents today are single men and women; those divorced and remarried, even with grown children; vowed religious, including a priest living in an ordinary parish rectory with his adopted son; and, more recently, healthy young married people capable of procreation who instead choose to parent adopted children. To adopt is to allow oneself to be transformed by love, which is the essence of Christian discipleship. It is also the necessary response of a community of disciples whose mission is no longer only to be fruitful and multiply, according to God’s command to Adam and Eve, but also to preach the good news to all nations, especially if we imagine that the good news might be the simple statement, We will be forever your Mommy and Daddy.