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Holly Taylor CoolmanApril 01, 2015
Photo by Chelsea fern on Unsplash

On a warm, summer Sunday morning some years ago, I arrived at church with a large group. Accompanying me were my husband and daughter, my mother and both of my husband’s parents. We were joined by several people whom we had recently met: a striking young woman, who was a member of that congregation, her parents, former boyfriend and that young man’s mother, too. Eleven of us walked carefully through the narrow church door, but actually, we were an even dozen. At the center of it all was a newborn baby, just as beautiful as his young mother. We had come together that morning because months before we had made a plan that my husband and I would adopt him as our son.

In what seemed to me like miraculous self-possession, this new mother, only a teenager herself, had arranged for a blessing to take place during the worship service, a formalized way to note the enormity of what was happening to us all. For her, there was painful loss, just beginning to crash through all of her carefully laid plans. The older generation among us was smiling, but also blinking back barely suppressed alarm at this odd lack of boundaries. The young father was not a regular churchgoer, and, of all of us, it seemed to me, he was perhaps the most displaced, the bravest, at that moment. My job, I felt, was to be gracious and grateful, but in fact, I mostly felt dazed.

The process of making a child one’s own is one of the descriptions that St. Paul offers of the act of salvation itself: to be a Christian means to have “received a spirit of adoption,” by which we are enabled to call God abba, or father.

Adoption has a venerable place in Christian thought and practice, and also something of a checkered past. Welcoming the stranger, treating as family one who is not biologically related, is a practice honored since before the time of Abraham. The process of making a child one’s own is one of the descriptions that St. Paul offers of the act of salvation itself: to be a Christian means to have “received a spirit of adoption,” by which we are enabled to call God abba, or father.

At the present moment in the United States, though, attitudes toward adoption, and the practice of adoption itself are complicated. There is still a stigma attached to adoption, especially for interracial families. Meanwhile, highly visible celebrity adoptions have made adoption almost a cultural trophy. Yet even when viewed positively, adoption is often overlaid with a veneer of sentimentality that makes it difficult to grasp the complex, beautiful and sometimes painful reality of it all for those who experience it.

The women (and the often overlooked men) who choose to place a child for adoption are vulnerable in many ways. They and their families can be left with grief that has no script. Children who are adopted face complex cultural dynamics as they take up the lifelong task of working out their own stories and identities. And adoptive parents, like me, have their own particular blessings and challenges. Maybe the only way to do all of these forces justice is by focusing on individual stories. A bit more, then, about that Sunday morning.

A Larger Story

My husband and I were startled to find that the pastor was an old acquaintance, a coincidence that made us feel a bit less as if we were on open seas without a map. Even more startling, though, was what we found out later. It was, of course, an emotionally charged morning, but my mother also had a strong sense of déjà vu, a feeling that she could not shake. We were in the city where her own mother had grown up, and she wondered if she been in the neighborhood before.

Later, she was able to piece the story together with a phone call to her mother. The neighborhood was changed, the building had been renovated, but the address was one that my grandmother recognized immediately. It was the very church in which she had grown up, the one in which she and my grandfather had been married. My mother had indeed visited as a small child. Now, many decades later, the arrival of this new child by adoption was happening within those same walls.

Adoptive parents, like me, have their own particular blessings and challenges. Maybe the only way to do all of these forces justice is by focusing on individual stories.

Such coincidences can sometimes be marshalled to sentimentalize adoption in just the unhelpful way I have described above, to foster a rosy, simplified view that blocks out all complexity or pain. For me, though, this startling coincidence struck me as a sign of something else: although we were all in unfamiliar territory, we were not alone. We were being woven into a story larger than any one of us, a story not entirely of our own making.

Perhaps the best thing we did on that Sunday morning was to promise to give one another time and space. My husband and I made room, as all parents must do, for this remarkable, demanding new creature in our lives. At the same time, though, we made a commitment to his young parents and to others in their families. Through a stretching process that has been sometimes refreshing and sometimes hard, our circle was widened, and we have slowly come to a fuller understanding of hospitality, grasping the way in which extending generosity sometimes requires vulnerability.

We now have three children who have come to us through adoption, so the circle has widened even farther. Like all large, extended families, ours is a diverse and disorganized bunch. There are natural affinities and pet peeves. We have traditions, and we have ways in which we just make it up as we go along. We love each other, and we drive each other crazy. As the years have passed, though, my husband and I have been especially aware of the gifts we have received.

Our practice of adoption, moreover, must take into account other theological commitments, like the dignity of the person.

Our children’s birthparents have brought their own gifts, giving the kids advice or a hug, or handily building a playhouse in a single day. We have found unexpected friendships with other members of their families, too. And the children’s biological grandparents have reached out to all of our children, sending just the right gift, or marveling in a comfortable and companionable way, when they visit, at how they have grown. How could we have imagined that adoption would mean that hospitality and generosity would be directed to us, too?

A Full Range of Experience

Thinking together about adoption will require attention to the full range of this sort of experience, and to more painful dynamics, as well. The central Pauline parallel between an adopting God and adoptive parents is powerful, but can also be misleading. This metaphor can, for example, allow us to see in the act of adoption a crucial moment of agape love, reaching beyond the usual boundaries to care for the other. On the other hand, it can eclipse the sense of identity found in birth families and cultures. It could be read to suggest that all ties preceding adoption are irrelevant, or even damaging. Recalling the Thomistic dictum that “grace does not destroy nature” is important here.

Our practice of adoption, moreover, must take into account other theological commitments, like the dignity of the person. The experience of adoption can be a powerful one, and yet persons can never be reduced to a single role they play. Birthparents and adoptees, in particular, are well served by both respectful attention to their experience and the recognition that this experience does not exhaust their identity. Attentive listening, careful thinking and courageous love will be required. And a theologically informed practice of adoption will, in turn, inform our understanding of God’s adoption of us. In the end, we may well find that through the lens of adoption, we are able to see the whole of the Christian life in more fully life-giving ways.

Not long ago, my grandmother passed away, and a number of friends kindly arranged to have Masses said. Most of these were too far away for me to attend, but in some cases, other friends and family were able to be present. At one, in particular, members of our extended-adoptive-family made arrangements to attend, even though none of them had ever met my grandmother. On that day, I found myself keenly aware of the experience of communion that adoption had brought us, one that crossed over time and space and blood and even death itself.

For our family, adoption has come to mean much more than what we thought it did on that Sunday afternoon. It has meant that, not in spite of loss or ambiguity, but precisely in the midst of them, we are seen and known, and in our particular, ongoing story, we continue to be knit together in mysterious ways.

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