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“They Wanted a Child of Their Own”

As an adoptive parent, you sort of get used to hearing little phrases flying around about kids that are mildly irritating. Usually, you give people the benefit of the doubt and assume that they didn’t mean anything by their careless usage of language, but some days… well, some days, it just bugs you. Today, for example, I encountered these words: They wanted a child of their own.

The context was utterly, predictably ordinary. So and so already had an adopted child or a child with someone other than the person they were currently with, but now they wanted one of their own. For some reason, that harmless little phrase got under my skin more than usual, and I’m not sure why. I don’t tend to be the type of person to go hunting around for grievances or things to be offended by. God knows our culture already contains more than its share of victimhood and oversensitivity, and I don’t need to contribute to the pile. But still. It bothered me.

I remember when our kids first came home and we began to encounter all kinds of well-intentioned but, well, stupid comments. People would ask us about their “real” parents, about what they looked like, about how tall they were, etc. Or, if people found out our kids were indigenous, they would ask even dumber questions about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, medical histories, and various other “concerns” that served as a very thin veil indeed for the racist assumptions at work behind them.

After a while, it got kind of amusing—especially if my wife was around. Someone would ask some question about our kids’ “parents” or, worse, the aforementioned “real parents” and I would glance at my wife (who isn’t shy about, um “helping” people correct their language), take a step back, and feel sorry for the poor soul that had uttered such bravely ignorant words and who was about to drink generously from the fire hydrant of correction. Well, we’re their real parents, and we’re about 5’10 and 5’5, so there you go! Or were you asking about their BIOLOGICAL parents?! But that was in the beginning. Eventually being offended gets boring, and you just sort of assume people wouldn’t say dumb things if they thought about it.

So why did it bug me today? I’ve been thinking about it all day, and a few things come to mind.

On an obvious level, it bugs me because of the implicit assumption that my kids are less ours because they don’t share our biological material. I can’t imagine loving any kids more than the ones I have, even though I contributed nothing to bringing them into the world. I can’t imagine ever referring to them as anything other than my kids (not adoptive kids). To whatever extent it is appropriate to use possessive language when speaking about individual human beings with their own hopes, fears, aspirations, and dreams, I can’t imagine any kids being more mine than the ones whose stories I am blessed to be a part of.

Another reason might be that this language of “a child of their own” highlights a discomfort that I’ve always had with certain Bible stories. In the OT in particular but throughout Scripture (and far beyond, obviously, in the ancient world) there is this ideal of a direct lineage, an uncontaminated blood line. You have this recurring motif of the barren woman who eventually has a child, which is kinda good for people who struggle with infertility, but it also communicates that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of suffering is a genetic child, someone to carry on the name, the line, the race. All these heroes of these stories eventually get, what? A child of their own. This is the sign of God’s favour and blessing! But if the sign of blessing is a child of their own, what about when this doesn’t happen? What is that a sign of?

Perhaps more significantly, though, I suspect there is an implicit longing that occasionally bubbles to the surface when adoptive parents hear questions like, “What did their real parents look like?” or statements like “We wanted a child of our own.” Many of us would love to have a child with a genetic connection to us. Many of us think it would be sort of neat to hear things like, “Oh, that’s just like ____” or “When she does this it reminds me of _____” or, “His eyes are just like _____”  or “I bet he’ll do ____ just like his dad!” Hearing the things people say is sometimes a reminder that there is still a barrier in many people’s minds—even in our own minds, at times—between families like ours and “normal” families where everyone springs from familiar genetic soil.

At any rate, when I have these fleeting moments of self-righteous anger/pity/outrage at the way people use words, I try to take a deep breath and remind myself of the big story that we are a part of. It’s a story that is actually quite a bit less concerned about “real” kids and pure blood lines than my highly selective accessing of it would first suggest. It’s the story of a pretty big adopted family, and a God who really couldn’t care much less about genetics. The door is thrown open wide, and all of the tribes and tongues and configurations thereof are welcomed in.

Part of the good news of the gospel is that the walls that we construct and fortify, the lines that we draw, the definitions and demarcations that we rehearse to give us identity and meaning (whatever they are)… all of these must give way to the beautiful, mixed up, diverse, abnormally normal (or normally abnormal) family of God that Jesus has made and is making possible.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. I once asked parents if they ONLY have one child. Stupid thing to say as well.

    October 9, 2013
    • I’ve said many dumb things over the years… I need to remind myself of this whenever I’m tempted to get too offended by the words of others :).

      Good to hear from you, Petra!

      October 9, 2013
  2. Robert Martin #

    I keep remembering, when I hear about adoption stories, about the theological implications of being “adopted” heirs…. we are no less legitimate than the “true born” son of God… in fact, we are joint heirs… If this is our theology about God and Jesus, why doesn’t it translate into our own families?

    October 9, 2013
    • If this is our theology about God and Jesus, why doesn’t it translate into our own families?

      Great question, Robert. I suspect it’s got something to do with complicated issues around personal identity and validation, and all kinds of other things, too. On some level that we’re reticent to even acknowledge, we probably like the idea of rights and privileges belonging to us and not others—the idea that we somehow deserve what others don’t, that we’re part of something that others aren’t. I don’t know… it’s complicated.

      October 9, 2013
      • Robert Martin #

        I think I’m down with that… it goes along with Jonathan Martin’s recent series at Renovatus Church on the parables, that we need to recognize that on one deserves, really, the attention we’re getting… but God, being gracious as he is, lavishes his love and grace on everyone… “adopted” or “biological”, doesn’t matter… we’re ALL his children.

        October 9, 2013
      • Absolutely.

        (But old, cherished habits die hard… :).)

        October 9, 2013
  3. Tanya #

    “I don’t tend to be the type of person to go hunting around for grievances or things to be offended by. God knows our culture already contains more than its share of victimhood and oversensitivity, and I don’t need to contribute to the pile.”

    This is an attitude everyone should heartily adopt. Not that there is anything wrong with, hopefully gently correcting people, but words are chosen poorly so often by so many (myself included) we could could feel miserable a lot of the time.

    To the mom with 2 little girls, (ie) me
    “Are you going to keep trying for a boy?”
    “So you just have the two?” (In some areas apparently “just two” is not many and barely qualifies as motherhood)
    “Well you only have girls, that is much easier” (Again, having a boy qualifies me as mother. However I do realize raising boys and girls is different)

    To the mom or dad with a larger family.
    “Don’t you know what causes that?” (Hardy Har Har Har – like they’ve never heard that before)

    Not that you should really be offended by the examples above, they just get annoying. I have good friends who have children with Downs Syndrome and Autism, and I know the amount of Grace they have to extend daily must severely tax their reserves on many days. The mother bear in me can lash out furiously if someone crosses ANY of my friends or their kids.

    I guess we have to try and weed out poorly used words from ignorant ideas and Bully’s and still some how make so that we are all not walking around on eggshells.

    Any way, that was a much longer comment than I intended and I know I took off on a side theme that you didn’t intend, so I am sorry. I could write another whole page on the problem I have had with God having a chosen people but I have already taken up too much space.

    I appreciate your thoughtful post. As someone who has abused words regularly and will likely do so in the future, I hope people will be as forgiving as you have been.

    October 9, 2013
    • Tanya, you should write a book! Yes, we certainly tend to speak first and think later, don’t we?

      Don’t worry about going down a different track—I often find these more interesting than the ones I started on! I would love to hear more of your thoughts on the “chosen people” some time.

      October 9, 2013
      • Tanya #

        I tend to not want to comment much online as then my poorly chosen words are there for the world to see and rather than just asking one person for forgiveness I have to do much more. Even writing a Facebook status has started to make me nervous as they can haunt you for a long time. Your a brave man Ryan wrestling big issues for the world to see. 🙂 I am so thankful you are willing to do it. Thanks.

        And thank you to Naomi (love that woman) and you for helping people think and use better words when it comes to our children. You are paving the way for the rest of us.

        October 9, 2013
      • Well, if you’re like me, Tanya, you’re probably your own harshest critic. I take comfort in the fact that no matter how stupid I might think something I’ve written online might look/sound, there are quite literally millions of far stupider words written every day in this wonderful online world :).

        I’m not sure about “paving the way” or anything, but I do thank you for your kind affirmation.

        October 10, 2013
  4. mike #

    Personally,I have never understood the perspective of those who feel a need for offspring to “carry on the Family Name”. It just seems too overtly self centered to me. I have a Son and Daughter from my first marriage, but I find that rather than jumping for Joy that my ‘name’ will be carried on, I find myself more concerned that my kids will ‘carry on’ ,by genetic association,the dysfunction that their Mother and I both inherited/learned from our parents.

    October 9, 2013
    • I have similar thoughts sometimes, Mike. Sometimes I am very glad that my kids don’t have my genes to contend with!

      October 10, 2013
  5. Yay! This is wonderful Ryan. And I think the language we use, how we say things, is so important and it’s mine and everyone’s job to educate ourselves about appropriate language in all areas of life and to receive correction well. I liked hearing your feelings about this.

    October 9, 2013
    • Thank you very much, Jenna.

      October 10, 2013

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