The year Jennifer and I were first married I gave a sermon on God’s covenant with Abram:
He brought him outside and said, “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Before church, I cut a mess of stars out of poster board, and gave them to the aging congregation during the sermon. Take a star for every descendent you think we will have in this church, I told them. Take one for every grandchild you think you’ll have. My wife brought two home and put them under a magnet on the refrigerator. “Are you planning on having grandchildren at Faith church?” I asked her. “Those are our children,” she said. “Shut up.”
Years later—after years of frustration from “pulling the goalie” without result, years of humiliation from her being the assumptive identified patient at the fertility clinic and humiliation from me having to, ah, contribute a sample in a converted broom closet while lab workers went around their business in the hallway, years of ambiguity from waiting for our lives to settle down and the path become clear—we decided, at long last, to adopt.
Like many couples, we became foster parents, hoping that eventually we would have the chance to make the arrangement permanent. One night, Jen gave me the paperwork describing an older sister and her younger brother awaiting placement out of a county foster system. “Read this tonight and let me know what you think,” she said. “Okay, I will,” I told her, setting the envelope aside to reach for a book. “No,” she said. “Read it tonight. Those are our children.” And they were. They have been our children for almost three years now.
We don’t pretend that it’s been easy. All children come with baggage. Foster children come with more. We’ve endured social workers, teachers, therapists, adoption agents, doctors, judges, temper tantrums, food hoarded and rotting in pillowcases, self-injury, anger, suicidality and consequent hospitalization. We’ve been lied to, raged at, punched, kicked, bitten and run away from. We keep things locked up and an alarm on at least one bedroom door.
Through it all we have not lost sight of two things. The first is that we chose this life. We went into it knowing what could happen, and how awful it could be. My wife actually ran a foster care program, and I worked for a time at the front desk. We’ve seen some stuff. So while we may need the occasional shoulder to cry on, deeper pity is not necessary. As one friend told us, there comes a time in every parent’s career when you want to give them back—even if you gave birth to them. We’ve had that moment. But we got ourselves into this mess, and we’ll get ourselves out of it. The path out might be less graceful than we want, but don’t worry. We’ll be fine.
The other thing that we have never lost is the sense that these are our children. I don’t want to say that these are the kids we wanted, because as the theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it, to have to be a wanted child is a terrible burden. I don’t agree with all of Hauerwas’ conclusions about abortion, but he is right on one thing:
The crucial question for us as Christians is what kind of people we need to be to be capable of welcoming children into this world, some of whom may be born disabled and even die.
I might add: “…some of whom may be deeply disturbed in their emotions.” The point remains the same. Our adoptive children are not the children we wanted. No child could ever measure up to that standard. But they are the children that we welcomed into our family, and to whom we continue to extend our deepest love, compassion, and hospitality. They are more than the children we wanted: they are the children we hoped and longed for just as Abraham and Sara hoped and longed for Isaac.
We persistently and eagerly expected them to come into our lives even before we knew them. Now that they are ours, our task is to open ourselves to their pain and stand beside them as they experience it. In that, our job is no different than any other parent’s. But here’s the thing.
All children should be hoped for and longed for. They should all find welcome in a family that was not complete before their arrival. They should all be the children not of our wants but of our dreams, and our deepest fulfillment. Hope and longing can only be given in freedom. Who can hope for what is mandatory? Who can long for what is inevitable? No one. If we are to expect parents to endure patiently the difficulty—and sometimes immense pain—of welcoming new life into the world and working to give it all the fullness it deserves, we cannot force it upon them. I love being a dad, particularly because my children had no proper father of their own. But it is precisely the freedom I have to choose my role that makes it possible for me to continue in it.
As a father, I would not, could not, force my wife into the corresponding role. It would break both of us. It would be short-sighted to limit the scope of our choice to the decision to continue or terminate a pregnancy (in our case, to adopt or not). The decision to become a parent is meaningless, particularly for women, without control over their reproductive future. All too often children come into the world without planning or foresight, much less hope or expectation. Their welcome becomes if not impossible, then attenuated, given with grudging or mixed emotions.
Along the same lines, there is a desperate need for adequate funding for substance abuse treatment and mental health programs. It is impossible to exercise free will fully while in the grip of addiction or mental illness. Last but certainly not least, women need the right to say “no.”
I don’t want my daughter to become a teen mother because she was manipulated or cajoled or threatened by some loser boyfriend any more than I want her to become a teen mom because she wanted to have someone of her own to love. Neither of those are free choices in any meaningful sense. They probably wouldn’t be good reflections on my parenting, either.
As any mother or father eventually learns, children are never really “yours.” You share them with family and friends and the community around them. When they become adults, you send them off into the world, relinquishing what little control you had. Yet by some kind of mystery they become yours by affinity and mutuality rather than duty or requirement. If you’re lucky, they will choose to stay with you in your old age and care for you just like you did for them.
It begins, though, by your giving yourself to them, often at significant cost. Even the best of children can be a burden. After three years in the saddle, I can testify that being a parent is not easy. There are no guarantees. We often wonder if one of our children will have anything to do with us after they turn 18. But we believe that we are where we were meant to be and doing what we were meant to do. As we often remind ourselves with a bit of gallows humor, we chose this life. As a citizen, a pastor and a father, I would have it no other way, for myself or anyone else.