A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, after putting my three kids to bed one night, I streamed a National Theatre production of Jane Eyre while squeezing in some exercise on our stationary bike. A chill crept through me as I found myself identifying not with Jane but with her vindictive aunt, who unwillingly becomes Jane’s adoptive mother.
I was horrified to share Mrs. Reed’s resentment toward Jane for being an outsider, an intruder, a bringer-of-problems. This was the same sentiment I found myself fighting daily toward our five-year-old adopted son, whom we’d welcomed into our family over a year prior. Watching my own feelings manifested on screen in Mrs. Reed—a villain—brought home to me how defective my moral compass had become.
As a child who always wanted to make the world a better place, I’d taken to heart the value that Christians, from the early church to modern American evangelicals, have placed on care for orphans. And the way adoption was portrayed in sermons and the Christian books I read was universally positive: Adoption was a metaphor for God grafting us into God’s family (Rom. 8:14–17, Eph. 1:5); adoption met a crucial need; adoption was a beautiful act of love. Being a gregarious evangelist or an on-my-knees prayer warrior might not be my strength, but welcoming a child I could do.
When I started dating my future husband, I had just returned from a summer volunteering with disabled children in a Chinese orphanage. Adoption was always part of how we envisioned we would build our family and extend God’s capacious love to kids in need.
After getting married and having two biological children, with my medical training finally complete and our lives relatively settled, we thought we were prepared. We had read books on adoptive parenting. I’d joined online adoption forums. We knew other families who had adopted.
At the time, critiques of adoption were becoming more prominent. Adult adoptees and their advocates rightfully highlighted systemic flaws in both domestic and international adoptions. From corruption to coercion, transracial family dynamics to legal battles, adopting a child was more fraught than the simple picture I’d been sold in church.
Yet I remained convinced that the need for families was still present, especially among older children with stigmatized medical conditions, so we continued to pursue adoption through a reputable overseas program and agency. We were, we thought, big-hearted people and caring parents. Surely it would be simple to love any child as our own, especially one who shared the same racial and cultural background.
Yet the actual experience of introducing our third child, adopted from Taiwan, into our family felt like a bomb going off in our previously peaceful home.
We hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be to extend to our new four-year-old the same easy affection that we naturally shared with our older two, especially as he seemed determined to reject our overtures of love and tenderness—and to make everyone else feel as terrible as he felt, ripped from his caretakers, country, and familiar environment. While that’s common in adoption, the emotional rollercoaster left us exhausted and frayed. I reminded myself constantly that we chose this, while our son lacked all agency in the situation.
Even more challenging was how difficult it was for our older kids, then five and seven, to adjust. They hadn’t asked for this, and suddenly they had a younger brother who was breaking their toys, stealing their Halloween candy, and deliberately needling them to get a reaction. There had been no sweet infant phase for them to grow attached. There was a flash of lightning, then, suddenly, their lives, family, and home were irrevocably altered.
My protective instincts were pitted against each other: My youngest, newest, and most vulnerable child needed unconditional love, boatloads of positive affirmation, and one-on-one attention. Meanwhile, my previously calm and happy eldest child was banging his head repeatedly on the floor, taking out his anguish on himself because he knew he wasn’t supposed to hit his brother (though that happened too, and yes, we tried therapy in many forms).
These dynamics lasted well past the initial months-long adjustment phase we’d been told to expect. Four years in, I still often despaired.
We were fortunate to have an understanding church community; our senior pastor and his wife have adopted 11 children. They started a monthly adoption small group where vulnerability and honesty were modeled. Hearing the stories of other parents who were further along on their journeys—yet still dealing with overwhelming challenges—was simultaneously daunting and comforting.
But even with that valuable space and other supportive friendships, the deep shame of struggling with adoptive parenting felt crushing. Since childhood I’d been taught that adoption was beautiful, precious, and God-ordained. Why didn’t it feel that way for me?
I needed to unpack the theology that had led me to this place. Often in church spaces, adopting children is compared to God’s “adoption” of us into his spiritual family. But this metaphor, frequently employed without regard for how adoption has changed in the last 2,000 years, sets up the unfortunate parallel of the adoptive parents “saving” the child.
It also abrogates the abandonment at the root of the adoptee journey. Our adopted children, especially older kids, experience so much loss and grief in their lives, which can manifest as attachment disorders, blocked trust, and trauma responses. We are not God, and we cannot miraculously heal those fissures.
When churches oversimplify adoption—treating it as a glorious reflection of God’s plan, as an answer to abortion, or as a form of missions—we distort a complex relationship and set adoptive parents up for failure by putting us in a role that was never ours. Adoption is not a panacea; rather, it’s the beginning of a long journey.
Churches would do well to present a more nuanced and realistic portrait of adoption. While some adoptive families thrive from the start, others feel beleaguered for years.
By reframing how we speak about adoption, recognizing that it originates in brokenness and presenting a range of adoption stories rather than only the easy or resolved ones, we better prepare prospective parents and normalize the difficulties that adoptive families may face. The goal is not to discourage or discredit adoption but to ensure it is undertaken with realistic expectations.
And instead of elevating adoption as the only or even best way to care for vulnerable children, churches should also get serious about family preservation efforts. We can work to counteract systemic inequalities that compel birth families to surrender their children and support single parents. When a pregnant woman is anxious about how she will provide for a desired child, our first response shouldn’t be to offer to adopt but to band together as a church to share resources so that she can pay for housing, child care, clothes, and food, and to commit to being a supportive social network—an extended family of sorts.
For adoptive families too, practical relief is essential. I’d be fed for life if I had a home-cooked dinner for every person who’s said to me, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to adopt!”
Respite care—when trusted adults look after the adopted child for a few hours or days to give adoptive parents a chance to recharge—can be a lifeline for overwhelmed parents. And trauma-informed pastoral care both pre- and post-adoption can help shift expectations. It should become the norm, just as premarital counseling is expected or even required.
What has pained me most on this journey has been the deep shame I’ve felt at not being the mother my children deserve. I didn’t want to acknowledge that this screaming, raging, crying, bitter person I saw in the mirror was me. I didn’t want to admit that I had become Mrs. Reed.
And the verb “become” belies the truth. My wells of selfishness have always been there; it simply took adopting a child to reveal them. Perhaps this is the greatest reckoning adoption has forced: that of looking into the mirror after my veneer as a patient, selfless parent had been shattered. Once the surface cracked, the self-condemnation became relentless, amplified by the imagined commentary of acquaintances and internet denizens: I shouldn’t be a parent. A better person would handle this with grace.
Indeed, it is grace that I’ve been missing—for myself and for my children. But God has not missed it. His response to my feeling of free fall has been a boundless reach of grace catching me over and over again.
We’re all ordinary, broken-up humans doing our best. As my friend and fellow adoptive mom says, adoptive parents shouldn’t be treated as saints when adoption goes well, nor should we be marginalized as deviants when we’re honest about our struggles. God is in the dissonance as well as in the harmony, and our family may never fully arrive at the tonic chord.
Into our sixth year of adoptive parenting, we’ve glimpsed joy, developed genuine bonds, and started healing, but there may always be unresolved grief and hurt—not just from my youngest son’s painful origins but now also from the imperfect ways I’ve parented him and his siblings.
As I’ve found other adoptive parents like me, I’ve felt less alone and less engulfed by shame, and I want to offer that consolation and wisdom to other parents earlier in their adoption journey and exhort fellow Christians to do likewise. When churches paint a too-simple picture of adoption—failing to acknowledge the grief and loss undergone by the child and birth family and the serious challenges that adoptive parents can face—we unwittingly encourage prospective parents to enter into adoption unprepared. We may even effectively silence those who are struggling.
God calls us to care for orphans, but God doesn’t promise that it will be easy. We shouldn’t either.
Kristin T. Lee writes at the intersection of faith, belonging, and solidarity at The Embers and contributes lively thoughts about diverse books on Instagram. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is working on her first book on Asian American Christianity.