Four things I’ve learned about being adopted.
“What do I have to be thankful for? My own dad didn’t want me.”
Thanksgiving was creeping closer, and I had just unleashed that question to a group of high school freshmen I thought to be my friends.
If I recall correctly, it was the first time I voiced that inner turmoil. My biological father had walked out of my life when I was a year old, eventually signing away all his parental rights to me. For whatever reason, high school was the time I really started thinking on his abandonment.
It’s not that I didn’t have a “good” life. I did. My mom had not left me. When she remarried, she took me with her, always caring for and loving me. My stepdad—who has never been anything but Dad—adopted me when my biological father signed me away. I’ve always known I was lucky.
But for me, those heavy questions needed to be asked, then answered, before I would be able to see my adoption for the gift it is. High school, however, wouldn’t be a time of healing. Instead it was a time of increasing darkness. Shortly after I allowed people to see that vulnerable piece of my heart, a few used that question against me and walked away from our friendship, first with heated notes and then with silence. On the outside, I fought it. I was indignant. On the inside, I figured I deserved it. Their actions reinforced the original abandonment trauma. After that fall-out, I pushed the agony back into the dark. I wouldn’t allow it to surface again in words until I began therapy at age 30.
But even from its dark cage, that question would have its way with me. It would label me: Unwanted. Unloved. Discardable. I would believe it. I would react to it. At 15, on top of my already tender state, my younger brother died unexpectedly. When that grief coupled with the caged darkness, I became a shell. Oh, I looked and acted fine on the outside. My eyes were the only giveaway that things weren’t OK, and few took time to notice—or at least it felt that way to me, unwanted, unloved, discardable. Inside, I wasted away, increasingly numbed out with pain, grief and despair.
But all the while, God knew. He saw. He cared. I have come to understand that every time I wept, alone, He wept with me in His nearness—He weeps with those who weep—and that understanding started to bring feeling back to my numbed insides. By this time, I was a married adult with children, but that didn’t matter to the Lord. He wanted me, and I surrendered.
Since then, He has provided tremendous growth in my life. At times, I still struggle with depressive cycles. At times, I still feel unwanted, unloved and discardable. At times, I’m triggered by events and people in my present that reinforce the trauma of my past. And yet, God is faithful. He continues to reveal places of hurt and anguish and there’s still weeping. But there’s also rejoicing. I’ve even come to the place of being able to rejoice in my earthly adoption—looking at it beyond “being lucky.” In the process of learning to see my earthly adoption as a gift, I’ve learned a few things.
Adoption starts with trauma.
Perhaps this doesn’t seem like something to rejoice in. It’s actually not. But, it’s something that is important to grasp and accept when it comes to thinking about adoption. Adoptions start with trauma. I hesitate to use the sweeping word “all” here, and yet, I struggle to think of an adoption scenario that wouldn’t involve some element of trauma to at least the child involved. I think so often we can have a glorified view of adoption—and I don’t want to diminish its merit—but to bypass this root element of adoption is to lessen its messy beauty.
I have learned that when root-issues are overlooked—and this applies beyond adoption—there can’t be a solid foundation for anything to be built on top. Without a solid foundation, whatever was built will surely crumble. To be able to view adoption as beautiful, I needed to become comfortable with understanding how much of my life and worldview was shaped by the trauma of abandonment. I have learned that, as with anything, if I’m not willing to be honest and tell the truth, even if it’s just between myself and the Lord, healing won’t come. Recognizing and accepting that there is a painful element to adoption has been freeing for me and I’m thankful for the lesson.
Adoption is a sacrifice.
For the child for instance, adoption is a sacrifice of trust. In some way, an adopted child’s trust has been broken. In my experience, healing from this is a lengthy, difficult process. As far as the adoptive family goes, it is a sacrifice to extend even a small willingness of trust to another parent after you’ve been hurt before. There’s always a risk of abandonment again, and an adoptive child has to decide between what can feel like sacrificial vulnerability or retreating toward self-preservation. Growing up, I think I did the latter more than the former. Relational vulnerability often still feels risky.
From what I can tell, it also takes sacrifice on the part of the adoptive parent(s) to have patience with the emotional scars of an adoptive child. Working toward establishing and building trust is time-consuming and emotionally draining. I have learned that it is important to actively pursue this. I also know it doesn’t always work the way an adoptive family wants. Sometimes the root pain wins out, and that is also a sacrifice. There’s nothing easy about adoption.
In my case, it has also been a sacrifice on the part of my husband. First as a child and then into adulthood, I have often reacted from a place of fear. I had lost trust in fathers—and honestly, males in general—and I’ve routinely been afraid that if I wasn’t pleasing enough, I would be left again. This theme has surfaced multiple times in my life, including in my marriage. In that way, marrying me, an adopted child, has been a sacrifice for my husband, as we have needed to come to terms, both individually and as a couple, with the basic brokenness—unwanted, unloved, discardable—I have felt my whole life.
Adoption is a gift.
Now that I’ve hit a couple difficulties of adoption, we can make a jump to the part so often focused on: adoption as a gift. This is true, but can be hard to see, at least for the child. It took me a long time to work through the trauma, heartache and sacrifice before I could even begin to see my adoption as more than “lucky.”
In the fall of 2017, God peeled off another layer of my adoptive story, helping me realize that my dad made a decision for me. As a general rule, parents don’t choose their biological children. But in adopting me, my dad did. I was old enough to have a personality. I was old enough to display a temperament. I was old enough for him to look at me and say, “no way.” But he didn’t. He picked me. He gave me his name. He claimed me. It took me over 30 years to fully understand and claim the enormity of my forever Dad’s decision to bring me into his home, his heart and his life. In ways only God, working all things together for our good, can do, he took the most precarious, painful pieces of my story and showed me how it reveals His glory. And in that, I have learned adoption is truly a gift.
My earthly adoption mirrors my heavenly adoption.
My earthly adoption speaks volumes of the love my God has for me. My earthly adoption is a picture of my heavenly adoption—that adoption where God said, you have a personality, a temperament, a wayward tendency, but you are mine. I give you my name. I claim you.
Like my earthly adoption, my spiritual adoption started off with trauma. Sin separated me from my heavenly Father. Being separated from Him is painful, devoid of color. Like my earthly adoption, it has taken me time to learn I can trust my Father. Just like trusting others in my daily life has been a challenge, so it’s been with the Lord. I have placed misconceptions, lack of understanding, lies, in between me and Him. And yet, like the patient, adoptive father He is, He has gently guided me toward truth. With His pursuit, He has turned me time and again to His word where I have started to have a better grasp of the knowledge of the Holy. As I am sanctified, I expect Him to keep leading the way in this regard and I will gladly follow.
Just like my earthly adoption, my spiritual adoption is a gift. I didn’t earn it. It is pure grace upon grace (John 1:16). Often I catch myself trying to prove my worth—to muster up more trust than I have for instance—but my God reminds me that his grace is sufficient in my lack (2 Corinthians 12:9). At times I still struggle to understand God as Father, but He doesn’t push me away. He continues to press His gift into my hand.
“But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. And because we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, ‘Abba, Father.’ Now you are no longer a slave but God’s own child. And since you are his child, God has made you his heir.” (Galatians 4:4-7)
So, what do I have to be thankful for? My biological father chose to walk out of my life, yes. I felt like it defined me, yes. But I’ve learned that I’m more than that. I am an adopted heir. I am a child of God. What a glorious gift! One I continue to learn from and that I will always cherish, no matter how old I get.
–by Malinda Just | Special to Metro Voice
I was originally honored to write this for Rachael on her blog My Healing Hands-On Home (I have since lost touch with her and the original blog link is dead) in a series called “Things I’ve Learned From…” With her blessing, I re-published the piece on my blog in 2019, and am sharing it here with minor edits in honor of National Adoption Month (November 2023).