I Am Not Your Orphan

I wasn’t a parentless orphan. Neither are many other adoptees.

(Photo by Kai Pilger)

Yesterday was Orphan Sunday, a day when churches across the country turn their attention to orphan care, nurturing efforts to adopt the world’s children who need homes and families.

I grew up in the evangelical church, and while none of the congregations we belonged to observed Orphan Sunday, I became a point of interest for many church people when they heard I was adopted. Suddenly I wasn’t a person anymore; instead, I was a living, breathing metaphor of God’s redemptive salvation.

“How sad to be abandoned,” they’d say, “but how beautiful to be saved by your wonderful parents! You must have such a special understanding of God’s redeeming love.”

Here’s the thing, though. To be redeemed, at least in church talk, is to be changed from something unacceptable into something desirable. God’s salvific work transforms believers from abject sinners into adored sons and daughters.

I was a human metaphor of the Bible verse that talks about becoming a new creation through Christ, but I always wondered that if that’s what adoption meant, why wasn’t the original “me” good enough? What did baby me do that required me to become a whole new person in a whole new family? I got baptized twice to fix whatever it was. And I raised my hand for every altar call until I was in high school, thinking this would be the time I’d receive the grace to undo whatever it was that made me need redemption as a baby.

That wasn’t even my real story. I was not rejected or abandoned, and I was not redeemed by my parents from some terrible state of being. I was born to a woman who did not have the family or social support she needed to raise a child. She didn’t reject me. She placed me in a pair of strangers’ arms because she didn’t know what else she could do. She could have raised me, but she needed help.

Some Christians also see me as a pro-life icon. My mother chose life; instead of aborting me, she took the brave and noble path of carrying a child to term to give a childless couple the greatest gift.

This narrative is also not my story. I wasn’t rescued from abortion because my biological mother had never thought about aborting me. She had four other babies before me; I was her fifth. Three of them were living with other family members, and the fourth she placed with a family some friends of hers knew. When I came along, she thought that maybe I’d be the one who worked out. She wanted to keep me. She wanted to be my mother.

If she’d had support from her family, access to low-cost childcare, reliable transportation to work, and subsidized education to get her ahead in life, she never would have placed me into two strangers’ arms.

Hers is a story that so many young women and single mothers in America share. Out of all the reasons that can lead to a private infant adoption placement, a noble and selfless desire to gift another couple with a baby is rarely, if ever, on that list. Here are some reasons that are:

  • wanting to finish college before raising a child
  • lacking support from a partner, parents, or relatives
  • lacking financial stability
  • not feeling old enough or prepared enough to parent
  • unemployment
  • a desire for your child to have more economic advantages than you can currently offer

Notice how many of these are temporary and fixable circumstances. How many first-time parents feel completely prepared to raise a child? How many first-time parents have all the money their child will ever need? And we create a community around them to support them. We shower them with baby gifts before their due date. We allay their fears with advice we’ve learned along the weird adventure of becoming a parent.

And what about young women in a temporary crisis with an unexpected pregnancy?

In my reaction piece to the adoption tax credit, I cited a Nov. 2016 study the Donaldson Adoption Institute conducted on how thoroughly women with unexpected pregnancies are counseled about all of their options and support services available to them.

In March 2017, they published a follow-up with personal stories from the women in their study, highlighting the factors that influenced their adoption decisions.

“I didn’t have any emotional support,” one mother said. “Nobody was supportive. There were people that were there around me, but nobody was being supportive. Nobody really talked about it or really knew what to say or what to do.”

One mother’s church preached that “if you’re a single mother, you’re somehow an abusive mother because you’re depriving your child.”

“People were like, ‘She’s gonna have a junkie for a father. You’re a whore, you’re a hooker, you’re a prostitute.’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m not!’”

There’s the pain of permanent separation: “This is a decision made that you can’t go back on. This is — you’re losing your child; you’re losing your grandchildren. You’re losing an entire line, an entire genetic line. I won’t be at her wedding as her mother. I won’t be at her baby showers as her mother, if I’ll be there at all. You lose an entire lifetime with somebody. To me, personally, it’s not worth it. I lost a lifetime.”

Most babies who get adopted have families. They have mothers who love and want them, just like mine did, who need a little help. The church rallies around young families with love and support; why does it not do the same for expectant mothers in a temporary rough spot?

Has the church forgotten that the biblical mandate is to care for the orphan and the widow? The women who see no other help besides adoption are the widow the church is called to serve, support, and love.

When you reduce my life story to a Sunday School lesson for Orphan Sunday, you reduce the many complex social issues that created this version of my life in the first place. Sealed away somewhere in a courthouse in New Jersey is the first version of my birth certificate with my first mother’s name on it and the name she picked out for me. She named me, you see, because she wasn’t intending to lose me or give me away or destroy me. She was intending what the majority of pregnant women who keep their pregnancies intend—to be a mother. She didn’t reach out to my parents until several hours after I was born, because she needed a lot more than her church community was willing to give.

American church, listen to our stories, learn from them, and help us create a world where every woman who wants to is enabled and empowered to be the amazing mother she can be.