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Is Adoption Second-Best to a “Real Family”?

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Elizabeth Kirk - published on 11/23/14 - updated on 06/08/17

Maybe adoption teaches us about what a family truly is.

“You are so generous!” “Those children are so blessed!” “What a wonderful thing you’ve done!” These are some compliments my husband and I receive upon sharing that we adopted our three children.  While we always attempt a gracious smile, inside we cringe and feel uncomfortable.  We are congratulated on our generosity, yet we feel only gratitude. Our sense of overwhelming gratitude reflects that it is natural to think of adoption as a unilateral gift.  Adoptive parents receive an infinitely precious gift – the gift of a child.  Yet, there is truth in the recognition that they also give something. During this National Adoption Month, it is timely to reflect on the institution of adoption and what it can help all of us to understand about the nature of the family.

Pope St. John Paul II, in his characteristic sensitivity to the complex richness of the human experience, described adoption in this way in an address to adoptive families: “to adopt is a great work of love.  When it is done, much is given, but much is also received.  It is a true exchange of gifts.” There is much to contemplate here.  But let’s ask: what do adoptive parents give?  Of course, at the individual, concrete level, they give a home, support and love to a child.  Also, depending on the circumstances giving rise to the adoption, adoptive parents can be sources of hope to birthparents.  For some birthmothers, the encounter with adoptive parents who truly love and support her can be a healing experience when she may feel abandoned, judged or marginalized by others.  In a metaphorical sense, the example of adoptive families is a gift to those interested in understanding and promoting the family because adoption manifests various realities of parenthood, putting these realities into high relief for all to see.  In other words, adoption is a sign of the family.

Last week, the Vatican hosted an international, interreligious colloquium on “The Complementarity of Man and Woman,” which featured the premiere of six short films focusing on different aspects of marriage and family life.  The second video entitled,

“The Cradle of Life and Love: A Mother and Father for the World’s Children,”
includes a vignette of a young man adopted at birth from Vietnam by a French couple.  He explains that adoption allows “a child, an orphan who doesn’t have a mother or a father to put a face on these words, ‘Daddy’ or ‘Mommy.’ An orphan child without parents is a child deprived from its roots… and it is very important to give some new roots in a new family that becomes theirs.  It is a very peculiar thing because we just transplant someone to a genealogical tree that is not theirs to start with but that eventually becomes it. I become a son, with a name, a story, with ancestors, with parents, with brothers and sisters.”  

The young man’s testimony makes an important point that while an adoption typically arises in the context of fractured relationships or some brokenness like death, addiction or poverty, it is not merely a “second best” alternative to a “real” family. Adoption of a child by a husband and wife – which assures the child of a mother and a father – creates a family.  In Pope Francis’ opening address to the Humanum colloquium, he stated, “The family is the foundation of co-existence and a remedy against social fragmentation. Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity.” Through the unique circumstances of their creation, adoptive families which provide this environment – knitted together only by love – are emblematic of the family itself.

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