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Some years ago, before adoption was even really on the cards for us, and when our eldest was just one, a friend made a passing comment that she wouldn’t consider adoption because she had several birth children and had read about the damaging impact of adoption on birth kids.
I honestly can’t remember what we were talking about, or why this had come up, especially as I wasn’t talking publicly about adoption back then, but I’d never considered that mixing biological and adopted children might be a bad idea.
Fast-forward to last summer, and we’re sitting in the home of dear friends who we haven’t seen for a few years. As we observe our combined families playing together, my friend asks:
“So how’s it going? If we adopted I think I’d just feel constantly guilty for my birth kids.”
My response was as it usually is when someone says something I’m not expecting: “Er…um…yeah…well…er…great…PUT THAT SWORD DOWN! NOW! PUT IT DOWN! LET GO! PUT. IT. DOWN. RIGHT NOW!!!”
The truth is that out of all the many considerations of the adoption process, the possibility that our birth kids might somehow suffer because of our decision to adopt seemed about as relevant to us as whether our fridge would hold enough food for two more children.
The decisions we make
From the day they’re born, we’re making hundreds – thousands – of decisions on behalf of our children. Whether to feed by breast or bottle. Whether to let them cry or pick them up. Whether to send them to nursery or the child-minder’s. This school or that school. Football or rugby. Piano or violin. Freezer food or spag bol. Every day, a gazillion decisions.
Each decision we make, large or small, has a thought process behind it. And that thought process takes into consideration a variety of factors, only one of which is ‘What’s best for my child?’. Other factors are: what’s best for us parents? What’s best for my other children? What’s best for the wider family? What will work with our schedule? What will keep me sane?
The idea that our decisions are always based on our child’s needs is naive. We are affected by the people and situations around us. And our decisions reflect this: we make decisions which we believe to be the best possible solution for all concerned – including, but not restricted to, our children.
And these decisions – or, more accurately, the combined effect of the cocktail of decisions we make for our kids – will affect them in a variety of ways, as will the decisions they make for themselves, the decisions made for them by others (e.g. childcare professionals or teachers), their genetic make-up and a whole plethora of circumstances beyond anyone’s control.
As a friend of adopted and birth children put it:
“Having had a birth teenager who was suicidal and self harming it would have been easy to blame adopting as I was desperate to find a “reason”. I could also have blamed moving house or that mental health issues run in my family or that she was bullied…there’s never one reason for challenges.”
Is adoption screwing up my birth kids? Maybe. But what’s to say it isn’t their biology which has given them the short straw? Or the school environment? Or how I raised them prior to school? Or the language we use with them?
I hate to tell you this, but we’re all flawed as human beings and as parents, and our kids will bear the scars of our flawed parenting, adoption or no adoption.
The good news is…there is some good news.
(Just hear me out on the rubbish stuff first. No one wants a blog post to end badly, so let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first.)
There are no guarantees with any new child who comes into a family. We could have gone for a third birth child who may have had any number of physical or emotional difficulties, draining our energy and diverting our attention away from our older two.
Yes, adopted kids start off a notch or two further up the Challenge Scale, because of what they’ve experienced, but isn’t it true that we all have our issues, foibles and quirks? Isn’t part of being a family learning to bear with one another, exercising the patience and forbearance that will be of immense use as we seek to build relationships out in the real world?
Mixing biological and adopted children does bring specific challenges, however, and these may be particularly difficult to handle when it’s our birth children who are suffering. Is it best avoided, then?
Suffering produces perseverance
Romans 5 tells us that our suffering produces perseverance, which in turn produces character, and then hope. Are we in danger of believing this for ourselves but not for our children? Does our natural propensity for protecting our children sometimes get in the way of offering them slightly riskier experiences which might grow their character?
I was starting to think about these things around three years ago, shortly after we adopted, when a friend challenged me:
“But you wouldn’t refuse to immunise your kids, or push them under a bus. What kind of suffering would you inflict on your kids? Where’s the line?”
(Yep, I did the same “Um…er…ah…well…um” answer you’re now familiar with. I’m so articulate in real life.)
But after three years of pondering, I’ve settled on an answer, and it is this: When God calls us to something, He equips us to fulfil His calling.
Believe me, this is no airy-fairy statement. This is something I know to be true through all the tantrums, the anxiety, the wobbly behaviours, the aggression, and everything else we go through with our children.
It means this: God would never, ever call us to do something which deliberately harms ourselves or other people. Nope. This is outside of His commandments not to murder, steal, commit adultery, lie or envy – and also contradicts Jesus’ teaching to love God and each other (numerous places, but Matthew 22:37-40 is a great place to start).
But… God does call us to acts of sacrifice and mercy, deeds which will help His Kingdom to come, bit by bit, helping redeem this world to the place He has designed it to be. And some of these deeds will involve suffering as a natural consequence. But He will equip us – and our kids – to deal with this when it arises.
God would never call you to put your child in a dangerous situation. But He might call you to something which presents challenges for your child as well as for you. (For more on this, why not check out Why Choose Suffering? which I wrote for Home for Good.)
Adoption is often a real joy, and we are so blessed by the family God has given us. But there are regular moments of frustration and sadness, and much as we try to shield our birth kids from any impact, the reality is that adoption does sometimes affect them negatively.
And we don’t even know the half of it. I regularly read about others’ situations, where birth children are older and seriously damaged by the impact of having adopted siblings. What can I say to those families?
However thin it appears to be, we must cling to the thread of hope in Paul’s promise here in Romans. The suffering our children are going through will eventually lead to perseverance, build their character, and instil in them a hope for something better to come.
Too often, us Western parents are concerned for our children’s safety and comfort, as if the best way to raise a child is to place them inside an artificial existence which bears no resemblance to the world around them. But you don’t make a plant grow by putting it in a lidded jar, and neither will our children grow into healthy adults by being shielded from all suffering.
At the risk of sounding trite, I’m desperate to emphasise here that we do not know the end of the story. We don’t know how God will use our children’s suffering for their good and for His glory.
However desperate things may look now for your birth children, the situation may end up much, much better than if you’d never adopted. You and I simply don’t know yet. With an eternal perspective, and a trust in a God who, in all things, “works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28), we can hold onto hope. We were called to adopt, and now we’re called simply to trust.
(And, for more encouragement, you could read Looking Suffering in the Eye, which I wrote for Home for Good.)
Every family has its challenges
Going back to the friend who would feel ‘guilty’ if she adopted, we later had a more in-depth conversation about the topic. Her birth kids have experienced challenges and trauma which ours haven’t. God has already called them to a sacrificial life which has taken its toll on their family.
My friend can cling to the hope that I’ve been talking about, that the immense suffering her children have experienced will produce godly perseverance, character and hope.
But our conversation made me realise how good God has been to us. Yes, we face daily challenges because of adoption. But we haven’t yet had any close bereavements to walk our children through; we haven’t struggled with learning difficulties or mental health issues (us or them); we haven’t had to relocate, even though at various points we were expecting to. Our children have had the stability of attending the same school, living in the same home, and developing friendships with the same friends they made as babies.
Every family has its challenges, and through them God can shape our character and that of our children.
The positives of a blended family
I told you this blog post would get cheerier, so here’s the cheery stuff. Adoption has been great for our birth kids: it has given them increased empathy, understanding and compassion for those whose lives are different to their own. It has built their patience, their communication skills, and their ability to negotiate and keep the peace. (They’re not saints, my kids, by the way. There is a fair amount of war-raging too. But, you know, by and large…)
Adoption has exposed our birth kids to the tough things of life a little earlier than if we’d not adopted. It has helped them to see the darkness of the world while they’re in our protective care. They’re going to learn that the world is pretty dismal at some point – I’d rather them do it now, when we’re around to talk them through it.
Besides which, they are awesome with their siblings. For more on this, check out Dear Son: This is the Definition of Brother, which I wrote to encourage our oldest in his relationship with his younger brothers.
Are they having a harder childhood than they would have done without adoption? Undoubtedly. But if we hadn’t adopted then we might have relocated, or I might have gone back to work sooner, or we might have become distracted with other projects and commitments. We’d likely never have discovered therapeutic parenting, which has been so helpful for all four of our kids (click here to read my review of The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting).
(As an aside, while I think TP is a really useful parenting philosophy, I do believe there are some pitfalls for Christian parents. Read What does the Bible say about Therapeutic Parenting? for more of my thoughts on this.)
There’s no telling what life might have become ‘if…’, but isn’t it interesting the way we always assume it would have been better? As for us, we know this is the family and the life that God has called us to, and therefore it is the ‘best’ we could be doing right now, warts and all.
They’re all our children
Ultimately, though, it feels uncomfortable writing about the impact of our adopted kids on our birth kids – because all our kids are our kids! (See Dear World: My adopted children are also my ‘own’ children.)
Why would I be more concerned about the impact of adoption on my birth kids, than the impact of coming into our family on my adopted kids? (After all, the change in caregiver will have been pretty traumatic for them, much as it’s hopefully a good result long-term.) I’m the mother of all four of my kids, and I’m equally concerned for each of these precious souls that God has placed in my care.
We are one big, messy, flawed family, each with our back-story, our challenges and our struggles. Life has been particularly challenging for two of us, but as a family we take on that suffering as a six. It is not their suffering, but our suffering.
And hopefully, sharing our suffering dilutes it to give us all the best chance of moving forward in life and faith.