July 5, 2012

"Are You Planning to Adopt Him?"

“Are you planning to adopt him?”  It’s an innocent question that is often directed my way by well-meaning friends and curious strangers alike.  He regularly rides in the shopping cart that I push through the local market, obvious to everyone who sees us that we belong together.  He sits on my lap during the church service every week, clearly a part of our family for the past 2 ½ years.  He perches comfortably on my hip during every conversation, plays near my feet while I’m working in the kitchen, and sits at the table coloring during our homeschool hours.  Undeniably, we are every bit as connected to each other as any other mother and child.  The only difference is that he is black and I am white, which makes it instantly evident to every observer that we do not share the same gene pool.  Yes, it doesn’t take long at all for people to ask, “Are you planning to adopt him?”  I frequently hear that question, but oh, how I cringe when I do!

I didn’t realize, when I embarked on the foster care journey, that part of my job description would include educating others about how the process works.  Apparently, it isn’t common knowledge that “foster care” and “adoption” are not synonymous.  If someone I don’t know just asks me in passing, “Are you planning to adopt him?”, I usually offer the brief answer:  “He isn’t free for adoption.”  But when friends and acquaintances ask about my foster children, I try to explain in a little more in detail.  Foster parents can’t necessarily “plan” what will happen to the children in their care.  In fact, the only “plan”, especially when a child is first placed in protective custody, is for the foster parents to partner with the birthparents, social workers, and other specialists involved.  We are all working together as a team with the same goal:  reunification of the family.

Okay, that’s the official answer.  The truth is, of course I am human, and of course I think about the possibility of a child becoming a permanent part of my family.  How could I not?  But every situation is so different, and the future is so uncertain.   Occasionally, birthparents who face insurmountable odds somehow make miraculous changes in their lives, and despite the near certainty that they would fail, eventually become the loving, responsible parents that their children need.1  For other birthparents, I’m almost positive that they will be ready for their child to return home soon, given just a little bit of support and resources and a little bit of time.  But the months turn into years, and they never quite seem to complete what the court has required of them.  Indeed, when it comes to foster children and their families, it is nearly impossible to predict the outcome.

During the months and years of living one day at a time, never knowing what the future will hold, I often feel as if I am bi-polar:  I hear from the social worker that the birthparents are doing well.  I respond, “That’s wonderful!”  I know that it is one step closer to this child rejoining his family, where he belongs.  At the same time, I think, “Oh, no!”  That’s one step closer to this child leaving my home.  

Through diligent, patient coaxing, the fragile, failure-to-thrive baby is finally eating and gaining weight.  Of course I’m thrilled to see him becoming healthy!  I celebrate those chubby thighs!  But every ounce of progress, every new physical milestone diminishes the reason he is in foster care.  The birthparents may not have been able to care for a medically-fragile child, but what happens when that label no longer applies?

“Are you interested in adopting him?”  When a social worker asks me that question, how can I possibly give an answer that would be appropriate?  If I say, “Yes,” I may be giving the impression that I’m not partnering with the birthparents or cheering for their success, that I am in a competition for the child.  A “yes” response would be admitting that my husband and I have discussed it, even though the birthparents’ rights have not yet been terminated.  However, if I say, “No,” not only would that not be entirely honest, but I would seem like a callous foster parent, simply doing my job and not lovingly nurturing the child as a parent should.  Furthermore, if I indicate that I am not interested in adopting him, they might start looking for another placement, foster parents who are more committed to him than me!

And when I am asked that question right in front of the birthparents?  Or even worse, when a lawyer asks that question in open court?  Awkward!!  Over the years my husband and I have fine-tuned a pat answer for that situation:  “If it’s possible for him to be reunified with his parents, we think that would be the best situation for him.  But if that’s not possible, we would consider adopting him when that time comes.”   Politically correct, thoroughly noncommittal and sufficiently vague.

That answer has served us well, at least in the eyes of the social workers and birthparents, but what happens when “that time comes?”  When the birthparents have exhausted their opportunities, no family members have stepped forward to take responsibility, and the court is finally looking for a long-term family for this child?  It’s one thing to care for a child temporarily as his foster parent, even for a few years.  It’s another thing entirely to make a permanent commitment to him!

Ten or fifteen years ago, if that question and identical opportunity had arisen, it would have been a simple, almost foregone conclusion.  Of course we would welcome this child into our family!  But now that my husband and I are older, the decision isn’t quite as easy.  My physical energy isn’t nearly what it used to be, and some recent health problems have caused me to look at the brevity of life much more realistically.  I notice the young couples at church, just starting out their lives together, and I think, “They would be such perfect parents for this young child.  They could offer him so much more attention, opportunities, and youthful enthusiasm.”  When my teenaged children were younger, I was the kind of mama who would spontaneously say, “Hey, guys, who wants to go to the beach today?”  Or would sign them up for storytime at the library, or spend hours baking cookies together, building forts on the living room floor, chasing them around the playground.  I have to be honest with myself and admit, I’m just not that kind of mama anymore.  Doesn’t he deserve so much better?

And then, of course, there is the flesh-and-bone, non-spiritual, well frankly, the selfish side of me.  Wouldn’t it be great to head out the door without packing the diaper bag, double-checking that the stroller is in the car, and finagling little arms and legs into a car seat?  What a treat it would be to sleep late on a week-end, to not be awakened by little footsteps running into my room.  And I can only dream of the day when I can schedule a doctor’s appointment without also coordinating a babysitter.  Or completing a conversation or a task without being interrupted by an “owie” or a frantic cry of “I gotta go potty!”  Are those things too much to ask?  And if I really start day-dreaming, what about all the countries I have wanted to visit, the projects at home that have been long-neglected, or the friendships that would have an opportunity to flourish if I wasn’t so distracted?   If I adopt this small child, I am still years and years away from any of those things!

I could easily list reason after reason for why it wouldn’t be a good idea to adopt a child at this point in my life.  My older kids are only a few years away from being grown; shouldn’t I be giving them everything I can before it’s too late?  And to be brutally honest, I have made many mistakes while raising my older kids; what makes me think that I would do a better job this time around?  And what about my parents, who are in declining health and could use the support and help of their daughter?  “Are you interested in adopting him?”  The little sprite sitting on my shoulder is practically screaming in my ear, “No!  You’ve already raised your kids and have cared for all of those foster children through the years.  Now it’s time to do something for yourself!”

As I have been considering this decision for the past few months, and as my husband and I have discussed the pros and cons of what would be the best for our family and have prayed for wisdom, I have realized an important truth:  What is right for one family may not necessarily be the best for another family.  Or even in the same family, a decision in one situation might be completely different in another situation.  There have been several children in our home throughout the past 16 years who have been available for adoption.  For two of those little ones, we knew without a doubt that the Lord was leading us to adopt them, and He is the One who opened all of the doors and gave us perfect peace and exuberant joy during the adoption process.2  In other similar situations, we just knew from the existing family dynamics and the silence of the Holy Spirit that we should not be taking that step of a permanent commitment.  We had to trust that the Lord would provide the adoptive families that He knew would love them and care for them.3

So what about the little guy who is currently in our home, and who may be available for adoption in the near future?  Are we interested in adopting him?  While I have been struggling through the decision and focusing on the myriad reasons why I shouldn’t, two events happened that solidified my resolve and removed all of my doubts.  

First of all, not too long ago, a white woman approached me in the library, and we struck up a conversation.  I saw the look in her eyes before the question even left her mouth, “Are you planning to adopt him?”  Before I could even formulate a response, she gushed, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to adopt a little black boy.”  I was stunned, and had no immediate response!  I don’t know if my face betrayed the horror that I felt inside, but my mind was racing.  What?!  He isn’t “a little black boy!”  He’s my SON!!  I realized instantly how fiercely protective I am of him, how my Mama Bear claws could so easily defend this child I love so deeply.

The second event that helped me understand the depths of my love for this child was actually related to a task that I was asked to complete - a mundane, administrative, pretty boring project.  In preparation for an upcoming court hearing, his social worker requested a list of all of this little guy’s medical appointments since he has been in my foster home.  As I began researching my records and calculating the number of doctor visits that have been scheduled during the past 2 ½ years, I realized that I have invested literally thousands of hours into this boy’s health, into his life!  Would I really want someone else, even a younger, more vibrant someone else, to come waltzing in now that he is healthy, and decide to become his mother?  A loud, resounding, “No way!”  Through an amazing set of circumstances and perfect timing (another story for another time), God placed this child in my home, and has given me the great privilege of being his mama. 

“Are you interested in adopting him?”  That little sprite’s words are so enticing, “That commitment is just too overwhelming!” or “You’re not good enough or young enough to take on this permanent role.” However, there is more to making a decision than what is physically manageable, naturally convenient, or temporarily satisfying.  My Almighty God says, “With Me all things are possible.”4  

“Are you planning to adopt him?”  I can’t plan that kind of thing; it’s entirely out of my control. Circumstances in our family may change while the over-burdened court-system postpones hearings. The judge may ultimately decide that this child is better off with a relative than with us.  The Lord may surprise us with a twist of events that necessitate him leaving our home.  If that happens, I will cling to my faith in God’s loving sovereignty, even as my heart breaks.

However, as long as the Lord is giving me a choice, and for as long as He will allow, I choose to be his mama – to die to my shallow excuses and superficial selfishness, and to become his middle-aged and imperfect, yet passionate, loving, and grateful mama.

1.            The story of one resilient father is chronicled at http://psalm1139mama.blogspot.com/2012/01/saying-goodbye.html
2.            The adoption of two of our foster children can be found at http://psalm1139mama.blogspot.com/2012/02/wild-ride.html
3.            I have written about one such circumstance when we decided not to adopt at http://psalm1139mama.blogspot.com/2012/02/five-mothers.html
4.            Matthew 19:26


  1. Love you, Belinda. Thank you for sharing from your
    heart and opening your life to us so that we may
    be encouraged and uplifted. May the Lord strengthen you and your family for the days ahead.

  2. I really liked the responses you and Matt came up with for the adoption question. I may borrow your answers in the future. I think most people just don't understand how the system works. Responding gracefully is sometimes hard to do. Thank you for the encouragement that I am not alone. Keep up the wonderful and helpful articles!