Oh, and just in case anybody thinks that I'm sitting up on my high horse to write this post, I want to remind you all that we adopted three month old healthy twins. Hear that? Three month old. Healthy. Twins. And one of the twins was a girl.
And I said 'well, if she wants to adopt from China it would be a very long wait'. And she asked why, and I said that there are fewer legally adoptable babies than parents waiting for them. And this is why there is such a long wait - essentially, there is a very long queue. And she asked me whether it was like that in Ethiopia too, and I said yes. The queue isn't nearly as long as China, but it's getting pretty long. There are a lot more waiting families than waiting babies. In fact, there aren't really adoptable babies anywhere in the world who are waiting for families. There is nowhere, at the moment, where there is a legal, accessible international adoption programme and a need for families. Nowhere.
Talking about this made me think about how I felt when we were waiting. I read blog after blog and saw little tickers marking out how long people had waited to be matched with their Ethiopian baby. Six months. Nine months. A year. More than a year. My heart clenched. I was not sure that I could bear that weight of waiting. I felt sad-sad-sad, but I also felt a teeny bit cranky. How could this be possible? Wasn't there a huge, gaping need? Weren't there millions of orphans? Why was mine taking so long to appear, if that was the case? Eventually, I came to face the fact that my imaginary orphan, the one who needed us, was a myth. He didn’t exist. Maybe he did, ten years ago, or maybe she still does, if she is thirteen years old and has severe health problems. But a healthy infant? There was no need there. These waiting times were getting longer because there was a queue- a huge queue - of people wanting to take one of these babies home. I realised what I said above - that none of the healthy infants available for adoption, anywhere on this planet, will grow up in an orphanage. I should have been happy about this. I should have been singing for joy. After all, who wants to see a baby grow up in an orphanage? I should have been happy, but I wasn't, not really. It turned out to be surprisingly hard to face the fact that there was no baby orphan waiting for us to rescue him. That was just a fantasy. There are children to adopt, but there was a queue in front of us and a queue behind. Joining that queue wasn’t a bad thing to do, but it wasn’t fulfilling James 1:27 either. I wanted a baby, but I also wanted to believe that I was doing something worthwhile. I wanted to know it was needed.
"Adoption is not for everyone, so here's how to help orphans if you can't adopt!"
Because obviously, adoption is what will help the most. Obviously. Right? But I've come to think that when the motivation is to help, to give back, to care about orphans, then applying to adopt a healthy infant is actually more like looking for lost money underneath the streetlight.
Here's what I mean by that.
There are children in horrible, unbearable need around the world. In Haiti, in Pakistan. In Somalia. We see them on our screens. We read about them. We are haunted by them. We want to know how to help. And this is absolutely the right response - how can we go on living, unchanged, knowing that there are children who don't have enough to eat, who don't have clean water, who don't even have parents? It's unimaginable, especially if we start to think of our own children in that situation.
And so I think the logic goes something like this. I know that there are newborn babies abandoned in, say, Haiti with nobody to take them in. I can't bear it. I really, really want to help one of those babies in Haiti. Maybe I should adopt a baby. There is such enormous need, and I have so much to give. No, it's too expensive. No, it will disrupt my life too much. No, everybody will think I'm crazy. But the idea doesn't go away, and I continue to be haunted by the faces of the children who have nobody. Who am I to say no? How can I be that selfish? How can I know about the beach full of starfish and not take even one to safety? Okay, that's it. I have to do this. I will do this! I'm going to adopt! I can't actually adopt from Haiti, but there are babies to adopt in Ethiopia - there are lots of orphans there too - alright, I've made up my mind. We are going to adopt an Ethiopian orphan. Baby, here we come!
Two statements I come across pretty frequently as reasons for adoption are "There are so many orphans and we want to give one a home" and "There is so much need, and we feel called (or some secular version of the same sentiment) to respond". But if those are your reasons for adopting an infant from Ethiopia, here's what I want to say to you: I get where you are coming from, and I honour your desire to help, but I would encourage you to reconsider your plans.
People often say - don't adopt, send money instead. And we respond by saying - you've missed the point, it's not about the money, what children need most of all is families. And this is true. But here's something - none these adoptable babies are going to miss out on families. Because of the queue. So if what you want to do is help, then it really would be more use to send the money. The money you send can help the other kids, the older kids, the kids who are about to become adults, the families, the mothers who have trouble affording food, the fathers who are out of work, the aunts and uncles who have taken in their sister's or brother's children. If you want to help, your money will do a lot more good than joining the queue.
Having just typed that, I'm a little shocked at myself. Am I really telling people not to adopt? Well, yes and no. I'm not saying don't do it, I'm just saying don't do it in order to help anybody.
I'm aware that this has different implications for those of us who are fertility challenged, and whose primary motivation is to have a family, rather than respond to an orphan crisis. It's only possible to do that ethically when there are children with individual needs for families, as I outlined earlier, but we shouldn't kid our selves that when we adopt babies we're doing anything grand, no matter what our fertility status is. I'm always a bit tempted to roll my eyes when people go out of their way to make sure others know that their adoption is not because of infertility - I sometimes suspect there is a bit of a subtext that says 'we don't need this baby, we could totally make our own. We are just seriously awesome people who love orphans'.
That makes me want to puke a bit*. But those of us starting families by adoption need to be careful too, about the way we think and talk about our children and what we're doing. If there is a saviour fantasy, a starfish fantasy, in adoption, the infertile are also pretty heavily invested in that. Sometimes I wonder if this fantasy is particularly appealing to the infertile because it seems so beautifully redemptive for us. I know that after months or years of having nothing, I wanted to believe that I was finally in a position to have something to offer. I was so needy for so long, I wanted to be rid of that role. If I can convince myself that there is a need, it takes me from supplicant to benefactor and of course that is appealing. We have been through so much before we get to this point - surely we are due something spectacular? Infertility is a deeply, deeply humiliating experience, and coming out the end of that ordeal as a humble supplicant – again - felt like more than I could bear. How much more attractive to see my situation transformed and redeemed – to see my pain eventually becoming the trigger for an action of pure good. And on a micro level, it is good. But that doesn't mean it's needed, in any kind of larger sense. I prefer the version of myself that is responding to a need rather than waiting in a queue. But I think the second is more accurate. By adopting, I get a family, but if I hadn't adopted, my children wouldn't have missed out. The worst thing that would have happened to them is that they might have ended up in Belgium. My self-concept doesn't like that fact, but I know it's true.
So if all of that is true... what then? Well, for a start, I don't think that we should be colluding with the starfish narrative, at least not when it comes to infant adoptions. We should probably get more comfortable with saying 'no, there wasn't a need. Actually, there was a really long queue. But we waited in that queue, because we really wanted a baby'. Because that's what's true, surely? And if that isn't true... well, why did you adopt?