In the fall of 2005, our family grew by one in an unconventional way: we adopted into our then-family-of-four a little 9-month-old girl whom we named Emmaline Anne Ding. Here’s our first photo of this girl who I dubbed “Emmie” early on, who spent the first 9 months of her life in an orphanage in Gaozhou, China.
This past week, it came to my attention that it’s now been exactly ten years since the Lord placed Emmie into our family. It seemed appropriate to jot down a few reflections on our experience as adoptive parents at this milestone. Some of these reflections are rather personal and in the coming years may be tempered or deepened by further experiences. Nevertheless, I believe they accurately reflect our experience thus far, and hope they might in some way encourage or educate others in their own lives.
- Our choice to adopt was, and continues to be, rooted in God’s adoptive love of us. From the beginning, even until now, our desire to adopt was driven primarily by a shared desire to show a child the specific kind of love that God shows Christians when he rescues them from their sin, and not only forgives but adopts them as sons and daughters and bestows on them privileges and providence as their Father as they become his heirs. This rich spiritual parallel was foundational in our desire to adopt, and over the years has also provided strength and guidance in the face of challenges along the way.
- Adoptive parenting has proven to be harder than we’d first imagined. The vast majority of the materials we encountered about adoption read like a cruise catalog: describing the joys of enfolding an orphan into one’s home, the privileges and delights of a child joining her “forever family,” and so on. While I’m sure there were some cautions along the way—I recall concerns about interracial adoption which were not an issue for us—the majority of expectations we had were warm, fuzzy and overwhelmingly positive. But adoption has brought with it challenges that we did not expect. In particular, we’ve had to handle health issues that were unexpected (reflux, sensory issues, congenital dislocated hips not discovered until 18mo) and emotional attachment issues which created serious friction and stress in our family and marriage along the way.
- The difficulties I’ve encountering in loving our adoptive child reveal as much about the nature of my heart and affections as they do about her. Our adoptive daughter is a wonderful young lady. She’s always quick to lend a helping hand, and is a very quick study in picking up new skills. She’s also developing into a beautiful young lady, and is very perceptive about the world around her. Yet there’s no denying that I have had greater difficulty building an emotional connection to her than with each of our biological children. A large part of this is Emmie’s own ongoing tendency not to be affectionate or to pursue emotional security in us, but instead in herself—a byproduct, we’re certain, of nine months of vicious neglect in an orphanage combined with a survivor’s strength. Yet, as I’ve reflected on this difficulty, I recall having trouble feeling close to another of our (biological) daughters early in her life. This other daughter was fervently attached to her mother (and not me!) during her first two years of life, and this made me “like her” less. What I learn from this is how fickle my own heart and affections are. I could blame my adoptive daughter for her reticence to open up to us, but really, the more important question I continue to reflect on is what drives me to love (or causes me not to “feel” love?). Which leads me as well to the other side of the coin, which is…
- I’m just like my adoptive daughter in her struggles to develop a healthy sense of security and identity—we both desperately need the reality of the gospel! It’s tempting to point the finger at her difficulties in trusting us, or allowing us to know her and love her fully. But the Lord has used our years as adoptive parents to show me that I’m not really any different from her in this. Just like her, I struggle to trust God fully; and I’d rather hide my sin and weakness from Him (and others around me) rather than believe that He truly and fully accepts me as I am and loves me to the uttermost in spite of it! So being an adoptive father has given me glimpses of how desperately I still need the gospel to saturate my being to the very core and undermine my ongoing tendencies to self-trust, self-reliance and self-protection.
- Parenting, whether adoptive or otherwise, is an ongoing exercise in learning to adapt, love, forgive and hope. Having five biological children alongside our one adoptive child has in recent years made clear to us that there are areas where our adoptive child differs drastically simply due to her different genetics (though we joke that she has certain physical traits that are remarkably similar to mine!). There are very concrete ways in which parenting our biological children has been easier, simply because we’re “wired” very similarly. Yet regardless of birth origin, every one of our children has presented us with ongoing learning opportunities in parenting. Parenting our sixth child is more familiar ground than when we were parenting our first—but we never cease to discover that areas we need to grow to better love and serve each of our unique children in his or her needs, journeys, desires, and future. So we continue to seek God’s wisdom in believing in His best for them, and trusting in His generosity for their salvation and flourishing both now and for the rest of their lives.
Well, those are just a few thoughts off the top of my head. Our lives don’t afford a lot of time for reflection, or I’m simply not good at making that time. But a decade on this adoption road is a pretty decent reason to pause and consider what God has taught us, how He has led us, and to ask Him for still more grace to sustain us in the coming years to be the kind of parents and friends to our children He wants us to be! I thank God for bringing Emmaline into our family and into our lives, and am trusting that He will continue to reveal more of his loving purposes in putting us together until we see Him in eternity!