By Janelle Burkholder
Someday, my child is going to discover I haven’t always been his mom. And that I’m not his only mom. And while I’ve thought through inevitable emotions and questions that will accompany his discovery of this open secret, I’m not ready nor could I ever ready myself for a moment of this significance.
However, what my limited preparation has taught me is that my son’s discovery of his story must be seen through a bigger lens than mine alone. This is not my story. It is not my husband’s story. It is not my son’s story. It is not his biological family’s story. It is our story.
And because it’s our story, that means it needs to be dealt with collectively. If I tell it differently, then I become an unreliable narrator. But, if we’re honest, we are all unreliable narrators in some sense, especially when it comes to something so personal. We rely too much on emotion; we believe what we desire; our passion biases our reality. So, to clear up the cloudiness of my own reality, I want the adoption story of our family to be told by as many people as possible and as many times as necessary to process its messy intricacies and give meaning to all involved.
This means being open about our adoption journey. This means having nuanced conversations in the five minutes I have to respond to the grocery store inquisitor. This means having difficult cross-generational conversations with my family, who has not experienced racial disparity, dealt with trauma in a child, or walked through attachment particulars. And these conversations need to happen with and in front of my child because it is our story, not mine.
Some of these conversations will be started with questions from my child himself. The natural curiosity of a child can produce awkward moments in any family but especially an adoptive family. Surface-level answers will produce a surface-level relationship. I must show humility and wisdom to honestly answer questions like why our hair is different or why do his siblings arrive with a social worker and not in a hospital. And if I am unsure of an answer, I need to do everything within my power to find someone who may know. That’s the collective part of an adoption story. The varied perspectives are what make it beautiful. And strong. I cannot let my fear of wanting to be my son’s only mother or of not knowing an answer get in the way of seeing him discover his part of our story.
So how do I accomplish these things in everyday life? How do I stay honest and commit to humble conversations to better tell and understand our story? I must be intentional in speaking boldly and encouraging questions from my child and not shying away from hard conversations about adoption and how our story has impacted our emotions and transformed our lives. I must be willing to welcome others’ perspectives on a story that feels so personal yet must be shared. This means correcting others who wrongly assume this adoptive journey is mine alone. And, most importantly, this means listening to my son and being ready for some tears the day he discovers I haven’t always been his mom.
While our story differs from the narrative of many families, the principles we are wrestling to embrace mirror the challenges every family faces. I am more than an adoptive mom. I am a Christ-follower who is called to embrace community not only when it serves my family but even in the difficult, ugly and unhelpful moments that relationships can bring.
If foster care and adoption have taught my family anything, it’s the inescapable necessity of fellowship with others. People are messy. Life is messy. And living with people is messier still. But living honestly, lovingly and steadfastly — with my son and in the world at large — requires linking arms with others who can accentuate our strengths and overcome our faults.
Someday my son will have to face the reality of being adopted. But my son will not face this alone. He isn’t just part of our family. He has a bigger, ever-growing family that will always root him and support us.
God made us both for Himself and for each other. He is the one who has written our story, one that is far messier than I imagined but so much fuller.
Janelle Burkholder is a teacher, wife, mother, and adoptive parent living in Santa Clarita. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays and is regularly authored by David Hegg, senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church.