What the heck are you doing writing an article about adoption!? This isn’t “Get Your 30’s Right.” Adoption is, like, Level 9 Adulting. Millennials are reading this, dummy. Who do you think you are? There’s a slot in your budget for Chipotle Guacamole Upgrades. Who are you to talk about adoption? Weirdo.
Thanks, again, voice in my head.
But here’s the deal: Twentysomethings are not second-class adults. We make Big Boy decisions. (Especially singles, who should be preparing for big decisions before marriage, not after.)
Adoption may be Level 9 Adulting, but that’s exactly why I bring it up. There is no reason to delegate a decision this big to your thirty-year-old self. In fact, by thinking about adoption early, you can set your future self up for success.
Why Even Consider Adoption?
When we talk about adoption, there are two common (yet faulty) narratives we tend to believe.
The “Feel Good” Narrative
“Creating children is not the essential element of being a parent: it’s about doing the best you can for children… If an important aspect of moral action is to try to make better lives for more people, or to remove unnecessary suffering, surely the focus should be on existing people – like orphans – who require our love and attention?”
—Tauriq Moosa, Big Think
The “feel good” narrative of adoption is the most common framework for thinking about adoption. Under this worldview, adoption is an overwhelmingly positive and selfless act that fixes everything. Adoption is the solution to abortion, poverty, and racism. Adoption is social justice at its finest. Adoptive parents are the best of us—especially those who adopt internationally.
Adoption may be hard, but it is a refining process that leads to greater joy for both the family and the child. All of the wounds of neglect and abuse are healed by love.
Adoption is RESCUE. Without it, there is no hope for these kids. (So let’s make sure that we adopt all of the cutest babies first!)
Under this (faulty) narrative, you should adopt because it will make you feel like a good person. And that’s a feeling people like.
The “Heartbreak” Narrative
“Of course, there are children in need of adoption, but they usually don’t happen to be young, healthy children. They’re often children over 5, children with more time-intensive medical, mental or psychological needs. That doesn’t quite match up with the demand from the U.S.”
—Laura Barcella, Salon
If you have money, your odds knowing someone who has adopted a child are higher than your odds of knowing someone who has given a child up for adoption. If you do not have money, the odds are flipped.
The “feel good” narrative of adoption is the result of only knowing nice, well-intentioned, rich people committed to making adoption work. Rarely do we hear the heartbreaking stories of the birth mothers. Or the Chinese families who couldn’t afford to raise a daughter. Or the 15-year-old kid who has been in the foster care system for a decade because he’s not cute enough for adoption. Or the poor families trying to adopt a relative out of an abusive home. Or the families who have been swindled by Health and Human Services. Or all of the kids who truly need to be adopted, but have a laundry list of disabilities.
Under the “heartbreak” narrative, adoption is not rescue. Adoption is a CONSUMER PRODUCT that neglects the real heartbreak involved and focuses its energy on the wrong children. (Thanks, Angelina!)
Under this narrative, you should adopt because you are either a terrible person or you like feeling terrible. You will either adopt a happy, healthy baby who doesn’t need adopted (and be part of the heartbreak). Or you will adopt a 12-year-old with cerebral palsy whose father is the serial killer from No Country For Old Men (and experience all the heartbreak).
The “Somewhere In The Middle” Narrative
“Adoption, when it is successful, is a wonderful thing. But everyone coming to it is grieving in some way.”
—Jennifer Gilmore,The Atlantic
To even begin to answer the question “Why Even Consider Adoption?” we need to get our narrative right. And that narrative is somewhere between “feel good” and “heartbreak.” We can’t let ourselves see adoption as black-and-white.
Adoption can be wonderful. There are a lot of kids who need rescue. And there are a lot of families who can provide it. But adoption is still heartbreak, not only for the child and the birth parents, but for the adopting family.
So how do we get the narrative right?
Where Need Intersects Ability
“Some say there are 146,000,000 orphans in the world today. It’s estimated that 4 out of 5 of these children were not orphaned by the passing of their parents but by poverty. If every parent in the world could provide nutrition, shelter, education, and health care for their children, there would only be 29,000,000 orphans today… Adoption is great but orphan prevention is best.”
—Shaun Groves, The Art of Simple
I think the key to finding that “middle-ground” narrative is understanding where the needs of others intersect our ability to help. This narrative is inherently personal. Each person has different capacities and abilities. And the needs of others vary widely.
Answering the question “Should I adopt?” requires a significant investment in understanding the two halves of this equation: need and ability. If not, we will drift toward apathy (“I just don’t have the capacity to help anyone. I don’t want to burn out!”) or fanaticism (“I can always do more! I need to do more! Adopt all the babies!”)
If you’ve made it this far in the article, you’re a good person. Seriously. Douchebags don’t read articles that urge them to thoughtfully consider adoption. By the simple fact that you’re reading this sentence, I know that you genuinely care about the needs of others. Thank you.
Adoption is complicated. Helping people, in general, is complicated. I fear that good people (like you and me) have a tendency to oversimplify the needs of others. Instead of taking time to understand the hurts and difficulties of those in need, we oftentimes “help” by doing the things we already like to do.
So we hug babies because we like to hug babies. We run charity races because we like to run 5k’s. We adopt a rescue dog because we like dogs. We give to Compassion because we like pictures of cute kids on our refrigerator. We donate to firefighters because we like the calendars. We volunteer at the homeless shelter because the plexiglass divider keeps homeless people at a safe distance (and it gives us license to not look them in the eye when we see them on the street). We give our clothes to Goodwill because we like the extra space in our closets.
Most of the good things we do aren’t actually that hard to do. That doesn’t make them unhelpful. But when we do good things without getting to the bottom of someone’s need, we can neglect the whole point of helping.
For example, 95% of orphans are over the age of five. Around 90% of “orphans” still have a living parent. Many orphans do not need to be adopted. Alongside poverty alleviation and orphan prevention, adoption is just one piece of the puzzle. Many parents just need good jobs and vocational training. Many need mental health services. Many need free childcare and a supportive community.
In many cases, adoption isn’t the real need. Yes, it’s helping (and it’s hard!), but it’s not the solution to the orphan problem. It’s a piece of the puzzle.
The principle here is that being need-focused is more important than being capacity-focused.
When we are need-focused, we think long and hard about the foundational needs of others. Need-focused people aren’t satisfied with simple solutions. They understand that helping others is complicated.
When we are capacity-focused, we think long and hard about our personal contributions. We spend a lot of time thinking about what we can do to help. About our capacity. To do that, we need to simplify complicated situations so that we can be the hero.
Need-focused people understand the needs of others first and match their contribution accordingly.
Capacity-focused people focus on their personal capacity first and then find a need (or make one up) to match it.
So before we “help,” we need to think. We need to train ourselves to see the real need beneath the surface-level need. As a twentysomething, you’re probably not in a position to adopt (right now). But you can start looking for needs. You can learn to ask questions and to research. Through trial-and-error, you can learn to identify the needs that, if met, make a lasting difference.
So as we think about big decisions like adoption, let’s start by honestly asking what people really need before we decide what we have to offer.
(Aside: I think this is the place to say that some adoptive parents are the ones with the need. For families that cannot have biological children, they probably don’t have to come at this decision from a super philosophical and ethical position. If you can’t make a baby and want a baby, adopt. Infertility is worth grieving. And adoption is a beautiful way to find hope. Not all adoption needs to be rooted in a strong desire to be the most selfless person on the planet.)
Most people think that they understand their capacity. They look at their schedule and say, “OK, I’m going to volunteer for 2 hours/week at this place” or “I can give 10% of my paycheck to this charity.” They start with their (perceived) capacity and then find a need to match. This is what it means to be capacity-focused.
We don’t want to be capacity-focused people. We want to be capacity-conscious people. We want to guard our physical and emotional health from being sucked dry. We want to meet the needs of others without killing ourselves. But we can’t know our capacity without actually helping people. So the best place to start is by meeting the real needs of others.
Like, real people. Neighbors. Family friends. Classmates. Roommates. Co-workers. Weird high school kids at church. That real homeless guy you pass every day on your way to work. That homeless guy’s friends. The single mother who lives down the street.
To understand if you have the capacity to adopt a real child who has experienced real brokenness, you need to subject yourself to meeting real needs. Of real people. Because maybe it’s too much for you. And maybe you can do more. But you will never know unless you start paying attention to the needs of others.
Adopting a child demands a high capacity. And it is totally OK if you do not have that capacity. But you and I will never know unless we get good at meeting real needs.
Practical Ways To Become Need-Focused and Capacity-Conscious As You Consider Adoption
Take the role of an advocate for a child
Americans like to think that our country is really good at providing opportunities to people of all backgrounds. We think that the poor, black kid has all of the opportunities as the rich, white kid. (And if not, at least we think we’re moving in the right direction. I mean, how much effort do we expend on education reform, financial aid, and diversity hiring?)
The question here is, how good are we at the “capitalization of talent?”
In his Revisionist History podcast, Malcolm Gladwell claims that we are pretty bad at capitalizing on the talent and potential of poor kids. Like, really bad.
But there are some bright rays of hope. And those rays of hope are advocates. Not the kind of advocates that yell and scream at Washington, but the ones that actually spend time with kids. There aren’t many of them, but they are the people who keep these kids from falling through the cracks. The ones who make sure that they get a second chance when they need it. Who make sure that they graduate high school, stay involved in extra-curricular activities, and do smart things during the summer.
Being an advocate makes all of the difference for many kids. It’s a legitimate need that few are willing to meet (because they are capacity-focused).
Here are a few organizations that allow you to be a real advocate for a real kid who has real needs (like you would do in adoption):
CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate) – CASA pairs you with a child floating through the foster care system. You are not a foster parent, but the voice of the child in court. Unlike many of the biased voices in court, your job is to advocate for the best interests of the child. If you’ve never had exposure to the foster care system or juvenile court, this is a great way to get your feet wet.
Big Brothers Big Sisters – BBBS pairs you with an at-risk child (ages 6-18) who could really use a role-model. If you aren’t a biological big brother or big sister (or—in my case—were a terrible jackass of an older brother), BBBS gives you the opportunity to be a kick-ass mentor to someone who could really use you. Side note: If you’re a guy, there are twice as many boys waiting for Big Brothers as girls waiting for Big Sisters.
Local Library or School District – The public school and local library are two organizations that serve kids in need everywhere. Ask if they have advocacy programs or how you can use your skills to meet the real needs of a real kid. Maybe you could teach an after-school club. Maybe you could volunteer in a special-ed or ESL class. Maybe you could help coach a sport for a school with limited resources. I don’t know. Get creative. Opportunities always present themselves to the need-focused.
Spend time around babies
I’ve never had a child.
(Side note: You can’t know what it’s like to have a child without having a child. Duh. Anyone that thinks that point needs to be made is just trying to make you feel inferior and stupid. Of course there is no 100% transferable experience to being a parent. But that shouldn’t deter you from the experiences that have 10% transference.)
But I’ve shadowed pediatric doctors and asked lots of questions. And I’ve seen friends adopt the role of a supportive uncle. And I know babysitters who can change diapers better than many parents.
When twentysomethings interact with babies, they learn stuff. Good stuff. They become better future-parents. They learn to see needs. They learn more about their capacity. Their decisions become more informed.
By learning the needs of a small child, twentysomethings can make better decisions about how to be need-focused in their future decision to adopt.
Anti-Human Trafficking Training
People adopt because they want to help children who are vulnerable. Adoption is a way to reduce a child’s exposure to danger, whether that be physical, emotional, or educational.
I think we can all agree that the greatest danger is the danger of human trafficking. Where you see the need for adoption, you see the danger of human trafficking. You don’t have to be a need-focused person to recognize that this is a great need for many children.
Human trafficking is one of those subjects that can be a gateway to learning about the needs of the neediest. As someone who is currently thinking about adoption (you wouldn’t still be reading, otherwise), training and research on the subject of human trafficking can do a lot to opening your eyes to the needs of others.
Foster parenting or respite care
I know a lot of foster parents. And it isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s also probably not for the single person, either (unless you are experiencing a lot of financial and emotional stability… and don’t have roommates).
Becoming a foster parent is like going from zero to sixty in a matter of seconds. It’s hard. But, man, it can make a difference. Not only that, it exposes the foster parent to the realities of the foster care system, which is complicated. It might even push you a little too far into the “heartbreak” narrative for a while.
But understanding the foster care system—and, more importantly, the background of kids in need—will go a long way in making you a need-based thinker.
And if foster care isn’t in the cards for you, becoming a respite provider might be your thing. Respite providers provide support for foster parents by caring for their children when the parents need a day off. It’s like becoming a Navy Seal Babysitter. These people make a big difference by providing care for short periods of time.
Regularly spend time with foster/adoptive parents
In general, twentysomethings should be spending time with people in different stages of life. If you and I only hang out with our “urban tribe” of twentysomethings who think and dress the same, we’re blowing our twenties. It is a gift to know someone who thinks differently.
One demographic that I have been blessed to know is foster and adoptive parents through my church. These families rock. They challenge my idea of generosity by simply living their lives. They are truly need-focused people. And that makes me more of a need-focused person.
(For some reason, this is a bullet-point in every article.)
Read books about poverty. Read books about social justice. Read books about the orphan crisis. Read about the consumer mentality of global adoption. Read something by Mother Teresa. Read When Helping Hurts. Read things that make you more of a need-focused person, rather than a consumer of good deeds.
Get a job
“There are some great ways to use your education and your freedom as a twenty-something to benefit kids by doing internships or looking for employment with advocacy groups, group homes, boys and girls clubs, etc. Taking a year to give back by taking a lower paying job that benefits at-risk kids is a beautiful thing to do.”
—Maralee Bradley, A Musing Maralee
Be a great parent to your bio kids
Big decisions like adoption take time. Having a biological child first could play a big role in making that decision. And if that’s the case, being a great mom or dad is probably the single best way to become a need-focused and capacity-conscious person.
The point of all of this is to help children who are vulnerable. There are many ways to help. But real help can only happen when real needs are understood. And the best way to understand real needs is to spend time around real people (specifically, children) who are in vulnerable situations.
Becoming a need-focused person is hard. Sure, you can go the rest of your life being a consumer of feel-good volunteering experiences that serve yourself. I’m sure that people will still really like you. But I would much rather fill a real need for a real kid. Maybe that will lead to adoption. And maybe it won’t. It doesn’t need to. Because we don’t need more parents to adopt. (OK, yeah we do. Just please read the next sentence.)
We need more need-focused people.
You’re not too young (or too single) to think about adoption because you’re not too young to become a need-focused human.
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