A phrase I've heard many times since I started fostering and then adopted is "Oh, I'd love to do that but I couldn't because . . . . " Alternatively I also hear a lot of, "We looked into doing that but . . . " It seems that there are untold numbers of people out there who like the idea of fostering and adoption but for some reason have decided it isn't for them.
And fair enough I say. For many, many people, deciding not to foster or adopt is exactly the right thing to do. Getting a child isn't like getting a puppy (and we all know that they're not just for Christmas!). I don't think it takes a 'special kind of person' to foster or adopt - if it does, I'm in trouble! - but I think it takes a particular set of 'right' circumstances. The right time does not come around often, and for some families, it does not come at all.
Right now there is a lot of work going on to dispel some of the myths about who can adopt. In fact I've been privileged to have my story published on The Adoption Social as a demonstration that being single is no barrier to adoption. But I wonder if these barriers are really the root reasons why people don't adopt, or is there something deeper?
The vast majority of adopters that I have met both online and in real life have been people who were previously childless and, in many cases, have turned to adoption after years of battling with infertility. I meet very few who have adopted to add to their family, rather than adopting to create a family. There is no criticism implied here. I am among those adopters who were previously childless, and I have had my own fertility ups and downs, so I definitely count myself among that number even if I didn't come to adoption in quite the same way.
The down side of this, as I see it, is that the idea persists in our social consciousness that adoption is really only about childless couples. Maybe you've heard something like this before: "How awful that children are languishing in care homes when there are couples desperate for children but they can't have them." Recent chatter from the government about setting and monitoring adoption targets have really done little to dispel this.
A Romanian 'orphan' once challenged me about my regular visits to her country to help run a summer camp for abandoned children. Upon realising that I didn't have children of my own she said, "So if you had your own children you wouldn't come here to us any more . . . you'd stay at home with them?" I was stung by her comment, not least because she was probably right. After years of annual visits, and two years living in the country, I haven't actually been to Romania since I started fostering. If we allow the adoption story always to be one of childless couples creating a family, then we imply that if you already have a family, adoption is not relevant to you. Adoption becomes what happens when the first choice doesn't work out.
Perhaps the majority of adopters will always be couples that were previously childless because these are the ones who been forced to really wrestle with the whole concept of what it means to 'have children'. Many, reaching the end of fertility treatment and IVF cycles, decide that adoption is not for them. For those who pursue adoption, the completion of a lengthy and eye-opening pre-adoption approval process pretty much knocks any selfish motive out of the ball park. While others might imagine that adoption 'cures' infertility, 'saves' abandoned children and blots out the past, we know different.
Adoption, in the end, becomes more about the children's needs and less about an adult's dreams. It ceases to be a second-best or a last resort. Adoptive parenting is not equivalent to birth parenting - one is not a replacement for the other. It's not better or worse - just different. For many adoptive parents, these are discoveries that are made at the end of a long, difficult road that started in one place and ended up somewhere wildly different. Along the way, they are forced to confront that oft-unspoken fear of raising someone else's child, loving a baby you didn't conceive and bear. They confront it and overcome it. Couples who can conceive their own children rarely take even a few steps down this road. Most never really have to consider whether they could truly open their home to another person's child, and parent them, and love them unconditionally. I wonder if this is the real barrier for many people - that deep down they can't imagine how a stranger would slot into their existing lives and families.
If so, then there's no shame to it. I could never have imagined that I could love a child I didn't conceive, carry and bear as much as I love OB. I adopted the easy way - loved first and adopted later. I didn't go into it blind, meeting my child for the first time only a few days before they were due to come and live with me forever. Even now I'm not sure I'd have the guts to do that. I have deep respect for every adoptive parent who has made that journey, who has seen a single photo among hundreds of others and known that they could be parents to that child.
I wonder what the situation for looked after children in this country would be if we could all see them through the eyes of a prospective adopter? What would happen if, as a society, we pulled together to ensure that every child who needed one had a stable, permanent, loving family to call their own through long-term fostering, adoption or special guardianship? If we stepped away from the idea that adoption is just something for those who can't have 'their own children'? If we understood that looked after children are not just 'other' people, far away, but are living among us, mixing with our kids in schools and dance classes, and playgrounds, and we all carry a responsibility for what happens to them, just as we are all affected if it all goes wrong? If we considered adoption not as a replacement for birth children, but as an act of loving compassion from one human being to another?
During National Adoption Week, it is my hope and prayer that those who have never been forced to admit the idea of adoption into their minds would choose to explore it voluntarily and consider not starting, but completing their family through adoption. Please consider it, not to fulfil your own hopes and dreams, but to change the life of a child you don't know yet. Let's make adoption about the needs of children, not the needs of adults. Let's hear the King say, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."