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Parenting is Not My Highest Calling, Part I

December 8, 2013

Tonight I  looked up a book review for a friend and discovered I’d written it as a two-part series almost three years ago –so long ago that I had forgotten most of this. So I’ve bumped up both posts, hoping they might encourage you as much as they encouraged me.

You can read them in order simply by scrolling down the page here. Sorry for the wacky formatting. WordPress has never forgiven me for starting out blogging on another platform; I don’t have full editorial control over material born elsewhere.

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Katie said it so well in her comment on How Do We Prepare to Parent Kids with Disabilities:

“Really on the first day of training there should be a reality-check lecture. ‘Adoption is a ministry. It’s not the same as building a family. There are children who need you but they may not ever meet your expectations for fulfillment. Are you still game?'”

It almost isn’t fair to hark back to the days of my own adoption training in 2003. That was almost nine years ago and my agency probably does things differently today. It is probably also true that during those early years that shaped how my husband and I viewed adoption, our hearts were only open to hearing things we were ready to hear. We wanted to find our desire to adopt affirmed. We wanted to hear that transracial adoptive parenting was “doable.” That it would be good for our family, and good for the child we were adopting.

So take it with a grain of salt when I say, the main message I remember taking away from my formal agency training was, “Adoption is a wonderful way to build a family” –with a few strings attached:

  • transracial adoption is trickier than racially-matched adoption
  • toddler adoption may be more challenging than infant adoption
  • adopting an institutionalized child may be more challenging than adopting from foster care

The only issue I remember that made us search our hearts about our decision to “build our family via adoption,” was the possibility of RAD –radical attachment disorder. That era was RAD’s moment in the research spotlight, before it was widely understood that attachment is a continuum. So we were prepared for an initial adjustment period of bonding with our new child and vice versa, but took comfort in the statistics that showed that the children we were drawn to adopting were not at high risk for RAD.

However, before we became the parents to three more via adoption, we became Faith’s parents by birth. In retrospect, our preparation for parenting in general led us farther afield than our adoptive parenting training.  That part of a family’s story is probably unique, making it difficult to generalize. But here’s my story.

Inwardly, I cringe a  bit as I travel back to the early 1990s and remember the faces who looked back at me as I passed out the parenting class hand-outs at church. (I wasn’t a teacher. I wasn’t even married yet. I was simply in charge of the name tags, cookies and handouts.) The faces looking back at me were couples I admired and hoped to emulate someday: the early wave of transracial adopters in our church. Parents, or soon-to-be parents of beautiful African American babies born in the South and placed in Minnesota.

I sat in the last row and absorbed what those parents absorbed. Dreaming of being a mother someday, I read the books the handouts suggested. As intended, those authors had formative influence on how I conceptualized Christian parenting. Many of those parents who sat ahead of me in class also reached the point I am today a decade or more ago: parenting adopted kids with invisible developmental disabilities like FASD. Others are parenting children born to them with permanent disabilities.

This is how we equipped them. Back then it was widely believed  –even by adoption professionals placing kids born in the U.S. –that nurture trumped nature. So the dysfunction of parents in the U.S. placing children for adoption was thought to be a reflection of the way the parents were raised, not of anything organic like brain damage. The solution was to transplant orphaned children into highly functional families who would biblically love and train them into their latent potential to be kids who shattered stereotypes about what it meant to be a racial minority, to be born into poverty, and to not know Christ.

Christian parenting books exhorted us that raising children for God was our highest earthly calling. The formula was: consistently apply biblical parenting principles and your children will be a delight to you and to others, thus bringing glory to God. Arguing from the Bible, these authors reasoned that if kids did not turn out well, it was because their parents did not make raising them their highest priority, and/or they depended on sources inferior to the Bible for wisdom.

Lest we be confused about what that meant, these experts stretched far beyond actual Bible texts like,”Bring up your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” to specific details like the schedule on which parents should feed infants, and to prescribe daily intervals where the baby was left alone in a playpen or crib. Thus a child would learn from her first days that she was not the center of the family universe and that her parents, standing in God’s stead on earth, were her authorities. Anything else was less than biblically loving.

There is little room in that philosophy for:

  • “There are children who need you but they may not ever meet your expectations for fulfillment.”
  • There are children who need you who may seem to dishonor the God you love.
  • There are children who need you who may physically or emotionally harm your other children.
  • There are children who need you who may cause others to revile you.
  • There are children who need you whose behavior may disqualify you from being a teacher or an elder.
  • There are children who need you whose needs will forever change your home, your job, your other children’s education and your relationship with your spouse.

The problem is not that the Bible is insufficient. The problem is not that God is limited. The problem is that in the church, we have made many inferences and suppositions about parenting that are simply NOT biblical. We have presumed that God chooses to work via the same means, to the same ends, the vast majority of the time, and that the formula is as transferable from family to family as the Bible itself.

The western church has made a welcome course correction toward the biblical call for adoption and toward the meaningful  inclusion of children and families with disabilities. But we have been slower to adjust our parenting paradigm from our old frame of reference where the vast majority of children were born into believing families (where, for example, the rate of alcohol consumption and mental illness are statistically lower) and were not traumatically separated from birth family and birth culture. It was a time when a developmentally disabled child might be born into a large church a few times per year. Now, via adoption, church families bring them from the far ends of the earth to church by vans full every week.

Exhortations like, “Parenting is your highest calling” have out-lived their day –to be expected for an idea that carries only the ring of truth.

I am thrilled to be able to do more than observe that there is a need for the church to do better.  A faith-filled book already exists to get the conversation started. Leslie Leyland Fields’s Parenting is Your Highest Calling and 8 Other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt (WaterBrook, 2008) will be the subject of my next post.

Because some of you have already read it, you know how much Fields’s myth-busting matters. She does not hold out an ideal about parenting, but points us instead to the eternal Truth:

  • Blessed are those whose deepest fulfillment is found in God.
  • Blessed are those who God leads to see beyond present circumstances to eternal purposes.
  • Blessed are those who know what it means to “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)
  • “Blessed are you when you are reviled for my name’s sake.” (Jesus in Matthew 5:11)
  • Blessed are those who are humbled under the mighty hand of God, trusting that at the right time, He will exalt them. (I Peter 5:6)
  • Blessed are those who are protected from laying up treasures on earth. (Matthew 6:19-20)
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