We gathered around a hotel table in Asheville, North Carolina, our attention divided between coffee refills, the morning news, and a toddler who refused her breakfast. We noticed the occasional glance or smile from fellow guests, which we were used to, but an elderly woman nearby finally looked at my parents—and down the table to my African American siblings. “Are all those kids yours,” she inquired, “or are they foster kids?” My mom smiled and replied, “No, they’re not foster kids. They’re all ours, and God has blessed us.” The woman returned to her breakfast, and we returned to ours.
My five siblings and I were adopted into a Christian family as infants. Now, as an adult, I can see the ways my parents equipped me to understand my identity.
Identity is a tricky subject for adopted children. Discussions at the doctor’s office about my medical history result in unanswered questions. Kids on the school playground ask, “Did your parents give you up because they hated you?” A classmate once asked me what Russian orphanage I was adopted from. These questions can rattle an adoptee’s identity. However, my parents’ thoughtful guidance—and their wise use of five tools—strengthened my identity and prepared me to confidently respond to complex questions.
1. Sound Theology
From the earliest days, my parents taught our family that we testify before the world to the truth that God “predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:4–5).
Having accepted Christ as my Savior, I had an intimate understanding of what it means to be part of God’s eternal family because of the example of my earthly family. My place in my family is not an accident—my adoption was planned and known by God.
Knowing this truth—God lovingly and intentionally places adoptees into their adoptive families—helps ground an adoptee’s sense of identity. An adoptee’s identity is not solely found in the biological family, but also in the adoptive family and the family of God. Having a biblical perspective on adoption equipped me to share the gospel through my adoption story.
My understanding of my identity was further grounded in my parents’ pride in our family’s adoption story. For the past 21 years, they have engaged questions and comments about adoption with the same conclusion: “They’re all ours, and God has blessed us.” My siblings and I have never once doubted our parents’ love.
A common struggle in many adoptive families is mixing biological and adopted children. In these situations, adopted children will sometimes feel “second best” to biological children, thinking their differences make them outsiders. No matter the number of biological or adopted children in a family, it’s crucial that parents assure adopted children of their family identity.
3. Open Adoption
One of the greatest gifts my parents gave our family is open adoption. When appropriate, open adoption can be a critical part of identity formation in adoptees. Through communication and time with an adoptee’s biological family, the relationship between adoptive and biological families is strengthened, giving adoptees knowledge of their family and heritage.
I’ve been blessed by my relationship with my birth family, who welcome me with open arms, answer my questions, celebrate my accomplishments, and show up for my milestones. Adoptive families should take every opportunity to cultivate a relationship with their child’s birth family, so long as it is safe for all involved.
If open adoption is not a possibility, I recommend adoptive parents obtain whatever information they can regarding their adopted child’s family and story, as this information will help adoptees build a picture of their history and heritage.
4. Honest Conversations
My parents cultivated an environment in which honest conversations take place. If my siblings or I have questions about our adoption story, my parents respond with grace and patience, in age-appropriate ways that honor our birth families.
I recall being a young teenager, desiring more information on my biological father. I asked my mom for information; she carefully explained what she knew. Her honest and respectful approach helped me feel comfortable asking questions about my identity.
My parents’ honesty about adoption, birth parent relationships, and other topics has helped me answer questions with greater grace and compassion. I understand what it’s like to ask a potentially awkward question about adoption. When others ask about my family’s story—even if their question is insensitive or misguided—I know how to respond graciously and compassionately because my parents have modeled this for me.
A compassionate, gracious response can open the eyes of someone who has never experienced adoption, enabling them to see the blessing of adoption in the life of adoptees, adoptive families, and birth families. No matter the adoptee’s age, parents should be prepared to give an honest, gracious response to the questions their child asks. These conversations have a tremendous effect on an adoptee’s understanding of identity.
For adoptees, one of the best means of learning and embracing their identity is a community of other adoptive families and adoptees—those who have walked a similar road and understand the complexities of adoption. My family is blessed to have an adoption community that encourages us through difficult birth-parent relationships, medical challenges, and identity crises. The counsel and encouragement we receive is unlike any other, because it comes from people who’ve been where we are and understand the peculiar challenges we face.
The local church is a tremendous source of encouragement and counsel for adoptive families.
The local church is a tremendous source of encouragement and counsel for adoptive families. Even though some members aren’t adoptive families, they extend the same welcome to adopted children as they would to anyone else. This welcome shows the adopted child (and adoptive family) they are a beloved, treasured brother or sister in Christ, whose presence in the family of God is priceless. A loving, welcoming church community is a blessing to adoptive families because it provides needed gospel encouragement no matter the hardship or identity challenge.
These five tools—sound theology, family, open adoption, honest conversation, and community—strengthened my identity and equipped me to confidently advocate for adoption. As God brings adoptive families to mind, prayerfully consider how you might encourage and support the identity development of adoptees around you.