I am not a legally adopted child, but I feel adopted. I was raised by my stepfather and consider him to be my “real” father. For me, a piece of paper does not change my relationship with him. When I was a teenager, my mother and I considered what it would be like for my stepfather to legally adopt my brother and me. It was never an option for our family because my biological father would never give up his legal rights. However, not being legally adopted by my stepfather never changed the relationship I had with him. He put food on the table, gave me a safe home to live in, and provided all of my needs—but my stepfather gave me so much more than that. He was my soccer coach, and he taught me how to do a budget and plan financially. He was there for me during breakups and helped me with babysitting when I was a full-time working, single-mother and a full-time grad student. My stepfather has always been one of my greatest cheerleaders, spiritual leaders, and life teachers. He never had any biological children of his own, so when he dies, I will be heir to his earthly possessions. I am forever sealed to my stepfather because of his love and the sacrifices he made for me.
I am also a foster mother moving toward adopting my 3-year-old boy. The adoption process is lengthy and slow moving. Again, the legal framework of adoption does not change the relationship I have with my foster son. I love him as much as I love my two other biological children. When I die, he will share my inheritance equally with my biological children and any future children we have—adopted or biological. Because of his background, my foster son has special needs that my biological children do not have, nor will they ever completely understand. Therefore, my relationship with him is different from my other children. However, the relationships I have with my two biological children are different from each other as well. A piece of paper does not change how I treat my son or how I feel about him. Nevertheless, the legal process will change things for us. For example, I will no longer have to answer to social workers checking on us bimonthly. I can take him out of the country for vacations as I please, and I will no longer have to notify the Department of Children’s Services every time I want to take him out of state.
Recently, I spoke to a teenager who wants to be legally adopted by the foster family he currently lives with. He believes in his heart that his foster parents treat him and love him as their own, but something about going through the legal process changes that dynamic for him, much like being legally married to someone solidifies the relationship. It also acts as a symbol to the outside world that says, “I am bound to this person/people for eternity, and nothing can separate us.” I believe that adoption is a very important step in making children feel like they finally have a home; however, it is not the end to this journey. What seals us to one another is love and a yearning to be wanted. When we adopt or foster, we are telling our children, “I love you; I choose you; I want you.” That knowledge is a powerful motivator for life.
When we have parents or a parent-figure who makes us feel loved, cherished, and happy, we can focus on things that make us happy and move forward in the stages of life. When we feel neglected or unwanted, we tend to be emotionally “stuck,” unable to move forward in relationships with friends and with significant others. (I’ve been there!)
Yes, a piece of paper can solidify an adoption, yes it is important, and the ceremony surrounding adoption, just like a wedding, is an outwardly expression of what is happening inside the heart. But if the legal process doesn’t turn out the way we expect due to unforeseen circumstances, then the love in our hearts is what connects and solidifies adoption. Families are made and grown though love, devotion and commitment, not through shared DNA.