A while back I blogged about the insensitive comments infertile people often hear, including “Why not just adopt”.  This comment is certainly insensitive and unhelpful, but in response several people, including a woman named Maria, commented: “Adoption is just not the same as having a child of your own.”

Turns out that it isn’t just the infertile that are maimed by insensitivity.

The statement that adoption is not the same as having a child of your own is both remarkably accurate and remarkably wrong. The first part—“not the same as”—is quite true. Adoption and giving birth are two very different ways of creating your family. Just as New York City and Paris are two different vacation destinations, or chocolate and vanilla are two different flavors of ice cream.

What Adoptive Parents Miss

Adoptive parent don’t get to experience the joys and pains of pregnancy and birth.  They don’t have the visual proof of impending parenthood and the communal sharing this elicits.  They miss out on the wonder of seeing a tiny foot or head or butt make waves across the belly.  They don’t get to indulge in the pregnant parent’s favorite pastime–playing Guess the Gene. “Whose nose she will have” or “Will he get grandma’s gigantic feet?”  They likely won’t get to breastfeed exclusively.  The expense of adoption, while often similar to the expense of giving birth, is covered by the adoptive parents rather than insurance.  And then there is the worry about the unknown–prenatal exposures, genetic conditions, emotional state of the expectant mother, and on and on.

What Parents Who Have Not Adopted Miss

We seem to focus so readily on what adoptive parent miss by not giving birth that we overlook what parents by birth miss by not adopting.  As a mother by birth and adoption, I have often felt a little sorry for people who haven’t adopted.  They have missed so much.

If you haven’t adopted you haven’t felt the breath holding excitement of “getting the call” announcing that an expectant mother has chosen you (domestic adoption) or that you have been selected as a match by the child’s caseworker (foster care adoption) or that a child has been referred (international adoption).  You’ve missed the wonder of meeting a fully formed human being that is your child, complete with all the unspoken possibilities of that relationship.  Oh, and you’ll never have the pins and needles sensation of waiting to travel to pick up your child whether you’re driving across town or flying across an ocean—making lists, packing and unpacking, giggling at absolutely nothing, and worrying over absolutely everything.

People who’ve never adopted have never felt the overwhelming intensity of first meeting their child.  It’s hard to explain the giddy anticipation mixed with unnamed anxiety.  This combination of emotions helps etch even the tiniest details into your memory forever– the colors, the smells, the words, the emotions.  For me, this moment is one of my “mountain top experiences”.

Adoption can make the everyday seem miraculous. The moment when this child that you met only a few months or even weeks before seeks you, and only you, out of the crowd with her eyes. The moment when you realize that your small developmentally delayed child is now a robust into-everything preschooler, and the quiet pride you feel knowing that but for you, these gains may not have happened. The contentment in knowing that you took a risk and it paid off.  A feeling of satisfaction unique to adoptive parents when we look around our Thanksgiving table and realize that we are a family created by choice and love.

Yes Marie, you’re so right.  Creating a family by adoption is not the same as creating a family by birth.  You couldn’t be more wrong, however, about the “child of your own” part.

What Exactly Is “A Child of Your Own”?

I’m not exactly sure what Marie and others meant by “a child of your own”, but it implies a desire for a child who looks and acts like you.  A child you conceive will share half your DNA, and while it’s true that appearance and certain characteristics are influenced by genetics, what’s most interesting from research, as well as from my personal experience, is how little of our traits, personality, and intelligence are controlled exclusively by our genes.  (I highly recommend the Creating a Family  show on Nature vs. Nurture).

A child conceived and born of you and your spouse will be a mixing of two different gene pools, with a unique environment thrown in for good measure.  Your child by birth may be nothing like you at all. I can honestly say that I am no more similar to my kids by birth than to my kid by adoption. And for the record, similarities are overrated. Being similar to a child doesn’t guarantee closeness or parental enjoyment. In fact, sometimes it means just the opposite. Also, it’s easy to find similarities with all your kids if you look for them.

I suspect that those who made the comments are seeking a feeling of “this child is mine”. But what they are missing is that this feeling comes through the acts of parenting. Sure, giving birth is one act, and a big darn act at that, but parenting is made up of thousands of acts each day, and it is the sum total of all these acts of claiming that creates this feeling of “owness”. Biology has little to do with it, unless you make it.

I worry a little when I hear the word “own” used in relation to our children. I am sure that Marie would assure me that she wasn’t using “own” in the possessive sense, but I wonder.  I know that before I had children, and even when my children were young, I thought of them as an extension of myself. It was only after my children grew older that I completely grasped the concept that I am only along for a short part of the ride. I can influence and guide, but never own. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all Kahlil Gibran on you, but your kids are never really yours regardless how they join your family.

I can hear it now, all these things I mentioned that are special about adoption are not necessarily unique to adoption. Parents by birth can and do have some of these same experiences. True enough, but doesn’t that help make the bigger point? I have always realized that I am immensely blessed to have had children by both birth and adoption. I can’t imagine not having had the joy and excitement of doing it both ways.  Neither giving birth to a child nor adopting a child is superior; both are special, and both are great ways to have a child of your very own.

Other Creating a Family Resources You Will Enjoy

First published in 2014; Updated in 2017.
Image Credit: Gantas Vaičiulėnas; Kindel