This old Negro spiritual dates back to American slavery, and expresses the pain and sorrow of separation. Some say that it depicts a literal separation of mother and child, and some say it is a metaphor for the separation of slaves from their homeland, and still others say it refers to the separation of earthly beings from their heavenly home. The inhumane treatment of slaves certainly would make all three of those concurrent possibilities. I first heard this song back in the ’60s long before I knew I would adopt kids. I was not adopted, and had a secure home with a good mom and dad, but the song spoke to me. It was performed by Richie Havens at Woodstock, and I was so moved by his rendition that I still listen to his recording once in a while.
I was not a motherless child, nor did I yet know that I would be a childless mother, but I identified with the theme of this song. Although only 15, I had a sense that there was something more, something better, something missing. I am not alone; whether you listen to the 1939 Judy Garland version, or the Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwoʻole version which I find equally delightful, you hear the longing for something better in the song Over the Rainbow.
Going back even farther to my early elementary school days, I recall being in my grandparent’s department store, and seeing among the framed reproductions, a Gustave Dore painting of Adam & Eve fleeing the Garden of Eden. I was fascinated with that particular painting that stood out among the beautiful nature scenes and historic sites. I felt a sadness that they had to leave the Garden of Eden, and what that meant for all of their progeny as well. However I did not comprehend at that young age the full impact of sin in the world. I knew that God was not keen with sin in general, or my own particular brand, but I thought of sin more in terms of punishment, rather than separation from a loving God.
I mention this because when my children began to experience and communicate some of their struggles with being adopted, I had three immediate thoughts running through my head. The first was that to some extent, I think everyone has some separation issues, even if they have not experienced adoption, divorce, or abuse. To quote Augustine, 4th century bishop of Hippo,
Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.
When we are not connected to God in a harmonious relationship, such as we were created to have, there is indeed a restlessness even if one is not aware of its origins. So if you can imagine a non-flippant, but initial knee jerk response to the sharing of hidden pain about adoption, mine was, albeit laced with motherly concern… join the club. I know, it looks bad in black and white text, but it was not thought of with any kind of malice. It was a nod to the common restlessness if you will, with things in this world being out of kilter.
My second thought was that I naively did not see this coming. Like many young adoptive parents, our perspective was that our kids were darn lucky to have been placed in a loving home, and that they lacked for nothing, and should be grateful to us. After all, many kids grow up with biological parents who do not treat them as well as we treated our kids. Again, that sounds so crass in black and white text, but that is the short version of my thinking.
Happily my third big thought came to the surface and kicked both the knee-jerk and naive thinking off the stage, and I took some time to listen and consider my kids’ concerns. It was not that they were not grateful to their Daddy and I, and it was not that they were unhappy with how they grew up, and it was not that they wished that they had been raised by their single birth mothers. It was just that…they hated that they were given up. They would have much preferred to have been born into our family the usual way. Deep inside their psyches was the ache that someone, in fact the someone who should have been the most nurturing person to them, gave them away. I sighed deeply as I listened to their thoughts; Carl Jung would back them up on their abandonment issues. Indeed, it was painful to me, their mom in all respects except biology, to realize that this deep wound could not be dressed by me. No, such a big hurt could only be healed by God Himself, and I committed myself to pray for that for my children.
Like it or not, many adopted children struggle with abandonment issues, though it pains me to admit it. As one of my children shared with me, “It feels like they decided you were trash, and just threw you away.” I was shocked to hear this graphic and emotional response mostly because I had believed that our loving narrative shared with our kids as they grew up had paved the way for removal of any deep heartache. But I felt glad that they shared this picture with me, as it illustrated their feelings so well. And I could learn from them.
Being a mom meant that I hurt with, and for, my kids. Being an English teacher meant that I was a lover of words and stories. Therefore both of my professions pushed me to search for a better metaphor. One day it came to me, and I went back to my kid to propose a different way to frame adoption. Suppose, I said that you were not at all trash to be gotten rid of, but rather a precious jewel to be delivered to safety at great personal risk by one, and to be rescued gently and lovingly by two others? What if, I continued, you exchange your trash can metaphor… for a lifeboat? Although I have not found a painting that depicts this, and sadly Gustave Dore is no longer with us, I shared my inside my head-painting about adoption.
Picture a turbulent sea, with the ship going down fast. The birth mother knows she must choose safety for her precious child, even if it brings great sorrow to her own heart. With all the determination she can muster, weeping quietly, she reluctantly but carefully hands her precious child over to the young couple in the lifeboat. The mom hides this precious bundle inside her coat and the dad takes his coat off and puts it over both of them. They bring the child in close with kisses and tears and hugs and more love than they ever knew was humanly possible. They promise the birth mother to nurture this child with all their soul and mind and strength, and she smiles weakly and thanks them, grateful that no matter what happens to her, she knows she gave her child the best chance she could.
An adoption is a rescue, rather than a toss-away. Being adopted is to be carefully placed in a life boat, with all grown-ups committed to the safety and security of that precious human being. There are no trash cans in this painting, but there are many tears, smiles, kisses, and much sacrificial love.
Oh, and I think I would want an angel in this painting too, but rather than brandishing a prohibitive sword, this time the angel would be smiling. This kind of love is more divine than human, and I’m not sure if angels get to see it everyday.
Greater love hath no man than this, that He lay down His life for His friends. John 15:13