Adoption stands incomplete until that moment when your child adopts you back. He calls you Mom not because it’s your name, but because he’s naming who you’ve become to him. When she’s with you, whether you’re crossing a street hand in hand or she’s jumping into your arms in the pool, her trust is evident.
Relational reciprocity is more than a mere exchange or the returning of a favor. Philosophers talk about reciprocal altruism, where you give what you expect another to give you and cultivate a pragmatic goodwill that allows for group formation and cohesion. While the dynamic is similar, adoptive reciprocity burrows deeper, pushing toward family formation. This kind of reciprocity has a force all its own—a centrifugal force that pushes outward toward others, including them in our embrace.
The soil of gratitude
When Emma was 18 months old, Claude and I brought her home. Her birth mother had died of AIDS. It felt like we had snatched her from death and disease, from a life defined by a hospice order and lived out in a small orphanage. Her homecoming was a healing.
Months later we sat in her room. After a cavalcade of kisses and giggles, she stilled, then looked at me with a hint of a smile. Her eyes reflected an awareness she didn’t have words for yet. Gratitude. That’s the only way to describe what I witnessed deep in her eyes. My husband thinks my imagination got the best of me that night. But my observation stands. She’s grateful for her life; she knows she almost lost it.
Gratitude isn’t unique to those in the company of the adopted. But adopted living can shape something deep in us. We know our life could have turned out otherwise. We could have been left to sickness, resigned to death, or never brought home. But someone decided to welcome us and make room for us at their table.
I don’t take for granted family photos, birthday celebrations, frequent hugs, and nighttime prayers. Even mundane sundries and stern words eventually find appreciation because they point to the truth—I belong here. Against all the biological odds, I found family and a daily table set for me.
I’m grateful for the unconditional love my parents continue to offer me, 40-plus years into our adopted life together. And more often than not, my son can express gratitude for our shared life, even as painful questions about his birth mom and relinquishment punctuate his thoughts on adoption. Our daily diet of love tells us we irrevocably belong.