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Why Adoption is Supposed to be Hard

We have been home from China with Jeremiah for 6 weeks, and when people ask me how we’re all doing I usually say, “We’re alive, and that’s our only goal right now, so good I think.” We could safely say that this has been the most stretching and overwhelming two months of our lives, and tears have been plentiful in the Clements household. While we are still raw in this journey, I wanted to process some things we’ve been learning in the hopes that it would help us and anyone else who may walk this road in the future.

Kristi and I have always been staggered by how clearly adoption is a picture of the gospel. It’s no accident that Paul uses the imagery of adoption multiple times to describe what God did for us–that we were spiritual orphans, completely hopeless and as good as dead, and God adopted us into His family through the costly blood of His Son. He chose to take on immense suffering on our behalf, so that we could be reconciled to Him.

So when we were dating, engaged and first married, we’d talk about adoption all the time. We knew it was in God’s plan for our family. We’d meet families and just marvel at how beautifully we saw the story of the gospel through their adoption, or their willingness to foster kids–to be a literal ministry of reconciliation between a hurting child and a struggling birthparent. We’d watch the tearjerker videos about adoption. I still remember one a while ago that was called I Like Adoption about this family who adopted 9 or 10 kids from all over the world, many with severe special needs. Watching that video cemented in our hearts that we were not supposed to leave this Earth without bringing as many fatherless kids as we can into our family.

We saw the gospel in adoption, yes. That’s what motivated us to do it. But all of the things we talked about and saw, we didn’t know yet–at least not fully. And all of those videos, as wonderful as they are–they don’t show you the really ugly and hard parts. They show you the parts that make you cry, they don’t show the parent weeping on the bathroom floor because they are so overwhelmed they think they might die (I mean, I haven’t done that of course, but I’m sure other people have…)

Fast forward in our journey to Sept 16th of this year. We walk into a very hot government affairs building in China, and with little warning a group of orphanage workers randomly walk in with a bunch of kids. And there, in the arms of one of them, is our son Jeremiah. The one we’d stared at pictures of for months. He has on a green shirt that says “Kitchen Cat,” red Hello Kitty pants, and one pink shoe. He looks like Christmas.


The first couple of days feel kind of like a honeymoon phase. We’re new and fun to him and he’s new and fun to us. He’s outside of his orphanage for the first time, so he’s just having a blast. Then a couple of days in, he starts wondering “Actually, what is going on here? Who are you people and why are you so white? What is this strange language you are speaking?…”


This uncertainty happens right about the time that we get on a plane (which he’s obviously never been on) for 24 hours. And at the end of that plane ride–which was so miserable I’ve completely blacked it out of my memory–we’ve stayed up all night 2 nights in a row. And then we get to deal with the evil that is a 12 hour time change. We had never done that before, and let me tell you, evil isn’t a strong enough word for it.

But of course, we couldn’t get over that time change until he did. All 17 months of his life he’d been on the same schedule, and now here we were telling him day was actually nighttime. So after what we thought was the most exhausting and emotionally draining 2 weeks of our lives, we go to bed every night and at midnight Jeremiah’s awake for the day. For about the next two weeks. In this time, we hit depths of exhaustion and instability we didn’t know were a thing.

When he is awake, he consistently freaks out because he has no idea what is happening. He squeals so excruciatingly loud and often that it physically hurts our ears, to the point that I bought earplugs to wear around the house (I don’t know of a better word than squeal—it’s much different than a typical baby cry). This deafening, nonstop siren presses buttons in me that I didn’t even know existed.

He’s afraid of Sully, his 2 year old sister, and she just doesn’t like him at all yet. She can’t fathom why this baby won’t quit squealing like a terrified banshee, or why he bites her and Isla when they get too close to him. Sully has been markedly more obstinate and emotionally unstable since we’ve been home–privy to throw tantrums we’ve never seen her throw over things she used to not bat an eye at–all her way of revolting against a change she doesn’t love and can’t fully understand. In the moment, those self-destructions are really hard to watch.

She’s very protective of her baby sister, and even though Isla is in some ways oblivious as a baby, even she often has a confused look on her face, like she’s thinking “Aren’t I supposed to be the one crying and getting all the attention here?” Which she does, mostly at night (she’s generally an angel during the day). We joke that she’s plotting to get alone time with us, but the joke wears as sleep continues to be assaulted by at least one baby waking up at all hours of the night. We planned for the babies to share a room, and the day we got home we realized, “Oh—that’s not gonna work. They’ll wake each other up all night.” So for now Jeremiah sleeps in a pack’n’play. In our closet.

Add all of this together, and well—that’s the part where weeping on the bathroom floor may have occurred. Once. Or maybe twice. It’s really hard to say at this point. We’ve had some very dark, despairing moments.


All that to say—here is what we are learning, slowly and fitfully in this process that’s harder than we expected it to be—it’s supposed to feel this way.

It’s supposed to be this hard.

The grief that all of us are sharing in right now is not abnormal, and it doesn’t mean we’re doing it wrong. In fact, it means we’re doing it right. I think that’s important to acknowledge, because a lot of times in adoption circles all you hear are the positive things, the Instagram-worthy moments. Unless you happen to be close to an adoptive parent and share a quiet conversation over drinks you may never hear some of these things, I think because a lot of people feel like if they talk about how hard it all is that may feel like they are talking bad about their adopted child. While we get that, we’d love to be a voice for realism, because those voices are what has helped us the most.

The one verse that has stuck out to me the most in this process is James 1:27:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

While we are still in the throes of the first few months of our adoption, the word affliction jumps out at me. It pops up from the page and grabs me by the throat, because I see it in my son. When a child does not have a family due to the immense brokenness of the world, that child will be afflicted. He will inherit an enormous, shattering amount of pain. And that affliction–that pain–it will not be contained to him. It will go somewhere. It will be passed along to others in one way or another. It has to.

So where I used to read this verse and know the word affliction–now I read it and I feel it.

And, let me tell you, it hurts.

Because here’s the thing: at two months old, Jeremiah was left on the side of a busy highway in a huge city, just outside a subway station and police headquarters. He was wrapped up in blankets with a note pinned to him that said:


11:53 pm

He weighed 6 pounds, and he was incredibly sick from an infection that he was born with that kills 20% of babies it is passed to. For the next 6 weeks, a time when babies are supposed to be rocked and cuddled and goo’d and gah’d to, he laid in a hospital bed. He was poked with needles, prodded with tubes, taken care of by shift workers with far too much on their plates. For 6 weeks, all alone in a hospital room, with no momma there to soothe his cries. Then he went to an orphanage for the next year + of his life, where he slept in a room with fifty-something cribs lined wall-to-wall and fought for attention and affection every hour that he was awake.


Jeremiah’s finding spot.


His crib, with his Ayi (nanny).


Because of all this, our son, he carries affliction. Deep, yearning, and fierce affliction that comes out with the many tears and tantrums and squeals that are too piercing for words.

And again, that pain—that affliction—will not bottle up inside of him forever. It has to come out, somewhere and somehow. It will either continue to fester in him as he continues his orphan-ness and be unleashed on everyone he meets for the rest of his life, or it can have a source to flow into that will brace for impact and absorb that pain.

Enter the other four members of the Clements family.

What we are learning is that what adoption is, is a family who is willing to step in and say,“We will take your affliction. We will take the very real pain you have from not having a family. We’ll absorb it so you won’t have to bear it anymore… 

We will weep on the bathroom floor, so hopefully one day you don’t have to.”

All of us, even down to the grinning and slightly confused 8 month old. We are all posting up under the weight of his affliction, in one way or another.

Because that’s exactly what Jesus has done for us. This is the refrain we keep repeating to ourselves and to Sully, “Because of Jesus, we do hard things to sacrifice for others.”

And what we are finding is that there is a special joy that comes from sharing in the sufferings of Christ, in sacrificing for the good of another. The reason adoption is so representative of the gospel is because chosen suffering is necessary for it to happen, and chosen suffering is exactly the road Jesus walked for us. He willingly got up on that cross and bore every ounce of our affliction. The gospel is not a painless story, and walking through this process has allowed us to see that more clearly than ever.

Honestly, sometimes I don’t even have words for what this feels like, and I just have tears. Sometimes they aren’t all happy tears, but they are good tears. Out of all this, what I do have is a greater appreciation for the suffering that Jesus chose for us. I can’t think of anything else we could have chosen to do in life that would have this effect on our souls and our appreciation for Jesus.

Adoption hurts all that are involved. The wounds are deep, the grief is real, and the tears are abundant. None of it is easy, and watching Jeremiah grieve or Sully implode with confusion brings out sorrow that feels overwhelming at times.

But just like the gospel, the great irony is that life comes out of sacrifice. It’s not just hard and then it’s over, but joy and depth and relationship and long-term soul formation flow out of sacrifice. A new family is made through the crucible of suffering, and deeper joys grow out of many sacrifices that fade slowly into unimportance.

Jeremiah gets a family. My wife and I get the joy of a new son and a lifelong experience of the gospel. We get to be challenged and stretched and more aware of our sinfulness and need for Jesus than ever before. Sully and Isla get a brother that they will be immeasurably thankful for one day. They get to have their souls formed in sanctifying ways by becoming family with someone who didn’t have one, and their hearts will grow more beautiful because of it.

Today? Today is hard. We are still in the throes. There is grief all around.

But I keep thinking about 5 years from now. They’ll be running around our backyard, and who knows who will favor and dislike the others at that point, but Lord willing it will be a gracious riot then. They will hate each other, sure, but in the I-love-you-like-crazy sort of way. 

I think about 10 years from now, and all the glorious awkwardness of middle school. I’m hoping they rise to have one another’s backs, to defend their siblings in whatever pointless teenage drama that most certainly will occur. I die for the day that Sully or Isla defiantly say “That’s my brother,” and vice versa.

I think about their wedding days, and how they will feel about one another as they toss bouquets and flip garters. I pray that they will laugh and dance and shed tears that flow out of fierce affection and appreciation for one another. That they will love Jesus with all their might and know from his example that sacrifice makes a soul more beautiful.

I pray that when they look at one another they will know that family is formed by choosing to suffer together, and that the very cores of their being will shine with something that does not come from the core of their being.


Recently I was talking with a guy about adoption, and he was sharing his hesitation. He feels protective, as most good dads do, and he voiced that he just didn’t know if he was okay bringing that level of damage and heartache into his family. He was afraid that doing so would somehow mess up the people he loves most, and he ended by saying he just didn’t know if they could afford to take that risk.

It’s a concern that I understand as I survey the initial effects this has had on our family. His fear hits me too, if I’m honest. But through all of this, and through my prayers for the mature and shining souls I hope our whole family comes to display, I’m starting to think about it very differently.

I’m starting to think that we can’t afford NOT to take that risk. 

Adoption hurts, yes. It is supposed to.

But it doesn’t hurt forever.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

-Romans 8:18

The glory? I’m starting to see it. Just barely…just a hint. But it is there, and it is real, and it knocks me to the floor.

Already I know that I will never be the same. None of us will, in the best way possible.

About the Author

Brandon Clements