Thankful, not grateful, Part I


“Aren’t you grateful?” Those were the words, uttered by my first grade teacher, that made me realize there was another standard for adoptees. Six year olds recognize unfairness. We know when someone else gets a longer turn on the swings, or a bigger piece of cake. It was simple; all I had to do was compare myself with my cousins. If it was one way for them and another for me, it was unfair. No one would ask them if they were grateful they weren’t adopted.

So the disillusionment began. Being different and knowing it. And not only that, but the expectation that I should be grateful. It doesn’t stop with adoption.

“Just be grateful you weren’t an abortion!”

Because we know adoption is just two steps up from terminating a pregnancy. The step in-between, of course, is abandonment.

That’s been thrown in my face as well. By someone I thought was a friend. She declared it like she was the first to form the thought, like the people who say, with the zeal of a televangelist or talk show host, “The people who raised you are your ‘real parents’!”

(Wow. I never thought of that, having lived my entire life as an adoptee. Where is that sarcasm font?)

“Just be grateful you were adopted and not an abortion.” Because it so easily could have gone either way.

If my adoptive parents are my real parents, and children are not expected to be grateful for merely being alive, why am I expected to be grateful for being adopted? Oh right. Because I could have been an abortion. Wait. Wouldn’t I be grateful to my birth mother in that case, for carrying me to term? So…grateful to my birth mother (who isn’t my real mother) for abandoning me rather than aborting, because obviously that is not beneath someone of such low moral character, and grateful to my adoptive (REAL) parents for compromising on reproduction and raising me. Since I am their daughter, almost. They are my real parents but I am not their real daughter. I am their adopted daughter. So I need to be grateful.

Can you imagine declaring: “That is your real son!” if a coworker mentioned their son was not born to them? Or upon hearing a neighbor adopted a child, would you say: “You should be grateful he wasn’t an abortion!” How is blurting out Really Inappropriate Things okay if it’s directed at an adoptee?

To the non-adopted, when was the last time you felt grateful for not being aborted? When I asked someone that, they were shocked. “My mother wanted me.” My mother wanted me, too. That wasn’t the question. Why are the adopted expected to be grateful merely for being alive? Why is our eternal gratefulness demanded by society?

Spoiler alert: My adoptive father and birth mother met, and when they did, they thanked each other, for me. Dad thanked my mother for giving me to them. She thanked him for raising me. No one ever told them they should be grateful.

Thankfulness and gratefulness are not one in the same. It’s not semantics. Words matter. We can be thankful for something. We are grateful to someone. To say we should be grateful is saying we are somehow indebted. And it further implies we are somehow undeserving for what comes naturally to others. Things like birthrights, inheritance, and love and affection from parents. Maybe that’s why we’re “special”? (Sorry, sarcasm again.)

Christians love leveling the grateful line. “We were all adopted by God, so adoption is good!” Does God seal records? Is it considered a blessing to be separated from the one’s family of origin? If so, why isn’t everyone taken from their biological parents and given to others to raise? “Moses was adopted!” Moses reunited with his birth family in adulthood and came back to slaughter those who adopted him, with God’s approval. Maybe he just wasn’t grateful. Someone should have scolded him that the Egyptian princess was his real mother and that he could have been part of the culling of Hebrew babies (that her family ordered). Reminded him that he could have been raised a slave instead of a prince. Reminded him that he was only Hebrew by birth–what’s important is that he was chosen to be Egyptian after his birth mother abandoned him there in the bulrushes. Ungrateful, bitter little brat.

Be thankful in all circumstances. 1 Thes 5:18

I remember this being a key verse in Corrie ten Boom’s “The Hiding Place,” which my adoptive mother read to me. Even while dying in Ravensbrück concentration camp, Corrie’s sister Betsie admonished her to hold fast to this. To be thankful in all circumstances. Including a flea infestation. But no one told them to be grateful.

The only references I can find to the term “grateful” in the bible is in regards to God. We are to be grateful to God.

For everything created by God is good…if it is received with gratitude, for it is sanctified…  1 Tim 4:4-5

What I do not see in that verse is God’s command that we are to be grateful to anyone other than God. If we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, adopted by God, equal in standing, it would be an insult to the Creator to be grateful to other human beings for what God has given us. We are called to be thankful in our circumstances and grateful to God alone.

And if the 1 Timothy verse is to be followed, wouldn’t it be the parents who should be grateful, since they are the ones receiving the gift of a child? Yet how often do you hear of adoptive parents being asked if they are grateful?

I know this makes people uncomfortable, because it isn’t “nice.” Adoption is a human institution and a strange one, not God’s plan, as so many like to think. We want to think of the content adoptee, an eternal child, only needing the love of adoptive parents, having been saved from the dirty family of origin. A grateful little waif. But this is not Christian. And it is not healthy or even normal. It is akin to another artificial dynamic: slavery. God didn’t create that, either.

Elle Cuardaigh is author of The Tangled Red Thread and contributor to The Adoptee Survival Guide 


twitter: @ElleCuardaigh


6 thoughts on “Thankful, not grateful, Part I

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