“You are so blessed.”
“You’re an angel.”
“Are you Catholic?”
“Are they all yours?”
These statements are just a sampling of what people say to my husband and me when they find out we have seven children.
We have a blended family — three biological children and four who came to us from Tennessee through an interstate adoption program. Strangers and casual acquaintances step into our circle to celebrate our “good deed” as if we’re doing something to please God. These well-intentioned people have no clue that we are hiding something very important from them: our identity as atheists.
Most people assume it was our faith that led us to adopt. But after hearing all sorts of mischaracterizations and faulty conclusions about who we are, it’s time for me to speak up. We’re not religious and we’re adoptive parents.
In fact, because I’m a happy Secular Humanist parent, I have chosen to advocate for adopting older children and working through the complexities of interstate adoption. My hope is that we can encourage other secular families to find and take in children of their own. For too long, adoption has been linked with religious groups — not always, but often. That needs to change.
I don’t mind discussing adoption or atheism. The two have a lot in common and, in fact, both subjects can learn a lot from each other. Neither needs to be a secret and I don’t want my kids to be ashamed of either label.
However, those labels also don’t define our lives entirely; we are constantly evolving and growing and learning new ways to describe ourselves. (When you have seven kids, the definitions change frequently!) People celebrate adoption and many celebrate their own atheism, but the two worlds rarely intertwine. Both worlds are filled with rejection, intolerance, and misunderstanding.
There are angry atheists and there are angry adoptees. We are, however, on the happy end of both spectrums.
When I first discussed adoption with my husband, he assumed I wanted to travel to China to bring home a newly born baby. It was hard for him to grasp that I wanted to adopt a child and not an infant. I wanted to provide a home for a child who had grown up without one, not mold a child from birth. There’s a stigma against adopting older children (above the age of eight) and, before I even met my children, I had many people tell me why it wouldn’t work.
During our adoption home-study process, when adoption agencies assessed whether we would make good adoptive parents, we were asked about our religious upbringing, the church we currently attended, and how we would respect the foster child’s culture and potential decision to attend a church different from our own.
We never volunteered our atheism, nor were we asked; the social worker did, however, assume that we attended church. I suppose she had no reason to think otherwise — parents always adopt because of their faith, right? At least, both private and state agencies always wanted to know that information. I understand the need for thoroughly vetting a prospective family, but it’s not like they ever asked us about our political affiliations.
Even during the mandatory monthly foster parent meetings, I quickly learned that there was a degree of favoritism or intolerance depending on one’s religiosity. As a new foster parent, I was eager to share what I was thinking, but I discovered the more religious you said you were, the more popular you became within the group and the more placements you received.
I never felt I was able to declare my lack of religious belief to the foster care group because I feared I wouldn’t find any support. So I decided it would be better to accentuate my family’s values instead of a particular religious label so that we could steer clear from the religiosity that continues to support those who are believers.
That’s when we began inquiring about kids via AdoptUsKids.org. This website became my go-to resource for adopting children in the United States, specifically older children as opposed to infant adoption, and explained the whole process as well as the more complicated proceedings of an interstate adoption. It taught me that waiting families don’t have to adhere to someone else’s idea of “perfect” in order to adopt.
We stated honestly that we did not attend church. We were approved as adoptive parents on the basis of our experience and recommendations from the state agency. And then we stumbled upon a potential roadblock.
On Feb. 10, 2012, the Virginia Senate passed SB 349, known as the “Conscience Clause” bill. It was described as targeting LGBT populations in Virginia, but it also declared differences in religion as a factor for adoption. That meant that agencies receiving millions of dollars in state funding could discriminate against families they believed did not fit into their doctrine. I felt our opportunity to adopt disappearing. Words could not express my frustration. I promised my family I would never surrender.
Thankfully, those worries never came to fruition. We soon received a call that we would become parents — to a group of four siblings from Tennessee. We became adoptive parents because we were qualified and we had the qualities that these children needed. We did it without any help from god. And while we weren’t expecting that many children, we can no longer imagine our lives without each one of them.
Having gone through the process, I would now offer some advice to prospective atheist parents:
- Clarify your desire to adopt as a family and seek council with a trusted therapist specializing in adoption.
- Read everything you can about adoption, attachment issues, and legal barriers in your state.
- Do not let your lack of religious faith detour your goal.
- Join an online atheist & Humanist parenting group for (anonymous) support.
- Try respite care within a foster care agency first. By offering your services as a caretaker, you can learn what it’s like to help a child cope from a traumatic life event first hand. It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding. It’s also a way to dip your toes into the water of adoption.
- Be prepared to be rejected over and over (and over!). Don’t take the process personally.
My husband and I differ about whether or not to disclose one’s atheism to an agency. He believes it’s too soon in our society to be open about it entirely. But I think it’s our duty to be the change. If we don’t speak out, who will?
Children waiting to be adopted need secure, happy, and creative parents who will let them explore their own identities, deal with losses, and grieve. While adoption has traditionally been the purview of religious families, non-believers need to jump into the mix. All children deserve a home, especially older children, and secular families can do their part in providing homes for them. I encourage you to consider it as a way to really live out your Humanism.
Veronica Gilmore is the mother of a large blended family with seven children.