We Didn’t Save Him: Addressing the Hero Complex in Adoption

When we began our foster care journey, and subsequently with our four placements (Mancub, Little Bean, Tiny Princess and Sweet Potato), we have heard about how “awesome” we are. And before I get to the meat of today’s post on my beef with the “hero complex” mindset, I want to say that we totally appreciate the support. But, the amount of verbal praise and affirmations is almost embarrassing at times. People have also called us “inspiring,” “amazing,” and so on. And while I very much appreciate the positivity that people wish to extend to us, …


It’s Always Bothered Me



But it has taken me a while to put my finger on exactly why it bothers me. I mean, really, … who doesn’t love a nice compliment?


The first few times it happened, I found myself looking down at the ground, shuffling my feet a bit, and muttering, “thanks,” before quickly changing the subject. And other times, I have sidestepped the discomfort by telling people that its actually the kids who are amazing. But as the comments have continued over the years, and as we’ve grown in our relationship with our son, I have become more aware of why those comments don’t sit well. And in my mind, there are two reasons.


1. We Wanted to Have a Family


This is the honest truth of the matter. The fact that we were not conceiving our children biologically does not make me Mother Theresa. There was selfishness involved at the beginning! (There, I said it.) Because Mr. Bean and I had always wanted to be parents. Pure and simple. Now then, …


Did we open our hearts to a different reality than we had originally envisioned?




And have we since become passionate about a very worthy cause?




But to think that Mr. Bean and I were 125% selfless from the get-go is not an accurate perception.


The truth of the matter is that we started out wanting one thing. But as we learned more about the reality of foster care and adoption, our hearts became broken.


Once we knew about the hurting kids out there, in need of families, … we couldn’t stay the same. We knew that some of these hurting kids would need a family for a just a little while, and some would need a family forever. And we became … ready for that. Ready to jump in and get vulnerable.


But it was a process. We don’t have, like, any special gifts or anything. It is not a part of our DNA. If anything, it goes against the grain of our DNA! (And yes, we absolutely do get attached to all of our kids, whether they stay forever, or only for a while!) But this change in us?? It didn’t all happen overnight.


So, please know that we always appreciate your well wishes and positive thoughts! But also, its good to remember the whole picture. Which brings me to my second point.


2. It Forces Our Kids Into a Narrative of Gratitude


Ah! Here is the most significant bone I have to pick with the hero complex in adoption. When we say that the parents of foster and adopted children are amazinginspirationalawesome and so forth … what we are kind of saying, by default, is that those kids … the ones who we foster or adopt … should be grateful. It brings the kids down to a little lesser of a rung of human being than their all-benevolent (adoptive) parents.


Because if we feel that somehow the foster/adoptive parents are doing these kids a huge favor by choosing to invest in them, despite the fact that they may …

leave, or

break our stuff, or

break our hearts, or

drain and stress us, …

then that puts the foster and adoptive parents in the position of being some kind of “magnanimous saints” who sacrificially take up their cause. And that view feels very wrong.


So here is my real life example. Our Little Bean had a hard start in life. For almost a year and a half. And then, against his consent, he was moved, twice, to strangers.


He was removed from the only home and parents that he knew. And then, against his consent and on a moment’s notice, he forever lost the only family he knew, … and they were replaced with another that he had no choice in. He suffered a catastrophic loss that day that he will spend the rest of his days wrestling with, and, we pray, healing from.




Because in expecting gratitude from him, what I am actually doing is dismissing his history. His culture, his family, his genetics … and most of all, …


his pain.


The narrative of gratitude sets up a parent-centric family model, in which the children meet the needs of the parents. Instead of parents seeking to meet the needs of the children, as we are called to do.


Its Not About Me

Don’t get me wrong, guys. I love a good, inspirational story as much as you all do! I might have watched The Blind Side like a bazillion times. 🙂 There is something very special about a redemption story that pulls at everyone’s heartstrings! I get it, and YES, nothing would make me happier than to be a part of that with our kids! But while we think about the parental investment in this process, … let us always be mindful of how our kids feel about their role in our lives as foster and adopted kiddos, and all of the nuances that come with it.




  1. Heidi Hathaway
    October 13, 2017 / 9:44 PM

    I would also like to add, as the adoptive parent of a child born to teenagers–it is my daughters birth parents who are amazing! And mature and ridiculously selfless to choose to make an adoption plan. To realize they could not provide for this child what they believed she deserved. Again this is not without loss and heartache – for them (her birth mother specifically whose heart-wrenching sobs echoed the halls of the hospital as we walked out with her perfect baby in our arms – her plan was for us to leave first by the way) and my daughter (there are inherent feelings of rejection when one realizes someone/two people made a decision not to parent). But I’d someone was amazing in all of this, it was them. Parenting my perfect, beautiful, spirited, bright child was …. easy.

    • November 1, 2017 / 12:44 PM

      Oh my goodness, Heidi. YES. No one in the adoption triad has it easy in this. Loss all around. Thank you for bringing that up. XOXOXO

  2. Bret Carleton
    November 1, 2017 / 8:11 AM

    Love this article! Thank you for your perspective on how people should approach adoption. I was adopted from Korea when I was 5 months old to an amazing family and have gone through this myself. My friend (Also Korean adopted) and I did a follow-up video to your article from the perspective of the adopted child, and would love to hear your input on it.


    Thanks for sharing your heart on adoption… even when it’s not what everyone wants to hear 😉

    • November 1, 2017 / 8:22 AM

      Oh wow! Thank you! I will check it out and report back!!! XOXOXO

  3. November 9, 2017 / 5:59 AM

    April, I really like this post. Our children are amazing and, as the earlier comment stated, the birth parents are also amazing. It can be very uncomfortable when people compliment me in front of our children, but I do appreciate a genuine boost every now and then. When things aren’t going so rosey, it’s nice to hear a kind word. I think the difference between what you are referring to and what I appreciate is a general statement about what we’ve done by adopting and a specific word of encouragement.

    • November 9, 2017 / 6:05 AM

      Hi Thereasa!! Yes! Agreed! I love encouragement, too. We need it to keep going sometimes, right??? Just not at the expense of our kids and their adoption narratives. 😊 BTW I *will* respond to your email! Just been a little busy here on the home front. 😊

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