Oedipus, Adoption, and the Complexities of Identity

By: Dale M. Coulter
Thursday, July 18th, 2013

oedipus_sphinxAs a historian, I have a strong appreciation for tradition and the way it determines identity. Every human being is traditioned upon entering the world. This is simply a fact of life. For most persons, however, the shaping of their identities happens imperceptibly and only enters the conscious mind as family traditions begin to be challenged during adolescence. I rather have my doubts that this is the case for the adopted child; at least, it was not the case for me. The tension between nature and nurture, the shaping of human identity through traditioning and the givenness of human identity at birth was always heightened for me and has become even more so in my adulthood. This tension has led to more questions than I can answer about who we are as human persons.


I have always known two crucial facts about my existence:

  • I was given a new history and a new name at birth
  • I have another history, hidden in my DNA as it were, and communicated to me from conception to birth

The first point I must acknowledge about these two facts is that they both define me, and they do so prior to any conscious choices on my part. This is somewhat frightening because it gets into the problem of moral luck, as the ancient Greeks would put it. Where we are born, when we are born, and to whom we are born remain outside of our control.

In my own case, I see these two “histories” as gifts for which I am thankful, but I also realize that not every adopted child shares my perspective. Some adopted children see themselves more like Sophocles’ Oedipus the King who unwittingly kills his biological father in his effort to save his adoptive father. Oedipus’ story, a story of an adopted child, vividly reminds us of how much of life remains outside our control. Our views of divine providence must take these complexities of life and identity into account.

If human nature is a given, and I think it is, then we receive this nature from our biological parents to a large extent. How much, of course, is a highly debated question that takes one into murky waters like the origin of the soul. Augustine never resolved that one and multiple options remain on the table.

Whenever I teach the Trinity, I indicate that the divine nature is transmitted by the divine persons. The Father begets the Son and transmits the divine nature as part of that process. The divine nature flows in a kind of arc from Father to Son to Holy Spirit. Natures are transmitted through persons.

So, biologically and theologically, my own human nature flows through the arc of my biological family tree. It has its own history prior to any traditioning on the part of my parents. The difference between my physical features and my adoptive family’s features have always reminded me that my “nature” differs from theirs. I have listened at times as my mother and brother have wrestled with their own biological history from the safety of knowing that it’s not my history.

When I think of my nature, I have to say that I’m not just human, I’m a Latino. It sounds weird because I’ve never been socialized to say this. And yet, the features that have been passed along through the biological history of that Puerto-Rican identity comprise who I am, whether I have been socialized as a Latino or not. I’m not here just thinking of physical features, but of behavioral ones as well. I have often observed actions in my own biological children that emerged even when I was hoping they would not. Most couples usually needle one another with the thought, expressed vociferously, “that did NOT come from my side of the family.” My response to my wife is different: “maybe it did, I really have no idea.”

None of this means that I was biologically determined to be Puerto Rican in the strong sense of the word determined. Rather, it means that certain features of who I am were inherited as potentialities to be shaped and determined (traditioned) by my adoptive parents and the new history they gave to me.

Although I was not an “international” adoption, I imagine that such questions are even more apparent to children from a different country. Adoptive parents who help their internationally-adopted children discover the multifaceted nature of their identity are to be applauded. This is an important part of the morality of adoption. Taking full responsibility to love a child as a person whose identity has been placed in the hands of another is fraught with challenges. It takes an immense amount of personal security and courage on the part of adoptive parents to let their adoptive children explore “who they are” in ways that no biological child could. This is yet another reason why we should not adopt to meet our own needs, but to respond to the needs of the child.

Never suppress the two histories of your adopted child just because you cannot explain one or because they are not easily integrated. I might put it this way: Don’t force your adopted child to become an Oedipus who must kill one history in order to preserve another. For some parents, this will be more difficult. For all, it will require acts of consecration and dedication, and therefore the sanctification of hearts and minds.



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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Thursday, July 18th, 2013 at 8:48 am and is filed under Family Life. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “Oedipus, Adoption, and the Complexities of Identity”

  1. Frank Macchia says:

    Another insightful reflection Dale! There is indeed no need for an adoptive child to kill the first (biological) heritage in order to embrace the second (adoptive) one. I find that way of putting it helpful. As my wife and I have tried over the years in different ways to connect our daughters to their Chinese heritage, we have implicitly tried to live by that wisdom. For example, they have Chinese godparents from the Chinese church that we’ve attended since they were toddlers. But I have also changed by being able to see the world to an extent through the eyes of their fledgling Chinese identity and the community that has embraced that identity and still does. That hidden gift that is a part of them is now to some extent a part of us too (as we have shared our heritage with them). I know that this experience is not always paralleled among other adoptive situations but it’s been a blessing to us. One more thing: speaking as an adoptive parent, it’s easy in loving my daughters to be baffled at how a parent could ever have given them up. Though grateful that they are my daughters, I have experienced some anger at their biological fathers (masked as total disregard for their existence). It’s not the child in this case who is tempted to thrust the sword into the biological father but I, the adoptive father. I’ve had to learn to relate to the shadowy image of them with grace. Though I never showed any hint to my daughters that I’ve struggled with this, I’ve had to resolve it in my heart.

    • Thanks for this perspective from the adoptive parent! It is an angle that I had not considered at all, which does not surprise me really. I take your own struggle as in part an effort to deal with the mystery of providence and the mystery of sinfulness. My wife, who teaches Oedipus in her High School English classes has reminded me recently that part of the problem Oedipus the King identifies is the desire to take matters into your own hands and circumvent the will of the gods. As an adoptive child, I recognize the kind of courage it takes for adoptive parents to let their child explore this other side of their identity. Given your comment, I now see that the courage is not simply to give your child the space to explore, but to trust God’s providence in the face of human failures.

      Part of my angle in these posts is to explore how adoption in the 21st century tracks with postmodern sentiments in which persons are in the business of attempting to create identities wholesale by following desire wherever it may lead and even re-describing fulfillment of desire with the language of rights. The desire to parent can be quite strong, but like any other desire, it must be tempered and directed toward its proper end.