When a friend recently asked about the genetic parents of our children, I said something about their “real dad.” I caught myself as the words came out, but it was too late.
I can explain embryo adoption on autopilot. I’ve recited the story so many times that it surprises me when I slip up. Whether because of the marvels of science or the sheer novelty of it, most people are curious to learn more when they hear both of our children were adopted as embryos.
“How does that work?” is the most common response. My wife and I welcome the questions because we’ve both become passionate about embryo adoption.
After hoping, praying, and trying to have kids for a few years without success, we knew something was wrong. When we decided against more invasive fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization (IVF), we were left with few options. Either we could keep going down a path that had led to relentless frustration and heartbreak, or we could pivot to adoption. Then, when a worldwide pandemic hit and effectively delayed further infertility treatments, we made the call: It was time to move on.
This wasn’t an easy decision—we had to take the time to grieve. When you’re young, you assume having kids will just work. You assume your kids will look like you. And although missing out on that is a real loss, as we turned our focus to adoption, we began to hope again for the first time in a while.
My wife and I are both planners. We like to look at problems from various angles and dissect details. But when we came across embryo adoption early on in our research, it immediately felt right for us. Less than a year later, my wife was pregnant. Now we have a two-year-old son and a daughter who was born in October.
Talking about any form of adoption can be awkward. People want to use the “right” words and avoid a faux pas. Like eluding a land mine in a war zone, they generally watch their step. But even then, slip-ups happen. And sometimes, people ask about our kids’ genetic parents.
This doesn’t bother me. I know my fatherhood isn’t a hoax and I’m their real dad. But like any adoptive parent, I’m occasionally struck by the odd dynamics of my son having a different genetic paternity than the norm.
A struggle with parental identity is usually part of the deal for adoptive parents. The common language of birth/biological parents and adoptive parents helps keep things straight when clarity is needed. But embryo adoption has an interesting wrinkle.
My wife is our kids’ adoptive parent and their birth parent. She is not their genetic parent, but she carried each of our babies in her womb as in a typical pregnancy. In doing so, she was able to forge not only an emotional bond but a biological bond with our children. I find this wonderful—beautiful—and I would not have it any other way. But unlike my spouse, I share no genetic, biological, or birth connection with our kids.
In most adoptions, both father and mother can share the same sense of insecurity with one another when asked about their child’s “real parents.” But embryo adoptive fathers like me can struggle with parental identity in unique and potentially isolating ways.
I wonder if Joseph faced a similar struggle.
Shortly after my son was born, I was struck by a line in the Apostles’ Creed. I’d read the creed a hundred times, but this time, one line grew legs and leaped off the page: Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”
My experience with embryo adoption no doubt primed me to hear words like conceived and born in fresh ways. Read rigidly, the creed seemed to suggest Jesus was conceived by the Spirit (alone), was transferred into the womb of Mary, and then was born of Mary. If that’s true, was Jesus the first example of embryo adoption? Not exactly.
In Women and the Gender of God, Bible scholar and pastor theologian Amy Peeler points to a long Christian tradition supporting the belief that Mary did supply the genetic material for Jesus—a miraculous feat accomplished by the power and presence of God. In the words of the Nicene Creed, Jesus “became incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” So there are good theological reasons for thinking Mary was Jesus’ birth and genetic mother.
But for the first time, I made a connection between Jesus’ birth story and my own experience: Mary shares a rich biological bond with Jesus, but Joseph does not. And this is something I have in common with Joseph.
So how did Joseph think of himself? Did he wonder if he was Jesus’ “real dad”? Did he think about it at all?
As Matthew records, we know Joseph stuck it out with Mary despite his initial misgivings (1:18–24). We can hardly blame him for his suspicion, but we get a hint of his character when we’re told he wanted to keep the separation quiet. Then, thanks to a divine nudge, he ended up marrying Mary.
After that, however, his story recedes into relative obscurity. In Scripture and Christian tradition, the figure of Joseph is overshadowed by that of his wife.
Mary’s faith shines through her famous psalm-like prayer, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55). She is forever enshrined as the mother of Jesus in the great creeds of the church. A later theological tradition conferred upon her the glorious title of “God-Bearer” for the honor of carrying Jesus in her womb. Christians across the denominational spectrum from all generations have since called her blessed and held her in high esteem. And rightly so.
Yet we hear comparatively little about Joseph.
Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t explicitly address how Joseph conceived of his parental identity—there’s no hint as to what he thought about the whole situation beyond the events in Matthew 1. But there are a few clues as to how the New Testament writers viewed Joseph’s paternal role.
Early in his gospel, Luke writes that Jesus “was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph” (3:23)—stressing the fact that Joseph played no biological role in Jesus’ miraculous birth. Yet the Gospels do not shy away from Joseph’s parental role.
In Matthew, Joseph is introduced as the “husband of Mary” (1:16)—an honor that itself secures his position in Jesus’ life. Elsewhere, Luke plainly calls Joseph the “father” of Jesus and jointly names Mary and Joseph as Jesus’ “parents” (2:33, 41). Mary also referred to Joseph as “your father” when speaking to Jesus (v. 48). Likewise, John calls Jesus the “son of Joseph” (1:45). Thus, while Joseph played no biological or genetic role in his son’s birth, he was in all other respects his father.
There are even stronger indications in Jesus’ genealogy. While some (like Augustine) thought Mary is also a descendent of David, both Matthew and Luke choose to trace Jesus’ heredity from Joseph’s lineage when drawing up their genealogies. It was, of course, customary to track heritage along the male line, but this decision is still significant given the circumstances.
Matthew begins his gospel calling Jesus “the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham” (1:1) before showing that he is so through Joseph’s lineage. And when the angel appears to Joseph, encouraging him to stay with Mary, he calls him “Joseph son of David” (v. 20). This language isn’t merely genealogical. When applied to Jesus, the title son of David takes on messianic meaning. That is, Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise regarding David’s offspring, the royal agent who brings God’s rule on earth as it is in heaven (2 Sam. 7:12–16).
The angel who appears to Joseph also bestows on him the honor typically granted to the father: to name his son (Matt. 1:21, 25). The importance of this paternal act was not lost on the early church preacher John Chrysostom, who wrote these words as if the angel were speaking them to Joseph:
Do not imagine that, because he is conceived of the Holy Spirit, that you have no part in the ministry of this new dispensation. In the conception you had no part. You never touched the virgin. Nevertheless I am giving you what pertains to a father. I give you the honor of giving a name to the One who is to be born. For you, Joseph, shall name him. For though the offspring is not your own, yet you are called to exhibit a father’s care toward him. So on this occasion, at this moment of giving him a name, you stand in significant relation with the one who is born.
Scripture doesn’t say much about Jesus’ upbringing, so we know relatively little about Joseph’s role in Jesus’ life beyond his birth. But we can make a reasonable guess that Joseph was around long enough to help raise Jesus throughout his life.
At one point in Jesus’ ministry, a crowd says among themselves, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” (John 6:42). This suggests Joseph is likely still alive at that time or at least lived long enough for Jesus to grow into manhood. All this points to the fact that Joseph’s role in Jesus’ life was not trivial or ceremonial. He was indeed Jesus’ “real dad.”
Like Joseph, I had no part in the conception of my children. Nevertheless, I have been given what pertains to a father. I am called to “exhibit a father’s care” toward my children and to “stand in significant relation” to them.
But something else often gets lost in our conversations about parental identity. Before he is anything else, Jesus is God’s Son. And while Christ’s relationship to the Father is unique, it’s a relationship we are all created to mirror. Before we belong to any human parents, we belong to God first and foremost. He created us and has the ultimate claim on our lives and our being.
I wonder if one reason adoptive parents struggle with parental identity is that we have a deficient theology of parenting—one in which God’s role is conspicuously absent. We reflect this in our everyday language when we speak of “my” or “your” kids.
While this language isn’t wrong and is often a practical necessity, it can smuggle the unhelpful notion of ownership into our mindsets on parenting, which can sometimes go awry. Think, for instance, of overbearing parents who try to control their children or those who live vicariously through them. For a more extreme example, think of the haunting image of the mother in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce who insists on dragging her son to hell with her because he is “mine.”
Philosopher Michael W. Austin points out the inadequacies of a parenting model centered on a sense of ownership. He proposes stewardship in his book Wise Stewards as a better way to conceive of our relationship to our kids. We don’t own our children—our kids are not really “ours.” Rather, they are, in Austin’s words, “temporarily on loan to us from God.”
Embracing this subtle, perhaps imperceptible shift in thinking could affect the way we parent. But it should at least reframe our sense of parental identity. Father and mother are associations not of ownership but of relationship. To borrow Chrysostom’s language, to be a parent is to stand in a significant relationship with a child.
The roles of genetic parents are not, of course, unimportant—they’re essential. But since father and mother are, above all, profoundly relational terms, the extent to which you supply genetic material says nothing about the extent to which you can be a parent.
My wife and I sometimes forget our children aren’t biologically ours, in fact. It all feels so natural. The truth is, we couldn’t imagine it any other way.
As an academic, I can’t help but view our journey with infertility and embryo adoption through a theological lens. The concept of felix culpa—Latin for “fortunate fault”—keeps coming to mind. This is the old theory that humanity’s original sin was ultimately a good thing because it led to our redemption. God’s story of becoming a man, dying for us, and defeating death through his resurrection is the most beautiful story ever told, after all.
To be candid, I’ve never cared for this idea. Yes, the story of our redemption is beautiful, but I reckon the story God could have told without the Fall would have been beautiful, too. In other words, God doesn’t need our mistakes to tell a beautiful story.
Our infertility, saturated with suffering, reflects the physical brokenness of our world. Every new birth announcement from a friend, every failed attempt at pregnancy, every flip to a new calendar year childless felt like a fresh twist of the knife. But as I reflect on our painful journey to our children, I can’t help but think of felix culpa. Our story isn’t the story we had planned. But I thank God our original plans fell through, because I can’t imagine our lives any other way.
Likewise, when Joseph imagined a life with Mary before learning of her pregnancy, I’m sure he didn’t have the biblical story in mind. But by embracing his divinely ordained fatherhood, he helped raise the Savior of the world. It’s quite the legacy.
The good news for all parents is this: Our love for our children is ultimately rooted in God’s love for us—which is far stronger than any biological bond.
Derek King is the scholar in residence at Lewis House, a Christian study center on the University of Kentucky campus.
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