Welcome to my circus.

“She looks just like you!”


A friend of mine recently let me know about a contest a local newspaper was having just in time for Mother’s Day.  The contest rules said, “We need your photos that show you look like your mom. Our website audience will then vote on ‘who most looks like their mother’ based on the photos. Those who get the most votes will receive local prizes.”

I am not a big fan.

I asked for gut reactions to these contest rules from my Facebook friends and for the most part everybody thought it was a nice way to celebrate moms and kids that look alike and that it shouldn’t be offensive to exclude a minority of families.  Obviously, it would exclude families built through transracial adoption, but potentially also stepparent families, interracial families, or families where a child doesn’t resemble her parents because she has something like Down Syndrome or a facial deformity.  As you can see, this is a list of families who may already struggle for societal acceptance without the added insult of being excluded from a newspaper’s Mother’s Day contest.

It may seem like a small thing, but to the family who has worked so hard to build a bond where biology didn’t create one, it can be painful.  To “win” this contest you must look the most like your mother, but those kids are winners already who have the blessing of growing up in a family where they look like they fit.  They (most likely) haven’t experienced the pain of being separated from their biology.  Those mothers (most likely) haven’t know the heartache of infertility.

I watched a documentary recently called “Daughter from Danang”.  It’s a fascinating look at a woman’s journey to find her biological family in Vietnam and establish a relationship with them.  There are moments of triumph, but a lot of heartache.  Pretty early in the movie there are children singing a little Vietnamese song.  The lyrics are “Dad loves me cause I look like mom. Mom loves me cause I look like dad.”  There’s so much truth in those two lines.

You can do the research and find that there are actual studies that confirm the sentiment of that Vietnamese song- that biological resemblance matters.  Particularly with men, there is a stronger attachment when the child resembles them.  Of course, from an evolutionary standpoint this would make sense.  We need to be hardwired to protect our young and pass on our genes.  Adoptive parents are going beyond that “natural” bias and choosing to protect, defend, and love somebody who may share none of their genetic traits.  It’s a beautiful thing, and worth celebrating.  But do you see what I’m saying?  Kids who look like their parents are the genetic winners in the game of life.  Do we really also need a newspaper sponsored contest to affirm it?

I experience the benefits of that resemblance with two of my children.  My son is a mirror image of his daddy, but with my blue eyes.  My daughter isn’t biologically related to me, but somehow managed to look more like my husband and me than she does her birthfamily.  Her hair is just my color and her eyes are hazel like her daddy’s.  And she benefits from this resemblance.  When I’m out with just her or with her and our biological son nobody asks if she’s adopted.  Strangers don’t make comments about her birthfamily or ask how expensive she was or any other intrusive questions.  They tell me she’s beautiful, because she is.

Did you see the Dove Beauty ad that went viral a little while ago?  It had a forensic sketch artist draw women based on how they described themselves and then draw them again based on a stranger’s description.  It turned out that a stranger saw the beauty a woman herself sometimes has difficulty identifying.  The tagline was “You are more beautiful than you think” and I cried.  I thought the video was pretty amazing. . . until somebody challenged my assumptions.  You see, the majority of the women were white.  They were young.  They were thin.  They actually DID fit the stereotypes of beauty, for the most part.  I didn’t notice this when I was watching it because I saw myself represented there and my own issues reflected back.  I didn’t see what I didn’t want to see—that this was not affirming to women who may not fit the traditional idea of what is beautiful.

Although this doesn’t diminish the impact of the lesson I learned about how I need to give myself more grace, it did help me to think outside of myself.  What about the woman who is struggling with her weight or has been disfigured through an accident or just has some age-appropriate wrinkles?  Had somebody not pointed out to me that those women were missing, I would have continued to feel affirmed, but not think of others.  It is not a bad thing to consider how others perceive a message.  That doesn’t mean you’re being too “politically correct”.  It may mean you’re being thoughtful.  Considerate.  Compassionate.

I often find myself running into this same kind of thinking from outside (and even inside) the adoption community about adoption issues.  It comes out in responses like, “So what if this is a contest for lookalike families?  You can’t ruin everybody else’s fun just because you don’t have that family.” or “What’s wrong with affirming more traditional families?  One contest isn’t going to fit every potential mother daughter relationship anyway.”  or even, “You can’t go around getting offended by everything.  Lighten up.  Nobody meant any harm.”

Obviously we can’t let every little thing offend us, but there are opportunities for education that come our way as adoptive parents.  I don’t let people ask me about my children’s “real” parents without helping them think through that word choice.  I correct them if they refer to my biological child as “your own”.  I know people don’t mean any harm, but how else will they learn if I don’t gently help them understand how those things are coming across?  I find that when I can do it tactfully and with love, people are really receptive.

I don’t think the newspaper intended to exclude anybody.  Ultimately they are a business and I don’t see how it would be good for business to alienate a chunk of consumers.  I can give them grace for not thinking through the ramifications of a lookalike contest, but in some ways that level of ignorance is even more sad to me.  And it cries out for somebody to address it.  This isn’t just about adoptive parents walking around with giant toes nobody can step on or being overly sensitive to people noticing their differences.  This is about the messages we want our kids to see.  I felt incredibly proud of my son for doing a matching activity in his preschool workbook and matching all the wrong mother and child animals together because he liked it that way.  I wasn’t about to tell him you have to look alike to go together.

Even if nothing changes, I think it’s appropriate to let the newspaper know they were missing an opportunity to affirm a pretty incredible group of mothers and daughters.  My friend did contact the newspaper to let them know this was a questionable decision and they were receptive.  I’m also hopeful she’ll enter a picture of herself and her two amazing daughters from China.  My friend and her oldest daughter have strikingly similar personalities, interests, and gifts so I’d love to see that somehow represented in a photograph that challenges the way we think about what it means to be “just like mom”.

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  1. I was adopted at birth and don’t look anything like my adoptive mother. I have met my birth mother, and I don’t look anything like her either. Strangely enough, they resemble each other. I have heard that back in the day (45 years ago) adoption agencies tried to match the looks or the birth mother to the adoptive mother in hopes that the child would fit in better to the adoptive family. I’m not sure if there was any truth to the story, but it sure didn’t work in my case. I grew up very unhappy that I didn’t look like anyone else in my family. This finally changed when I had my daughter who looks a lot like me. These are small things compared to growing up not feeling loved, important, or safe. Maybe if those things would have been in place, having someone I looked like would have been less important.

  2. Thank you for sharing. It helps to know your perspective.

  3. This is such a fun article– thanks for sharing. My two Ethiopian kiddos, (2 1/2 and 3) have been home for a year and a half. I love seeing aspects of my husband and I crop up in their personalities and expressions. I can’t tell you how many times people have commented that, despite the skin difference, we are SO alike simply because of our facial expressions or manner of expressing ourselves. I agree completely– it’s sad that most people draw attention to and “praise” mama-daughter lookalikes. It’s probably because they just don’t know any better, and haven’t been gently educated to think outside the traditional box. But, in so many ways, my daughter and I DO look alike. Our eyes and smiles are so similar. The ways my son stands reflects his daddy’s stance. His sense of humor reflects mine. I loved your article about drawing attention to similarities, because there really are so many. It’s important to celebrate the ways our adoptive family is actually quite a normal family after all! 🙂

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