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Responding sensitively to adoption insensitivity

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If you haven’t seen this mother’s pictures depicting things that are said to her about her daughters (and apparently also TO her daughters), it is worth looking through. As an adoptive parent, they definitely touch some sensitive spots for me. In my experience people said a lot more insensitive things prior to our adoptions than they did once those kids were permanent members of our family. It’s been beautiful to see people move from the “But don’t you want kids of your own?/Those kids have so many problems./Those kids are expensive!” camp into the “What a beautiful family you have” camp. While people often take a second (or third) look at our family when we’re out in public, relatively few people have said negative or even insensitive things. For that, I’m really grateful and I also think some of it has to do with how we handle ourselves as a family.

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It is a lot of pressure to be a family that was obviously created by adoption. If you’re the average grumpy mom fussing at her kids in Target, maybe people will assume you’ve had a rough day. Be the mom of a transracial bunch of rabble-rousers and people’s assumptions may not be so kind. They may think your kids are troubled or that you don’t really love them the way you would your “own” children. Which is why I’m very intentional about how I handle public parenting. I want people to see our family and know my kids are loved and are lovely. We do a lot of pre teaching about behavior that is appropriate when we’re out and I’m intentional about correcting my kids quietly and kindly. I’m also intentional about making eye-contact with strangers and smiling. Maybe it’s not fair that in some ways we have to put on a public performance, but it’s just the reality. If you’re not comfortable with that level of attention or public scrutiny, you may not want to adopt transracially.

I’ve loved that many people want to ask me about adoption when they see our family. For the most part, these questions have been from people who are truly interested in adoption or have some experience of adoption in their life. While not every venue is the appropriate time to talk about adoption, I really don’t mind answering questions. Adoption is unusual and people are naturally curious. When I see posts like the one from the mother I mentioned above, I can feel both protective of those children and also a bit defensive of the strangers who may have asked a question in innocence without realizing the impact. I don’t want people to feel like they can’t talk to me about adoption, although I know some families don’t feel comfortable addressing it the way I do. For me, it’s all about being an educator.

So if you’re a person who looked at that list of inappropriate things that were said to those girls and you realize you’ve said some of them yourself, I want to give you a primer on how to speak adoption in ways that adoptive families will appreciate (at least I know my family would appreciate). You don’t need to be afraid to ask questions, but the way you phrase them may determine what kind of response you get.

No personal questions IN FRONT OF the child. You don’t know this child’s story and how devastating or intense it may be. You are not entitled to know. Asking a question about adoption is fine, but asking a question about a child’s personal history is not. If a stranger approached you at the grocery store and asked you about your parent’s history of substance abuse or how your dad abandoned your family or about your medical needs, you probably wouldn’t appreciate it. Realize that each story of adoption has a sad moment of loss and it isn’t your business to pry into that in front of the child. What to say instead:  If you are close enough to an adoptive family that this is information you should know, make a time to get alone with the adoptive parent and let them share what they feel comfortable sharing. If you are a stranger interested in adoption, ask if you could communicate via email to ask questions that could be helpful, but might be uncomfortable. I have written my email address in crayon on many a grocery store receipt (the only writing utensil and “paper” I had shoved in my purse) because of just such a request.

Avoid the word “real.” There’s no good use of that word in adoption. I do not refer to my biological child as my REAL child when compared to my adopted children. I am not an imaginary parent while the birthparent is real. I also don’t like this idea that as the adoptive parent I am somehow more REAL than the woman who carried my child and gave him life. We are equally real. My children are not REAL siblings if they are biologically related and pretend siblings if they aren’t. What to say instead: There are a number of options if you want to ask about a family of origin. You can use words like “birthmother” or “first mother”, but I find just using the word “biological” covers all the bases. My foster daughter has a biological mother, but because she isn’t adopted, she doesn’t have a birthmother. A birthmother is a woman who gave birth to a child and made an adoption plan. Because my foster daughter still belongs to her biological mother, it wouldn’t be appropriate to call her the birthmother. You can also ask if kids are biological siblings without it feeling as offensive as implying that if they aren’t, then they aren’t REAL siblings.

Avoid the word “own”. They are all my own children. End of story. We didn’t adopt three kids and then have “one of our own.” I get what you mean when you say that, but you’re saying it wrong and I will correct you. Especially if you just said that in front of my kids. What to say instead: Biological. Get really comfortable with this word because it can replace a lot of the insensitive ones. Do you want to know if that baby who looks like me is one I birthed? You can ask if he is my biological child, not is he “my own.” Curious about why we chose adoption? Don’t ask if we couldn’t have “our own” kids. Ask if we weren’t able to have biological kids. Or better yet, just ask why we chose adoption and let us lead the conversation.

Don’t ask what a child cost. Adoption is understandably expensive. As is giving birth, but nobody asks me how much my c-section baby cost. The adoption PROCESS is expensive- fees for filing documents, fees to the orphanage for caring for the child, travel costs, court costs, etc. Even in our expensive international adoption, at no point did I hand someone a check and then they gave me a baby. What to say instead: Was the adoption process expensive? I really don’t mind this question. While it might not be any of your business, I know a lot of people who are researching adoption legitimately want to know what to plan for. I also like being able to tell people exactly how expensive our adoptions from foster care weren’t! This is information that is good for the general public to know as they create a picture of adoption and adoptive families in their mind.

Our kids aren’t lucky/saved/rescued. Remember when your baby was born and you took care of her? Was that because you were an amazing martyr doing a good deed or just because you were the parent? We love and care for our adopted kids because we are their parents, not because we want to rescue them or save them. And to say they are “lucky” implies that they aren’t inherently deserving of love the way a biological child would be and it is only because we are nice people that we care for them. What to say instead: “It’s great that you adopted.” or “What a blessing to have these kids in your family.” It’s wonderful when people affirm the goodness of adoption, but be careful to do it in a way that also affirms the value of our children.

My child’s birthmom didn’t “give up” her child for adoption. The majority of the time the decision to place a child is made with much thought and care by someone who loves them greatly. While it is so very commonly said, I don’t like the phrase “She gave him up for adoption.” It doesn’t acknowledge the ongoing love those parents have for their children or the fact that choosing a family who is ready to parent is NOT giving up on that child. What to say instead:  “She made an adoption plan” or “She placed her child for adoption.”  This is far more accurate and honoring of the women who actively chose adoption for their child.

Many of the the comments this mom was recounting are just sad to me. They imply a really limited ability to love. Choosing to love your adopted child isn’t much different from choosing to love your spouse— someone different from you, not biologically related, with needs and baggage you didn’t create. When people make comments about not being able to understand why we love our kids, I honestly just feel sorry for them. And when they make those kinds of comments to me, I don’t let them go without responding to them. I want everyone to know that we are blessed to parent our children and benefit from their love.

A couple years ago our family was out doing some shopping at a home improvement store.  We kept walking past an older couple that was staring at us and our kids. I was tempted to feel self-conscious, especially because the boys were being pretty loud and were starting to lose patience with this whole trip. As we were nearing the checkout line, the older couple came up to our cart and started talking to the boys. After a little strained conversation, the wife leaned over to me and said, “We adopted our son forty-eight years ago. I feel so sorry for people who never get to experience that kind of joy.” We had such a wonderful conversation with them and felt like we shared a special secret— a secret about how other people think you’re doing something wonderful to help these poor, needy children, but really you are the one who is blessed. I’m thankful I didn’t assume their staring was out of a disapproval of our family and I’m thankful for their affirmation that this IS a special kind of joy. More than being angry, I feel sad when people don’t seem to understand that.

I feel sympathy for people who ask questions because I have been that person. During our waiting years I asked plenty of nosey questions and I’m sure some of them were phrased in less than sensitive ways. I was desperate for information and I didn’t always know the appropriate words to use. I still ask those questions (although phrased correctly now) when I run into other families that look like ours. I have been the weirdo stranger who is waving and smiling like a moron at the little adopted toddler shopping with her mom. I ask if siblings are biologically related because I know the difficulties of taking two kids at once or dealing with a family in crisis over the course of years to take multiple placements. I know it isn’t an irrelevant question, but gives clues to the journey a family has been through. I want to know what country, what agency, what contact agreement, how long was the process, etc. because this is my story, too. And when people know we share this road in common, they are often very open and gracious about sharing their story. I’m especially thankful for the adult adoptees and birthmothers who have opened their hearts and stories to me so I can learn from their experience. But when I don’t have my kids with me, I forget that people don’t automatically know that my attention is because I’m supportive. I hate thinking that our assumption as adoptive parents is to think people are going to be insensitive or are unsupportive.

So as an adoption community, let’s be gracious and see ourselves as educators as we answer questions. And those who are curious about adoption, be thoughtful in how you ask them.

3 Comments

  1. I didn’t click on that mom’s pictures link until just now. So it’s honest when I say how I LOVE that you wrote this post calmly and with dignity when surely that barrage of images made you want to smack someone. Oh man. Seeing the words laid out like that with the children holding up the signs… That’s infuriating to me. Thanks for telling folks what’s appropriate and inappropriate. Someone should pay you for this PSA.

  2. Love this. I wrote a post very similar to this a few weeks ago, addressing what people say to our family versus what is heard. I’m with you — all about educating on how to better address people in the adoption/foster care community! Thanks for sharing! http://letsfosterlove.blogspot.com/2014/01/what-i-hear.html

  3. Pingback: Questions | a love that moves mountains

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