Dealing with Invasive Questions about Your Family

Here are a few things to keep in mind the next time you come face to face with a Nosy Nellie.

Julianna Mendelsohn October 02, 2018
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Many of us who have adopted, especially those of us who have adopted transracially, have had to occasionally deal with invasive questions about our child’s adoption story. Sometimes they are from strangers; sometimes they are from acquaintances or even friends or family. Whoever they come from, finding a way to wiggle out of these kinds of inappropriate and awkward conversations is always a challenge. Here are a few things to keep in mind the next time you come face to face with a Nosy Nellie.

1) Think about what your child would like to hear. Unless he is a newborn, and even if he is only a few years old, your child is listening even when you think he is not. How you respond to questions about your children lets them know how you feel about their adoption. If you give away every intimate detail of their adoption story to anyone who asks, they might feel you don’t value their privacy. Conversely, if you are terse or even combative and refuse to discuss it at all with anyone, they could think you are somehow ashamed of their adoption or that you think their adoption is something that should remain secret. If your child is old enough, ask her, how would you like me to respond? Roleplay a few different situations with her and ask her what responses would make her comfortable.

2) Consider the source. Is this someone you know and care about or some random person in the produce aisle? Determining how close you are to them can help dictate how much time you need to devote to having a conversation. If it’s a stranger, figure out a way to devise an exit strategy. Often people ask me where my daughter is “from.” Since she is African-American and I am white, often people expect that I will answer that her place of origin is somewhere in Africa. Why? I don’t know because last time I checked there are black people in this country, but when I tell them she was born in Florida, there’s usually a good 15-30 seconds of cognitive dissonance happening on their part that gives me the opportunity to walk away if possible. The other tactic I’ve learned from other adoptive parents in dealing with strangers is to ask “Why do you ask?” It is possible they are contemplating adopting themselves, or have some other personal connection to adoption. If you ask them “Why do you ask” this gives them the opportunity to divulge that so that you know their questions are coming from a place of solidarity or of genuinely wanting more information to help them with their own adoption journey. If they’re asking just to be nosy, they won’t have a good answer for this question, which—again—gives you an opening to say “Hey, gotta run. Have a nice day!” The other statement I and many other adoptive parents hear a lot is “Oh, they are so lucky!” This makes the assumption that you somehow saved them from a life of tragedy which is rooted in a basic misunderstanding of how adoption really works as well as some good old classism and possibly a little racism as well—if you’ve adopted transracially. This question is easy to answer: you just simply say “We are the lucky ones!” If you sense they want to continue to exonerate you as some sort of beacon of goodness, I often will say something like “Oh no, I’m the lucky one. She’s stuck with me, and I’m really embarrassing!”

3) Some people’s questions obviously come from a place of judgment. Some of the questions I’ve heard firsthand and other adoptive parents have had asked of them are how much did he cost, was his “real mother” on drugs, why didn’t his “real parents” want him, and other lovely questions that clearly come from a place of profound ignorance (not just of how modern adoption works, but of what is appropriate to ask someone who you’ve literally never had a conversation with before). Some would say this is an opportunity to educate, but I personally don’t think that when I signed up to be a parent via adoption. The best course of action in these situations is to gently correct their language and make it known you don’t want to engage. Saying something like “His birth mother is a wonderful woman who we care about very deeply, and her reasons for placing are not my story to tell” is a way that is both polite, uses positive adoption language, and makes it clear that you don’t want to engage. While it can be momentarily satisfying to answer an invasive question with a snarky answer, this goes back to #1, thinking about what your kid wants to hear. I have a friend with multiple children who were adopted transracially, and some horrendous person once asked her in the grocery store “Aren’t you worried there will be something wrong with them? I mean there must have been something wrong with their real mother.” She ended that conversation by saying “No, but I am worried there is something wrong with you that you think that’s appropriate to say around my children.” While it was satisfying at the moment, her interaction with this admittedly terrible person colored the rest of her day, and she found herself tense and angry afterwards. Sometimes, it’s better for all involved to meet what is obvious stupidity or lack of understanding of the social contract with more grace on your part and just say some variation of “My kids are amazing; I love them very much, and this isn’t my story to tell” and try to moonwalk out of it before you give in to your understandable urges to strangle them until their eyes pop out.

4) Sometimes you CAN’T physically walk away. In those situations, refer back to the things discussed previously and keep the conversation appropriate for the setting. If you’re at work, it’s not appropriate for Sharon from accounting to ask you out of nowhere “what the deal is” with your kid’s “real mom.” If you’re at a gathering of friends or family, it is a little more appropriate and probably will make your future life easier if you can take a minute to gently educate them while making it clear that some details are off-limits. Great Aunt Suzie might be miffed when you say “It’s not my story to tell” about certain details of your child’s adoption story, but remember, your allegiance lies with your child, not with other relatives when it comes to this topic. If you have someone who is regularly in your life who frequently asks inappropriate questions, you may have to have a sit-down with them and let them know that the game of 20 questions needs to stop, that you have given them the information that they need to know, that you are happy to answer any general questions about how adoption works, but that it’s inappropriate and could be hurtful to your child for them to treat them like some sort of exotic specimen, particularly if your child is old enough to hear and understand their questions. The reality is, not all relationships last forever. Even if they are your family or dear friends, if they continue to be disrespectful of your clear wishes about what is appropriate and not appropriate to discuss around your child, you need to put your child first and limit or end your contact with them. In any and all interactions with people who ask invasive questions, your child’s needs and his or her self-image needs to be what is most important and what shapes how you respond.

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Julianna Mendelsohn

Julianna Mendelsohn lives in sunny South Florida where, odds are, it is hot enough right now that she is sweating just a little, no matter what she is doing. She is the brains, brawn, blood, sweat, and tears behind The Adoption Mentor and is thrilled to be able to help others build their families through adoption. She is a former elementary school teacher, current MS in school counseling student, Sephora junkie, and the momma via domestic adoption to one lovely daughter.


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