I wonder what it would feel like to live a life where some people questioned your place with the people you call family or the place that you call home—where a complete stranger feels entitled to approach and make a comment that changes a simple outing with mom and dad into one that makes you feel strange or uncomfortable. Or what if you are on the receiving end of a look or comment from a relative that reminds you that, although you’re part of the family, you didn’t grow from the same root. Growing up, I never experienced any of the above, but I’m keenly aware that my daughters might. While I’m not an adoptee, I am the mom to two. I’ve had just a little over 11 years of experience living adoption from the parenting side of the fence, learning about my daughter’s adoption journeys, watching interactions between my girls and family, acquaintances, and “The people that you meet each day” (old person Sesame Street reference).
Despite the familiarity to those who have been in our lives even for the longest amount of time, I sometimes still catch a whiff of uncertainty in words or actions when certain subjects come up—as if they’ve suddenly lost their instruction sheet on “How to Interact with an Adoptive Family.” Then, there are others that have never revealed even the tiniest bit of uncertainty or confusion over how to communicate with our tribe. I have also learned when sharing that I’m an adoptive mom to expect different reactions ranging from the “Ohhh” look to the “Hey, I’m an adoptee, too.”
With the “Ohhh” crowd, there’s usually a moment or two of stammering where they’re clearly floating around a million things they want to say, but don’t know how to while I mentally decide what and how much to say for them so that we can move on. Typically, the more bewildered the look, the less I offer. In contrast, there’s typically an immediate sigh of relief with the fellow adoptees or adoptive parents, as if to say without saying it, “Awesome, you get it. No need to say more unless we’re both in a super chatty mood, and then, we’ll say everything.”
My daughters, meanwhile, are at an age where the sharing of their adoption stories is more complex. They are at an age where they are afraid of being judged or misunderstood. Right now it’s about friendships, hair, clothes, sneakers, sports, electronics—all the competitive things we try so hard to tell tweens are not that important in the big picture, but to them, the things that currently dominate the big picture. The thought of standing out for any reason is a major reason they’d rather keep their family history on the down-low at this point, although, both have shared with a few close friends. My oldest actually went so far as to do a presentation in kindergarten after a few classmates started asking questions. She told me later, though, that she wanted to back burner the subject for now. They do feel a special bond to fellow adoptees however, and look forward to these interactions whenever they arise.
I believe the uncertainty of how to react to adoptees is perpetuated by several things. Several of which, adoptive parents can help to make at least a little less confusing.
1. Adoption is a lifelong journey, and her feelings toward her birth family, adoptive family, and herself will change as her understanding of her journey changes.
It’s important to be age-appropriately open and honest from the start, no matter the circumstances. By making her feel comfortable in her situation, you are building her self-confidence and reinforcing the fact that you’re in this together—as a family. The concept of feeling loved and accepted at home is important to all families, adopted or otherwise. Let her know you’re there for her if and when she is ready to share with you. It’s okay to bring the subject up from time to time just to see how she’s doing.
2. Parents need to educate themselves on all things adoption before they adopt.
Adoption should not be an experiment that parents experience as they go. Parents need to serve as their child’s advocate and put their feelings and needs first, uncomfortable or not. This means, you better read up and ask all the questions before you proceed. The psychology of adoption is just as important as anything else a parent will read in any child-rearing books. While we may think adoption is great, for an adopted child, it can feel like a struggle for many different reasons. It’s your duty as a parent to arm yourself with the knowledge necessary to take on the responsibilities that come along with being an adoptive parent.
3. Family, friends, and the people that you meet each day may not understand adoption, or they may be afraid of putting their foot in their mouths.
While you can’t stop everyone from blurting out inappropriate things in grocery stores and parking lots, you can practice how to receive and react to these interactions so that when they do happen, you’re ready to steer the conversation in the right direction. So far as family and friends, don’t wait until you bring your child home to talk to those closest to you about adoption. You’re doing everyone a disservice by expecting they’ll take the initiative to learn the dos and don’ts without some guidance from someone on the inside. By sharing what you know with your inner circle, you’re only strengthening the group of family and friends your adopted child may also feel comfortable turning to later on.
4. Work to erase stereotypes and myths of adoption that continue to exist.
Hollywood loves to portray adoption in exaggerated ways from the overly mushy to the downright horrific. Adoptees have a hard enough time figuring out their identities at home and in the big bad world to have to also deal with falsities the masses have been programmed to believe are realities rather than the fantasies they truly are. When you hear something that doesn’t sound right, that someone saw or heard somewhere on tv or a movie, call them out on it and present the facts. If you don’t, who will?