I was standing in the checkout line at Target when I heard the lady behind me say, “Hi, sweetheart!” in a high-pitched baby-loving voice. She made a few other sweet sounds and I glanced behind me, realizing that my 18-month-old daughter was looking over my shoulder to flash her million-dollar dimpled smile at the woman. She nuzzled her face into my neck coyly when the woman commented on how cute she was.
With four people still in front of us in line, the woman continued the conversation. “Is your husband Hispanic?” she asked me, prying to see why I was translucently white while my daughter’s skin was warm and caramelized.
“No,” I replied. I knew where this was going.
“Did you adopt her?” I was simply thankful she didn’t say the laundry list of other less-appropriate (read: offensive) things people have asked when their curiosity can’t be contained, such as:
“Where did you get her?”
“Is she yours?”
“How much did she cost?” or “How expensive was she?”
“Didn’t her real parents want her?” or “How could someone give away their child?”
“Just be thankful you never had to go through pregnancy/childbirth.”
“Aren’t you afraid she’ll grow up and go back to her real family?”
I’m selective about who I go into lengthy adoption discussions with. When my 4-year-old son is present, I try not to get into conversations where I can’t control things and I keep them positive. I don’t want him hearing, “What . . . they didn’t want him or something?” when he’s standing there with me. While I’m fine educating someone about how badly birth parents wanted to keep parenting their children, I cringe when I hear certain things when my kids are present. But in this instance, when I only had my 18-month-old with me, I told her that yes, we had adopted my daughter. “Where are her real parents?” she then asked. I took a deep breath.
The term “real” can cut deep; it insinuates that I’m “fake.” While I’m not in denial, and I agree biology is “real,” telling me I’m not “real” is a surefire way to offend me. As I have a million times before, I told her, “I am her real mom. I parent her. She also has another real mom, who gave birth to her, and who still loves her very much.” I don’t mind questions like these for the most part, but when she followed it up by rolling her eyes and saying, “Oh please . . . you knew what I meant,” I was no longer friendly. I was offended. And that’s when I smiled, shrugged my shoulders, and pretended she no longer existed.
I’ve talked to my kids’ birth mothers about this, too. They get their own host of questions, and some are well-meaning and can lead to really interesting and educational conversations. Those are typically welcomed unless the circumstance doesn’t allow for it, but there are other types of conversations that are never going to result in meaningful discussions. My kids’ birth mothers have heard ill-meaning comments and questions, such as:
“Didn’t you want them anymore?”
“Why should someone else have to clean up after your mistakes?”
“Your child will grow up to hate you.”
“I could never just give away my child” and/or “I could never do what you did.”
“Your child will grow up and realize you didn’t love him enough to keep him.”
“You gave your children away to strangers who will never love him as much as you would.”
Like me, they’re selective about who they go into lengthy discussions with. They have to hold their tongues and try to operate with grace and mercy. Unlike me, the comments and questions they often receive are coming from a place of judgment. People stand in front of them, looking them in the eye, asking questions and pointing fingers as if what they did by placing their child was despicable and unthinkable. My heart breaks for them when I think about how strangers say things that make them feel small and selfish; especially when I know the exact opposite is true. Even when these questions or comments are made because of ignorance and not ill-intent, they often come from a place of judgment.
I’ve born witness to both of my kids’ birth moms in instances like these before, and in both cases they tried to redirect the conversation to show all birth mothers and their choices in a different light. They answered “Didn’t you want them anymore?” with “I wanted them more than anything in the entire world, and I still do today.” They responded to, “How could you give up one of your own?” with “I never gave him up. I’m here, and I’ll always be here.” I’ve seen them remind strangers that the adoptive parents don’t just love the children they parent; they love the birth families too. I’ve seen some people roll their eyes or give a rebuttal of, “You still gave him away.” Want to offend a birth mom? Insinuate that the choice she made to place her child was anything other than painstaking, heartbreaking, and life-changing.
There is a difference between being inquisitive and being insensitive. There is a difference between asking questions because of an intention to learn or grow versus asking a question to be combative and dismissive. As an adoptive mother or a birth mother, there is a difference between being irritated over ignorance and being offended over insensitivity.
I’m a mother. My kids’ birth moms are mothers. I’m no more important than they are, and they’re no less important than me. Our children need both of us for different compartments within themselves, and both mothers are constantly making deposits into those compartments throughout their lives. We’re both equipping them with healthy self-esteem, life lessons, acceptance, and love. No matter how an adoption looks, there are two mothers who matter. Want to make a mother feel great? Tell her she’s doing a great job and that she’s important to her child, no matter what exact title she holds, because all moms matter.