Is the Adoption Community Overly Sensitive?

Based on my years of experience as a member of this group, I’ll say yes - and no.

Susan Kuligowski October 21, 2015
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If ever there was a loaded question, it may just be this one: Is the adoption community overly sensitive? Based on my years of experience as a member of this group, I’ll say yes—and no. And rightfully so on both accounts.

Be it hurtful comments, accusations, or stereotypes, the adoption community is not paranoid when it comes to feeling, at times, as if it’s smack in the middle of a finger-pointing, name-calling, preconceived-notion hurricane.

Forget the random uninformed person who says something that some might consider “out of turn,” adoption language used within the community itself can sometimes leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. For example, many members of the adoption community refer to the three primary parties involved in an adoption (birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees) as the “adoption triad.” However, to some, just the mention of a “triad” is offensive–Google it and you’ll find debates raging on all fronts. There is no set path as to what leads a birth mother to adoption, what leads an adopter to adoption, and for the adoptee, and what an adoptee’s experience of adoption is. One or more members of this group may not feel like part of an equal triad at all.

For some, the use of any or all labels can cause any one of the above members of the adoption community to raise their eyebrows in disapproval. “Acceptable” adoption language can come across as leading or confusing. Perception can lead to misunderstanding. And reception can be skewed depending on where an individual is coming from. It’s absolutely impossible to speak for another birth family, adoptive parent, or adoptee, and I think sometimes friction occurs when well-meaning folks in all three groups attempt to do just this. Passionate adoptive parents, birth parents, and adoptees alike often tread on thin ice when sharing their opinions with others.

Speaking as an adoptive mom, I worry that I’ll offend birth families. I worry that I’ll offend other adoptive parents. I worry that I’ll offend adoptees with something I say or do—or for that matter—write. Heck, I worry that I may be perceived as working against agencies and social workers if I suggest something different than what’s commonly acceptable.

Read through most comments threads to just about any adoption article ever and you’ll understand why. I do my best to keep up with what’s deemed appropriate on all accounts, but for the most part, I choose to focus on what I have learned and what seems to work best for my family–for my children–based on our personal experience. The truth is, my experience with adoption and my children’s experience with adoption is nobody else’s to judge. Period. Why? Because we’re the ones with the facts and we’re the ones living it.

While I have been on the receiving end of some, eh, let’s say less-than-appropriate and often inaccurate adoption-related comments from coworkers, friends, and even family, what I’ve found is more important to focus on is for my kids to see how I react and respond—or don’t respond. I don’t want my kids to grow up letting others’ words and actions take on more worth than they deserve or dictate how they should think or feel about themselves. Not even another adoptee can know what’s in my girls’ hearts and minds.

As an adoptive mom, I can choose to go through life with a pocket full of snarky comebacks and memes, or I can go through life understanding that for many people, adoption is a broad and undefined experience they know little about. I can recognize that their judgments, opinions, and comments really aren’t bullets meant to hurt, but rather misinformation misfires they haven’t thought through. We’ve all put our foot in our mouth at some point.

What I can do is talk to my kids and let them know that they are okay. That our family is okay. That their birth family is okay. That it’s okay to have good days and bad days regarding how they feel about their adoption. And that it’s okay to get angry or feel bad should someone say something out of line. After all, life is a balancing act of finding common ground while standing your ground.

On my youngest daughter’s last birthday, something came up and she asked me a personal question about her “real mom.” She quickly looked up at me and corrected herself, changing “real mom” to “birth mom.” I quickly responded that she was right, her birth mom is her real mom, just as I am her real mom. She nodded and hugged me in relief. I felt relieved for her. And as a mom, that’s my job, to help my kids navigate through life as they experience it and feel it. Not as I deem they should feel about their experiences. I can guide my kids, but I will never assume to know everything about adoption—or anything else for that matter.

As I was saying the words, though, I did make a mental note that where some adoptive parents might react positively, the rest might shake their heads in horror, while anti-adoption activists would take it a step further and say I wasn’t a real mom at all and I should feel guilty for messing with the poor girl’s head. One thing I’ve learned is that “you can’t please everyone” is an understatement in the adoption world.

And yet we expect those outside of the adoption community to know what’s safe to say or think or feel and what’s not safe to say or think or feel.

In truth, we can’t control the media, a stranger, or even a well-meaning friend from saying or doing something hurtful, misguided, or inappropriate. Along the same lines, we’ve all seen comments within the adoption community about adoptive parents being “pretend parents” or “greedy.” About birth parents being “selfish” or “unworthy.” About adoptees being “ungrateful” or “lucky.” There are debates about whether or not “gotcha day” is an insensitive celebration. There are debates about whether or not transracial adoption is healthy. There are debates about debates.  As a friend of mine once said, if you go looking for negativity, you’ll be sure to find it. It’s so easy, especially with social media, for people to twist words and meanings and project their own insecurities or beliefs on someone else.

Members of the adoption community have a right to be sensitive—even overly sensitive if they feel like it. And being sensitive is not necessarily a weakness or a bad thing; rather, it can be the fuel needed to grow, to change, to accept, or to know when to walk away from an unhealthy person or situation. Adoption is not clear cut. It’s beautiful for some, but not beautiful for others. It’s a choice for some, but not for others. “Adoption” is one word covering a world of very unique journeys.

My hope as an adoptive mom is that I’m able to prepare and protect my kids from the hurtful situations that will no doubt find their way into their lives, be it a result of their adoptions or for any other reason that turns perfectly nice mamas into raging mama bears. But 99% of the time, I just try to be a plain ole good mom and to provide a good example for how to deal with life’s challenges. If that makes me overly sensitive or not sensitive enough, so be it.

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Susan Kuligowski

Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she's not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.


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