I was sitting on the couch in a friend’s home, cuddled up on the couch with my then 5-month-old daughter asleep on my lap. A Netflix show was playing, muted in the background as we picked through the remnants of dinner. There were only four of us there: myself, my husband, and our two friends, plus two babies. We had known each other for some time and were connected by our shared recent adventures into parenthood. As my friend held her baby, nearly four months younger than my own, she looked back and forth between the two sleeping infants.
“So,” she said to me after a minute, “have you guys decided if you’re going to tell her she’s adopted?”
I was taken by surprise. “Well, of course, she’s going to know she’s adopted,” I countered. “It’s her story; she’ll just know.” She nodded slowly and then asked the follow-up question I’d gotten before but which always made me wince: “So when are you going to let her know about her real mom?”
A number of possible responses ran through my head. I could tell her off, “I am her real mom!” (*angrily storm out of the apartment*). Or, I could use the moment to educate my friend about appropriate adoption lingo: “I think you’re asking about her birth mother, correct?” And, of course, I could just laugh it off and maybe even make a bad joke about it. The truth is I don’t remember how exactly I responded that particular day because that moment has blended together with so many equally cringey questions and comments from friends, family, even complete strangers which I’ve received from the very beginning of our adoption journey.
“Where are you getting her from?” “What are her real parents like?” “How much did she cost?” “Do you get to name her yourself or does her real mom do that?” Though the questions were rarely, if ever, intentionally rude, they still bothered me—the implication that I was not my daughter’s “real mom,” the language reminiscent of pet adoption or business purchases. I understood their curiosity but was taken aback repeatedly by the thoughtlessness of so many questions directed my way.
Fast forward a few months, and I am hugely pregnant. We had learned about this pregnancy just days after bringing our daughter home from the hospital and were thrilled, and a little intimidated, at the idea of having two babies just months apart. We had known all along that biological children would be part of our family just like we knew adoption would be part of our family. What we hadn’t known was the timing of everything. Though my husband and I had made our family planning decisions privately, just the two of us, I was surprised by how many people assumed they knew my story and were privy to the details of my private life. “Wait, I thought you couldn’t have kids?” one, two, three, a dozen different people asked at different times, seeing my pregnant belly.
After our son was born, a whole new batch of insensitively phrased questions found their way to me. “Which one is actually yours?” “Are you going to adopt again or just have your own children now?” “If you can have your own kids, why did you adopt?”
The sad truth is that fending off tactless and even hurtful questions is part of the adoption world. Anyone with a connection to the adoption world, particularly adoptive parents, adoptees, and birth parents, have likely been dealt their own hand of thoughtless questions. And I’ve heard of some pretty bad ones such as “Could you not get any that looked like you?” (and yes, that is in reference to children). “Why did her real parents give her up?” “Is it harder to love the kids you adopted instead of your own?” “I’ve heard adopted kids have lots of problems, what about yours?”
While there are plenty of resources hoping to educate people on how to talk about adoption in a more sensitive, correct way, the honest truth is that unless the random grocery checker or waitress or inquisitive coworker catches me in a very particular mood, I’m not about to whip out a website referral or a handy laminated “Don’t say this” list. More often than not, I will smile on the outside, seeth on the inside, and then rant about it later to my sympathetic husband who always handles such questions with far more charity than myself. The fact is that no matter how many resources are available or how many handy laminates we’ve distributed, those questions will still come. So maybe instead of wishing other people knew better, there is some way in which we in the adoption world can handle these questions differently, not by changing the world around us, but by taking some extra steps for ourselves. We are, after all, the only person we really have full control over.
Cynthia Cubbage and Sue Hollar, both with the Barker Adoption Foundation, advise parents and adoptees on how to respond to such questions in an article recently published by the National Council For Adoption. “Adoptees and adoptive parents will likely face a lifetime of these questions,” they write, “and it is important that they feel empowered to know how to respond. Equally important is to know that an appropriate response may be no response at all. It is vital for adoptees and adoptive parents to remember that just because someone asks you one of these questions it is not your responsibility to share beyond what you’re comfortable with. And it’s perfectly okay to let the person asking the question know that their question and/or comments make you uncomfortable or are inappropriate.”
Their article does not provide a grocery list of best responses to difficult questions. Instead, Cubbage and Hollar suggest that parents and adoptees ask themselves several questions before responding. “Our goal in writing this article,” they note “[is] to offer a framework that will guide the reader to better understand the intent of these comments and questions and decide how to respond to them.” So next time your nosy neighbor or tactless friend or even that random stranger asks you an all-too-personal or badly phrased question concerning your adoption situation, consider asking yourself these questions from the Barker Adoption Foundation before lashing back or silently seething.
“Question #1: Why is this person asking this question or making this comment?”
“If you are part of the adoption world,” the article states, “you likely understand what questions or comments overstep confidentiality or privacy….However, others who are not immersed in adoption may not know and may genuinely seek to be better informed—their questions and comments may just be out of curiosity or an attempt to show interest.” So long story short, you might be offended by someone’s comments, but most likely, they were never intending to offend. In fact, it’s possible they were even trying to help and sympathize but are completely unfamiliar with the adoption world.
I had a lot of experience with this particular misunderstanding throughout my daughter’s adoption process. My husband and daughter are both Native American, meaning that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was an integral part of our adoption journey. However, as I learned very early on in the process, very few people unaffected by ICWA have any idea what it is (for those curious, ICWA is a federal law that involves tribal governments in Native American child custody and adoption cases in order to help preserve Native American families and culture). The questions and comments I got from people when I told them about ICWA’s involvement in our case were usually rude and massively ignorant of the politics behind the law, but I learned almost immediately that those commenting were not intending to be offensive. They just didn’t know, and their questions gave me an opportunity to help better educate those around me.
“Question #2: How do you want your child to feel about adoption?”
If you respond to every question about adoption with outrage, frustration, even anger, your child is going to notice. And while you may think your response is in defense of your child’s privacy, what do you think your child is going to think about the fact that you never like to discuss his or her adoption? Or that when you do, it upsets you? “The way in which you choose to respond to questions and comments will demonstrate to your child how you genuinely feel about adoption in general—and more specifically, about their adoption.”
“Question #3: Who is asking the questions and what is your relationship to them?”
Let’s be real, your relationship with the random store clerk is different than your relationship with your in-laws. At least we hope that’s the case, meaning that even if the two of them ask you the exact same question about why you chose to adopt a child internationally or about how you talk to your child about her adoption, you aren’t necessarily going to respond to them the same way. The store clerk is not looking for a 20-minute rant; he or she is making small-talk. And your in-laws deserve more than a snarky retort or a humorous attempt to laugh it off. “Giving thought to the nature of the relationship and what you wish to accomplish through the dialogue will help you decide how to respond.”
“Question #4: What is the intent or assumption behind the question or comment?”
Similar to Question #1, it’s so important to remember that just because a person’s comment may be hurtful, it doesn’t mean that was the intent. As a matter of fact, with a few exceptions, most people probably aren’t trying to be mean or offensive. People in the adoption world know lots about the process, but everyone else pretty much gets all adoption-related knowledge through pop culture and media, which isn’t always (if ever) accurate. Therefore, people are coming to you with a whole host of false assumptions. “Most often the comments come from a place of ignorance or misinformation,” Cubbage and Hollar write, “For example, a comment adoptive parents frequently receive is ‘Wow, your child is so lucky you adopted them.’ This statement likely derives from common myths and misconceptions about adoption and an assumption that adoptive parents are ‘saving children from an otherwise horrible life.’ That type of comment, however, completely erases the fact that your child experienced significant loss to become a part of your family.”
In addition to receiving this exact comment, I’ve had people assume my daughter was born in a foreign orphanage, assume infertility was our motivation to adopt, and assume our financial circumstances. All of these assumptions are false, and all can lead to some tactless comments. Discovering the intent or assumption behind a comment or question can help lead to educational opportunities instead of simply frustrating encounters.
“Question #5: What kind of impression or feeling are you trying to leave with the person who is asking or commenting?”
As the article puts it, “Before thinking about the kind of response you want to give to others or the responses you want to teach your child to give to others, ask yourself, ‘What kind of impression do I want my response to leave with the person I’m talking to and will the responses I choose be empowering for me or my child?’” I’ve mentioned taking advantage of opportunities to educate others, but in all reality, that might not always be the best response. Maybe sometimes, in certain circumstances, a telling off is more appropriate, or silence, or a witty retort. Whatever your situation, whatever the question, the key word here is “empowering.”
After I brought my daughter home, a woman made a comment to me about how I had achieved motherhood “the easy way,” and maybe she “should’ve done it like that.” “No pregnancy, no labor, you just show up and come home with the baby. That’s the way to do it!” She laughed and smiled, intending for the comment to be a light-hearted joke. Yet, that was not my reaction. I remember being shocked. In a single, offhand comment, this woman had invalidated months of emotional and financial stress, countless nights of tears and heartache, physical challenges, and crippling fear, not to mention my daughter’s loss of her birth parents and her birth mother’s agonizing decision and experience to place her baby in our hands. Our adoption journey was complicated and beautiful. But it was by no means the easy way. And yet, in that moment, caught so off-guard, I just laughed it off. “I know right?” I responded, waving her goodbye. It was the easy response. And it’s unlikely that woman ever considered our interaction again. But I couldn’t let it go. The particular circumstances hadn’t been fitting for a long, educational lecture on the challenges of adoption, nor would it have been appropriate for me to lash out in anger against this well-meaning friend. But surely I could’ve responded in some way to validate the emotions and challenges of our adoption journey. Surely, I could’ve responded in a way that was empowering and not so dismissive of my own experiences.
In the years to come, as my daughter grows, I know that she will be on the receiving end of questions like the ones I’ve faced. And as much as I care about my own self-improvement, my real motivation in learning how to respond in an empowering way is so that she can one day do the same. Cubbage and Hollar comment that “In addition [to feeling competent and ready to respond themselves] parents must help to develop this skill set for their children so they will be able to decide how to, or how not to, respond themselves. You want your child to feel empowered….It is most important that your child feels that they have control over their story and their response.”
Because no matter how many books and articles on proper adoption commentary are published, no matter how many videos about adoption awareness are made and viewed, no matter how many social media posts encouraging sensitivity are liked and shared, there are always going to be offensive comments and tactless questions. It is how we choose to respond, not what is asked, that will ultimately empower us and our children to be more confident with our adoption stories, our identities, and our families.