Every adoptive parent, especially if they have adopted more than once, hears the comment, “Oh, you’re so wonderful!” at fairly frequent intervals. It’s a thing. Now, I’m a grown-up and do know that when people say this to me, it is meant as a compliment. They are struck in some (positive) way by our family and want to comment on it. While I understand the positive nature of what people are trying to communicate and can appreciate the sentiment, I still try to deflect the unwarranted praise.
“Oh, not really so wonderful.”
“I’m not very wonderful, but my God certainly is.”
“You should check with my children.”
Inevitably, the person will then nod in agreement and reply, “Well, you’re still wonderful.” While everyone leaves the exchange smiling, I can’t help but wonder if I come across as having an enormous case of imposter syndrome. You know, the psychological condition where high-achieving people are convinced they are just competent fakes.
Because here’s the thing: I just can’t come out feeling good about these conversations. As I said, I try to respond to the positive intentions behind these comments. The trouble is that, even though I know they are meant well, this is not the end result of such comments for me, the receiver. In fact, at least for me, these comments often have the opposite effect which I end up having to hide so as not to hurt the feelings of the person who meant well.
Why has the phrase, “You’re so wonderful!” become so irksome to me? Here are four reasons.
1. It’s just not true. I live with myself, after all, I know. While I might hit the wonderful mark every so often, I also manage to miss that mark and instead hit sub-par, distracted, impatient, angry, and emotional wreck more often than I would like anyone to know. I didn’t adopt these children because of some genetic over-abundance of altruism, but because I fell in love with a child and couldn’t do anything else. It’s not so much wonderfulness, but pure selfishness. I wanted that cute little face living in my house and giving me hugs and kisses.
2. It feels as though I’m not allowed to be normal. To be labelled wonderful means that I have ceased to be normal. Wonderful doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room for anything less. If I am wonderful, then I must have it all figured out. If I am wonderful, I must always be content with my lot and not have any complaints. If I am wonderful, then panic must never enter my mind, much less my vocabulary. Because wonderful people don’t have moments of doubt where you look at what you’ve done and panic that life is never, ever going to be calm or easy again. Wonderful implies no middle ground and the opposite of wonderful, instead of being just human… normal… is a sad shaking of the head and the unspoken thoughts of, “Well, I knew they were taking on too much. She’s made her bed, now she has to lie in it.” The opposite of wonderful is foolish failure. It feels like a pretty short trip from one to the other. I hope you don’t mind that I don’t really want a part of either extreme.
3. It makes it seem as though my children are less valuable. As we’ve adopted more children and those children have more visible special needs, the cries of, “Wonderful! Wonderful!” have increased significantly. And I wonder why. Why am I more wonderful for parenting children with visible differences than I am for any of the others? To be extolled for doing something that is so easy seems wrong. It is as though there is something wrong with my children that it would be difficult to love them. It is as though it takes some superhuman effort to love a child who looks a little different, to love a child who may have trouble learning, to love a child who does not walk easily. But these are my adored and beloved children. Their differences do not change who they are or how I love them; they are merely one of their attributes, like having blue eyes or dark hair. It is wonderful to be able to love them; I am not wonderful because I love them.
4. It gives the impression that other, “normal” people can’t adopt. To tell me I’m wonderful because I have adopted puts me in a different category from other people. It makes it seem as though only “wonderful” people can adopt, that we have some superpower that allows us to do this unusual thing. Since the vast majority of people do not consider themselves wonderful, then clearly they do not have this superpower and they are off the hook. Caring for and loving children who need families is only the responsibility of wonderful people. If I insist that there is really, truly nothing special about me, then I give lie to this thinking. It makes people uncomfortable to think that I am just like them . . . with a few more children in tow.
You can see that’s a lot of baggage for a phrase that is meant as a compliment. Whenever I kvetch about this phrase, I’m inevitably asked what would make me feel supported. Here are a few of my favorites. “You’re so blessed.” “You have a beautiful family.” “Watching your family makes me happy.” “How can I pray for you and your family?” “Your home is just overflowing with love.” We know we’re an unusual family; we don’t pretend otherwise. But fundamentally we are no different than any other family. We have good days and bad days. Life can feel easy or can feel incredibly hard. We love our children, all of them, not despite their needs, but because of who they are.
Do you want to know what is really wonderful? That we can be parents to these fantastic people. That they can be in our family and we can watch them grow and learn. What is wonderful is that Love is greater than we are and makes us better than we would otherwise be. We are not wonderful, but the experience of parenting these children is.