When we first began the process of adoption I had to admit I was nervous. There was the process itself, there was the question of matching with a child, and there was the fact that no one I knew in my immediate family or circle of friends had been touched by adoption. Throughout our journey, we tried to educate our community. We shared everything from the intricacies of dossier submittals through the reasoning behind cocooning. They rejoiced with us when we got the call to travel and embraced us with open arms when we returned home from China.
For weeks, we lived in a secure bubble of those who knew us. Occasionally I would venture out to the grocery store and occasionally I would get questions: Where is he from? Did it take a long time to get him? How much did he cost? How did you get a boy from China? With each encounter, I parried and educated. I was kind but firm. I answered their questions, when appropriate, and occasionally I just smiled, turned my grocery cart, then ran to my car and cried.
I felt conspicuous when we became a family of three, but at 22 months my son did not seem to notice. Then he started preschool. Two months into the school year one day at pick-up he said, “You are pink and I am brown.” I said, “That’s true.” He said, “My friends say I’m funny brown.” My heart sank. “You are beautiful brown, and I am pink, and families come in all different colors.” I made him repeat the sentence, “I am beautiful brown, mommy is pink, and families come in all different colors.” My son repeated the sentence, again and again, the whole way home, adding his own special extra line of “and Daddy is hairy.”
The next morning I went in and spoke with his teachers. They had no idea what I was talking about. My son was like any other child in the classroom. Except he wasn’t, and both my son and his peers had begun to notice that. (We changed schools shortly thereafter to a more inclusive, diverse community.) As adoptive parents, our job is to be an educator, advocate, and protector all in one. When questions of race came up at my son’s preschool, I knew I had to teach my son how to answer questions about adoption. But in order to do that, I needed my son to understand his own story so he could decide how much he wanted to share and when.
I started by simply reading adoption books at bedtime. Sprinkled in between our Sandra Boynton favorites and Llama Llama Red Pajama, I read A Mother for Choco, Happy Adoption Day!, and The Not in Here Story. With each book, we talked about how our family was formed in a similar way. In the pages of Happy Adoption Day!, my son saw us readying his room and then getting on a plane. In The Not in Here Story my son began to understand the idea that babies can grow in different mommy’s tummies and then be raised and loved by another family, which is called “adoption.” We talked about how all babies grow in a mommy’s tummy and that mommy is called a “birth mother.” I asked him if he knew of anyone whose family was like ours. We talked about his best friend, also adopted from China, who had a mommy but no daddy. We talked about his cousin who has two mommies, and his friend who has a daddy but no mommy. Families come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. There is no one right way to have a family and that is a very beautiful thing. My son nodded vigorously in enthusiasm.
Then, I began to work on my son’s lifebook. I cut and pasted photos of our journey, from the outside of the building of our first adoption fair (when we decided to adopt from China) to pictures of documents, my husband and I painting our son’s room, photos of his referral, and letters and notes from family and friends who were excited to meet him. I included pictures of his time in China, photos of him as a baby and of his caretakers. I tried to include as much as I could and leave enough space for questions to which I have no answer. I wrote about where he was born and the legends of people from his part of China. I used positive language to speak about his birth parents and the incredible culture he was born into. And I stressed how happy we were to find him and to become a family of three. I have pictures and memories of our first days in-country together (when he utterly rejected me and clung to his father, a detail he laughs at with each reading) and photos of his first steps on American soil. The book concludes with one final picture of the three of us in front of our house—a family at last.
As the months progressed, we kept reading my son’s life book and other adoption stories together as a family. During playtime, we would construct buildings in China and once, his foster family’s house. We celebrated Chinese New Year with gusto and invited our friends and family to join us in observing our son’s special holiday. And perhaps most importantly, we found a group of fellow adoptees with whom our son could play. At age 3, they mostly ran in the park, but I believe seeing other transracial adoptive families was important to my son. And at age 6, they now have become each other’s sounding board as they start to delve into the more difficult questions of adoption and identity.
Through it all, we stressed our family is unique but that is what makes us special. And through it all, we used positive adoption language. Our child was not “given up,” his birth mother “chose adoption.” He “is” not adopted, he “was” adopted. And he is not “foreign” he is an “international adoptee.” Four years later, our family is more conspicuous than ever. My son from China and my daughter from India. My son laments that everywhere he goes people ask if “Mira is really my sister,” and it is my job as an adoptive parent to help him navigate how, and if, he wants to respond. I am painfully aware my child repeats everything I say (a fact that haunts me when I’m stuck in traffic with two kids in the car), and I know that how I respond to questions about adoption will inform my son’s own choices.
We have received many questions throughout the years but here are a few of the top inquiries from my son’s peers, well-meaning strangers, to the odd grocery store clerk:
1. Who are your real parents?
My Mom and Dad. And they are standing right there.
This is a question both me and my son get frequently. My son’s real parents are the ones who care for him every day. The ones who make sure he is well-fed and safe, who encourage him to pursue every imaginable dream, and who love and support him unconditionally. What people are asking in this instance is, “Were you adopted?” Sometimes my son chooses to engage and educate by saying, “My real parents are here but my birth parents are in China.”
2. Are you adopted?
I was adopted from China.
Putting the emphasis on the past tense is important in this instance. Though my son is an adoptee, he was adopted. I never want my son to say “no” to this question because to do so is to indicate that adoption is something to be ashamed about.
3. Why don’t you look like your Mom or your Dad?
Sometimes families look different. Who do you look like in your family?
Sometimes my son chooses to say, “Because I was adopted from China and she’s from Virginia and he’s from Kentucky!” but other times, the above answer suffices. As he gets older, the answer has become more intricate, “Because we don’t share the same DNA.” We do discuss regularly, however, how even families that are related by DNA don’t always look the same. His biracial cousin does not look like her mommy, and her mommy gets the same questions when the two of them are out together. The beautiful thing about the time and space where we live is that families truly do come in all colors and sizes.
4. Why don’t you look like your sister?
Sometimes families look different.
Like the above, sometimes a short answer is the easiest answer for my son. Other times, he expands and says, “Because I was adopted from China and my sister was adopted from India.” No one in our family is biologically related and that is okay. It’s love that makes a family, not DNA.
5. Didn’t your mom want her own kids?
She did. That’s me!
Oftentimes, the implication here is that adoption was a second choice. Whether or not we struggled with infertility before deciding to pursue adoption is not the business of anyone—certainly not a well-meaning neighbor or a random guy at the mall. The important thing to stress is that we chose our son and every day he chooses us. We are a family by choice.
6. Do you speak Chinese?
A little. We just started learning it at school. I can say hello, though! Ni hao!
Sadly, this question has come up more frequently lately with the emphasis on immigrants. To be clear, my son is not an immigrant. He is an international adoptee. He is a U.S. citizen. In my son’s own words, he sometimes says, “I don’t know. I was adopted when I was baby so maybe I could say bottle? But now I’m learning it at school which is cool.” And it is.
7. Did you cost a lot?
Mom and Dad say college will be expensive but they want me to shoot for the stars.
This is a bit of a cheeky response, but this is how our son typically responds. When asked, we say similar things like, “Well he knows it will be hard to keep food in the house come his teenage years!” To be clear, I know what people are asking, but when you ask that question of an adoptee, it is insulting. If you ask me, “Is adoption expensive?” I will say the true cost in adoption is related to the legal processes and agencies and professionals involved, all of which ensure an ethical adoption.
8. How did your parents get a boy from China?
When most people think of adoption from China they assume the adoptee is a girl. This was due to China’s one-child policy, which has since been overturned. The fact is that though there were once more girls waiting for their forever homes in China, there are now significantly more boys available for international adoption. When we began our adoption process we simply said we were open to whatever child would find us and that child was our son.
9. Why didn’t your parents keep you?
They did. I live with them.
Point blank, this is no one’s business. Not inquisitive family members, not close friends, no one. Children are placed for adoption for all kinds of reasons from illness to poverty to simply wanting a better life for their child. Neither my child nor myself should ever have to answer this question.
10. Aren’t all international adoptions special needs?
Mom and Dad say the biggest special need kids have is a forever family.
This last question comes less from peers than voices from our community. As an adoptive parent, I try to educate as much as I can and share this information with my son. The fact of the matter is yes, for the majority, all international adoptions are special needs. This is due in large part to the Hague Convention on International Adoptions. The intricacies of the Hague state every effort must be made to place a child in-country before they become eligible for international adoption. As a result, most international adoptions are special need. However, the term special need in international adoption is different than the term we use in our everyday vernacular. Special need in international adoption may refer to a child’s age (typically 4 or older); if the child is a member of a sibling group; or if they have a minor, medically correctable need like hearing loss, vision difficulties, cardiovascular issues, or cleft lip/palate. Some special needs are more severe like cerebral palsy or Down syndrome but the majority of international adoptions fall in the former category.
Navigating the world of adoption is not easy and navigating public opinion can be even more difficult. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, why does this person want to know? Are they genuinely curious? Are they considering adoption? Or are they just being nosy? One thing we stress to both of our children is that you do not have to share. You can choose to answer a question but you have every right to turn and walk away. If you feel uncomfortable then tell a teacher, tell your coach, or tell your parents. And remember above all else, that you are loved.