Adoption Etiquette 101

Life With A Diverse Family

[Taken from an old post Jill wrote on December 30, 2009]

This isn’t a topic I like to bring up often. Mainly because I believe that the majority of people I encounter have very good, kind intentions. I also don’t like to be negative and complain because it goes against my nature. I am an extremely tolerant and forgiving person (sometimes to a fault), and I’m sorry if this post seems like I’m ranting. That’s not my intention. I realize most people mean well, unless I meet those rare folks who are just plain nosy, or the ones who make a point to tell me what they think all the time, even when it’s not welcome or appropriate. I love being asked about my kids, about adoption and my experiences. I’m quite passionate about it all.

We were discussing this topic in my online adoption support group (Toukoul Families), and it got me thinking. If we as adoptive parents don’t educate others on what is appropriate to say and what is just not cool to say, who will? I’m not an expert by any means, but I encounter comments on a weekly basis, either from strangers or people I know, and I do have to educate people even though I only wanted to be a mom. I’ve had to think long and hard about how I’ve responded to certain comments, re-evaluate them and/or come up with better responses next time. There was no real training for this, but I just can’t stand idly by when certain comments are inappropriate and ultimately effect my kids.

I don’t know where to start, except to give some examples of some of the comments I have encountered. Most were said by well intentioned people, so I don’t hold anything against them personally. It’s the general mindset and lack of awareness I have a problem with. People need to keep in mind that if they have never adopted a child, they probably have no idea what adoption feels like and shouldn’t assume they know anything at all about it. I know I didn’t have a clue about any of this prior to adopting Sky. There are too many to post, but here are a few:

1) “Why didn’t you adopt an American child” and “Why did all your adopted children have to be children of color?”
I lumped these two together because I think they each imply the other. At least they did at the time, in the context they were said. These are not offensive statements, but it can be difficult to explain and I don’t feel like I should have to explain myself (maybe I’m just cranky that way). I never ask people why they had all biological children when there are so many orphans in the world, or why all their kids are a certain race. I have been asked this several times, and if I have time to explain the difficult and complicated nature of domestic adoptions and why we didn’t go that route, I do. Otherwise I say that OUR children were not here in America, and they just happened to be children of color. Honestly, the adoption process is not something parents can control and we did not control where we adopted from. We went wherever we were led, through whatever doors opened to us. Many doors close, so when all is said and done, choice is left up to a higher power. I realize most people don’t know this, but all adoptive parents understand what I’m saying. There is a calling in our hearts, and when we start the process, we never know for certain where we’ll end up. My children just happened to end up being children of color. I admit that I love the diversity we ended up with, but it wasn’t planned that way. I’ll admit I always had visions of children with darker skin, so the idea of Caucasian children felt confusing on some level, but it was never really a choice.

Along the same lines, another parent I know was asked “What do you have against white kids?” This was a deeply hurtful comment made by a close friend of hers. It speaks volumes about their mentality. My sense is they feel offended that she isn’t adopting a Caucasian child. In turn this means they must have something against non-white children. I could be wrong, but this is how adoptive parents take it, so bottom line- people need to know when to be mindful and censor themselves.

2) Unless you are very close to the adoptive family, please don’t ever ask them about the background of the adopted child and why they were orphaned, especially in the presence of the child. This happened to me when I brought Prasad to a play group at a gymnastics center last year. A mother whom I’d just been introduced to started asking me why Prasad wasn’t with his family. First, this statement implies that we are not his family, and second, it’s none of anyone’s business how he became an orphan. I was shocked and speechless because it was an unexpected question… so ill prepared. I said “It’s complicated” and she kept prying. She went on to ask if his mother was poor, homeless, sick, etc. I finally told her I was his mother, that his story was very personal, and then leaned in to whisper that I don’t want to discuss it in front of Prasad. I smiled warmly, but I’m sure my eyes were bulging and saying “what the hell, why are you asking all these questions…I hardly know you!” Naturally, people are curious and that’s fine. They just need to know when and if it’s appropriate, especially in front of the adopted child and a crowd of other parents who were listening.

3) “Do you have any ‘kids of your own’?” or a relative’s comment, “So you guys couldn’t have any of your own?” This is a common, classic question we’ve been asked countless times. Another one I’ve heard along these lines is saying “so you weren’t able to ‘have’ any kids.” The operative word is “conceive”….of course adoptive parents can “have” children, and it’s important to keep in mind that our adopted children are “our very own” kids. I’m always correcting people on this in as loving and understanding a way as possible. People need to be very thoughtful in how they choose their wording.

4) One comment that sticks with me is “Wow, you are so brave for taking in those two boys. I really admire you.” It was said to me by a school teacher in the hallway. To adoptive parents, this is loaded. First of all, all parents are courageous, regardless of whether we give birth to our kids or not. It’s the most scary profession on earth, so we’re all brave. Saying “those two boys” is even worse. It places MY CHILDREN as outsiders, as somehow separate from our family. If my boys had heard this I would have been heartbroken. I thank God they weren’t around for this one. Lastly, “taking in” is an unsavory term as well. I didn’t “take in” Sorin and Liam after I gave birth, and I certainly didn’t “take in” Prasad, Sky and Amelie. We “took them home.” They should be spoken about the same way we speak about biological children because it is exactly the same to the heart and spirit of our entire family.

5) “Your kids are so lucky to have you. You’ve really changed their lives.” I know this one is very well intended, but it makes the whole equation very one-sided. Parents who are wanting to grow their family, who cannot wait to hold their new child in their arms, sometimes waiting years to finally meet them do not adopt for altruistic reasons. This is discouraged, and we are not a charity. We adopt because we selfishly want a child to love, just like those who want to give birth. It’s no different when viewed from the heart. Adoption does not solve the orphan crisis, and it is not why we adopted. I know some people adopt for that reason, but most adoptive parents I know just want to grow their family, and it just happens to be the way they do it. Giving money to help third world communities build water wells and schools seems a much better use for all the adoption fees and travel expenses, so altruism doesn’t make sense. I’m glad we were able to give three children who were once orphans our love….but I’m mostly thrilled we have theirs. It’s a magical miracle. That is what they need to know, and what I hope my children hear others speak about. They owe us nothing, and we owe them the world. They are our diamonds, not our charity cases.

6) “How much did your adoption cost?” or better yet “How much did ‘he’ cost?” This is a difficult one, especially when asked in front of an adopted child. It happened in a restaurant with a very good friend who meant well. It was awkward, and I thank God my son didn’t have a clue what we were talking about at the time. The older they get, the worse the question is. Just make sure the child is not present, and ask in a more general way, like “Was ‘it’ expensive?” If you don’t know, children are never paid for. Human beings have no dollar amount; all fees paid go toward attorney fees, immigration fees, agency fees, travel, etc. It’s all itemized, paid out in increments and we never want to leave the impression that our kids themselves cost anything. They don’t because they are priceless. It’s no different than the costs involved in prenatal care and delivery bills. Mainly, I’d like to say that our adoption costs are really no one’s business unless the person asking is personally considering international adoption.

7) “I guess you’re another Angelina Jolie!” or “You guys are another Brangelina couple!” This makes my skin crawl. I cringe at it, but it’s been said many times by a few neighborhood parents, online friends and one family member. I cannot express how much this irritates Daniel and I, or other families who have adopted multiple children from different countries. The Angelina comment was old the first time we heard it, so please don’t ever say it to any adoptive families.

8) “Adoption isn’t anything like a pregnancy. It’s very different.” However incorrect, this may be what some people believe and that’s fine. You simply do not say it to adoptive families. It’s a misconception. Even after an explanation, a family member of ours insisted it was NOT the same. Is ‘different’ code for less significant, or less real, or less ours in any way? How should adoptive parents take that after saying it is very much like a physical pregnancy? There are couples who have worked hard to conceive a biological child for years and end up deciding to adopt. They certainly don’t need to be told it’s any different. I also don’t feel it’s something anyone can judge as much different from a pregnancy unless you’ve been there and done both, which I have. This person hadn’t, so they had no idea what they were talking about and should have kept quiet. At the very least ask how it is the same, become enlightened by reading books, and learn when it’s more appropriate to keep your thoughts to yourself. I realize adoption is perceived in a different light than birthing, and that it is indeed a physiologically different process. If you look at the world from a purely superficial, ‘physical’ perspective you are missing the heart of adoption. You are missing the fact that the desire for a child is the same, the same maternal and paternal drive to parent a child is there, the same dreams and hopes, a similar moment of conception (in the heart and mind), there is a long and often difficult gestation process…often longer than a physical pregnancy, and we bond deeply to our children before we ever see or hold them. When we finally hold our children euphoria is equal to any physical birth. These are things that people don’t know when they make the argument above… It’s offensive because they completely disregard the arduous adoption process, and most importantly the very real connection we already feel with a child in our hearts. Isn’t that what pregnancy is truly about?

9) “Where’s your ‘real’ mom?” and “Where does your ‘real’ family live?” Prasad has been asked this, and I have a feeling Sky has too, although he’s less apt to discuss it. It’s very confusing to adopted kids, especially when their peers say it. It has me wishing parents would educate their kids about adoption; that their current parents are “real” and “forever” parents. That there is a “birth” mother and a “forever” mother, and they are both real. That one mother is not active in their life, and the mother they have is permanent. Also that they were very, very wanted by their forever families. Some kids say “Oh, I see, you weren’t wanted!” Prasad has been troubled by many comments lately, and is stumped about what to say. He has no recollection of ever having any other mother in his life, and still doesn’t understand the whole birth mother thing.

10) “She’s definitely not African American, she’s Ethiopian.” This one had me stumped. It’s like saying I’m not European American, I’m Irish. Amelie is both African American AND Ethiopian. She will be taught to embrace both. Anyone who tells her she is not African American sends her a message, and I believe it is a negative one. It is an attempt to separate her from what we perceive as the African American culture here. I know she is a first generation Ethiopian, and does not have the ties to slavery in her ancestry, but the fact remains she is black, she is from the African continent, and will be viewed first and primarily as an African American. There are families I know who’ve encountered worse comments like “Oh, Ethiopians have Caucasian facial features, so they’re not black.” This is so completely ignorant, and wreaks of stereotypical, racist undertones. Why not black, is there something wrong with that? Our Ethiopian daughter is black, and she is African American. Any attempt to remove those labels would be damaging.

11) “Why did you ‘adopt’ kids when you already birthed two, isn’t it just more responsibility for you?” This was the most recent comment I received, and I haven’t figured out yet why it feels odd. Would people say this if I’d given birth the last three times? Maybe. Somehow the question feels like I shouldn’t want to take on the responsibility of “adopted” children. I responded by saying that of course it’s more responsibility, and I wanted that more than anything…I longed for it like any parent does when she wants children. When I said that, they responded with the usual “You’re an absolute saint, wow you’re amazing” comment. I appreciate the reverence, but it’s misplaced. Just because we adopt kids we are not saints or altruists, and we should not be put on a pedestal. My husband and I selfishly wanted to parent three more children like any other parents of 5. The way we went about it was less conventional, but not saintly.

12) The Look: This is Daniel’s addition to the list. “The Look” is a very real phenomenon, and I’m not blaming anyone for having it. People that exhibit “The Look” don’t know it, but they should. It’s not intentional, it just is. We are such a visual species living in a very superficial culture, in a country with a history of racism, so it’s to be expected. Nonetheless, it’s not something we look forward to, or enjoy as a family. Although we are able to laugh about it. Daniel often shows off his children’s pictures to people at work. This includes judges, prosecutors, secretaries and paralegals. All of whom have words coming out of their mouths like “Oh, how cute” but their eyes say something else… they have “The Look” accompanied by an awkward silence. The eyes are saying many different things, primarily “Oh my God, she’s black! She’s sooo black!!!” The Look comes most often when he shows off Amelie’s picture, which he does often. He’s a very proud daddy. Granted, a lot of people truly gush over and adore her picture. Recently a court clerk kept demanding to look at Amelie’s picture and Daniel could see that her adoration was sincere…she was in love with her and dying of cuteness. Daniel just laughs when the eyes don’t match the words, and he proudly moves on despite their shock, concern and amazement. I think there is a part of us that hopes we’re opening hearts and minds, breaking down racial barriers in small ways…but mostly we’re just proud as heck of our girl, and laugh because people have no idea what is written all over their faces.

After my long rant I’d like to add a few
Funnies:

1) I was walking Sky through a grocery store when he was just three years old. A hispanic man stopped us to point out how beautiful Sky was. I said thank you, then he looked at me and said “Oh, he looks exactly like you, I can really see the resemblance!” I know I may pass as somewhat ethnic because of my very dark hair and eyes, but please, Sky and I do not look anything alike. I guess if I married a handsome Mayan/Guatemalan man we could have had a child that looks a lot like Sky. I loved that the kind man thought we looked alike, and I do believe there is a vibration we share together, something harmonious that glows from both of us, so we may really look/feel alike.

2) I was checking out at Target with Amelie and an older lady at the register said “Oh what a cutie-pie!” I said thank you, and she said “Her papa must be a very dark man.” This surprised me, 1) because I NEVER in my wildest dreams would have thought people would think my little black diamond was my biological child, and 2) coincidentally, another parent had experienced the same comment recently. I used her great line and responded, “Oh, I really wouldn’t know. I’ve never met him!” It was very funny because the poor checkout lady was silent with confusion. You could see her wheels turning, trying to figure out the situation. I laughed about that one for a few days.

3) Most recent episode: I was picking up prescriptions at our usual, neighborhood pharmacy. The pharmacist knows me quite well, or so I thought. He glanced at Amelie in the shopping cart while he was on the computer, then said “Gee, you must belong to some church group or something, right?” I was perplexed and said “No, why?” He looked over at Amelie and said “Well, you have all these different kids with you when you come in, so I’m assuming you run some sort of daycare?” Haha! He obviously meant “I see you with so many kids who can’t possibly be yours, so you must be babysitting.” I looked at him with a smile and said “Oh, no. They’re all mine! She just got home from Ethiopia two months ago, she’s MY baby.” The pharmacist is a very professional, courteous guy, but the poor fella felt terrible, looked down, became very quiet. He didn’t utter another word to me. Sheer embarrassment, foot in his mouth. I guess he won’t be making any more assumptions about what families are supposed to look like. I guess I should get used to those funny fumbles!

One response to “Adoption Etiquette 101

  1. Sreeram

    Jill! Thanks for this ..

    Split my sides laughing about the “don’t really know ..never met him” one..!

    I feel that though that when different souls are drawn together to love each other as family in one home (our world has the potential to become such a place 😉 ) eventually the love and care and oneness felt – translates into a common vibration that they all emit – in which they mirror each other and all the members of the family emit that vibe – to the extent that other soulful caring souls can see and feel that oneness vibration and will comment on “how alike” you look though – you clearly have different “(body)clothes” on.

    I find also that we all tend or are drawn towards a universal consciousness as a step toward cosmic consciousness..and grow to ever faster empathetic oneness with all races all creeds all cultures – the cocoon of our little limited life of “me and mine”…expands suddenly …when we welcome and recognize Him in his myriad forms as we grow to “Thee and thine” …

    You have been fortunate in that you heart was tilled and ready to receive “your” children from lands far from “home” – and they in turn were fortunate in finding your heart and their home and your mutual love…. I delight specially in this little microcosm home world – which I feel is a symbol of possibilities for his macro earth/universe home…

    Greetings on Mothers Day! Little Mother!

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