Adoption is a wonderful way to build a family. It also stirs up natural curiosity, especially if the adopted child doesn’t “match” his or her family.
We are White. We were led to adopt internationally from Ethiopia. This makes us what the adoption community calls a “conspicuous family.” People take notice of us when we are out and about (even in liberal NYC). And as a result people strike up conversations, make comments (some not nice) and ask questions (many that are quite intimate in nature and I’m not sure why people think they can ask a stranger for such intimate details of my life). Mostly people notice my daughter and tell me how beautiful or cute she is. I agree. But I also think if she matched me people wouldn’t talk to us as much as they do. As an adoptive parent and an adoption professional I’ve pretty much heard it all. Here are a few questions and comments that come up regularly for adoptive parents. Though some may sound absurd, I can personally testify that people really do say or ask these things. It’s natural to be curious about an adoption-don’t feel bad if you are, but maybe this list will help you be judicious in how you express your curiosity to a stranger or a friend.
(in no certain order and DO NOT ask or say any of these things in front of a child who was adopted!)
1. How much did she cost? Where did you get her from?
My child is not a commodity. She did not cost anything. I didn’t “get her” from Target. However, she was born in Ethiopia and fees were paid to our adoption agency so that we could procure the services of social workers and lawyers. Fees were also paid to translate documents, participate in adoption education courses, assemble a dossier, apply for a visa, provide food, medical care, etc to our daughter while she was in the care center waiting for the bureaucrats to process her paper work. And we also paid for said paperwork to be processed. A similar question is “How much did it (the adoption) cost?” If you really want to know how much adoption costs just google it. It’s right there in plain view on the internet. You probably don’t go around asking folks how much they paid for their house or their car because you were taught questions personal finance are rude. (And if you really want to know you probably just google it, right?). So please don’t ask this question if you want to know because a dollar figure will aid your passing judgement in someway. If you’re asking because you are considering the possibility that adopting a child might be right for your family, I’d be happy to talk with you about the range of costs associated with adoption and the creative ways in which folks make adoption affordable.
2. So you wanted to be like Brad and Angelina, huh?
Um. No. I don’t look to US Weekly for guidance on building my family or parenting. I do not make major life decisions based on what the media reports movie stars are doing.
3. What happened to her “real” parents?
This question requires a bit of unpacking. First of all, we are her “real” parents. I’m with her day in and day out, wiping her butt, waiting out a tantrum, witnessing miraculous spurts of growth and development, & teaching her everything I know. Just because I didn’t give birth to her does not mean I am not real. To further expound on “realness”…this past mother’s day a family member of mine posted on my FB wall, “oh! I almost forgot you’re a mom. happy mother’s day.” I think this comment is a great example of how adoption is often rated 2nd class or seen as plan B. The comment speaks to my not being “real enough” as a mother. Instead of using the descriptor “real” it’s more acceptable to refer to birth parents or biological parents or even in our case, Ethiopian parents. But in general it’s probably best to not refer to them at all becuase by asking what happened to them you are putting me, the guardian of my daughter’s story until she’s old enough to decide if she wants to tell it, in an awkward position. The story is not mine to tell. It’s hers. She has had no control over what’s happened in her life, so I will give her total control over the telling of her story by replying to your question, “well, there are lots of reasons why families make adoption plans: a death, joblessness, poverty, stress, illness, lack of support or resources–but as to our daughter’s story, we are keeping that private until she can make the decision for herself if she wants people to know”.
4. She’s adorable! She looks just like a little monkey clinging to you like that!
I agree, she’s adorable, but WTH? Did you really just liken my African American daughter to a monkey? We like to think that racist connections between blacks and primates are something of the past, but I can personally testify they are not. My daughter is a human being. Do not debase her by likening her to an animal-and one so deeply sullied by the system of racist economic oppression and disenfranchisement that has historically existed in this country. Here’s a tip if you have a white friend adopting a black child: do not gift any clothing that is monkey-themed (including Paul Frank t-shirts) on it. A vast majority of people of color in this country will have a major problem with me as a transracial adoptive parent if I parade my black daughter around in monkey clothes. Something like this might not come to mind right away for white folks because of the unearned privilege we’ve been afforded in this country which allows to us exist without having to think through the deeper meaning of things like a Curious George t-shirt. If you’re unfamiliar with White Privilege or you don’t think you have it, may I suggest you do a tiny bit of reading www.nymbp.org/reference/WhitePrivilege.pdf
5. She’s/He’s so lucky!
My child is as lucky as any kid is to be blessed with a good family. She’s not lucky because she was adopted or because she was adopted by an American family. To say so conveys that her beginnings in a country that struggles with great need were “less than” in a classist judgmental way. Just because someone is poor does not mean their life is not of value nor that they are incapable of being happy or experiencing the true love. Yes, the average Ethiopian family earns less annually than the average American family, but to imply that my daughter’s birth family’s situation was in some way “bad” because she is so lucky to have us as her adoptive family is only going to make her feel like crap later on. Her beginnings factor in to her identity and we intend for her to feel proud of where she has come from, so that she can have a strong self concept and strong self-esteem. Furthermore, adoption is rooted in loss. For our daughter, it’s the loss of family, as well as country, language, and culture. To say someone who has lost so much is lucky is just plain wrong. She does not feel lucky in light of her losses.
A related comment tends to be something like, “You guys are so great. you saved a child!” Well, we’re not great. We just selfishly wanted to be parents. And we didn’t save her. To say that we saved her puts an enormous amount of pressure on her to be grateful or to thank us. This creates a power differential…with all of the power being in our court as parents, leaving her the only option of being grateful, when maybe she doesn’t feel very grateful because she being made to feel like a charity case instead of my daughter. Adoption does have benefits for children in need of families, but if our sole motivation was to save a child, we have set our family up for failure based on the loaded message that conveys to our daughter.
6. I could never loves someone who doesn’t share my biology.
Mmmm…if you’re married or partnered I feel sorry for your spouse, unless, that is, you’ve chosen inbreeding as a way to build your family. Moreover, I’m sorry your heart is so limited.
7. Do you think you’ll have your “own” child.
Well, this child I’m raising is my own. So even though I know what you mean, it’s an inappropriate phrasing of the question. If you want to know will I get pregnant and give birth to a child, you might think carefully about asking this question as you could be treading on some very painful territory if I’ve come to adoption via infertility. Just be aware that this question is potentially opening an emotional can of worms. It also implies, again, that adoption is second rate and that by not giving birth to a child that I am somehow not experiencing the realness of family.
8. Have you really thought about what it means to be white parents raising a black child?
Wait, is my daughter black? I hadn’t noticed. If you’re asking me whether I am color blind I will tell you I am not. I do not subscribe to the view that ”the only race is the human race.” (it sounds nice, but it’s not the reality of our country). I strongly believe colorblindness is actually harmful to transracial adoptees because it invalidates who they are and who everyone outside of the home sees them to be. When my daughter is with me folks see her as cute and adorable. But when she’s older and walking down the street without me, many of the same people are simply going to see a Black girl. And if she were a boy, they’d probably see him as one of the usual suspects. Thus, I am not colorblind because our world is not colorblind. I will celebrate my daughter’s blackness and raise her with black role models to combat the pervasive covert and overt message in our country that black is bad. I will integrate my life by building community with people of color so that she can see people that look like her in our home and on a regular basis. I will have to depend on people of color in our community to help me help her work through the racist experiences she will be victim to because I, as a white person, have no idea how to deal with racism as a person of color. I will create cultural connections for her by ensuring she has Ethiopian Godparents who we see on a regular basis and by attending an Ethiopian church, where I may not be all that spiritually fed because the service is not in English, but where it’s more important that she learn to speak her country’s language, participate in the cultural traditions of her heritage, and feel proud of who she is. I will take my daughter back to Ethiopia so that she can know her country and the Ethiopian members of our family as best she can, in spite of the vast distance between here and there. I will do all these knowing that transracial parents who validate and celebrate their children’s differences create pathways of pride and identity that mediate the challenges of adolescence. If this doesn’t make sense to you or you want to know more check out this very power documentary on transracial adoption: http://www.adoptedthemovie.com
9. Now that you’ve adopted you know you’re going to get pregnant!
First of all, while someone knows someone who adopted and then got pregnant, this is largely a myth. And again, a comment relegates adoption to a 2nd class status, upholding pregnancy as the best way to build a family. It also kinds of suggests we needn’t have adopted at all, which puts our daughter in a precarious position of uncertainty in which she may ask herself does my family really want me? It assumes that I want to get pregnant, when maybe adoption has always been my plan A. It also assumes that infertility is “all in one’s head” and that adoption is the “magical cure”. Basically this comment denigrates adoption.
10. There are lots of kids here in the USA that need families.
Yep, you’re right. Have you adopted any of them? If so, it’s great to know we both share a passion for adoption. If not, please don’t pass judgement on what is right for me and my family and where God has led us.
Laura Summerhill-Coleman, MS Ed., LCSW
PhD Candidate, New York University Silver School of Social Work
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