Listen, I know this has been addressed in many forums in various ways, but for the sake of my people’s collective sanity I’m going to add my voice to the fray. And by “my people” I mean the incredibly large and diverse community of families that are considered “untraditional” for whatever reason. Since my particular family grew through adoption these comments will be skewed toward that perspective, but I’m sure with a little effort they can be adapted to most any situation you encounter. I truly believe we can do better than these awkward attempts at conversation, so I’m putting some suggestions out there. (For my peeps who find themselves frequently rendered speechless by friends, family, or strangers — this is for you.)
Things it would be wise not to say to an adoptive parent:
- Adopted? How wonderful! He’s/She’s so lucky to have you! Okay, I know some of you are thinking what’s wrong with that, the person means well. While it’s true their intentions are usually good, you have to look at the message behind this. You might be saying how wonderful that you’re a family now, but we’re hearing thank God you rescued this kid from whatever life they would have had without you. You don’t typically know the circumstances behind whatever road led to this adoption (nor should you, unless our child wants to share that) so this can be a dangerous assumption to make. Also, as a general rule, adoptive parents feel like the lucky ones to have this child join their family. We’re not superheroes, just people who wanted to start a family. Stick to how wonderful and you’ll be fine.
- But he/she looks just like you! (A recent religious version of this: God really does know where to put all His children.) Okay, so you know we’re not biologically related, but THIS is the first thing you choose to comment on? And now my son (who definitely doesn’t look like me and overheard this) hears again that families look alike, he doesn’t look like any of us, so he doesn’t fit in. Great. Our family is built with love, not genetics; any physical similarities in our case are purely coincidental. My daughter and I actually do resemble each other somewhat so I’ve been struggling with this question for years. I finally decided simply to say, “Thanks! I think she’s adorable so that’s a real compliment for me!”
- (Alternatively) Oh, he’s yours? You mean, really yours? Oh. My. God. What do you really want to know, people? Why don’t you just go ahead and ask, “Why is he black?” That’s right, BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT EIGHT YEARS OLD. That’s the kind of confused question I get from kids at school who are honestly trying to make sense of our family. Adults like to tiptoe around but they still need to know, so there’s a lot of vague questions with strategically placed emphasis. Fair warning: if you drop this on an adoptive parent in the right mood, there’s no telling what kind of answer you’ll get. Hell, I might tell you I picked him up off the corner for the extra tax break if the boy’s not in earshot. Serves you right.
- Giving up your own child…I can’t imagine ever doing that. Okay, people, apply a filter! I get why you feel this way, especially women who have birthed a child themselves, but in what dimension would you think this is an appropriate thing to say to a person who (based on this comment) “took” the child?! Yes, it is unfathomable, but another woman’s sheer bravery made it possible for us to be a family. Don’t expect me to make this comprehensible for you, and don’t make us uncomfortable by saying you could never do this to your own child.
- Can she change her mind?! This is usually delivered with a great deal of angst and (hopefully sincere) concern, but consider for a moment what’s to be gained from my response. If the answer is no, I’m now put in the awkward and somewhat annoying position of educating you on why my kid is a permanent part of our family. If the answer is yes, you’ve now sliced open the deepest wound in an adoptive parent’s soul and poured in the salt. Our family is our family; there are no interchangeable parts, and the suggestion that the child we love so deeply could be ripped from our homes because their birthmother changes her mind is the stuff of our secret nightmares. Also, can we please not talk about a human being as if they are a sweater to return or exchange? Thanks.
- Why did the mother give him/her up? Talk about abrupt, invasive, and insulting. You may think we’re being a little touchy about vocabulary — just keep in mind how long we probably had to wait to earn the title — but I’m my kids’ mother. We’ve talked with both of ours about how they each have a birthmother and birthfather (babies don’t make themselves, you know!), but being a parent is fiercely fought for and we’ll get weird if you take the title away from us. Also, it smacks again of kids as property, something a woman might choose to give away. Semantics, I know, but it all matters. Plus, frankly, unless I know you really well or you’re in the adoption process yourself this amount of private information about my child is not open for discussion.
- So, how much did he cost? For real, someone in my church asked me this right after T-man came home. Where do I even start? You don’t BUY a child. In case you’ve forgotten, buying and selling human beings became illegal about 150 years ago.
- So, where did you get him? Similar to the one above with the kids-as-property angle. I did not run by Kids ‘R Us and pick him up this weekend. For perspective, would you ask my husband where he “got” me? Doesn’t that smack of mail order bride? Right.
- Now you’ll definitely get pregnant. Um, okay…you know that’s not how it works, right? Biology 101, the whole sperm-egg-fertilization thing is pretty much a set process. A completed adoption doesn’t really factor into that equation. This is an incredibly awkward comment to deflect. Option 1: Oh, I hope so! Thus indicating that the adopted child was a great stepping stone to what I really want, a baby “of my own.” Option 2: A highly personal discussion that involves infertility (eliciting a “what was the problem?”), a belief in adoption (resulting in “but don’t you want your own?”), or explaining that your family is complete (that one earns you a “but you know you’d be thrilled if you got pregnant”). I swear I have heard every one of these responses and they have unfailingly led me down the path to extremely uncomfortable conversations. I now only give a noncommittal “hmmmmm” response to this one.
All real life examples of things people seem to feel comfortable asking. So even if it’s not you — if it’s a friend or someone you know asking these sort of questions — kindly help them out. Words matter.