When we adopt a child who looks different from us, we generally feel we can handle the stares and loss of privacy that go with the territory. We may find, however, that the frequent questions and comments of strangers and relatives sometimes annoy and worry us. At the heart of our anger and anxiety is the fear that our adopted child will be hurt by thoughtless questions, or that their older siblings, who look less exotic, will feel neglected, but this need not happen.
It is reassuring to realize that even seemingly insensitive questions are nearly always well intentioned, and that they actually provide AN EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY TO EXPRESS OUR DELIGHT AND PRIDE in our adopted children (as well as in their siblings who were born to us). The attention that our children receive is generally very positive, even when the inquirer's choice of words is not ideal.
Our answers to questions about a foreign-born child should also include any bio-kids who are present:
Q. Where did you get this dear little one? Where is she from?
A: She was born in Korea, and her brother here was born in Albany. (Most people will pick up on your inclusion of the older child and start including him, too, if you furnish answers about both to EACH question asked about the adopted child.)
We can start early to practice answers that will AFFIRM THE CHILDREN, preparing for the day when they will be old enough to understand:
Q: Isn't she a lucky little girl? What wonderful people you are!
A: We're the lucky ones, to have such a wonderful child!
Q. And do you also have children of your own?
A: Just these two. (This affirms adopted kids as our own.)
Q. Are they REAL brother and sister?
A: They are NOW! (This clarifies that adoption makes us a real family.)
Q. How could the mother have given up such a lovely child?
A: It was very hard for the birthmother, but she just couldn't take care of ANY baby. (This reassures the child that there was nothing wrong with him or her.)
Q. What do you know about the real parents?
A: Well, we're his real parents, actually, since we're bringing him up.
Q. Oh, of course--I meant the natural parents.
A: We don't know very much about the birthparents. How have you been? How was your summer?
In nearly all cases, the questions reflect pleasure and delight in our families, and they can generally be answered very briefly and cheerfully, with a smile. If you are out shopping, it is fairly easy to avoid prolonging the discussion by saying, "Bye, now!" and moving from the peaches to the potatoes. If we are trapped into a longer conversation in a supermarket line or in a social situation (and the children are old enough to understand what is said), we have several options:
Give a constructive response, then change the subject.
Answer with, "I'm glad you're interested in adoption. Let me give you my phone number and we can talk later. Can you call me tonight?"
Give at oblique answer, rather than a direct one, if it seems a direct answer to a particular question would be awkward for us, the questioner, or the children:
Q. Do you have any pictures of his parents?
A: Oh, yes, we've got albums of our whole family.
Responses such as the above can gently educate others, especially if said with a smile. BUT WE ARE ANSWERING PRIMARILY FOR OUR CHILDREN'S EARS. In the few seconds that we have to prepare our response, we need to make a quick decision as to what words will best support our child's self-esteem, protect the child's privacy about his origins, and/or clarify that adoption builds "real" families with their "own" children. (The right answers come more quickly with practice.) Until more people learn the modern vocabulary of "birth parents" and "children by birth" we're bound to be asked occasional seemingly insensitive questions about the child's "real parents" and our "own" children. I believe that the fault is really in our outdated language more than in the person asking an awkward question. True, some people are not as sensitive as they might be, but usually they have a genuine interest and we would rather not embarrass them (and risk making things worse). We can generally find a gracious answer that will affirm the child without sounding critical of the person asking the question.
The key to a successful response is one that we can say in a friendly, matter-of-fact voice, without showing impatience or anger. It is easier to avoid annoyance with questions and remarks if we remember that
(1) we have chosen to build a family in a way that inevitably attracts attention but may help other children to be adopted, and
(2) the children needn't be hurt by others' questions and remarks if we respond appropriately.
An angry or rude retort on our part (even when it seems justified) is much more likely to cause our child distress and anxiety than anything a stranger, friend, or relative might say. It could signal to the child that there is something upsetting to us about him or his adoption. In a pinch, humor can save the day:
Q. Are you babysitting?
A: No time for that, now that I have these two of my own!
Q. Whose little darlings are these?
A: Ours! We adopted the big boys from Korea, and the two-year-old is homemade. (Some of us may find it helpful to volunteer all this information to forestall a subsequent question about whether the child who matches us is "our own".)
There are times when we may need to let a particular comment pass and help our child to understand it later. Recently my husband and I were entertaining one of his important clients, and our Colombian-born son was present. The client remarked that she had friends who had adopted two Korean children and later had had two children "of their own." It seemed best not to risk offending the woman by correcting her choice of words.. The next day I asked our son it he had been bothered by the remark, explaining it as a problem in our language. He replied that he hadn't minded it at all. I felt reassured that whatever damage might be done by others is within my power to assess, and to repair if necessary.
This incident was also a reminder to me that our kids are often more resilient than we imagine when it comes to weathering an occasional unfortunate remark. In our early discussions with our children about birth parents, we can explain that "real parents" are actually people who are bringing up children who are THEIR OWN by birth or adoption, and that many people are confused about this. This point should ideally be made before kindergarten, where other children may question our children about their "real parents" when we're not there to explain that THAT'S WHO WE ARE!
If we are upset by the frequency of well-intentioned friendly remarks, we can ask ourselves why this is so. Are we naturally rather private people who feel we weren't sufficiently warned by our agency or friends that a loss of anonymity is almost inevitable when our child is of a different race? Are we simply tired of explaining to new people, feeling that somehow they should know the answers that we've given to so many others? Is it painful to be reminded so often of our infertility by questions that focus on the fact our child is different? Agencies stand ready to assist us with any post-finalization problems we may have, and adoptive parent support groups can help as well.
Although we may not always feel comfortable about having our family the center of so much attention, the situation certainly does have its benefits. For one thing, the subject of adoption comes up naturally on many occasions, so we develop comfort in discussing adoption in our children's presence even before they understand the concept. Also, the encounters give us frequent opportunities to say positive, supportive things about our children (and about adoption) within their hearing. Some people have observed that adopted children who do not resemble their families often tend to feel more positive about their adoption than those who match their adoptive parents. This is presumably because the fact of adoption is so obvious that the subject has necessarily been an open one from the time of the child's arrival. It is something the child has always known, rather than a subject to be breached someday with trepidation as a potentially shocking fact of life. \
Deborah McCurdy, MSW, is Adoption Supervisor at Beacon Adoption Center in Great Barrington, MA. She is also an adoptive mother.