The guy in the pharmacy waiting room pushed me over the edge. My daughter Alice, a sweet but rambunctious toddler, was having a timeout in one of the vinyl seats, occasioned by her urge to run away from mommy in the store. I kept one eye on Alice and the other on the pharmacist who was filling our prescription.
The waiting area was empty except for us and a pleasant-looking, fortysomething man. Predictably, the questions started.
“Is she adopted? Where’s she from? How long have you had her? Was it really expensive to adopt her? Isn’t it a shame how people in some countries just throw away their girls?"
On and on the interrogation rolled, undeterred by my terseness. The man seemed completely unaware that he was probing into parts of our lives that we have every right to keep private. How does one deal with a person whose idea of small talk is telling a 2-year-old that she was “thrown away?”
Mercifully, the pharmacist called me to the counter. As I completed my transaction, I kicked myself for even answering the man. A person with a legitimate need for information about international adoption deserved more than I could give in two minutes. A person who was simply indulging his curiosity deserved much less.
Families formed through transracial adoption, whether international or domestic, are naturally conspicuous. Most people who adopt across ethnic boundaries love to talk about it, given appropriate circumstances. Our children are cherished; they have filled our hearts with joy.
We teach them about adoption; we attend playgroups where they can meet other similar families. We advocate for our children in schools. We locate resources and role models that will help our children balance their birth cultures with their American lives. Despite our best efforts, the incessant questions from strangers chip away at our foundations.
At home, we’re telling our children that adoption is a special way of creating a family, and that their birth cultures are something to celebrate. Meanwhile, repeated encounters with people like the man in the pharmacy send them a different message. The message is that our children are peculiar; that their families are not normal; that the people whose DNA they share are barbaric.
And, often, that the kids are “lucky” to be adopted by “would-be saints” such as their parents. These negative messages are usually, but not always, unintentional. People have an instinct for categorization; when they see situations that don’t fit the norm, they comment. Most exchanges are harmless. But the cumulative effect is to undermine the legitimacy of our families.
We knew that our decision to adopt transracially would mean kissing our cozy anonymity goodbye. But our daughter never volunteered for this ride. And people often speak to us as if our child is deaf—as if she does not hear and internalize conversations that go on around her. So I’m printing up business cards with contact information for our adoption agency and several good Internet sites. The next stranger who plies me with private questions in a public place is going to get one, with the comment, “Oh, if you’re interested in adoption, here are some excellent resources.”
When Alice is old enough, we’ll discuss whether she wants to handle inquisitive strangers or prefers us to run interference. And we’ll teach her ways to respond without revealing information that is hers alone. Meanwhile, don’t be surprised if you meet me in the check-out line and I politely decline to recite our family history when you ask, “Is she adopted?”
Alice is not a public exhibit. She deserves to be protected from adult questions that subtly invalidate her family’s right to exist. Alice was adopted, once upon a time. But now she is simply my child and our hearts are knit as tightly as any parent’s and child’s can be.
Julie and her family live in Chicago. This article originally appeared in Adoptive Families Magazine.