I’m hesitant to write about this at all. Reason is, family ought to just be family. Not a non-traditional family, a mixed family, a blended family, a multi-spectral family, an assorted family, a variegated family, or whatever term people can come up with to imply their acceptance of diversity while ensuring they segregate it. Family is just family. So I guess that’s why I decided to write this. If I can cause one person to think before speaking – to consider the impact of their words – then it’s a topic worth addressing.
So. We adopted our daughter. I don’t actually think that’s a big deal. I think it’s cool. But I also think it’s cool that women severed my muscles to remove my sons in front of my eyes, yet I don’t talk about that much either. My kids are just my kids and comments that imply any caveats on that are startling and hurtful.
Please, consider the following things when talking to families who have or are thinking about adopting. And if you hear someone else making insensitive statements, maybe pull them aside and clue them in.
It’s a verb: One of the best things I’ve heard is the idea to use adoption as a verb, not an adjective. Adoption is a process with a beginning and an end. Saying people “were adopted” rather than “are adopted” is a nice way to reference that process (in an appropriate context) without making it an obligatory lifelong caveat.
Who are these people? I don’t know who these people in the “traditional family” are, but they seem awfully smug. I suppose there needs to be two parents: a man and a woman, who have had at least one child. The parents can’t have been married to anyone else in the past. Both of the parents need to be biological parents of the children, and both the same race. I suppose at least one parent has to stay at home, and the other one works. The working parent better be successful and stoic, and the stay-at-home parent better spend all their time with the kids. They can’t be too young when they got married, or too old. And they should be the same age. They’d better be religious (and the same religion at that), ensure their children share their beliefs, while not teaching them anything that isn’t mainstream. No drinking or smoking, or music with inappropriate themes. Most importantly, their children can’t tell butt jokes at the table. I’m pretty sure this is key. Where I’m going with this: unless you are an actual family court judge, nobody asked you to arbitrate families. Nobody likes being compared.
Pregnancy is special. But it’s not the only way. When I listen to people go on about the unique experience of pregnancy and birth, I feel bad for people who have never been pregnant and worry they are missing out. Starting, I suppose, with all men. Look, I know how special pregnancy is. I’ve been there. I also was proposed to in a Broadway theater – it was indeed special. Should I look down on others who had a different experience? If you have children but have never been pregnant I have great news: your way was not inferior. And your bladder was probably much better off.
The Easy Way: Never ever say to an adopting parent, “I see you are doing it the easy way.” Adoption is every bit as difficult (often more) than pregnancy. Pregnancy can be rough. I’ve had a miscarriage, and I’ve had gestational diabetes. Not fun. And through adoption, I had to wait during the pregnancy day after day, without any control over the end outcome or even the ability to be reassured by the baby’s movements, or even the understanding of your friends, who have no idea what you are going through. I’ve also had what they call a “change of heart”. This means you are holding a real baby you think is yours and then someone takes it away forever. And after that I had to hear people call it the easy way. Put this one out of your vocabulary.
Use race in context. If your friends have never called your kids white, probably best not to randomly call their kid Asian. “But it’s true.” I know, but there’s no context for it. Your need to point it out begs the question why. Also random references to basketball—best to skip.
Law & Order. Bum-bum. Everyone has apparently learned everything about adoption from Law & Order. How “they” can take the child away years later. How mothers make a fortune selling their children. How the children are actually kidnapped. No, it’s real because it was ripped from the headlines. Please. Stop. I love that show too, but stop.
The Exception is not the Rule: On a related topic, that one guy you heard about does not define the rest of us. I’m sure there have been some crappy adoptive parents. And some crazed-out kids. Or some guy you knew that is bitter about his life. Or some article you read. This is true for any subset of people. Don’t be so selective.
The Birthmother. “So, was she poor? She just couldn’t afford another kid?” Yes, that’s right. Women make the life-changing and self-sacrificing decision to carry a child, find them a loving home, and potentially never see them again because they are poor. In fact, if you drive through an impoverished neighborhood, you will find there are no children there. They cost too much. In reality, there are many reasons a woman chooses adoption. Perhaps the child would be in a dangerous situation, exposed to drugs or abuse. Perhaps the child would be hated by others in its life. Perhaps the woman was raped, and can’t subject a child to a lifetime of its mother seeing a rapist in their eyes. Perhaps the woman is terminally ill. Perhaps she is already obligated to full-time care of another. Perhaps she is disabled. First point: Don’t ask this. It’s awfully personal. Second point: No, it probably wasn’t about money. P.S. I’ve never once been asked about the Birthfather’s motives.
Well, she shouldn’t have got pregnant then. Sigh. Great advice. I mean, come on.
Investigative reporting. So why did you adopt? Are you unable to have kids? Did you have medical problems? Did your doctor recommend not getting pregnant or was it just a choice you made? When did you bring them home? Where are they from? Aren’t you worried they’ll have bad genes? Are they as smart as the other kids? Do you feel differently about them? First: This isn’t 60 minutes. Second: Consider whether you’d like to be asked these sort of questions about your choices in life. These questions are really quite rude, and focus on entirely the wrong things. Third: Ask about the kid. “How’s she doing? What does she enjoy? What grade is she in?” Parents love to talk about their kids. Do that.
Real kids / Real parents. What. Planet. Did people grow up on. Where this is acceptable. Don’t refer to biological relatives as “real”. Ever. If you want to inquire about someone’s biological heritage, first ask yourself why? Are you their doctor, concerned about genetic risks for disease prevention purposes? Are they famous and you are writing their biography? Sounds legit! Please ask about their “biological” history. If not, are you simply curious? Is this person that close to you that it’s an appropriate question? If you have no real reason to ask, don’t. Again, this is personal. In case you think I’m making this up, I’ve had people ask me about my child’s “real parents”. I’ve had people ask me, “One of your kids isn’t yours, right?” (And note even after I told the person this was upsetting to me, they insisted it was the correct terminology, since not all my kids were “mine”.) People have complimented me on my ability to treat all the kids the same. (What?) Once I showed someone a picture of my daughter and said she was laughing at her dad, and the person responded, “I thought she never met him.” I could go on, but I hope you get the idea. All. Families. Are. Real. Saying otherwise is just mean.
Stop making excuses. “Oh people just don’t know the PC thing to say.” “Oh, it always changes anyway.” “Oh, people get so wrapped up about words.” No. Stop. Words are a primary method of human communication. And there is nothing about not saying someone’s child isn’t “real” or “theirs” that requires an abundance of political correctness. Don’t make excuses for people; tell them to use their noggins.
Bottom line: Think before you speak, and when in doubt—remember the golden rule.
Thanks for listening. With love, The Real Mom
E.D.E. Bell – February 2015