What did you say? And why do you ask?
As the white adoptive mother of a daughter from India and son and daughter from Ethiopia, I’ve fielded lots of intrusive questions about our multiracial family through the years. Strangers have stopped me in the grocery store to ask “Are they adopted?” “Where are they from?” “Are you the nanny?”
On the soccer field, acquaintances have boldly inquired “Are they real siblings?” “What happened to their real parents?” “Were they abused?” And then there are the weird comments: “They must be so grateful!” “I bet it takes hours to comb through all that hair!” “If I couldn’t have my own kids, I would totally adopt!”
No comment really surprises me anymore, but if you’re a new adoptive Solo Mom, you may want to develop a plan in advance for dealing with the silly, rude, and strange-but-well-intentioned remarks that can otherwise leave you feeling blindsided.
Here are seven points to keep in mind:
1. Let your child’s needs and feelings guide your response, not the feelings of the questioner. Expect friends, family, and strangers to bring up adoption in front of your child—and trust me, the kid is listening for your response, so you’ll want to model good communication skills and personal boundaries.
For example, people will often ask “Do you also have children of your own?” wanting to know if you have biological offspring. Your adopted child needs to hear you affirm your familial bond. Depending on your situation, you might reply, “She’s my only child, and I just love being her mom.” Or “She’s my daughter, and I also have an adopted son. They’re both my own.” Or “She’s my child, and she has an older sister who was born to me.”
The exact wording is less important than the affirmative message of connection you deliver. However, any time you hear “Oh, she’s so lucky you adopted her!” remember that the best response is always “No, I’m the lucky one because I get to be her mother.”
2. You don’t owe strangers anything. One afternoon when my children were still in preschool, a strange woman at the park so wanted to talk to me about adoption that she raced after my moving car and banged on the driver-side window as we were leaving. Although tempted to run her over (kidding!), I gave her my number instead, offering to answer her questions later, when I wasn’t busy with my children. The woman never called. In fact, not one of the supposedly adoption-curious folks I’ve given my number to in the last decade has ever followed up. So don’t feel obligated to discuss local adoption agencies with the random lady at Target, especially with your son sitting in the shopping cart. Give out your number if you want, say you’d love to chat but you’ve got to run, or simply walk away.
3. You don’t owe acquaintances, friends, or family anything, either. You’re not required to share personal details about your child with anybody, not even loved ones. You may choose to be a little more open with family and the people you encounter regularly and try to educate them about adoption, but you can still avoid spilling sensitive information to those who don’t need to know the particulars.
I remember when, shortly after my youngest two children arrived from Ethiopia, an elder at our church cornered me. “The children are delightful,” she said. “Did their parents die of AIDS?” I knew this woman to be normally kind and caring, but her question landed like a punch to my gut. I took a deep breath and responded firmly, but without anger.
“AIDS isn’t the only problem in Africa. There are many reasons why Ethiopian children might be placed for adoption,” I answered. “We’re keeping the details of their situation private for the children to share as they see fit when they are older.”
I stayed calm, the church lady grasped my lesson about privacy, and our cordial relationship remained intact.
Believe it or not, I gave a similar speech about privacy to our extended family. I wanted to be the person to help my kids sift through their personal histories, revealing key details as they matured. I wanted to empower them to choose how and with whom to share that information. Now, as teenagers, each of my children has opened up to the extended family in his or her own way, on his or her own time. Their adoption information was never secret (which can connote shame), but it was always private (special and belonging to them). Respect on all sides brought us closer together.
4. Questions from your child’s friends, classmates, and peers are to be expected. Asking questions is part of a child’s job description. Small children, especially, may be blunt, so try to be understanding. Expect to hear questions such as “Are you Logan’s real mommy?” “Does Logan have a daddy?” Keep answers simple and age-appropriate. “Yes, I adopted Logan, which means I will love and take care of him and be his mommy forever. There’s no daddy at our house. Our family includes Logan, me, and a puppy named Rags.”
5. When all else fails, try saying “Would you repeat that, please?” or “Why do you ask?” Most people who want to talk adoption have good intentions, but curiosity makes them forget themselves, or they don’t know enough about adoption to be able to speak politely about it. We all say the wrong thing on occasion. Asking folks to repeat a comment or clarify a question gives them an opportunity to reconsider their words: “I’ve heard kids adopted from foster care have a lot of trouble in school.” “I’m sorry, would you repeat that?” “Was his birth mother on drugs?” “Why do you ask?”
I can’t tell you how many times a stranger has startled me by asking “Are your kids adopted?” In every case, the questioner was connected to adoption in some way, either as a parent waiting for a child to arrive, as an uncle or a grandmother, or as an adult adoptee, which led to some friendly conversations. I was always glad I’d said “Why do you ask?” instead of “None of your business.”
6. Keep your sense of humor. I’ve been asked if I’m the nanny, the coach, or the youth group leader when out and about with my kids. On a recent birthland trip to Ethiopia, an Italian tourist complained to airport authorities that we were trying to bring our local guide into the terminal—but the “guide” was my son! We laugh about those kinds of mix-ups as a family. Humor is a great coping skill to model.
7. Prepare your children to answer questions and set boundaries without you. As kids mature, they’ll start fielding more questions on their own, as part of what adoption researcher Robert L. Ballard calls the narrative burden, in which the adoptee’s “personal narratives are placed under scrutiny and at risk by the questions of others.” Modeling good communication with others and fostering open dialogue within the family will help your child immensely.
Make an effort to connect your child with peers who are also adopted and can relate to the associated challenges. Practicing questions and answers at home can help both of you feel more prepared for awkward encounters. Check out resources such as the W.I.S.E. Up! Powerbook (Center for Adoption Support and Education, 2000) by Marilyn Schoettle and Talking with Young Children About Adoption (Yale University Press, 1995) by Mary Watkins and Susan Fisher for more information.
Sharon Van Epps is a writer and an adoptive mother of three children aged 12, 13, and 14. Her work has appeared in Adoptive Families; Brain, Child; the New York Times’s Motherlode blog; the Washington Post’s On Parenting blog, and many more publications. From the age of 12, she was raised by her Solo Grandmother.
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