Adoption Etiquette

Image It happened. Again.  We were out it public and we stand out like a sore thumb.  Two very white people with two very obviously not white girls who look the same age but not the same like twins.  We always draw attention to ourselves no matter where we go.  For the most part I have to admit it’s good attention, people seeming to want to reassure us how much they accept our family and our part we contribute to society despite our obvious differences from the traditional, American, nuclear family.  Still, people seem to think that because our children are adopted they can ask us any questions they want, personal or not.  So the question was asked (again), “Are your girls sisters?” I knew of course what she was asking, but I just smiled and said politely, “Yes, of course they’re sisters.”  She looked at me blankly, then looked back at the girls who were playing nearby, shook her head and asked again, “No, I mean are they real sisters.”  My heart thudded in my chest and I automatically glanced over at Ev and Nora to see if they had heard this question. “They aren’t biological sisters, no, but they are sisters,” I smiled, knowing this girl didn’t mean any harm, she was just curious.  A woman overhearing nearby joined in the conversation and started talking about how lucky our girls were to have us and how it was horrible that people could just abandon their children like that and how she heard of a woman who……you know where this is going. I’m sure you’ve heard things like this before. Maybe you have even said them yourself.  I squirmed and tried to take a few steps away from my girls, hoping these women would follow suit and I tried to talk softly so I could protect my girls a little longer from what the world seemed to assume they already knew.  I smiled again and said as gently as I could, “Well, I’m thankful for them because if they didn’t exist I wouldn’t have my children,” and tried to politely excuse myself from the conversation.

I will never forget a few months ago a very similar conversation with someone else I didn’t know very well who asked the same questions in front of my children.  When forced, again, I said, no, they were not “real” sisters.  That night, when I was tucking Evie into bed, she looked at me with a heartbreaking expression and I nearly cried. “Mom, why did you say we weren’t real sisters?” Her sweet little voice quavered and it was one of those moments as a parent where you want desperately to shield your children from all the hurt this world is going to dish out to them and you know it isn’t possible.  It was a moment that gnawed away at my heart.

We go over this all. The. Time.

I know so many people mean so well and are just curious when they ask these questions or say these things.  Honestly, if I hadn’t adopted our girls, I would have no idea, either, what adopted families go through.  That’s why I decided to write this to try to make the world at large understand what adopting is really like.  I am really, really sensitive about it. I don’t think the people who are closest to me even realize how sensitive I am about it.  I can’t tell you how many stupid movies or TV shows I have watched where there was an adopted child who wanted nothing to do with their family (what I like to call their real family) and wanted to find their biological family because they knew that was where they really belonged and the happy ending was that the adoptive family was left in the dust, portrayed as kidnappers who tore them away from their “real” families.  I have sobbed myself to sleep so many times after watching that garbage, making myself sick with worry that someday my children will turn on me and say I’m not their real mom. This fear haunts me most days. Don’t get me wrong, I understand wanting to search out your biological family.  We have talked a lot about wanting to help our kids through that if that is a desire they have some day. Don’t misunderstand me. That’s not what I’m talking about.  I just want people to understand that some of us ARE threatened by the biological family. I know this is taboo and something that we are not supposed to admit to, but I am.  I know these are my children, but if the world keeps saying they’re not, will they grow up to believe that, too??

I remember dating this guy in high school who had 2 adopted siblings and 2 biological ones and saying something like, (this makes me so ashamed to admit this) “At least they aren’t your real siblings.” To which he was properly horrified and refused to speak to me for saying something so absurd and insensitive.  But that is what I am talking about. That misunderstanding that our family is any different than anyone else’s. So I wanted to sort of make a “to say” and “not to say” sort of list to help you out in case you ever make these kind of blunders.  Without realizing it, people are really hurtful.  Don’t be one of them.

1. Don’t ever ask about the “real” family, especially in front of the kids. I think I have very thoroughly covered why. My kids are so young, now, they don’t understand a lot. We are as candid with them as we feel necessary but I don’t want to discuss in front of them why their birth parents either decided to put them up for adoption or weren’t able to be parents. Keep in mind we love our children as our own flesh and blood and feel the need to protect them as such. I had a neighbor who was so loving to the girls who would shower them with gifts and be so kind to them, so much so I was floored one day when he said to me very flippantly while speaking about the deviant behavior of someone else, “Well, he wasn’t even his real son. He was adopted…”  suggesting that the father of this boy shouldn’t have even put up with him because he wasn’t his “real” son.

I want to say that I believe fully in the sovereignty of God and I don’t think He said, “Hmmm…Courtney couldn’t have children..let me see…who can I put…ah yes! Perfect! There’s two children….let me arrange this…” No. I believe since before there was time He called those children to be mine, just like He called me as His own. No doubt about it.

Also, as a note to this please, please PLEASE do not rant about biological families, whether real or conjured up in your imagination.  It really only hurts my children. Please save this for a private conversation, if you really feel necessary to say this at all.  Keep in mind that children come from all places and sometimes it truly is the most loving thing a mother or father can do to put their child up for adoption.

2. Don’t think you can ask anything about the adoption, especially publicly or in front of the children. People seem to think because your children are adopted that anything is fair game.  I don’t mind telling friends our story privately over tea, but even then I try not to get into personal details until I am comfortable with them and I know I can trust them. Our adoption and the process that it took to get there was long and painful. I can’t even begin to tell you how much we went through to end up where we are, so please, please tread carefully. Think of it this way, no one asks you the intimate details of how you had your children and what happened to bring that about. No one will ever say to you, “So, you went upstairs to the bedroom….then what happened?”  It’s still just as personal, just in a different kind of way.

3. A lost adoption is exceptionally painful.  This one is very important because people don’t understand this either. I had a friend who said to me, “What is your problem? Another one will come along.”  We were expecting to adopt this little boy, but his birth mother chose another home for him a week before her due date. We found out later he was back in the system.  I made him a quilt, painted his nursery, we had a shower for him, we named him.  I still only say his name to my husband and I can barely speak it to him.  It is sacred to me; it is mine. The only time I say his name is when I pray to God asking him to take care of him wherever he is.  In my heart, he is my son.  I know his birthday and grieve it every year, knowing he is a year older and I am missing it. Please be sensitive to this.  Even now, I can write about this, but I can’t talk about it.

4. Adoption is NOT the easy way. Yep-heard this a lot, too. Let me give you an idea of what it’s like just in case you might be under this false impression:  to start the process you go through months of classes, paperwork, background checks and scrutiny.  The irony is that so many adoptions happen because irresponsible teenagers thought they were in love or someone had a one night stand, but if they chose to keep the baby, no one would question their ability to love and raise it; no one would come into their home with a checklist to make sure your house was safe or invade your privacy or dig up old wounds just to make sure you were suited for the job. I understand all of the red tape, I really do. I am even thankful for it and understand how fully necessary it is. Still, understand it is a long, grueling, exhausting, invasive process.  Then, you wait. And you wait. And you wait.  We are thankful for us it only took a few months after losing our boy, but a lot of people wait for years.  Then after you bring your precious child home, you are heartsick for months wondering if the birth parents will decide they changed their mind.  Then, after you have your court hearing and everything is finalized, people come to your home every week for months to make sure you are a good parent.  There are payments, trips, costs that drain your life-savings that no insurance will cover. Then, the real agony starts, because once you have sewn your heart permanently to this child that you love as your own, there is that nagging fear that someday you will have to tell them the real truth that will hurt them deeply about why their biological parents couldn’t keep them and fear they will deny you as their own.  You fear they will one day go looking for that family and find that there isn’t sunshine at the end of that rainbow, but only deep heartache.  One more thing you can’t protect your child from.

I feel like I could go on and on about why adoption is NOT the easy way to go, but I don’t want to deter anyone from doing it. But this list I gave you is just scratching the surface.

5. If you adopted because you couldn’t have children on your own, that pain will still always be there.  This is something else I know people aren’t aware of.  I am so thankful I get to be a mom, no matter how God chose to make that happen for me. Still, not being able to conceive on our own was a deep, deep pain that can’t be described until you have experienced it for yourself. Please be sensitive about this, too. Does this mean I want another baby right now? Heck no! But it’s just like any past hurt. I have a friend who lost her house in a fire.  She has a new, beautiful house, but the pain of losing the old one is still very fresh for her.  It’s the same kind of thing.  Just like any loss, the pain is forever etched on your heart. I dread baby showers and my heart sinks every time I hear the news of someone else getting pregnant. Though I can rejoice with them, it still is painful. This is also something I don’t want to talk about to a new acquaintance or stranger at the store, though many have tried to pry it out of me.  I don’t know why people don’t know how personal this is, but in case you are one of those people let me say, don’t ask unless you know someone really, really well, and even then please proceed with delicate caution.

6. Please do not tell me I am so wonderful for adopting these children and how I saved them from a horrendous life in front of my children. I appreciate a word of encouragement as much as the next person. I crave it sometimes, in fact. This, however, is really not appropriate in front of my children.  I am not really a hero for adopting these children. It was a great desire in our heart to do this, out of a deep longing to be parents but also because we felt led by God to do so.   Also, because we know the history of their birth parents and we may have saved them from a lot of heartache, I still don’t want my children questioning me about that until they are ready.  I have had well-meaning nursery workers, people at church, acquaintances and strangers at the grocery store all tell me this.  It would be like if someone came up to your spouse in front of you and said, “Wow! That was so kind of you to marry her/him. They are so lucky to have you.  Imagine what would have happened to them if you hadn’t.” This is word for word what I hear all the time. Though I really do appreciate the sentiment behind it, please, again, be sensitive to the feelings of my children

7. We don’t want to be treated as any more or any less for having adopted children.  I might be beating a dead horse, now, but I want to clarify this in case I haven’t been clear: we want to be treated the same as anyone else!! We took my daughter to have some tests run the other day and at the doctor’s office they refused to see her until we produced solid evidence that we were her “real” parents. There’s that nasty word again. Let’s just make this a general rule: leave that word out of your vocabulary altogether when talked with or about adoptive families. Anyway, the woman at reception was patronizing, if not condescending to us. I gawked at the woman and child in the waiting room with me who only moments before produced nothing more than an insurance card to prove she was the child’s mother.  Is this really a popular trend now with kidnappers?? They take their kidnappees to get EKG’s? Anyway, after doing a little dance for this woman and making phone calls, the necessary paperwork was promptly faxed over by the good people at our adoption agency who said to me, “Really? They need this now after you adopted them six years ago?” I appreciated her support. To  her credit, the receptionist was very apologetic once the papers went through. Can I ask, though, please, that you not make assumptions about me because my children are a different color than me on the spot? This is the negative side of this whole issue. We have gotten the stares, the dirty looks, but for the most part people are so supportive that they give us too much attention as well. We just want to be viewed as a “normal” family! To us, we are!!

This is not to reprimand anyone, because people have been so kind and gracious to us. This has been on my heart for awhile.  It’s to make people aware because I think they ask these things to show they care. I really, really, really believe that!!  I’m not saying not to ask because I don’t mind when people ask, I just want you to understand the weight of what you ask sometimes.

23 thoughts on “Adoption Etiquette

  1. I don’t mind. Really. I have 25 year old biological , identical twins who made us a very visible family in the 80s. Some of the comments for twins are just as silly/dumb. Some of them came from my in-laws!I came to realize that people are just curious, and it gave us lots to discuss, even when the twins were small.
    Now with small children through interracial adoption I really don’t mind. It’s about the same really. I just answer and smile.

    • That’s good that you are able to handle the questions and take it in stride. I have come to realize that people ask questions or say things because they are curious and are actually trying to be supportive of us. I wanted to make that clear with this article. I just want people to be aware of how their comments can hurt my children, especially when they are so young and insecure, as all young children are. Also, we haven’t been able to have biological children, so I think that also makes a difference I have noticed in the sensitivity of those of us who have only had adopted children from speaking with friends who have either had just adopted children or both biological as well as adopted.

    • I also wanted to add, though, that the primary reason I wrote this article was for the sake of my children. I understand people’s curiosity and the questions don’t always bother me because I am sensitive (though if you haven’t experienced infertility, etc. that is a pain people don’t understand) but because I don’t want my children to be hurt by the flippancy, insensitivity or curiosity of others. Even at such a young age, they have struggled with feeling like they are different from everyone else and are sensitive to it. I want to protect my kids when I can from these things. This really isn’t about me, necessarily, but about my kids. Though the questions might not bother you, I would caution you to see if they could possibly bother and hurt your children.

  2. Thank you for saying everything I think and feel every single day. We too have two adopted girls that look nothing like me (though they do tend to favor my husband a bit) and we have experienced all of these things at some point in time (even the failed adoption after we had baby M.) This made my day and I think I am going to have to post on facebook or link so that all friends, family and well, everyone can hear this. It can’t be said often enough.

  3. I can’t believe people, especially those who aren’t close friends, could ever ask any of those questions. Very informative article. Thanks. Sorry for all the tactless people out there.

  4. This was interesting. I think you think people ask invasive questions because your family is “different,” but people ask invasive questions because they are interested or curious or nosy or rude. I have two sons, with a 3rd on the way, and people ask us if we were “trying for a girl” or if we are “done YET” all the time. They offer suggestions on “how to make a girl” by telling us everything from what food to eat to what positions to use. People also comment HOW pregnant I look, one woman pointing out mid pregnancy that I was bigger than a woman behind me in line who was full term. It gets worse when they find out we have issues conceiving. Sure, these are personal things that they are commenting on, but I don’t think people are generally malicious. I’m sure once they’ve left us, they’re thinking “what a nice little family” and not “really, they SHOULD try harder for a girl.” I know you’re sensitive. I am, too, but maybe a little more frank discussion – i.e. “you know, it’s hurtful to my daughters when people say they aren’t ‘real’ sisters” – and a little more awareness that you aren’t the only mom fielding questions about the way your children look, how they were made and where they came from will make answering those kinds of questions less painful for you.

    • I agree with you completely. I don’t think people mean to be malicious at all. Although we have experienced some very blatant prejudice because of our blended family, for the most part I think people ask to show how supportive they are of us. You are right, though, too, that maybe I need to be more upfront with people when they make these comments or ask these questions in front of people.

  5. Courtney – I too, suffer from being a little less “up front” than I should be. But it isn’t because I lack the gut so do so, or because I don’t want to make waves, but because I don’t want my daughters to hear me defending them and their origins. We decided early on that our girls identities would not be shaped by something that happened to them but by the things that they happened to. I never want them to start an introduction with “Hi, my name is MadHatter and I am adopted” but rather “Hi, my name is MadHatter and I have brown hair, brown eyes and am wickedly funny” If the adoption part comes in, then I want it to be an afterthought, not a defining feature.

    • Exactly! I feel the same way. I want their being a part of our family to be assumed as just how it is. They were always intended to be a part of our family, and I don’t want it to be something that defines them, either, as a person. It is part of their history and who they are and I don’t want to shy away from that, either, but I also don’t want them to feel “less-than” because they are. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Reblogged this on Make All Things New and commented:

    Recently I wrote this article on adoption etiquette and got a much bigger response than I expected and realized that there are so many adoptive families who can relate to what I said. A friend of mine, also an adoptive mom, shared this link with me on adoptions to say and not to say. It was informative but also hilarious and incredibly true.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts, especially since so many of these stories are so personal to you and your family. This post needs to be Freshly Pressed!

  8. Thanks for this. I am a soon-to-be adoptive parent and I like to think that I’m prepared for all of the unintentionally insensitive comments that come from well-meaning people. However, I can totally see myself losing my cool with strangers in some of those scenarios, and it is so helpful to see your thoughtful responses to some of these folks. It really gives me food for thought as to how I might handle similar situations myself.

  9. Thank you for this article. We have a child we adopted through Foster care and, though I do not consider myself overly sensitive, I’ll never forget the woman who looked at her and said, “How cute! She calls you mommy!”
    I would add to your comment about asking “their story” – especially in front of the children. Many adopted children do come from the Foster system and their story is not a parent making the (very difficult) decision for their child to be adopted, it’s about abuse and neglect and abandonment. Many times those children know (and remember) that part of their history. It is never appropriate to ask in front of the child. My daughter was too young (thankfully) but we have many friends whose children still have a long road ahead to heal.

  10. When I learned to take a deep breath,!and then calmly ask,!Why would you ask this? I found that the other person was forced to consider his/her motives. If the response was one that clearly meant no harm (e.g. I am considering adoption and would like to know your perspective.) I offer as much as I am comfortable sharing. I sometimes add that I will not say more because it is my child (ren’s) personal story and not mine to tell.
    To anyone who says something less appropriate, I take another breath and say that it simply is none of your business.

    With sincere interest, adoption comes with the opportunity to educate (e.g. You don’t need to whisper or drop your voice on the word ‘adoption.’ It is a very positive word in our home. When you drop your voice, you are suggesting otherwise and that is hurtful to my family. )

    It can go the other way! In my enthusiasm for adoption, I once asked my new neighbor where had she adopted her boys . She replied, ” I didn’t. They look like my husband.” All assumptions stated out of ignorance make the speaker look like a fool. I learned a lot from my neighbor that day! Lol

  11. Great article. I honestly believe articles like this are making a difference in awareness. The public needs to know these types of questions and comments are inappropriate. I don’t think you are being sensitive. You’re being a good mom, trying to protect your kids from hurtful questions/comments. For a while it seemed my two girls (adopted internationally) and I couldn’t step out of the house without hearing these types of things, too. Even though these people weren’t intending to be rude, their comments were hurtful for my girls, none the less. I completely understand just wanting to be treated like a normal family. And, yes, people ask inappropriate questions of everyone, but asking about a child’s position or validity in a family or about their terribly painful history or making them feel like our family’s charity case is completely different than asking an adult about their pregnancy (referencing a comment here from last year). The concerns aren’t for the intrusiveness of the questions/comments, but the constant reminder they are to our children that they are “different” and that it makes them question the validity of their place in their family. The need to feel they belong in their family is foundational and needs to be reinforced positively rather than constantly called into question. Again, thank you for this article. I shared it on my FB page and had a college-age adoptee comment that everyone needs to read this as she’s had a lot of these questions this first year in college.

    • Thank you so much for this comment. Very well said and I agree completely and this was the point I was trying to make. I don’t want the world to constantly be asking questions that make my children feel like they are different and don’t belong and for people to feel like they can ask any personal questions as though they have the right to do so.

  12. I appreciate your words, and the thoughtfulness with which you write. But your #5 heading is one of the things that bugs me most about adoption inquiry. Children of “your own.” Perhaps you want to change that to “biological children.” Adopted children are our own children. ♡

    • Someone else pointed this out to me as well. I hadn’t thought of it as children of our own as much as “on our own” but I do appreciate it being pointed out. Thank you:)

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