Here's the kicker folks: there is rarely such thing as an obviously adoptive family.
One of my friends is in a bi-racial marriage and her kids favor her non-Caucasian husband, and she gets questions about "where they come from" often. I don't know how she responds but I know I would want to say, "My children come from my uterus," or if I were feeling snippy, "My husband impregnated me."
We all know this but it bears mentioning that families look different these days. There are single moms, single dads, grandmas raising their grandchildren, multi-race families, families with two moms, families with bi-racial kids, domestic adoptive families, internationally adoptive families, and even a mix of all of these. If we all stop assuming things about each other as a society we'll all be better off.
This being said, there are many articles out there floating in the Internets titled something like "Top Things to not ask an Adoptive Family." Even though some of these posts contain nuggets of truth and can be helpful, I think the mere title of these kinds of posts can put well meaning, supportive people on the defensive. While reading the adoptive families are nodding and have their hands up in the air having hallelujah moments, adoptees are going "you all have it wrong" and the lay people trying to support and understand adoption feel like the post is actually saying "Top Things Not to Say, You Insensitive Moron."
The author's three children
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My sister told me reading pieces like those I reference make her think I don't want to say anything because no matter what I am gonna offend someone.
This is a problem, because the last thing adoptive families want is to stop dialog about adoption. Adoption needs more understanding and support for birth families, adoptees and adoptive families. We don't want to shut people down. Adoption isn't secretive or shameful, though for some it can be. (I hope this is changing more and more.) So in this vein, I wanted to share some thoughts on what to say.
It should be strenuously noted that I write this as an Expert Situation Screwer-Upper. I say the wrong things all the time to family, friends, strangers, and obviously, adoptees and other adoptive families may feel differently than I do about all of this.
There are typically three kinds of people who tend to approach families about their unique "probably adoption brought them together" status. Here is a little advice to each of type of Approacher about what to say when they feel the desire to engage.
Approacher Type 1: A person who has contemplated adoption
Or has read blogs about it while researching adoption. Has toyed with the idea of adoption and or may already be in the process of adopting. These folks border on stalker in the best meaning possible because likely, they really want to connect. I have been a Type 1 Approacher before and not known how to engage a PAF (Probably Adoptive Family).
Here is an idea what to say: (If there are more than one and if they do not match) "All your kids are so lovely. What a cool family you are. I know this is presumptuous and I am sorry if I am off here, but would you mind me asking if you are an adoptive family?" Sometimes, Type 1 Approacher might feel foolish because the parent of the PAF might answer no, but live and learn.
The phrasing was important because Type 1 let the family know she or he understood it was a personal question and were willing to take on the risk of being on the awkward side of the interaction. So often, people who approach adoptive families ask questions in a way that is based on assumption, and forces an explanation. At least in this scenario the Approacher acknowledges that.
If they say Yes, we are an adoptive family, and if this Type 1 Approacher has questions to ask about adoption, about the process, or wants to know if this family (please, God please) lives in their neighborhood now is the time to be brief.
Say: "Ya know, I've always thought about adoption (or we are in the process ourselves or whatever the quick version of your interest is) and would really love to talk to you more but I know we are in the store. Could I shoot you an email sometime? I really want to connect with other adoptive families."
Almost every single adoptive family has been blessed by the advice, help and support from a total stranger who has done it before. In adoption, the internet is your friend, much of the time anyway.
I am hereby calling on all adoptive families to be gracious enough to say "Sure!" if someone asks this, since I am telling them to ask you this.
And that, friends, is it. There really isn't anything more to say or ask that is appropriate at this juncture. Even Where is the Obviously Different child from? assumes the family adopted internationally. This kid could be a foster child, or a domestic placement, or really, a friend's kid. Just smile and move on.
Approacher Type 2: Grandmother or Auntie or neighbor or friend of adoptive family
This person may want to give a shout out, or an emotional high five to the PAF. This type also wants to connect. He or she also may want to bust out the picture and story of their niece from Ethiopia or China, or just be a ray of sunshine on a family that might get crap from time to time.
A suggestion: "All your kids are so lovely. What a cool family you are." If conversation continues and the mom or dad appears to want to engage, feel free to bring up your adoption connection, say how great you think the family is (as opposed to "You guys are so great to take this poor orphan in") and then smile and move on. Remember, they may not be an adoptive family. If you would like to ask if they are, like Type 1 Approacher, admit you are being nosy and graciously ask knowing they might say no or bow out of conversation.
It is important to take cues on if the the parents really want to talk. Take note, is their cart still moving as you are talking in a passive attempt to escape? Are the children whining/crying/stealing gum from the check out display? If yes, just smile or ask if you can help load their stuff onto the conveyor belt or ask the parent if they need you to hold a kid while they pay. -- This advice might be sounding a little personal at this point. This is coming from the perspective of a woman with four hand grenades posing as young children that could go off at any time. Sorry.
Approacher Type 3: Curious people
They just want to know what is up with this family. Here is what to say, are you ready? It's going to sound familiar at this point since we heard this for Type 1 and Type 2 Approachers:
"All your kids are so lovely. What a cool family you are." And then smile.
If the parents want to be ambassadors to adoption (and sometimes we do!) they might give you the information you seek. They probably know you are curious and appreciate that you are being polite by not directly pumping them for info on their unique bunch.
Or they may smile back and be grateful you didn't join the masses grilling them in public in front of their kids.
Approacher Type 3b: Curious people with an agenda
These are the folks who typically inspire What Not To Say posts. They tend to be the "your kid is so lucky does she have AIDS did her real parents die how much did she cost you guys are just like Brangelina I could never love a kid who wasn't my own don't you know there are plenty of kids in the US without homes my adopted cousin is a druggie aren't you scared the kid will be screwed up?" message bearers.
To these curious people who want to know primarily so they can share their opinion and negative views about adoption or mixed race families or whatever: Just don't say anything.
Just be content knowing you aren't alone, and that this family has already heard your thoughts about adoption from someone else, and has weighed those thoughts very carefully over years of scrutiny from the FBI, social workers, doctors, local police departments, teachers, therapists, their mail carrier who sees mail come from USCIS and the FBI, foreign embassies, etc., ad nauseum.
Now, I read one of those What Not to Say" articles recently that listed as a no no "Don't approach child and speak their native language." Even if what the author meant is "It's not OK to assume you know what my kid's ethnicity is by the way she looks or assume she speaks that language." I think that is a bit over sensitive. If an Ethiopian adult recognizes my clearly Ethiopian child as such and wants to yammer at my kid in Amharic, I'd be delighted and hope to teach him to smile and respectfully say Amarigna alinagerem. It just means "I don't speak Amharic."
I hope those of us who adopt internationally get our children connected enough with people from their country and teach pride in birth culture enough that this interaction is a non-issue. Frankly, even if a Haitian or Kenyan started speaking to my kid in their own native tongue which none of us will understand in the slightest, I'd be trying not to lick this person to contain my excitement because I will wonder if they live close by (*see note below).
Everyone is different, we all have different things that get under our skin. Parents of kids with disabilities and in wheel chairs get this stuff too. I have a friend with a child with Cerebral Palsy and she hears What's wrong with him? on occasion. I know I would be tempted to say Nothing, what is wrong with you?
Any family who looks "different" could use a wee bit o' restrain from Approachers of all Types. Because you catch more flies with honey than "Where did that larvae come from?"
Be nice to an adoptive or otherwise unique family. You don't have to grill them on first contact. And they - ok, we-- will share. Because that is the thing, we love adoption. We love our families. We love our kids and often their birth families and cultures. We are ambassadors and advocates for unique families.
And most of the time, questions aren't really rude. They are just numerous.
So maybe what I mean to say after all this rambling is: There is nothing wrong with wanting to talk to adoptive family, share in the obvious joy radiating off of us, at least, the joy that is radiating when no one is throwing a massive tantrum and I am trying not to yell.
There is nothing wrong with being curious, but when in doubt, you don't have ask anything. We will probably tell you if you stick around long enough.
[*Note: If you are an almost-obviously fellow adoptive family or family of any color, or bestillmyfrickingheart an African person in my Whitesvilletown, I will probably stalk you, make conversation in the hope to connect, pray you live next door and/or hug you before our interaction is over. See, I ain't perfect.]
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