Adoption is complicated — to be fair, no matter how we come to parenthood, raising kids is complicated. Like so many things in life, the best way to be there for a family formed through adoption is to offer love and, above all else, listen, withhold judgment and check yourself before you wreck yourself.
For instance, here are a few things NOT to say to adoptive parents:
1. Don’t you want a baby?
My husband and I adopted from foster care so our child is older. We’re good with that, thanks. In fact, it’s pretty freaking awesome that we have this sparkly thirteen-year-old lighting up our lives. The other thing is, we thought we’d be well-suited to entering a kiddo’s life in a later chapter; we knew we would be okay with not having a baby – mmm, thanks.
But, here’s the thing, for lots of people, they have grieved that baby, they have either literally or figuratively buried that baby so, please – let that mourned baby rest and shower these parents or parent in joy for their new little person. Because, here’s the truth, even if that kid is a 6’2” seventeen year old, he’s still their baby and they deserve to be celebrated as the new parents they are (as an aside, everyone forgets to throw showers for new adoptive parents… celebrate them — they have worked hard to be a family).
2. What is her history?
Hey! None of your flipping business! I hate this question. Again, when your child comes home later in life, it can be assumed that she had a history before coming to lay her head to rest in your happy home. What that history was is none of anyone’s business. Sure, there are times when, as a mom, you might need to fill in blanks for things to make sense, like when your kid is talking about how she lived in say, California, but that was without this Mom and Dad, you might want to drop a line like “that was before you became a family” so that people can just nod and not ask more prying questions or — more likely — not write you off as “parent fail.”
But, what I hate is, “what’s her history? Were her parents on drugs? Was she born addicted? Was she abused like [nosey person drops to a whisper] really badly?” Seriously, these have all been asked, on all occasions. I usually say, “My daughter’s life is her own story to tell but, regardless, I’d appreciate if you don’t ask.” The adults in the first part of my kid’s life aren’t here; that’s all anyone needs to know. Instead of being gracious, I would really like to say, “uh huh, and did you have a vaginal birth –was there tearing?” Seriously people, it’s the same level of question.
3. You are so lucky to have found each other!
I mean, yes, we are; my family is my everything and I’m grateful every day that I get to be this kid’s mom but, here’s the hard truth: adoption is not born from luck. Children come into adoption from all different circumstances – famine, war, natural disasters, abuse, neglect or a birth parent making the choice that is best for their kid that someone else raises their child (and this is a responsible parenting act and should be respected).
In foster care, it is most commonly abuse and neglect. Little people who have known trauma will, at once, break your heart and make it grow ten times bigger because you will see their desire for love, ability to heal and want to trust. Most of us have known the privilege of enough to eat, a guarantee that we’d have somewhere to sleep, the belief that we are loved and the security that those in that house us also protect us. These simple truths are not universal for those that come into adoption. So “luck” does not apply. Grace might be better. There is grace in adoption. The true elegance of the human spirit is the first real hug when your child melts into your arms – there is love, grief, pain, beauty, grace but luck just doesn’t seem to fit.
4. It’s going to be fine!
Adopting is hard. In my particular situation, we had been a family for over 12 months and were still waiting for the adoption to finalize and we couldn’t leave the state – one that I was not familiar with and a culture in which my husband and I did not blend into. Everyone kept saying things like, “it’s going to be fine!” or “there’s a light at the end of the tunnel!” or “this is an awesome adventure.” You know what, it’s not. Until the day the judge tells you that your kid is yours legally, in the eyes of the law, forever and ever, you live in fear.
In some cases more than others, the reality is, your child can be taken away. In a private newborn adoption, the birth mother can change her mind (depending on the state within a certain number of days after birth), in foster care adoption the birth family can meet their case goals and reunify, etc. This fear is real for adoptive parents. I imagine it is similar to watching your critically-ill child sleep at night, you tell yourself it will be okay, but you fear it just might not be and you think, Please God, it has to be okay. So don’t say “it’s going to be fine!” Instead, say something like, “this is hard, you’re strong and I’m here.”
5. I wish I adopted – it’s way easier than being pregnant.
Um, nope. There are very difficult pregnancies; there are “easy” pregnancies. There are more straight-forward adoptions; there are very complicated and difficult adoptions. There is no “easy way” to have a child so don’t go telling someone they took they easy way out. Please. (Side note: if you’re looking for an easy way to have a child perhaps you should rethink this whole raise a human thing.)
6. Why didn’t you have your own kids?
This fills me with a ferocious, scary mommy, back-your-truck-up-type fury. She is my kid. It’s unreal how often people refer to her as not of me in some way or shape or write me off as a not real mom. First off, she is my daughter, I am her mom and we are good at being mother and daughter. We go together like peanut butter and fluff. Also, teach your children not to say this stuff to kids that were adopted. “Biology is the least of which makes someone a mother [or a daddy].” Oprah said that so it must be true. Seriously though, enough of this crap already – stop it, you’re hurting children.
7. Will s/he look like you?
Um, don’t care. I got this question all the time when we were “expecting.” In the time when we were waiting to match, everyone (from relatives to the lady in my office) would ask us whom we were willing to match with. Sometimes I think it was genuine interest either in the process or the children needing homes or general social curiosity and personal interest – when you adopt you find out how many people are either aching to adopt or who had wanted to but had a partner who wouldn’t. But, this is a life lesson everyone should learn, above all else: choose tact.
If you want to ask this question, think about its appropriateness. What everyone wanted to know was is my kid going to have the same racial background as my husband or me. (Again, um, don’t care.) And, no matter how we would answer this, most people had agendas. For example, yes, it’s likely my child will not look like me, but we are okay with that and we will embrace his or her comfort or discomfort with that (because, hello people, we don’t choose our kid’s feelings).
Let me tell you how many people in uber-liberal, oh-so-open-minded Manhattan would raise their eyebrows and then just say, “but it will be weird, right?” NO. And, hi, that’s my kid – watch yourself. Then we matched with a blonde, blue eyed, Caucasian little girl (which statistically is so unlikely we found ourselves so unprepared, we had done mountains of research for being a transracial family and parenting a boy that there was a moment of “wait, what?” even though we had had this gut feeling that our little girl was out there). Now, people see her photo and actually say things like: “so, you were only willing to adopt a white kid?”
Three things: (1) Do not reduce my child to your fear. (2) No. And (3) My love doesn’t know color and my baby came home and that’s all I know about.
8. Adopted kids have issues.
Shut your face. First of all, everyone has issues. Nobody is perfect. A child who comes from a place of abuse or neglect may have more pain than the average child their age, but the implication that they are then less “good” or “more bad” and then less-deserving of love, a home, a secure environment is preposterous. While I’m on the topic, let’s discuss a common misconception – children do not become available for adoption through any fault of their own. These darling kids were failed by the adults in their life or their caregivers died, and there is no family structure standing to care for them. That is loneliness and vulnerability I have had the privilege to not know.
Here’s the thing: sometimes a kiddo who hasn’t had the proper love and care might still want to play with trucks a little later in life, but he’s excelling at his grade level in school – he just wants to play because he didn’t get play time as a small kid. Or in the adjustment to his new family, whom he loves, he’ll have feelings of not disserving it, and not knowing how to accept that love, and that little person will cry gut-wrenching sobs that speak to a life experience beyond his years. That’s grief, not issues. Envelope that little person in love – he deserves it. And if you’re the on-looker, the friend, the family member, instead of labeling the adoptive parents’ kid offer them grace because what you’re seeing is a family that is grieving. Your new nephew, grandchild, friend’s son, is grieving and so the parents are grieving along with him and their hearts are all breaking so they can become whole together.