My Kids' Adoptions Are Obvious--But Their Stories Are Private

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

“So, are you their foster mom?” a woman asks me while I’m selecting a bag of apples at the grocery store. She gestures toward the two children by my side.

“Um, no,” I reply, annoyed. She doesn’t move, clearly unsatisfied with my response, standing in front of my cart. I sigh and say, “I’m their mom.” My issue wasn’t with fostering–which is a sacred and necessary role. Rather, I was annoyed that she felt entitled to know why a white woman was shopping with two black children.

I am certainly used to the questions we get as a big, multiracial family. But that doesn’t mean I’m not irritated when another stranger decides that our everyday outing to the park or library is a good time to start an interrogation. I’ve been in the middle of a airport security pat-down and asked by the TSA agent, “So, what’s up with your family?” Yes, while the backs of her hands go over my “sensitive areas” and all my belongings fall off the conveyor belt.

I could never give my kids away. Why didn’t their real parents want them? My mom’s neighbor’s brother-in-law adopted a kid—and that kid is messed up. Why didn’t you adopt a white baby? What country are your kids from? I’ve always wanted to adopt a little black baby.

How much did your kids cost? Are they real siblings? Why didn’t you have your own babies? Have you tried essential oils to help you get pregnant? I’ve always wanted to adopt, but then I had my own kids. I adopted a cat last year, so I know how awesome adoption can be. I think little mixed babies are just the cutest!

You are such a wonderful person for giving a child in need a loving home. God bless you! Your kids are so lucky that you adopted them. How long were they in foster care? Were their real parents on drugs? Were your kids born addicted to drugs? What if they want to find their real family someday?

Let me be clear. Not every question or comment is hurtful or rude. We’ve had plenty of people simply tell us, “You have a beautiful family.” Or they readily share their own adoption story. We’ve had several adoptees share that they, like my kids, were adopted. Some even offer us advice on how to make sure our kids grow up to be confident adoptee adults.

There’s a difference between establishing a connection through a common experience and treating my family—and especially my children—like they’re under investigation because they’re black and adopted.

My girls loathe being questioned about their hair by white women. We’ve faced white adults using their privilege to perform a microaggression—reaching out to touch my daughters’ cornrows. My kids know to tell the adult, “Do not touch my hair,” and I’ve stepped in and been very direct, telling the person, “Don’t touch my children.” Of course, they claim curiosity as their motivator. But intent is irrelevant. If they aren’t touching, they spew a line of questioning that goes something like this:

Who does your hair? Can your mom braid? How long does that style take? I could never sit still that long! How many weeks does your hair last? Can it get wet? Do you wash it? I totally understand how you feel, because I have curly hair too.

Not only do these questions put my kids on the spot, but the interaction is so inappropriate. Stranger adults shouldn’t touch children, nor should they serve a line of questioning like my kids are on the witness stand and the adult is the prosecutor. Furthermore, white adults aren’t entitled to touch or demand answers from children of color. This happens to multiracial families more often, I believe, because the stranger thinks that because I’m white, it’s somehow permissible for them to access my children. We aren’t on a team together, Karen. My allegiance is to my children.

What many people fail to understand is that my children’s adoptions are glaringly apparent, but their stories are private. This isn’t because we’re ashamed or embarrassed of their adoptions or about our multiracial family status. The reason we don’t give each stranger a tell-all is because our children’s adoption stories belong to them. And they are sacred—not up for public consumption to be judged or complimented.

Some situations have been downright odd and uncomfortable, while others have been funny-not-funny. Like the time I was at my annual gynecology appointment with my oldest two girls in tow. They were a toddler and an infant at the time. The nurse asked me, half-whispering, if I planned to tell my kids they were adopted. I told her, “You know, they can hear you. And given that they are black and I’m white—I think they’ll figure it out pretty quickly.” PS–my kids have known they were adopted since they were in our arms.

Another time we were standing in a checkout line at the grocery store. The woman in front of us turned, looked down at my girls, and then said to me, “Are they real sisters?” I was shocked—but given that my daughters were watching and learning, I clapped-back quickly with a curt, “Yes.” She squinted her eyes, leaned in and said, “But are they really real sisters?” I was so furious that she was questioning the realness of my girls’ relationship and our family that I took my girls by the hand, told my husband we’d meet him in the car, and left the building. In the car, I asked the girls if they heard what the lady said, and they replied they had. I informed them it’s always OK for them to not answer, walk away, or say, “That’s none of your business.”

When my oldest was a year old, we met some friends for dinner. The waitress approached our table, stated her name, and even before taking our drink order looked at me and asked, “Are you babysitting?” I replied, “Nope! She’s mine!” She continued, “So you adopted her? Wow! Oh my gosh! That’s so so so so cool!” She was practically shouting. I rolled my eyes at my husband and redirected the overenthusiastic waitress, asking if I could get an unsweetened iced tea.

I know our family sparks curiosity in people, especially now that there are six of us. We are a big, loud family—and our melanin differences are what people notice first. That’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with noticing adoption or race. What’s not OK is taking the observation to the next level—a level where the need-to-know takes over common sense and decency.

When asked about adoption, I will often share general information. I think it’s OK to want to know more about adoption—the types of adoption, the way a person prepares to adopt, the legal process. But it’s not OK to demand that I tell you intimate details about my kids’ adoption stories.

Still not convinced? Think about it this way. How would you feel if someone came up to you and demanded to know your current weight, addictions, bad habits, income level, debt, relationship status, religion, childhood traumatic experiences, and your medical history? Invasive, right? Inappropriate? You bet!

Each child’s adoption story–including why they were placed for adoption, the ages of their birth parents, their medical background, their birth names—is tied to their identity. They will process their adoptions their entire lives—and the last thing they need is a stranger telling them how to feel or imploring them to dish the deets.

There are a bazillion other things we can chat about—but my kids’ adoption stories aren’t going to be one of them.

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