"Why Do You Ask?"
Most people would think twice before approaching a stranger and asking, "Is that your wife? How much did your wedding cost? How much money do you make? Do you plan to have children?" Yet when it comes to questions about adoption, rules of etiquette don't seem to apply. Everything from "How much did it cost?" to "Couldn't you have your own kids?" is fair game. If you've ever had a brush with nosy questions, you're not alone. Here, four writers share their experiences with persistent inquisitors -- and tell us how they chose to respond.
"Are They Related?"
My sons have a deep and enduring bond. So why do people need to know if they're real brothers?
By Skila Brown
I wish I had an answer to that million-dollar question. Every time some stranger taps me on the shoulder in the checkout line, I want to clear my throat and deliver a well-rehearsed speech. But I don't. Because, even though I've been an adoptive mother for several years now, that question trips me up every time: "Are they brothers?"
Sometimes I can feel it coming when a person opens her mouth. I feel my throat tighten and my pulse quicken. Here we go again. Over the years, I've handled this inquiry with defiance: "Why do you ask?" Faked ignorance: "What do you mean?" Sarcasm: "They aren't sisters." And simplicity: "Yes."
And, to an extent, this works out fine. Because, frankly, I don't care what the nosy stranger at the park thinks about my answer or how she interprets my tone. But it does get tricky when the person asking isn't a stranger. When she's not quite a friend, but a boss, a fellow PTA mom, my child's teacher, or even another adoptive parent. Because, let's face it. I know what these people are really asking: "Are your sons biologically related?"
Of course, this isn't anyone's business. I could point that out. I could also return an equally intrusive question about the inquisitor's annual gross income or his choice of underwear. But I don't. Instead, my blood starts pumping, and my jaw clenches as I gear up to respond. Why?
It usually has to do with the six small ears floating around during these "interviews." With my three sons listening, what can I say? My boys have heard me talk with pride about adoption while answering many questions. They understand completely what it means not to have grown in my tummy. But they don't yet comprehend what this means in terms of their relationship with one another. From their standpoint, they're in this together. They share the same birth country (Guatemala), shade of skin, and early life history, all of which sets them apart from my husband and me. In their eyes, perhaps, that's what makes them brothers.
So when I'm asked the big question, I try to remember to say, "They are brothers now." But that doesn't always happen. With three small boys at my feet, I rarely get the opportunity to finish my conversations. After 7.8 seconds of adult talk, one of my sons usually pulls out a light saber, some name-calling skills, or the dreaded "I took your toy without asking" move. And that is the dramatic end to any such talk at all.
Keeping my body between them, pulling them apart, and reminding everyone to use their words, I sometimes remember to use my own. "What do you think?" I will say, with a laugh. Anyone with kids of her own can take one look at my three and agree. They love/hate each other too much. They have to be brothers. Between you and me, I can't think of a better way to answer that question.
Skila Brown lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband and three sons.
"Did You Try to Have Your Own Kids?"
My wife was deluged with questions at a new moms' group, each one more personal than the last.
By Billy Cuchens
When we became parents to our two multiracial kids, my wife, Laurie, and I became a novelty to friends and acquaintances -- and to strangers we met in the grocery store. At first, I was somewhat sympathetic to the staring. If I had seen a white man chasing a small black child, who was crying and screaming, "I want my Mommy!" through a crowded restaurant, I'd want an explanation, too. But as the child's parent, the staring makes me eager to claim Isaac as my son. "I love you, son" or "Hold Daddy's hand," I announce loudly when I see someone looking our way.
Questions and comments, however, generally require a response. My lot is to endure blunt questions, like "Why did you adopt? Do you shoot blanks, or something?" or "Do you wear boxers or briefs? I've heard briefs can really mess up your count." My wife undergoes a subtler get-to-know-you interrogation.
The other day, Laurie took our three-year-old son and baby daughter with her to a new moms' lunch group. The conversation began when one mom asked my wife, "So, how long have you had the baby?"
"Since birth," my wife said. "Her birthmother asked us to be in the delivery room when she was born."
"Did it cost a lot?" another asked.
Each time we're asked the money question, we think of asking if the interrogator's hospital bills were high. But my wife calmly responded, "All adoption agencies charge a fee for their services."
"What's her background?"
"If you mean her ethnicity, our daughter is multiracial."
"What do you mean?"
"She is part Caucasian, part Hispanic, and part African American."
"Now, how does that work?" The woman was obviously struggling with the math required to understand more than two races.
After the moms had satisfied their curiosity about our daughter's race, the talk circled back to adoption. "I hope you don't mind my asking, but why did her mother give her up?"
"Every birthmom has a different reason for making an adoption plan. Often, she realizes that she doesn't have the resources to parent a child for the next 18 years or so."
"Is that what happened with her?"
The new moms didn't seem to be picking up on Laurie's discomfort.
"We don't discuss our children's stories with other people. We'd like them to decide with whom they'll share details when they're older."
"Was her birthmother young?"
"I just wonder what kind of person…." the woman caught herself. "Well, I can't believe anyone would give up a baby who smiles so much." As my wife pondered a response, another mom asked, "So, you still have contact with the birthmother?"
"Somewhat. My husband and I have an open adoption."
"Is that weird?" someone else asked.
"Why would it be weird?" my wife inquired.
"I just think it would be too hard to see her holding the baby. I'd get jealous."
"Well, she'd be holding my child. Besides, she hasn't seen the baby since birth." At this, all of the moms let out a sigh of relief.
But soon enough, they asked the inevitable question: "Did you try to have your own kids?"
"Well, these are my own kids," my wife said. The leader began to fumble over her words. She knew she had asked an inappropriate question. Laurie is always kind enough to bail out someone who's just said something stupid, so she replied, "Did you mean to ask if we tried to conceive?"
"Yes, that's what I meant."
"We tried for a year before we realized that God was calling us to adopt."
"We've always talked about adopting," someone chimed in. We hear this a lot, too. Mothers, in particular, say this, usually followed by, "Being pregnant is so hard. I don't think I could do it again," or "We have always wanted to give a home to all those poor babies who don't have one."
"It took us a while to get pregnant, too," another mom volunteered.
"It can take a long time for some couples," my wife sympathized, assuming she had struggled through years of infertility. "How long did it take you?"
"It took my husband and me a couple of months before we got pregnant."
My wife simply nodded her head. Then she called my cell phone to see when I was coming to pick her up.
As Laurie spotted me walking into the restaurant, she began putting our son's shoes on him. I waited for her to introduce me to some of the other moms. When she didn't, I took the hint and asked, "What do you need me to do?"
"Get me out of here," she whispered.
My wife cheerfully said goodbye to the group. As we headed toward the door, I couldn't help overhearing the conversation. The women were discussing how much their children resembled themselves and their husbands.
Billy Cuchens lives with his wife and children in Carrollton, Texas.
"Why Did You Buy a Foreign Child?"
When an anonymous poster invaded our neighborhood message board, I knew I had to answer back.
By Jennifer Maslowski
I live in a fairly close-knit community in New York City, with my husband and four-year-old daughter, from China. Our neighborhood has an online message board that is used by more than 600 families. Many of the members have nothing more than a geographical location and parenthood in common. But our online village helps to ease the anonymity of an urban setting. Even arguments maintain some decorum, because we sign our names, along with the names of our kids.
Recently, the mother of two Guatemalan girls posted a petition regarding the potential shutdown of adoptions from Guatemala. Such forwarded links are common -- people either click on them or ignore them. But the media have been tough on international adoption lately, and this post sparked an intense debate. Still, being among neighbors who knew they'd meet at a store or the park eventually, the debate stayed fairly civil.
But then came an anonymous post by "sb700," which read: "Can't you just adopt a poor child in the United States? Why is it so important to buy foreign children?"
For once, I resisted answering. But the next day, he (or she) added another message: "Oh, wait, some people do buy their babies. Anyway, what is the big deal? Why is it so terrible to point out that there is a financial component to adopting other people's children? And that the U.S. dollar goes further in poor countries? The adoption purists will not be satisfied until we award them all medals for selflessly helping starving urchins from abroad."
In the years since we adopted Alida, I've heard some pretty stupid comments, and I've tried my best to handle them. On a family vacation to Sesame Place, I heard a passer-by quip, "I wonder if it's fashionable in China to have an American baby." I ignored him. When our family barber asked, in front of my preschooler, "Couldn't you have your own kids?" I shot back. I told him that my daughter was my own kid, and that he might find it intrusive if I asked whether his wife's pregnancies were the result of birth control failures. He got the point and remains a friend.
What I didn't realize at the time was that my family was "safe" from these people. They were strangers we'd never see again, or well-meaning neighbors we could educate. But anonymity is a mighty shield -- one that my neighbor, sb700, had used to its full extent. How could I deal with this unidentified, but very local, hatred? Was sb700 someone whom I (or another adoptive parent) had offended in the past? Was his or her child punched or outsmarted by a child born in another country? Was my neighbor merely annoyed by Angelina Jolie?
I tried to avoid engaging this person, as I'd been counseled to do. But I couldn't let sb700 have the last word so publicly. So I hit "reply," and sent a lengthy response:
"Of course, there is a financial component to adopting children, just as there is a financial component to giving birth. Did you pay the doctor, hospital, or other birth-support people who helped bring your child into the world? I paid a social worker and a nonprofit adoption agency to help bring my daughter home.
"Did you pay for food, clothing, and medical care for the first 10 months of your child's life? I paid a Chinese orphanage a nationally standardized fee, after it provided that care for the first 10 months of my child's life.
"Did you pay filing fees for your child's birth certificate or social security card? I paid American and Chinese government filing fees for those same papers, plus citizenship and adoption documents.
"That's it. In total. Not a cent of compensation went to the birthparents. There were no bribes, no cash under the table. In fact, these expenses may have been lower than the costs of an uninsured pregnancy, birth, and the first 10 months of life with a child in the United States. Did you 'buy' your child when you paid these expenses? Neither did I.
"Adoption is about love, sb700. Just as all real families are about love. You either get this, or you don't. But those who get it are infinitely more blessed in this world."
That was yesterday. No reply, at least not yet. I wish I could end this story by saying that I made peace with the situation, protected Alida from misperceptions, and helped sb700 overcome hatred. But I can't. Nor can I stop trying.
Jennifer Maslowski lives with her family in New York City.
"Who's His Real Mom?"
My little brother was stunned, and I was enraged, when a schoolmate asked an innocent question.
By Leah Rupp
There Has been only one time in my life when I wanted to beat up a first-grader. That was when a boy approached my younger brother and asked, "So, who's your real mom?" Evidently, his curiosity had been piqued at school, earlier that day, when he heard Justin say he was adopted.
When I heard the boy's question, my face turned deep red, and I glared long and hard at him. Then I scooped up my five-year-old brother and pulled him away to safety.
Several years earlier, my parents, sister, and I had traveled to Bulgaria to adopt Justin. He was 17 months old at the time. From the moment we saw him, sitting wide-eyed in his orphanage, we knew he was the missing member of our family -- and we've been telling him that ever since. So it was no wonder that Justin simply stared at the first-grader that day, confused and a little troubled. It was clear that he didn't understand the boy's question.
Today, I'm 24, and I know that my anger at that curious child was misplaced. When I hear such questions now, I see them as opportunities to educate people about adoption. If I had that moment to relive, I would explain to the child that, although she didn't carry him for nine months, or bring him home from the hospital, Justin's real mom was just outside the school in her minivan, waiting to take us home.
Leah Rupp is a student at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon.
Nosy Questions? No Problem!
Here's what to do:
- Set boundaries. When asked for personal details, decide how much you want to share, and with whom. If a stranger asks, "How much did it cost?" you can politely decline to answer.
- Be discreet. If your child is present during such a conversation, put his needs first. Never divulge private information, especially any details that are new to him. Speak in a calm tone, so he understands that adoption is not a scary or uncomfortable topic.
- Role-Play with kids. Once he starts school, your child may be asked nosy questions, too. Help him respond by role-playing a variety of answers. For example, if a child asks, "Why didn't your real mom want you," he can say, "Why do you want to know?" or "Of course, she wanted me. That's why she made sure I was adopted." Children also have the right to keep information to themselves. Your child can say, "I don't feel like answering that question. It's private."
For more sample conversations, see the W.I.S.E. Up! Powerbook, by Marilyn Schoettle (C.A.S.E.).
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