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What better time to learn to speak about adoption?by Marybeth Lambe

It’s too bad you couldn’t have your own child. Why did her real mother get rid of her? Are you going to tell her she’s adopted? Part of the excitement of bringing home our adopted children is sharing our happiness with others. In our joy, however, we’re often caught unawares by unexpected, even rude, questions and comments. Family and friends unwittingly say less-than-sensitive things. Even strangers at the park, grocery store, or mall feel compelled to get into the act: It’s awful how they dump babies in that country. Aren’t you worried about fetal alcohol syndrome? It’s a shame his parents didn’t want him.

When we adopt, particularly if our child looks different from us, we are sure to receive our share of stares, intrusive questions, and insensitive comments. Our children rely on us to speak for them and to field such comments. But how? It’s as simple as 1, 2, 3.

  1. Protect your child’s privacy. In the excitement of the moment, it’s easy to reveal too much about your baby’s background. This is your child’s private history, and what you share will affect him. As he grows, he will want a say as to who knows the facts of his life, including the status of his birthparents, and how he came to be adopted. It is crucial to anticipate and respect your child’s needs rather than being overly concerned about the discomfort of a stranger. You do not have to answer every question. This is about privacy, which is not the same as secrecy. Privacy means offering personal details to those who have a need to know. Secrecy involves shame, and we know that there is no shame in adoption. We are advocates for adoption, just as we are advocates for our child’s right to privacy.
  2. Practice the right language. Now’s the time to learn what to say to others about adoption. Your baby doesn’t understand your words, but she soon will. So start handling questions and comments now.
  3. Be a teacher. You can help others understand what it means to form a family through adoption. You can also clarify misconceptions about birthparents and situations surrounding adoption plans. First, find out the reason behind people’s queries. Say, “Why do you ask?” This will silence some and reveal the sincerity of those who really want to know more about adoption. Perhaps they have been considering it and are curious about the process. You can answer them or offer to give more details later. If the questions are too intrusive, you might say, “I’m sure you understand that the information you seek is personal to our family.”

Some may use adoption as a qualifier in relationships (“This is Mary’s adopted daughter”) where they wouldn’t otherwise (“This is Nancy’s breech-birth son”). Others will talk of adoption as a second choice (“Do you have any children of your own?”). Remember, we respond to these statements to help our children deal with such comments. And what better time to learn to speak about adoption? You get to practice saying what you want your baby to understand when she’s older. As she grows, she’ll grow to understand your words—and how proud you are of the way you became a family.

Marybeth Lambe is a family physician and writer in Washington state.

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