The things they say

As promised in my last post on adoption, below are some of the amusing, crazy and occasionally insulting things that people have said to us over the years about adoption. I generally give my friends a lot of latitude around this stuff since they all mean well. So please don’t think I’m singling you out (or mad at you) if you’ve said one of these things to me (other than the Bradgalina one – that does universally annoy me) <g>. My hope in posting this is to raise awareness just a bit and make people think a bit more before they ask these questions. Language and intent really do matter here…

What do I call _____”. First a few thoughts on adoption terminology since a lot of people ask me. Our daughter by birth is our biological daughter (“bio” in adoption slang vs. “adopted” for our other kids, although we don’t often refer to our children by any modifiers – our son, our two daughters…and leave it at that). Our adopted kids biological parents are their “first family” (this is preferred over “birth mom/dad” – which implies that they had only one task in this arrangement). We’re their “forever family” (although again, only really in context since we’re just “family” like any other family). Our kids were at a “Care Center” before we brought them home – generally a preferred term over “orphanage” which is more of a permanent facility (i.e., kids grow up there, they aren’t there waiting for their forever families).

Why was your child put up for adoption? What happened to their mom and dad?” We’ve shared this information with some of our close friends, but when you think about it, this is a deeply personal question and both my wife and I don’t feel comfortable outside of our immediate circle of friends talking about it. It’s not that we’re embarrassed about our kids history or even that we don’t want to share it, but we (and many adoptive parents) feel that ultimately this history belongs to our kids and it’s up to them to decide when and how to share it (they’re clearly too young to decide that for a while). When someone who we don’t know well asks us this we typically make some very general statement so as not to give away too much information (and both my wife and I have literally been asked this question by completely strangers). Best not to ask unless you’re close friends with the family.

“[insert name of adopted child] is so lucky”. This is by far the most common thing people say to us about our kids and I’m 100% certain that everyone who has said it meant it as a compliment to my wife and me (i.e., we’re good parents and we’re in the fortunate position of being able to provide a good life to our kids). I say that because I really do want to be clear on this one that no one has hurt my feelings in any way by saying this. But I don’t agree with this sentiment and here’s my chance to say why. Clearly the world would be a better place if adoption wasn’t necessary – if parents could take care of their kids and provide at least a basic life for them. I feel truly sad for my kids that they’ve lost the part of themselves which is their connection to their first family and their country of birth. I get that they are “lucky” in the sense that by world standards they now live in a wealthy country with parents who can provide to them things that their first families weren’t able to but I don’t really believe that this life is better than a life where they had been able to stay with their first families. I’d also point out that our biological daughter is similarly lucky (which is often lost in the equation) and that even more so, my wife and I are truly the lucky ones by getting to have such great kids in our lives.

When did you get him?” To be clear, the issue here isn’t people asking how long one of our adopted children has been home, it’s the “get him” part that just doesn’t sit right. The kids aren’t a new car or a handbag – and we didn’t “get” them.

Are you going to tell them they are adopted?” Just a quick comic interlude in an otherwise serious post. I really did get asked this question (once – by Ross, our Director of IT). When I just stared back at him blankly he quickly figured out that brown-skinned kids with pink-skinned parents will probably figure it out…

How much did you pay for him?” Ok – back to serious stuff. This one really irks me and we actually do get asked it on a regular basis. Adoption does cost money (as does giving birth, I might point out) – there’s money to the social worker who does your homestudy, money to take state-required parenting classes, money to the government to get fingerprints taken, money to the foreign agency to provide care for kids, money to travel, money for visa and more paperwork . . . you get the picture. In none of this is anyone “paying for” a child any more than when you give birth and pay the doctors, ultrasound technicians, nights at a hospital, nurses, etc. are you “paying for” your bio child. If you’re interested in adopting and are curious or concerned about the costs, say that exactly (even when people ask in a nicer fashion about the costs of adoption I typically respond with “why are you asking?” so I understand the context – I generally don’t discuss my finances with friends or strangers, so if the person is simply curious rather than asking a question as it relates to their own decision to adopt I will typically blow it off).

‘"You guys are just like Brad and Angelina!” Seriously? Is this the most original thing you can think of to say? I’m actually shocked at how many people have said this to us (usually strangers, often at a party or some similarly casual event). I typically respond “wow – I haven’t heard that one before!” and leave it at that. While I don’t actually know Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie personally, it sure seems from the outside that they are good parents who care about their kids. I get that these days it’s somehow seen as trendy to adopt a child, particularly one from Africa and I’m sure that some celebrities and non-celebrities alike have gone into adoption influenced by other famous people who have adopted. In fact, we know several people who have adopted in part because they were familiar with our family and our experience. So maybe Brad and Angelina are just following our trend! (I actually can’t recall if they had already adopted when we started our process or not)

I could go on, but I think that’s a pretty good start. I’d love to hear from some of my readers (a number of whom – I learned from my last post – are also adoptive parents) about their experiences, both good and bad.

  • Nice, Seth. This is a part of our world that most of us, I assume, have essentially no exposure to, and your experience and perspective helps. Thanks.

  • Yep, I've had every single one of these. You definitely can't be oversensitive as an adoptive parent. And as you pointed out, you have to be especially careful with one biological child – none of those kids should have to feel “different” from each other.

    On the “your son/daughter is so lucky” line, I usually just push it back the other day. “You know, these kids have been far more of a blessing to us than we will ever be to them.” I honestly feel that way, and it gently makes the point. I didn't become an adoptive parent to help poor children (despite the fact that many of them need help)…I became an adoptive parent so I could be my kids' dad. I'm the luckiest guy in the world to have that chance.

    Thanks again for this post. I think it's really important for adoptive parents to help educate others about adoption and how to talk about it. And it was great to remember the last time I was called Brangelina! 🙂

  • Greeley

    I think that one misconception from some people is that we were shown a book of kids or a group of pictures and we chose our child(ren). In most adoptions the parent receives a call from their social worker with information about a single child who has been matched by the agency to the family.

  • DaveJ

    In the mid-60s, one of my 2nd cousins back in MN adopted a son of African descent (I don't know the history) into his already large family. A few years ago, the cousin told me that people had asked him whether his now 40-year-old son was “still his son.” He also said that people had seen family photos and asked “which is the adopted one?” in all seriousness (I don't think they know Ross).

    • Ross Carlson

      I'm just glad I could add some humor to the thread. I have several friends who were adopted by their parents and it's a topic I've discussed with them. As I honestly don't really think in color like that it just didn't dawn on me when I asked.

      Well that and when it comes to children I'm completely clueless…

  • Dan

    In my country (Romania) it is both a painful and never-ending process.
    Although there are still of childreen in need of a familly, to adopt one involves luck, desire and under the table actions. One stupid fact that my friends told me about is about authoeities stupid approach to such a situation: when you bring your child to obtaind papars (passport, Id card etc), the stupid clerk checks the computer: yes, a long history of family names. Is your child adopted?”. Of course the child looks puzzled and surprised.

  • Awesome post Seth, thanks. The top of the list of comments I've gotten was “You just wrote your ticket to Heaven” I am still not quite sure how to handle that one four years later.

    I am so with you on your perspective here. The community of white people adopting black kids is small, and I think we have a very shared experience – good and bad. And, for us white people, having black kids, maybe gives us a small taste of what it's like to have no race privilege. And the comments and looks are part of that.

    In any case, we've done a whole bunch of posts on flavors of this topic too.

    • sethlevine

      that’s a good one braydon – i’ve definitely heard that as well (and been similarly amused). your blog is fantastic. the stories you share about some of the things your kids ask you are extremely poignant.

  • Hi Seth, I moved to the Boulder area last month, and I just saw your exchange with Aaron Klein on twitter and discovered you were an Ethiopian adoptive parent too.  I think we’ve been pretty lucky so far in the way of negative comments received, but I know they will come over time, so good to be prepared.  However, I do get the “.. is so lucky” one from time to time and it does make me very uncomfortable for the reasons you point out. They do mean well, and I try to explain how we are indeed the lucky ones.

    • thanks for the note ryan. are you on any of the local et adoption lists? there’s a google groups that is excellent. glad you enjoyed the post!