Adoption Stories: 10 Things Not to Say to Someone Who Is Adopted
How to talk to an adoptee
Being adopted is unique. Most adoption agencies, adoptive families, birth families and the public in general like to see adoption as a seamless transition- a blending of families creating one unit. Indeed, adoption works and has worked for centuries, but it does not mean after the signing of contracts and exchanging of money that the adoptee synthesizes and abdicates their genealogy, heritage, and biological roots.
There needs to be an honoring for both- an adoptee's past with their upbringing. Each adoptee is different. Depending on how the adoptee relates to their adoption story and integrates into their adoption family, will require different sensitivities from people within the family system as well as the community at large. It is also important to take into account the development, age, and adoptee's maturity. It is important to know some etiquette when talking with an adoptee.
Just because you know your boyfriend's brother's cousin was adopted and learned everything from him, does not mean all adoption stories can be generalized. Each experience is as unique as a snowflake.
What do you think?
When talking to an adoptee, do you think using the word 'real' is insensitive?
1. Do not use the word “real” as a disclaimer for the adoptee's family members.
The opposite of real is unreal or not real. In a child's mind if you ask her, 'where are her real parents?' it insinuates that her adoptive parents are unreal. The family she is being raised in is her real family. The relationships she has established with her adoptive family is as real to her as a biologically connected child.
There is no 'real' or 'unreal' relationship. Her biological lineage is not unreal. It may not be known or understood, but it is also real and a part of her as her DNA makeup. If you get confused when an adoptee is talking, ask her to speak about the family members with their first names. This will help you, as the receiver of the story, to obtain information to distinguish the different family members without insinuating who is real or not.
Real is also a significant word for children when they are trying to understand Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Unicorns, Merlin and the like. During their development, they will come to terms regarding these legendary folklore as being a myth. For the adoptee child, their biological roots can be as abstract and unknown as where the Tooth Fairy lives. When they understand the tooth fairy is unreal and other's around them are using the word, 'real' to describe their family, it can become confusing in a child's mind.
What Do You Think?
Is telling an adoptee they where born from your heart all right?
2. You were not born, but chosen. Or, you were born from my heart.
Although this phrase often comes from a place of sensitivity when explaining adoption to a child, it also leaves the child with a lot of confusion. Young children are concrete thinkers. They do not have the capacity to think abstractly yet or in metaphors. If you tell a child it is raining, 'cats and dogs' they will look out the window to see if they can find cats and dogs falling from the sky.
If you tell a child they were chosen, or even born from my heart, it leaves the child to wonder and fantasize how did they come into this world, if they were not born like everyone else. Oftentimes the child will use fantasies to give meaning to what they can not understand. These fantasies can distort reality potentially having a negative effect on their self esteem.
Children can handle the truth. Even sad truths.
The truth is, the child was born. Just like everyone else on this planet. Their friends have birth stories and understand they were born from the woman they call mother. To the adoptee this is not so. They have to put puzzling pieces together to try to make sense of it. It is even hard for adults to comprehend why someone would choose to relinquish their child.
If the child was chosen, that means someone else did not choose them. Why did she give me up? Often this is a question in the back of a child's mind even if they do not verbalize this question.
Age appropriate honest compassionate explanations fair better in the long run than trying to shield a child from hard truths with euphemisms.
What Do You Think?
Is it acceptable to ask a family how much they spent on the adoption?
3. How much did the adoption cost?
Ok, this is just tacky. Do we go around and ask people, "When you were born how much did your parents insurance pay for the hospital or midwife? How much was your parent's co-pay?"
The truth is it cost money to bring any child into this world. From prenatal visits to labor and delivery most often families spend hundreds of dollars.
For the adoption process it is known to be several thousand dollars. Does it matter how much the process cost?
Why does someone ask that? In our culture we place so much value on expensive things, it implies the more an item costs the more value it has. Children are not an item.
All children are valuable regardless of the fees involved.
What Do You Think?
Telling the adoptee that their mother loved them so much to give them up, is kind and OK.
4. Your mother loved you so much that she gave you up.
This is the most confusing statement you can say to an adoptee at any age. Although this statement might seem to shield a young child from the truth that she was indeed abandoned and relinquished by her birth mother, it does not serve the adoptee in the long run. Romanticizing the adoptee’s abandonment will delay the inevitable, the quest within each adoptee to come to terms with their own relinquishment from their birth mother. The truth will have to be explored at some point in and adoptee's life span.
It can be soothing to hear "Your mother loved you so much that is why she gave you up," but unconsciously this statement works against the adoptee in a very negative way. The adoptee may not want people too close to them, to love them 'so much,' because that translates into the ultimate abandonment. Better than to be loved just a bit, or to keep people at arms length and never fully attach to others than to be loved so much and be abandoned.
Additionally, for some adoptee's, their biological mother does not know what love is. Sadly, some women use adoption as a way to make money, gain attention from pregnancy, labor and birth, or use adoption as a birth control. They abandon not one, or two but sometimes three, four or more children. This is not because they are loving and selfless, it is because they are selfish, and irresponsible in their promiscuity. Some are in the throes of addiction and have no ability to love and take care of themselves let alone a child. Adoption was either mandated from the state, begged by family and friends, or they were keenly aware that this child will be a burden to their lifestyle. Although this is sad, it is also very true.
What Do You Think?
Adoptees should be grateful they were not aborted.
5. Aren't you grateful your mother did not abort you and made such a loving, selfless decision?
How is anyone supposed to respond to that question?
There seems to be this undercurrent in the adoption culture- adoptee's should be grateful for the tough decisions their birth mother had to make, especially for not aborting them. The birth mother had a choice! The adoptee did not. Just think about this for a moment. It is like saying to someone, 'You must be glad when you were young that your mother did not kill you?'
All adoption stories are not the same. Adoptee's experiences growing up vary as families vary. For some, adoption was positive and for other's it was not. No one has the right to expect how another should feel, especially around their own birth, relinquishment, abandonment, exiled from their kin and sometimes from their country to grow up in another household feeling like there is a piece always missing from them. Adoptees did not ask to be adopted.
Gratitude is important to install in all children. However, the adoptee child should not be made to feel their birth mother did them a favor and that their adoptive parents rescued them. The adults made adult decisions in regards to the welfare of a babe, a child. It is the adult's issue, not the adopted, to need gratitude for what was done.
Adoptees endured tremendous loss before being a part of a new family. The message of the adoptive parents 'saved' them therefore the adoptee should be 'grateful' can implement terror into the adoptee. If they are not grateful enough, does that me they will be abandon again?
Adoption- The Expected Sense of Gratitude
What Do You Think?
Do you think adoptees should feel gratitude towards their birth mother?
International adoption, as stated by Dr. Amanda Baden, demands the adopted children to be grateful to live with people who do not look like them, do not speak their native language and sometimes told how lucky they are to be 'rescued.' Sometimes international adoptees are ostracized in social settings like school and church because they look different. Their adoption status is always right in front when everyone else is limited in their own racial stigma.
If society continually points out to a unique family, their uniqueness, how much harder does this family have to work to establish their natural family system? This family owes no one an explanation. Just because they look different on the outside does not mean they are a billboard for wanting to tell everyone their adoption stories and reason for adopting internationally.
For international adoptees, race does matter. For adoptees who look like their adoptive parents, their heritage and nationality does matter. It will always be a part of them and offering adoptees opportunities to learn about their race, heritage and culture of origin, will provide them an opportunity to be loved, integrated and celebrated with their differences. This will help aid the adoptee when society wants to single them out, or just as devastating- blend them in.
What Do You Think?
It is not a big deal to ask adoptees and adoptive families about their adoption experience.
6. You don't look like your family, are you adopted or something?
As an adoptee, I can tell you it was always painful to hear why you look so different. The adoptee's family is the one they are growing up in. The fiber of family is embedded with all members, adoptees included. Family meals, family rules, family memories, family traditions, family rhythms make the individual family members a tied unit. The weaving of these family connections day in and day out fuse the members together. Eventually within the family unit the differences, though sometimes distinct, blur.
When someone distinguishes the members because the outside appearance looks different, it can hurt. The outside is what onlookers see as different and use 'are you adopted?'- as a wedge that slices through the similarities. Somehow that gets translated in the adoptee's mind right in that moment, this unique and special bond of family is it faux or real, because others do not see it?
A family with different ethnicities being raised together, like multicultural adoption, often attract strangers to ask very personal questions. The ethnicity skin tones shows the immediate differences, that this family is indeed a family put together through adoption. Somehow this gets translated that the family is already giving strangers a view through the family window, which some strangers interpret your life and family must be an open book. Some strangers then pursue the family with very intimate questions.
This can be very rude and unsettling for some adoptive families. Just because a family looks like they adopted their children it does not mean they are open to discussing their adoption with a stranger at dinner or at the movies.
Adoptees and adoptive families are not species to be observed and studied by a sociologist-want-to-be in the middle of the grocery store.
What Do You Think?
I believe adoptees have no problem talking about their adoption- it is OK to ask why they were given up for adoption.
7. Why were you given up?
For most adoptees, the adoption wound is one of the most painful experiences of their lives. Knowing that you were abandoned young, even for good reasons, is traumatic. The natural order of things, kin taking care of their offspring, has been severed. For a child, there is a lot to process and understand why their mother or father would leave them behind, choose another family to raise them, or be too dysfunctional to raise the child themselves.
When you ask and an adoptee, "Why were you given up for adoption?" you are in a sense asking them, why couldn't your biological parents raise you? An adoptee is keenly aware of the other families in their community. They know of the dysfunctional family, the impoverished family, and the family with a young mother- all raising their biological kin. The preponderance of families raising their kin, even in hardships leaves the gaping wound of "Why couldn't my biological family make it work for me?" even larger.
Unless the adoptee knows their birth and adoption story, or found their biological kin as an adult, they do not know the answer to this question. Sometimes for a child to make sense of something this difficult and unknown they will make it about themselves. It now gives them an answer and something to control. "I was given up, because they did not want me." Even if this is not the truth, in the adoptee's mind it gives the inquirer an answer, and after all children are constantly answering questions from adults hoping to get it right, like in school.
The question, "Why were you given up?" is not meant for the adoptee. This question is meant for the biological mother and/or biological father. A good answer would be, "I don't know, why don't you ask them?"
What Do You Think?
Adoptees should be happy with the family they have and not seek for the past, the truth can hurt them or their adoptive family. Better leave it alone.
8. It shouldn't matter to you whether you ever find your biological parents, you already have a family.
Most often it is those who have never been adopted that assume adoptees who want to find their heritage are seeking another family system to disown their adoptive one. This is not true. It is not like the adoptee is going to interview a family down the street to see if they are more compatible to live with and forsake the one they have.
Adoptees have a birthright to seek their story, roots, heritage, and kinship. Why do people think if you do seek, you are looking for another family in terms of you are abandoning your adoptive family? Why does it have to be this family or that family? Black and white. The adoptee can build onto their family. Just like all children grow relationships and eventually integrate, lovers, husbands, their own children into the family system. Families are not threatened when these adult children grow the family system with in-laws.
Why then is it threatening for an adoptee to seek and find their biological family members? The thought of adding a birth father, birth mother, half or whole sibling into the mix, makes people feel threatened and wonder why you would hurt your adoptive family.
Why does the adoptive family feel if you build a relationship with your biological family, then you are building a relationship away from them? In reality, the adoptee is becoming more aware of who they are by finally having answers to the unknown that everyone else takes for granted.
Why then does that seem to frighten others? Almost as if, well you found your biological roots, I guess you do not need us anymore. The adoptee feels abandoned again, and seems they really do not fit anywhere and there are always terms to how people love and accept them.
What Do You Think?
Adoptees are better off in their adoptive family, or they wouldn't be adopted in the first place.
9. But don’t you think you’re totally better off?
Better off than what? It is incomprensible for anyone to answer what their life would be like if they grew up with the Smith Family in their neighborhood instead of their own. We are who we are because of our biology and just as important or more important our environment. No one knows the answer of what their life would be like if they had a different family system. We can speculate and make judgments based on what is known. Sadly, there are adoptees who are abused in their adoptive family. Because of shame, secrecy and denial this information might not be known to others. Asking an adoptee 'don't you think you are better off?' can make an adoptee who is abused have to reflect on difficult memories they may not be ready to explore, discuss or even articulate the answer to such a question.
What Do You Think?
Do you think this statement is true? Parents could never love an adopted child as much as thier own.
10. I am not sure I could ever love an adopted child as my own.
This statement is not about the adoptee worth being loved less because they are not of kin. It has everything to do with limitations of the adult who would think this and even worse say this. When talking with an adoptive parent about their love of their adoptive children remember to have some couth. Adoptees overhear conversations just like most children. Overhearing someone saying, 'I am not sure I could ever love an adopted child as my own.' is heart breaking. It is like pouring salt into a very sensitive wound.
The truth is, many amazing adults do love their adopted child as their own flesh and blood. Over the years they see their child no longer 'adopted' but rather, their own, my child.
Adoptees do not sit and contemplate about being adopted day in and day out. Although, adoption is a big part of their identity it is not all they are. Often times when people find out someone is adopted the conversation halts, lingering on this one part of them. We are all kaleidoscopes and have many dimensions beyond our origins.
When you find out someone is adopted and you would like to talk to them more about it, the best approach is to say, "I think that is neat, if you ever want to talk about it, I would be glad to listen." It is not the adoptee's job to educate you on being adopted because you are curious. There are many wonderful blogs and books about the adoptive experience. If the adoptee wants to talk about it with you, they will, if they don't then respect that too.
© Copyright Carly Sullens 2012. All Rights Reserved.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Is it unkind for relatives to say, "but she isn't your real mom, or real child"?
Yes, that is very unkind.Helpful 5