Monday, May 28, 2012

When strangers ask questions | Part 2

This is Part 2 in a series about how to deal with the intrusive questions strangers ask about our transracial families.  Many thanks to Jane Brown, MSW, for allowing me to share the insights she gained growing up in a family that fostered children, as an adoptive parent, and as a social worker who works with adoptees.

In my last post, I introduced Jane's idea about INTENT vs. IMPACT.  No matter how well-intentioned someone's questions are, we must always consider their impact on our children.  Equally, we must carefully consider what our answers teach our children about our honesty and trustworthiness.

Most adoptive parents at some point will choose the "educational" route -- your comments about the last post made me decide to address this specifically.  On some level, this seems natural -- we know about the many children waiting in foster care or orphanages, and we want to help others consider adoption.

So why not go the educational route?  Because from our children's perspective -- especially older children -- sometimes this can feel like a betrayal.  Often we have other reasons for adopting, and our kids will know if we tell them one story at home, but put a different, less accurate spin on it for strangers.

In Jane Brown's words: "If we 'educate the audience,' which means putting the focus on the fact that the children need permanent families, then we take the focus off of our other real motivation for adopting -- the one that was usually why we began to explore adoption in the first place."  [Such as  infertility, being unmarried, genetic considerations, etc.]

She goes on to explain that for some parents, this is self-protective:  it helps us avoid painful topics and the possibility that strangers will focus on us.  From Jane:  "We are, in effect, throwing them [our children] under the bus -- aiming the spotlight on them as THE PROJECT -- so as to keep it off of ourselves and our other motivation to adopt, whatever that was.  It is not honest to give the impression that we did something noble by adopting, when instead, adoption rescued US from childlessness in the majority of cases."

Jane acknowledges that this may be difficult to hear, or feel like an unflattering way to think of ourselves, but in the interest of raising our children well, it's important to be honest.

Like some who read this blog, we did not adopt because of infertility.  But Jane's words did make me realize I haven't told Anya Rashi the whole story, and I have not mentioned it to many people who ask why we adopted.  One reason we pursued adoption was that I have some significant back problems.  I have scoliosis, I injured my back in my early 20s, and my pelvic bones began to separate during my second pregnancy.

Last week, one wrong move put me in agony again.  It's been five years since I experienced this kind of severe pain, because I've learned to keep my back healthy through relentless core strength exercises and chiropractic visits.  If I miss exercising for even a few weeks, I pay a high price.

Our path to adoption was jump-started because of my bad back.  Although I had always thought adoption was something I might want to pursue, Peter hadn't really thought about it much aside from one conversation during our first year of marriage.  After living with pain for months after our second son was born, my doctor told me, "Well, I can't forbid you to get pregnant again, but there's just no way to tell how bad your back could get with further pregnancies."  There were many times I couldn't lay my small sons in their cribs, or help wash their hair in the bath, or even carry a basket of laundry or roll over in bed.  Peter and I never thought we'd have only two children, and hoped somehow to have a larger family.

As my kids and husband helped out while I was incapacitated last week, I realized I've neglected to include this part of our story when I talk with Anya Rashi about how she came into our family.  So Friday night, while I was tucking Anya Rashi into bed, I told her that I was grateful for my sore back this week.  She was surprised and asked why -- she had seen my gray, exhausted face and watched me hobble around all week, and wondered how I could possibly be thankful for that!

For the first time, I shared that part of our adoption story with her.  I told her how we had always hoped to have more children after her brothers were born -- but my bad back meant I couldn't have any more babies grow in my body.  I explained that we were sad for a few years, because we thought we might not have any more children.  Then I told her I'm actually glad for my back problems, even when it hurts -- because that's one of the reasons we decided to adopt, and now I get to have her for my daughter.  When we said bedtime prayers, I thanked God for the great blessing that came out of my back problems: my daughter Anya Rashi.

I hope that knowing this part of the story helps "balance the scales" a little bit in Anya Rashi's view, especially when she hears people comment about what a good thing we did by adopting her.  I always want her to know that she isn't a project or statement, but an answer to one of our deepest prayers to build our family.  I love how Jane Brown said it . . . adoption rescued us.

So . . . I didn't really list any answers to those intrusive questions -- but I promise that Part 3 will provide some guidance and ideas about what to say.  And in Part 4, I will take a look at how to talk about God and adoption, for those of us influenced to adopt by our religious beliefs.  Thanks for reading.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

When strangers ask questions | Part 1

This post is the first in a series about how to handle intrusive questions about our transracial families.

 If you are a transracial family, you probably know what this post title is all about.  When we become parents to children who don't look like us (through adoption or step-parenting/marriage), we are instantly more visible to other people.  Many, many total strangers have asked us very personal questions about our daughter.

When Anya Rashi and I are by ourselves, we fly "under the radar" a little more.  People often assume that my husband is of another race -- I've had some hilarious and awkward encounters resulting from that assumption, like the time a cashier at the grocery store asked if an African-American man with gorgeous dreadlocks was my husband.  The poor man -- all he was doing was walking behind me while I stood in the  line.  Another time, a stranger walked up to Peter while he was holding Anya Rashi and started shouting, "Hola!!  Hola!!" at her, assuming she was Hispanic.  But the older she gets, the less humor there is in these situations.

Other times, people ask questions because they themselves are connected to adoption.  I've had some beautiful conversations with other adoptive parents that way.  Other times, they're just commenting on how beautiful my daughter is -- just as anyone might compliment a biological mother.

Then there are the other types of questions -- the ones about Anya Rashi's history, her birth place, and her birth parents and their circumstances.  If you are not an assertive person with good boundaries before adoption, you will likely have to grow into that type of person.  As she grows older, I have had to be more comfortable shutting down questions that embarrass her.  At this point, she is old enough to understand everything, and her personality is such that she does not like being the center of attention (or worse, being talked about as though she isn't standing right there).

This week, I was part of a great discussion on a transracial adoption forum about this very topic.  There is a wonderfully wise social worker who weighs in on these topics.  Jane Brown is able to offer unique insight, since she grew up in an ever-changing transracial family with parents who provided foster care.  She is now a licensed social worker who advocates and holds workshops for adoptees.  Children, teens, and grown adoptees have provided her with their perspectives about what it's like to be the unwilling center of attention, and offered their experiences as guidance for the adoptive parents in how to talk about adoption, deal with strangers' questions, and how to frame our reasons for adopting so our kids grow up with healthy identities.

One of the points she shared was about INTENT vs. IMPACT.  Many of the situations and questions I detailed above are very innocent in their intent.  People are interested in adoption, and when Anya Rashi was very young, I often took the "educational" approach.  I liked sharing about what a blessing she was to our family, and usually tried to use that approach to deflect the hero/rescuer status people bestowed on us, which seems demeaning to her -- it makes me feel like they think our daughter was some kind of project we took on to try and save the world.  Especially after she turned 3, I have deflected this kind of talk to keep her dignity as a unique person intact.

Ms. Brown has this to say:  "Regardless of whether someone is asking questions that are well-intended, the primary concern needs to be the IMPACT on the child..  A stranger will be momentarily affected by what you say and then forget about you, but your child is deeply and permanently impacted by the accumulation of responses you give.  He (or she) learns whether he matters ENOUGH to count more than strangers who are voyeuristically curious.  She learns whether your need to brag or educate others about adoption is more important, or whether her need to feel like everyone else -- protected from being constantly and continually singled out -- is more important to YOU, the person she depends on most in the world."

I will post again next week about ways to respond to invasive questions, and about how to talk about God in the context of adoption in ways that don't create confusion for our children.  Many thanks to Jane Brown, MSW, for helping me and many others to be more informed parents!

Thursday, May 17, 2012


The past two weeks have been punctuated by some painful events.  We feel like we are in the eye of a hurricane, as several families we know and love go through tragic losses.  Some friends at church -- amazing, wonderful people and parents -- lost a child this week.  She was just 15, with so much to give, and so much life ahead of her.  Our hearts are so broken for them as they go on parenting their other children, and grieving for their daughter.

Another dear friend's marriage is ending despite all her best efforts, and she must now be apart from her baby half of the time.  Another family close to us is coming to grips with the reality that their child has a mental illness.  And others we know are bearing the burden of infertility and an excruciatingly long path to parenthood. 

Amidst all this came Mother's Day.  As always, I have spent a lot of time thinking of Anya Rashi's birth parents, and wonder what their circumstances are now, five years after her birth.  In many ways, their situation seems no less tragic than our friends' situations. 

We don't have much information about them (and we don't feel it's our place to share what we do know about their circumstances -- that's Anya Rashi's story to tell someday, if she chooses), but I am struck by the sadness of  any of the possible reasons for relinquishing their child.  For many children placed in orphanages in her birth country, the main reasons are the birth parents' poverty or the stigma of unwed parenthood -- or sometimes, the bias against girl children.  Sometimes I feel completely inadequate to explain any of this to her as she grows up.  I feel like I can only be present with her while she asks those questions, and offer the only certainty I have found:  that our God is a God of redemption, who can weave something beautiful of even the most profound sadness.

I've been holding on to that truth this week, and finding comfort here:

Isaiah 53:4
Surely he took on our burdens and carried our sorrows . . .

Psalm 34:18
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Celebrating with Chana Saag

May 1 marked an important anniversary for our family: it was the day we received Anya Rashi's referral five years ago! I will always think of what our son Nathan (who had just turned 5 that week) said about this first photo of her: "She's as cute as a pie in spring!" He was right then -- and she still is today!

To celebrate, I thought I'd share a recipe for Chana Saag (chickpeas and spinach). I made this for dinner tonight.  This is a mild recipe, and very easy to prepare -- so it's perfect for those who are newer to Indian cooking. If you like a little more spice, increase the cayenne pepper and garam masala. If you've ever ordered Chana Saag in an Indian restaurant, you know that the spinach is usually cooked to the point of looking like it's been pureed. One thing I love about this recipe is that the spinach stays a little more lifelike. :o) Enjoy!


2 Tbsp. oil or butter
1 large onion, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, minced (or use 1 1/2 tsp. garlic powder)
1 Tbsp. freshly grated ginger (or use 1/2 tsp. ground ginger)
2 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
1 1/2 tsp. garam masala
1/8 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
1 tsp. sea salt
15-oz. can diced tomatoes (and the juice)
1 lb. spinach (frozen works well; if using fresh, reduce cooking time)
2 cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup milk or half-and-half

Saute onion in oil or butter until translucent. Add garlic, ginger and spices and saute for a minute or two.  Add tomatoes and let simmer for about 10 minutes; then add the chickpeas, spinach, and water. Stir every few minutes until spinach is thawed and hot, then simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Just before serving, stir in the milk or half-and-half. Serve over jasmine or basmati rice.