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!