Monday, June 11, 2012

When strangers ask questions | Part 4

In this last installment of the series, I wanted to address the topic of how we talk about God in the context of adoption.  Many adoptive parents are partly motivated by religious reasons.  None of our adoption classes or training talked about this subject, but I often see God referenced in both secular and Christian blogs and adoption chat rooms.  The subject of God comes up when people at church talk to us about adoption, or in a more general way with strangers who are usually remarking about what a blessing we are to our daughter.  With strangers, these kinds of comments usually fall under the "she is lucky to have you" type of conversations.

I'm going to rely again on the expertise of Jane Brown, MSW.  She conducts workshops with teen and adult adoptees, and the things she shared on this topic are all drawn from what older adoptees themselves have said.  I really appreciate the window she is providing into the perceptions of adoptees -- many times, I have been surprised by how differently adoptees perceive things compared to my perceptions as an adoptive parent.  I know that every child is different, and not every adopted person will experience things the same way . . . but I'm grateful to hear some things that would not have occurred to me.  I hope it will make me a better and more sensitive parent.

Many of us make comments to others about how our family was "meant to be," or that God planned for our children to be part of our family.  Jane Brown encourages adoptive parents to be careful with our words, because they may unintentionally cause confusion in our kids:
While young children accept that at face value, and may even say it too, the teen/adult adoptee may very well see this quite differently. Many to most think to themselves that if that is the case, then God had to have also intended for their first family to be destroyed, just so that you could be their parents -- and are NOT terribly thrilled with that image. . . .
What I say to my children is that HUMANS make the problems that separate children from their original parents. God holds us in His capable hands when we are hurting, alone, without a family. . . . God held them until we made that decision and the timing was such that they were available just at the time that our paperwork was completed. Adoption -- for a child -- yields both gain and grief over who they were separated from and who they otherwise might have been. . . . Our lack of sensitivity to the fact that adopted kids see and experience adoption far differently than we, their parents do . . . gets in the way of kids being able to claim and express their all-too-real feelings, which helps them stay psychologically healthy.

This was difficult for me to read, but I can see how a child might wonder whether God meant for their first family to be so poor that they couldn't care for him, or to die of HIV/AIDS so they could join our family.  I do believe that God cares about and has a plan for each person's life -- but I will be careful how I talk about that.  I think that the idea of "beauty for ashes" is a metaphor that includes the idea of God's sovereignty, but also encompasses the difficult human circumstances behind the need for adoption.  God specializes in turning sadness, difficulties and pain (ashes) into something redemptive and beautiful -- story after story in the Bible fleshes that out -- without forgetting or diminishing the painful parts of the story.

I hope that this idea will resonate differently than the less complex "meant to be" interpretation, especially when my daughters are older.  I think it's significant that the resurrected Jesus still bore the wounds of his painful death -- that pain is one of the very things that makes His love so amazing and inexplicable.  In the same way, our children may still grapple with the painful parts of their stories, even while appreciating the fact that they are beloved members of our families. (Or not -- they may resent us completely as they grieve the loss of their birth family, and our job is to love them well through that.)  Pain and joy can co-exist for them (and for us), if we give our children permission to acknowledge and express all the facets of their experience.

The other word that we have chosen to be cautious about is "orphan."  Many Christians are passionate about caring for "widows and orphans," as described in James 1:27.  There are ministries devoted to "orphan care" which do terrific work around the globe.  There are many countries ravaged by AIDS or war in which children are literally orphans; but that isn't the case for all children living in orphanages.  The reality is that Anya Rashi is not an orphan.  Our daughter does have living birth parents, and so we choose not to reference "orphans" at all when we talk about her adoption.  It can be confusing to a child to know she has birth parents, but hear adoption discussed in terms of caring for orphans, so that's the reasoning behind our decision.  When she is older, she will likely be able to understand better that there are a variety of reasons children are placed in orphanages or foster care -- but for now we want to create a foundation of clarity about her own story.

The idea of her birth parents is something Anya Rashi has struggled to understand.  When she was four, she told me, "I know what the birth mother does, but what does the birth father do?"  (Gulp.)  We did have a good discussion last week about her birth mother.  After her bath, Anya Rashi asked me what belly buttons do.  We had a great talk about how she was connected to her birth mother through her umbilical cord, and was fed through it, and received oxygen that her birth mother breathed.  She was pretty fascinated by the idea, and it seemed to make her birth mother more real to her.  I must say that I never thought a belly button could lead to a profound adoption discussion. ;)

* * * * * * * * * *

I want to thank Jane Brown for giving me permission to share what she has learned from adoptees themselves -- some of it is difficult to hear, but I am glad to have my eyes opened to how adoptees might perceive things very differently than I do.  Thank you so much for reading along, and for sharing some of your thoughts or experiences in the comments!

Friday, June 1, 2012

When strangers ask questions | Part 3

Here are a few suggestions for how to answer those intrusive questions we often encounter as transracial families.  I hope you'll share your own experiences and answers that are effective in the comments section.  These answers are intended for literal strangers, not your cousin or friend who wants to adopt, and wants to ask about the adoption process.  For those questions, I would suggest going out for coffee or something similar without your child along -- not to hide what goes on in the adoption process, but to err on the side of your child not feeling like she is the focus of the conversation yet again.

Here are a few things I try to keep in mind when I answer questions:
1. Resist the urge to overexplain.
I don't go into details about how my biological children were conceived with anybody else (!), and I have no obligation to explain how my adopted children came into our family either.  Your child's story is his to share someday as he chooses -- and only he should choose who knows the details.

Jane Brown shared some insight from adoptees themselves:
"It is often far more difficult for our children than we realize, when people ask intrusive questions and we respond by giving lots of information about their having been adopted. As children grow older, the unwanted attention makes them feel as though they are out for Show and Tell, and most decidedly do NOT want to be the 'poster child' for adoption.  Most children who discuss this in [my] adoption workshops (amongst their adopted peers and the teen/adult adoptee volunteers) say that they wish their parents would not brag about the adoption when others give their parents the opportunity by asking about their looks -- their apparent differentness.  This does not demonstrate a wish to hide their adoption status because they are ashamed of that, merely a wish to not have their parents give personal information that makes them feel different from most others. 

I think we have to remember that we are modeling for our children the various ways we can respond. Whether we establish and keep boundaries will help our children feel that it is permissible to do that too, or instead, feel compelled to tell all when they really do not want to. I've seen far too many adult adoptees sit on adoptive panels, receive very intrusive questions, and tell all, after which they burst into tears and say privately that they always give away too much and then feel sick afterward and wonder why they can't stop themselves. Some realize, at that point, that that was how they felt when their parents gave away personal information when they were young.   

2. Recognize that your child may perceive adoption completely differently than you do -- respect that, and always prioritize for preserving your child's dignity, feelings and privacy.
Our children will each grapple with different facets of adoption.  The fact is, she didn't choose to be adopted in the first place.  My job is to understand that as the adoptive parent, I was the one who had a choice in the adoption process.  My child had no say in the circumstances she was born into, and had no say in losing her first parents, leaving her country/family of origin, and missing out on being part of that culture.  These are all losses that many child, teen and adult adoptees grapple with.  Adoption can be wonderful, but it always involves major losses for the child, the birth parents, and even the adoptive parents (infertility, etc.).  Be open to the fact that your child may be sad about different things at different times, and be sure to honor those losses in how you talk to strangers.  Part of our job as adoptive parents is to create a safe environment for our kids to talk about their grief, and we don't do that when our kids consistently hear only the happy aspects of adoption, or when we tell the story to strangers solely from our point of view, as the ones who had all the power and choices in the adoption. 

3. Sometimes answering with a question is the most polite, direct way to stop a conversation.  "Why do you ask?" is powerful -- it exposes that the person is just idly curious or nosy (if that's the case).  Then, if people have another motive, such as considering adoption themselves, you can invite them to discuss it at another time.  If they are wondering about birthparents and their circumstances, a polite but firm statement is appropriate: "I'm sorry, but that's private information, and not something we share with strangers."

4. Follow up with your child after a stranger asks questions.
It is so important to invite our kids' input into these situations, and acknowledge that strangers' questions can affect them.  Some examples of things to ask our kids are:  "That lady seemed really curious.  How did her questions make you feel?  How do you wish I had answered her?  How can I handle that differently in the future?"  Jane suggests asking our kids to rate our answer on a scale of 1-10, then asking what our child would like us to add or leave out.

Frequently asked questions & statements, and some possible responses:
"Where is she from?"  
My favorite thing to do in this situation is to say, "We live in Springfield. How about you?" Of course, they are usually asking where my child was born, but my answer is a cue to them that I am at the store (or whatever) to get my errand done, not to satisfy their curiosity.  Answering in the plural ("we"),  also prevents Anya Rashi from feeling singled out.  Most people have not continued the conversation after that.  If they persist in asking questions, I might say "Sorry -- we are in a hurry/we are watching the game, etc."  If people keep asking me questions, I also like to turn the tables and politely start asking them questions about where their family is from.  That strategy shifts the focus off of my daughter.

"She is beautiful/your family is beautiful."
Usually I just smile and say "thank you," and sometimes it ends there.  (After all, I happen to agree!)  If it's another mom with kids, I might pay a compliment back about her children, or ask their ages or something.  In my experience over the past 4 years, this question has often been a kind of introductory volley.  People sometimes use a compliment to start what they hope will be a longer conversation, with questions about our family.  If that it seems like that's where someone is headed, I might use body language and shift my attention/focus to indicate that the conversation is done.  I don't mean to be rude, but I won't be overly polite to a stranger at the expense of making Anya Rashi the unwilling focus of conversation.  If they are persistent, I might say, "Thanks for being interested in our family, but we don't give out information about any of our kids to someone we've just met."

Because our other children are boys, they are not sensitive to beauty-oriented questions.  But if we had biological or Caucasian adopted daughters who were continually overlooked in these conversations, I am sure these kinds of comments could be very hurtful.  If anyone has answers to this kind of situation, please feel free to chime in in the comments.

"Are they siblings?"
We don't have our next daughter home yet, but parents with more than one adopted child tell me they get this question all the time.  The shortest, most accurate answer is "Yes." You don't have to offer any other information.

"I don't know if I could love a child who is not mine/my real child." 
I've heard variations of this statement.  If it's a stranger who is clueless enough to say this IN FRONT of my daughter, then I'm sorry to say that I have no patience and am likely to say, "Then it's probably good you're not planning to adopt."  I might also say "Well, that's no problem, because she is mine/my real child."

Some of these answers look a little rude in print -- I always try to remain kind and polite, and I think my tone softens how blunt the answers look on the computer screen.  It's important to recognize how much, as women, we are raised to be polite or nice -- that alone is part of the uncomfortability of some of these answers.  But I do like to keep in mind the "intent vs. impact" issue, and land squarely in favor of protecting my daughter.

  I will post one more time on this topic next week.  Thanks for reading and considering this topic.