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.


Traci said...

I'm really appreciating your posts. Selah is 3 now and definitely more aware of these questions. On a side note, she was SO excited this morning when she saw a pic of your kids as you all look a lot like our family. She kept saying, "she can be my friend". :) Hope to meet you in person some day. - Traci G.

Sarah said...

I think that these responses are very good. I know that I have sometimes erred on the side of giving too much info. with one of my daughters who is very private. One of my other daughters, on the other hand, is happy to talk about her adoption openly. That is just her personality, though...very bold!

I think that I've only completely lost my patience once, and that was when I was told that they couldn't pierce my (Chinese) daughter's ears without proof that she was my child! The woman didn't ask for proof for my caucasian (adopted) child, who was also getting her ears pierced. This woman said some very offensive things right in front of my daughters!

I have found, however, that MOST of the people who ask questions are really interested in knowing more about adoption. If it seems appropriate (depending on the child/ren present), I will answer some of their questions. But, I can definitely see how it's good to be vague and give short answers, as well.

No Greater Love said...

Like I said before, these posts are super good for me, because I definitely err on the people-pleasing side...(except every once in a while I can get pretty irritable.) :o) So, all these posts are VERY eye opening for me. I need to remember to re-read them when V. gets home. :)

Miche said...

I am so loving all of this; thank you for all these responses and thoughts to have ready before we are faced with similar questions. THANK YOU!