Throughout my early childhood, adoption was just a fact of life. How I came to be part of my family—how long my mom and dad waited for me, and how much I was wanted—was a bedtime story told alongside tales about my dad’s one-eyed, fearless cat and tattered copies of Goodnight Moon and Corduroy.
When I reached that age where kids start to pick apart each other’s differences, I casually mentioned adoption at lunch. I immediately regretted it. My classmates knew my adoptive mom, who I resembled strongly as a young child. She worked in our elementary school’s learning disabilities program and, like the other paraprofessionals, she did lunch room and recess duty. I was called a liar by some and treated like a curiosity by others—peppered with questions I was unprepared to answer.
Over the ensuing 30 years, much has changed. Many adoptions are at least partially open, giving adopted children more answers about their biological history and lessening the impulse to keep non-traditional origins secret. The internet has made millions of people of all ages feel less alone and plenty of curious folks know to hit up Google rather than relying on the 1.5 million adoptees (approximately 2 percent of the population) living in the U.S for all their answers.
But the more things change, the more things stay the same. Almost any time a conversation requires that I—even offhandedly—mention that I’m adopted, I find myself expected to answer incredibly personal questions (like the ones below), that people wouldn’t ask about other topics (or of other people).
During National Adoption Month, I’m encouraging the masses of well-intentioned folks to consider that birth and biological history can be extremely complicated. Keep in mind that discovering an adoptee in your midst is not an opportunity to have all your questions answered. You’re asking a question as personal as “So, what caused your parents’ divorce?” or “How’s your sex life these days?”
If you’re genuinely interested, you could always start with, “Oh! Is adoption something you talk about, or would you rather not?” or some other agency and privacy-respecting question. Here are a few common questions to avoid:
“So, do you know your real parents?”
This is by far the most common question, and it’s always made me the most defensive. For better or worse, the people who raise you are your parents. I resented this question when my relationship with my adoptive parents was lovingly uncomplicated; I continued to resent it when things got rough; and even now with intermittent estrangement from my adoptive parents and a brand new reunion with my biological mom and half-brother, I find the question intrusive and reductive.
Now I typically respond with, “Nah, only know my imaginary ones,” partly to see if they’ll catch themselves so we can laugh it off together, and have my point made without hurt feelings. A lot of us are raised by someone other than the person who gave birth to us and the constructed families that result are often simply a lot to go into. We aren’t damaged or secretive for not wanting to put our family history front and center in a conversation that—until a few minutes earlier—wasn’t about us.
Meeting my biological mom has made this an even sillier question: she is also (and has always been) my real mother. Of course she is. This doesn’t exactly make me that extraordinary. Quite a few of us have many moms! Grandmothers who were like moms, sisters who were like moms—aunts, neighbors, close friends’ moms. I even have friends who have mothered me when they were needed.
There’s no limit on love, folks. Real is a state of mind.
“Did your adoptive parents ever have kids of their own?”
“Their own.” Adopted kids can already struggle with a feeling of belonging; questions like these are, frankly, mean. Just don’t.
“Why did your parents adopt; couldn’t they have kids?”
Not all adoptees know the answer to questions like these and some have avoided finding out. A good substitute question without the jerky subtext: “Do you have siblings?” If the newly outed adoptee wants to elaborate, you’ve given them that opportunity without being presumptuous.
“Did you know you were different as a kid?”
I’m white and my adoptive parents are German (mom) and Hungarian (dad); other than being taller than them, no passerby would wonder if I was “theirs.” Because my adoptive parents and I share similar features, this question has different connotations for me than for adoptees whose family obviously does not share their ethnic heritage. Every kid wants to belong and having strangers (or even family friends) blatantly point out that anyone could see they’re different never feels good.
For a moving and eloquently written tale of transracial adoption and the search for belonging, I highly recommend Nicole Chung’s new book, All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir.
“How did you find out you were adopted?”
This question is so loaded I could write an entire essay on it. The implications are that you seem to and/or look like you belong, so you must have been told you were different (as it’s not obvious) and the tone in most voices indicates a sincere desire for sensational trauma. We can tell if you aren’t just being interested in us; it’s all over your face, I promise.
Being adopted does not equal a childhood filled with trauma. Take a moment and reread that sentence. Now, I happen to be a childhood trauma survivor whose adoption is tied to some of that trauma. Growing up is complicated. So is parenting. Do I think my childhood experiences would have changed significantly if I had been the biological offspring of my adoptive parents? Not significantly (My therapist agrees.).
“Do you know anyone in your real family? What if you married your BROTHER??”
I’ve never heard this one as an adult, but it was constant as a kid. So file this one under, “Teach your kids not to ask this.”
“But you look so much like your mom/Dad/sibling!”
Hey, thanks for telling me that you thought I belonged and you’re shocked—SHOCKED—to find out that I don’t! Hopefully this one doesn’t require explanation and is just a reminder to filter your auto responses.
“Have you seen pictures of your real parents? Aren’t you curious????”
Yes, I’m curious. I can’t claim this as a universal truth for all adoptees because, well, I haven’t met them all. But in an era of 23andMe (which is where my birth mom’s family found me!) and Ancestry.com, it seems like damn near everyone is borderline obsessed with tracing genealogy and heritage right down to the cities or villages our most distant cousins lived in. Adoptees aren’t immune from this curiosity, and some of us from adoptive families with distinct noses or chins have wondered our whole lives where we got our height or hair color.
The problem with this question is the other-ing of it. Like so many inquiries that might be personal but innocuous when asked of others, it’s a potential minefield for adoptees. Some of us have no way to look for our birth parents. Some of us were lied to by adoptive parents, making the efforts of private investigators fruitless. Some of us unsealed our records only to be rejected or find out one or both birth parents are deceased.
“You must be so grateful.”
While not a question, this statement reinforcing the fairy tale adoption trope comes up SO OFTEN that I can’t leave it out. I have never met an adoptee who didn’t at least subtly twitch at the notion that the moment their adoptive parents chose them all their past and future problems were solved, huzzah! Are we grateful to our adoptive parents? Mostly yes, even those of us with complicated childhoods. Is assuming we are a silencing tactic that reduces our agency? Absolutely.
Even as a kid, having this framework imposed on me by adult after adult made me uncomfortable. I couldn’t explain it, but the declaration of gratitude from outside my family felt icky and I discovered the only right response was “Yes.” As I grew older, I realized that much of my discomfort is because of the unsaid phrase “…for having been saved from your biological family.”
Adoptees typically feel many things at once because we’re people. (Surprise!) Some of us think of our adoptions as a footnote, others wonder about the other life they might have lived. Many of us fall somewhere in the middle, daydreaming out of natural curiosity. Even the middle-of-the-road folks who had blissful childhoods and exceptional adoptive parents aren’t particularly keen on the implication that the humans who gave them life were somehow “less than” or unworthy or even bad people. They did bring us into the world, after all, and many of us are content to be grateful to them as well as to those who raised us.