Adoption etiquette for Father’s Day and all days

A father of three explains the questions you shouldn't ask families with adopted children
By Art Q. Smith  Published on 06/13/2018 at 3:54 PM EDT
Art, right, with his husband, Joe, and their daughters

I have three daughters. I don’t have three “adopted” daughters; I just have three amazing daughters. I have been a dad for 12 years now and I’ve had plenty of time to wonder why the word “adopted” seems to creep into so many places where I don’t think it needs to be. Pre-fatherhood, and while working for an entertainment wire service, I wrote my fair share of celebrity obituaries. Even then, it seemed strange to me that my editors insisted I distinguish someone’s surviving offspring as “adopted.” “So and so is survived by two sons and an adopted daughter,” was the kind of phrase that I still find jarring. Why does that aspect of how a child came to a family matter? It shouldn’t, but for some reason this odd practice perseveres in our culture.

Over the past dozen or so years, I have learned a lot about the concept of adoption and how it can sometimes flummox even the most well-meaning. I cannot count the number of times someone has approached me at Target, at a table in a restaurant, or even on line for a ride in Disneyland to ask what I consider to be extremely personal questions about my family. My husband and I are white and our girls are biracial. That fact has opened the door to countless people expressing their approval of us by saying something like, “You have a beautiful family.” It’s a lovely gesture, and I do not take for granted that people were not as accepting of families like mine in the not too distant past and, quite frankly, even in some present locales.

I appreciate the sentiment and the support, I really do. However, more often than not the statement is followed by the question, “Are the girls biological sisters?” or, the one that really gets me, “Are the girls real sisters?” Here’s the thing: they couldn’t be more “real sisters.” They love each other, drive one another crazy, bond over their annoying dads and share their lives together as members of our own personal party of five. So yes, they are “real” sisters. It’s such an odd question to me, because I don’t understand why anyone would feel entitled to this information. The dicier part to me is that the question is almost always asked in front of my daughters, who are being talked about as though they aren’t even present. It has happened to us enough for me to understand that there is no malice intended. It is a crime of inconsideration, of thoughtlessness.

Here’s the thing: they couldn’t be more “real sisters.” They love each other, drive one another crazy, bond over their annoying dads and share their lives together as members of our own personal party of five. So yes, they are “real” sisters.

When my girls were infants there was a pattern of something that disturbed me even more. Someone would strike up a conversation with me, usually while I was holding a baby in my arms, and we’d small talk about the joys of new parenthood. The person, always a woman, would praise my choice to be a dad, tell me how lucky the baby in my arms was and then wonder what kind of a person would be so heartless as to give up their biological child. It shocked me the first few times it happened, because I didn’t know how to respond. Let me be clear, I have never given up a child for adoption, but I have been the benefactor of someone else making that life-changing decision. I can promise you that at no point in any of my experiences with birth mothers, and fathers, did I ever see anything other than selflessness. The decision was complicated, agonized over and ultimately followed through on for a myriad of reasons, but cavalier it was not. It’s a fool’s game to venture a guess about the process by which a child is placed for adoption, and worse to pass judgment on the parents who chose that path.

I don’t mean to sound like I have a chip on my shoulder because honestly, I could not feel more blessed or lucky to have these innocuous problems to contend with. Being a proud dad, I love nothing more than talking about my kids to anyone who will listen! I’m just looking to keep some boundaries in place. I am sure couples who took the surrogate route must routinely get equally probing questions as do those who underwent IVF. I, however, can only speak from my own experience and attempt to let people know that it’s okay for them to have some of the more prying questions left unspoken regarding my family (especially at Target). I, in turn, promise to remain an open book regarding my adoption experiences, continuing to share everything I have learned about the process with anyone who is genuinely and seriously interested in following in my parental footsteps.

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