This entry is for friends, family, and anyone else who may be interested in the world of adoption, but are not so clear on the basic rules of etiquette. Yes, indeed, there are rules when discussing adoptions, and it is not as hard as you may think to utter a faux pas without realizing you are doing so. Quite honestly, I'm guessing that I still manage to offend adoptive families without realizing I'm doing it. Once I'm carrying around a black child, I imagine it will all become much clearer. It is a sensitive topic, adoption, due largely to the complex reasons why people adopt and to the highly sensitive set of circumstances to bring a child to a new set of parents. Many adoptive parents, I'm learning, get pretty hot under the collar when people ask the wrong questions or make insensitive comments. As someone who often manages to ask the wrong question, however, I'm more of the line of thinking that people can't be expected to know what they don't know. And why someone should know the etiquette of adoption talk with no prior exposure to adoption...well, this is why I'm writing this entry, so that now you can't say you didn't know.
1. Information about the child's background is usually kept private.
I write about this one first because I believe it is probably the most important thing for people to know, and yet most of you probably have no idea that this is the policy for most families. Once I explain, though, I think it will make a lot of sense.
All children come to adoptive families via some form of tragedy. It is a tragedy, pure and simple, when a child can no longer be with his or her family. Of course, there is an endless range of situations that lead to mothers choosing to relinquish their babies, but all of them involve an enormous loss. In Ethiopia, mothers give up their babies for so many different reasons. For many children, their mothers are no longer living, and the extended family does not have the resources to care for the children due to the overwhelming poverty that exists in this country. Other mothers become pregnant out of wedlock, and face shame and even exile by their own families. Many mothers simply do not have the resources to feed their babies, and no doctors anywhere to provide care if the child becomes ill (more about these issues in a future post), so they make the choice to relinquish their babies in hope that someone else will be able to provide the kind of life that these mothers cannot.
Whatever the situation, the story of how the child comes to his or her adoptive family is a private one, and it is up to the child to decide how much others should know. This is not to imply that there is shame involved in a child's adoption story - it is simply a matter of privacy, as these details of the child's beginnings are extremely personal and yes, for some, the details may be too painful to share with others.
The moral of the story: Do not be surprised if adoptive parents decline to share details of their child's biological family. It may be safer just not to ask. If the parents want you to know details, they will offer them without you asking, is my guess.
2. There are varying levels of comfort with discussing the cost of adoption.
This one pretty much explains itself. While Paul and I don't mind talking about the process, including costs, many people do. The feeling is that adoption begins to sound like a transaction, a purchase. It's also akin to discussing salaries, I think, in that discussing money (especially the kind of money involved in adoption) feels personal and revealing. So just be careful when asking these kinds of questions. If the parents seem to hesitate when you ask, leave it alone. For the record, our adoption costs around $20,000 when you factor in travel costs as well as all agency and country fees. We'll get much of that back in the form of a tax credit, and Paul's company will also give us $5000 to go toward the adoption.
3. Keep your opinions about transracial adoption (or adoption in general) to your damn self.
I have learned a few things in the last couple of years about what people are more than happy to share regarding their feelings about transracial adoption. I've also learned a great deal from families who have already adopted from Ethiopia. I will share with you some of the most valuable things I have learned when it comes to talking about your friend's/family member's child of color.
For starters, to comment that a child is not "that black" is not a good idea. Think about it: why is this worth noting? Do you see that as a good thing? Should the parents be happy that their child is not "that black?" I'm not asking you to pretend that the child is not black. I'm simply asking that you stop for a moment to ask yourself what the point is of your comment regarding the child's appearance. Or just say, "Wow, what a beautiful baby," and leave it at that.
Many individuals in our society have strong opinions about white people adopting black children, and so many white parents with black children are really sensitive to others' comments. Paul and I have been on the receiving end of negative comments about adopting a black child, and it is painful to know that there will always be people who do not hesitate to discuss their opinions about transracial adoption. I think that many adoptive families are not all that interested in your opinions about transracial adoption, and we certainly would prefer that you reserve your comments for times when the child is not present.
4. Along the same lines: please do not say that the child should be grateful for having been adopted, or commend the parents on the amazingly generous thing they are doing.
This is a big one, and I probably should have put it higher on this list. I know that it seems like you are giving the parents a compliment, praising and supporting them for adopting an orphaned child. But the bottom line is that adoption is not an altruistic event. At a conference we recently attended, the Ethiopian speaker put it this way: You would never say to a husband or wife, "You really did a generous thing marrying him/her. S/he should be really grateful." Imagine that you were the other half of that couple. So it is with adoption. How do you think a child would feel when given the message that he or she should be grateful to their parents for adopting them? They did not ask for any of this, and can feel however they want to about it. They don't need to be grateful.
Back to the altruistic comment. Parents adopt or give birth because they want children. No one talks about how generous someone is for getting pregnant and giving birth to a child. But adoption is no different. We aren't adopting because we want to be Ghandi. We're adopting because for us it was the right way to expand our family. Sure, we're very much aware that we are giving a child the opportunity to have a life she would never have had otherwise. But we are first and foremost doing it because we feel good about doing it. It is for us, not the child, that we are adopting. Just like it was for us, not Eliana, that we gave birth to her. I know this might sound cold, but it is simply honest. It is a mutually beneficial relationship.
I think those are the major points I wanted to make. Please feel free to write comments or questions. I hope this was helpful!