Once upon a time, families always matched. A walk down the street would yield the sight of husbands and wives hand in hand with their children, whose hair and eye color mimicked their own. If any of those children were adopted, that fact was carefully hidden from view and rarely was anyone the wiser. In today’s more enlightened, modern world, all it takes is a simple trip to the grocery store to see what was once considered to be an oddity; families composed of multiple colors and sizes arguing over which cereal to buy and same-sexed parents wheeling baby strollers through the produce aisle, discussing which veggies would make the best baby food.
Many of these families will have been forged through adoption. It’s no secret that love makes a family, but adoption, once kept very secret, is now an out-in-the-open choice for many people who simply wish to love their children and be looked upon in the same way as every other family. Adoption, however, does bring with it some unique challenges. While it may be true that love conquers all, the complexities surrounding adoption are as varied as the families created in this way. Several adoption experts weigh in on the challenges adoptive families face and how to handle them.
Become an Educator to Your Child
“If our adopted children don’t look like us, our status as an adoptive family is made public. This can happen if you have adopted internationally or transracially,” says Westchester-based adoption counselor Carolyn Berger, LCSW. “Then, we have to field questions about how our family came to be. The challenge here lies in tailoring your answer so as to not to reveal your child’s story, which is private and theirs alone to tell. Short answers carry the day, such as, ‘Anna came from China.’ Period. Strangers sometimes fish for more information and telling them this is private often works. The most inappropriate question of all is, ‘How much did your child cost?’ You can answer this with a blank stare or opt to educate the questioner by saying the costs of adoption are for medical, legal and agency fees only,” she adds.
According to Friends in Adoption agency founder Dawn Smith-Pliner, many of the challenges associated with adoption can be addressed by supplying children with tool boxes, put together by their family, so when the need arises they can choose how to respond. “Most days, families created through adoption are like any other family with the ups, downs, joys and challenges of daily life. But on occasion, being adopted makes you feel different. Your family tree most often does not reflect your biological family but rather, your adopted family. Your birth certificate lists your parents as the ones who adopted you. Your skin color may not be the same as your two moms.
Some of the differences are not visibly noticeable, but others are.” Pliner, herself an adoptive parent, has been entrenched in the world of adoption for over 20 years and was adept in creating a tool box for her own, now-grown children. “Questions like, ‘You don’t live with your real mom and dad’ can be addressed by saying, ‘You’re right, I live with my two moms and visit my birth mom every year on my birthday,’ or ‘Yes, I do live with my real mom and dad and my birth parents live in another state.’” Smith-Pliner also suggests the ever popular and perfectly acceptable ‘I don’t want to answer your question, it’s none of your business,’ if that is what’s most comfortable for the child to use as a response.
When working with your child to discuss how these types of situations should be handled, make sure to do so in age-appropriate language they can grasp and understand. A five-year-old will need different tools than a 17-year-old. It is also in your child’s best interest to start hearing and becoming used to proactive language about adoption at an early age, even beginning in infancy if you adopt a newborn. For children adopted from other countries or of different ethnic backgrounds, make sure information about their culture becomes part of their tool box as well.
Become an Educator to the World
Other misconceptions often need to be tackled by those adopting, who are sometimes viewed as being rescuers rather than parents. Berger, also an adoptive mom, is used to this. “People often carry around a stereotype regarding birth mothers and their inability to take care of their own children because they are too young or too poor,” she says. “You can be an educator in this case, letting people know birth mothers come from all kinds of lifestyles and have all kinds of histories.” Smith-Pliner agrees, “Once when I was in the grocery store, a woman applauded my bravery in adopting a poor, little orphan girl. I gently let her know my daughter was not an orphan, rather, she had both birth parents and adoptive parents who loved her to the ends of the world and back. The woman smiled, handed me five dollars and walked away!”
When others judge birth parents, celebrate adoptive parents or view them as ‘not real’ and treat children who were adopted as ‘different’ or the ‘other’ out of ignorance or a simple lack of understanding, it places undue pressure on regular people who just want to live out their lives like everyone else,” says adoption case manager Nan Pasquarello, who explains that adoptive parents are adopting to fulfill their own desire to parent, not to do a good deed. Understanding this, Smith-Pliner and Berger caution adoptive parents to be aware they will often find themselves filling the role of educators to the world and as such, should remember to always be aware of how they are responding to comments from others, particularly if their children are listening. Children will look to these conversations for validation about themselves and also as examples for how to handle these situations on their own.
Explaining Adoption as a Reproductive Choice
Sometimes, adoption will be considered as a family-building option after infertility treatment has failed or, for LGBT individuals, in lieu of using a sperm or egg donor and surrogate. A common myth that simply refuses to die is that once you adopt, you will easily become pregnant, as if your infertility was manifested in your head instead of in your body. “Statistics do not bear this out and you can tell people so,” explains Berger.
As far as we have come as a society, many of the myths surrounding adoption persist. Many of the misconceptions people have about this family-building choice can be addressed or even eradicated with accurate information about adoption and most poignantly, by example. Love is what makes a family, no matter how they find their way to each other and no matter what their gender or color happens to be.
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.