Thursday, July 7, 2011

An Interest in the Details.

We were expecting it.  We had (somewhat) prepared for it.  And now we're living it.

It's already amazing to me, four weeks (tomorrow) into our new lives with our children, how many strangers feel free to ask questions about our two younger children, or to make assumptions.  In the weeks that we've been home, we have noticed that we get a lot of targeted attention; lots of people stare at us and we get many comments and questions.  For example:
  • A customer at Walmart saw me with the three kids and craned her head around to watch us walk by; as we passed by her, she bumped the person she was with and pointed to us (from three feet away); they started talking to each other right away and it was very obvious that it was about us.  
  • The Jehovah's Witness missionary on our street last weekend asked if I was babysitting for a friend when she saw all three kids with me.  When I responded with a "no, they're all mine," there was a pregnant pause before she told me what she was doing in our neighbourhood.
  • A woman at the grocery store last week said, as she passed me going in the opposite direction:  "I've got to find the aisle where I can get myself a couple of those cuties."
  • I'm sure that I've already fielded more than twenty inquiries from perfect strangers as to whether the two younger children are siblings (I am really genuinely puzzled about why this is such an interesting fact to know.  Thoughts?).  My answer to this question has varied, as I've tried to see what words feel best on my tongue, and I'm glad on these occasions of experimentation that my two younger children don't yet understand what I'm saying.  I'm becoming increasingly confident about my answer though.  You see, I have three pairs of ears listening to every word I say.  Two pairs don't yet understand, true enough.  But the third pair is absolutely listening already to how I answer people's questions...and absorbing it.  If I answer (as I did the first few times) that yes, the two (ET-born) children are siblings, what does my eldest hear me say by implication?  That he is not their sibling?  That they are not fully a part of our family?  And when the younger two are able to understand what I'm saying, might they also then infer that they are not really a part of the family?  I've been thinking about all of these things.  As a result, I've modified my response to that question in the past week, and have tried to keep my tone light:  "Yes, they are siblings...all three of them."  And if my eldest is not with me in the moment and someone asks about the two ET-born children being siblings, I will now say that "yes, they are; and they have a brother at home as well."
I am normally someone who likes to make eye contact with people and greet even strangers passing by in stores or out in the park/neighbourhood.  I like being friendly, and I enjoy smiling at people...even ones I don't know.  But last week, with some sadness, I found myself avoiding eye contact with the curious strangers around me, when we were out in public.  It's eye contact that seems to give people the most freedom, the implicit permission, to stop me mid-stride and start the conversation, usually with an opening comment about the kids being adorable (which they are, and for which I will always say thank you!).  That comment is usually the entry point into a Q & A session initiated by the other person...the questions that I really don't feel like answering.  Every. single. time.

I get that some reading this may think me too particular on this subject...maybe you think I should 'lighten up' or 'take a pill.'  After all, I'm in this situation by choice and we had fully expected some of these issues.  Perhaps you might say to me that most people have good intentions when they ask the questions that they do...and I would agree with you (usually) on that point.  But really, really think about it:  Would you truly be ok, every single time you head out to the grocery store and the gas bar and the drug mart and the playground, answering the questions of perfect strangers about whether your children are your own, just because, say, you have brown hair and your children have flaming red hair?  Or would you also get tired of it?

Almost two weeks ago, while trapped in a queue, and while several other people (including my children) were listening, a stranger I'd made the mistake of making eye contact with told me that my kids were adorable.  I said "thank you."  She then proceeded to ask (pointing at the two younger kids) the most common questions:  "Are they siblings?" and "Where did they come from?"  But the questions didn't stop there.  When she heard that the children were from Ethiopia, she went on to ask, "So did their parents die of AIDS?"  Can you imagine asking a perfect stranger, in front of her children, whether their parents died of AIDS?  As far as she knew, my younger kids had lived here for years and were as English speaking/comprehending as my older child - and she asked this in front of them.  I was burning inside, but managed to say with grim politeness, that we didn't discuss our kids' lives or history with anyone other than immediate family.  Her response:  "Oh, right.  But is he yours?" and she pointed at Matthew.  By this time, I was done.  I simply said "They're all mine," and turned my back on her.  I think I need to get to that point sooner in the future.

I get that people are curious.  We are an interesting family to look at now, in some respects.  I have been tempted myself, at times, to ask questions of strangers that I would now consider inappropriate.  As one of my cousins (also an adoptive mom) recently put it, though: any line that starts with "it's none of my business, but..." is really a question that is better not asked.

On the weekend, Geoff and I took the kids to a nearby play structure to play for an hour, and I met another woman there with her three daughters.  She commented that the kids were cute, and I braced myself for the usual onslaught.  But she surprised me, in the most delightful way!  Rather than starting with the questions I anticipated, she said that she loved Lizzie's dress and how she wished two of her daughters would wear dresses.  Then we talked about where all of the kids go (or don't go) to school, and where we lived in the community, and various other non-consequential things.  About ten minutes later, our kids pulled us in opposite directions of the play structure, and the conversation ended.  No awkward or inappropriate questions/comments; no staring or pointing.  Nothing.  It was such an ordinary conversation.  In hindsight, I see how much I relaxed during that conversation.  I am so thankful for that woman and the sense of normalcy that she provided me with; she gave me the courage and sense of hopefulness to, once again, pick my head up and start looking people in the eye!


An adoption organization, Rainbow Kids (and an online friend of mine) posted the following article not that long ago and I wanted to share it here as well; it explains better than I can why we have chosen to keep most details about our ET-born children private.

Privacy Matters in Adoption
June 01, 2011 / Elisabeth O'Toole
The following excerpt is from the book: In on it: What adoptive parents would like you to know about adoption

When my husband and I were in the process of completing our first adoption, an established adoptive family invited us to their house to talk with us and answer some of our questions about adoption. Feeling all flush with adoption information and maybe wanting to demonstrate just how ready I felt I was to become part of the adoption community, I asked what I thought was an insider's question. I asked, in front of their 6-yer-old child, what they knew about his birthmother. Looking back, I see just how gracious his mother was. She glanced at her son, who appeared to be occupied with his cars (though now that I've watched my own son look busy while eavesdropping, I realize that this boy was completely tuned in to our conversation), and said to me, "You know, that's not something we talk about outside of our family." Of course it wasn't. I was breaching the boy's privacy. I could still kick myself for asking that question. I wish I'd known better. But karma being what it is, I've now had plenty of opportunities to try to respond graciously to other people's personal questions about my children.

People sometimes ask adoptive parents questions of a far more intimate nature than they'd ask a biological parent. From an adoptive parents' point of view, "What do you know about the birthmother?" is a question just as presumptuous as asking a biological parent, "What did you use to get pregnant?" People who were adopted do not forgo their right to the same level of privacy as others. An adoptive child has no less of a right to privacy about his personal information than any grown-up or non-adoptive child.

That said there is valid confusion about what is private adoption information and what is okay to ask about. The not-very-satisfying answer is that boundaries around privacy are likely different for every family and will differ from person to person.

Adoptive parents struggle with the public/private nature of adoption all the time. They are challenged to balance their family's sometimes obvious public status as an adoptive family with the privacy of the family's individuals. Most adoptive families are proud of their families and want to present a positive attitude about adoption to others, particularly their children. The precarious task for adoptive parents is to be open enough about adoption that their children don't see adoption as a secret or as something to be ashamed of, while at the same time taking care not to compromise the right to privacy of everyone involved. So, even as they're trying to protect their children's privacy, adoptive parents are also trying to normalize adoption for their children and for others around them.

An important reason that parents try to control the dissemination of their children’s information has to do with the fact that the child himself, particularly a young child, often does not yet know all of his own personal information. Parents are responsible for safeguarding facts about the child's life for the child until he or she is of an appropriate age to hear it. If the child's information becomes too commonly known, adoptive parents risk the child hearing things before he or she is ready. One adoptive mother tells of her daughter learning she had biological siblings in a very abrupt way, when another sibling used it to wound her in an argument. The parent had intended to discuss this under gentler circumstances, and when she felt her daughter was ready to hear it. This mother wished she'd been more careful about sharing her daughter's personal information with others, even within her own family.

Privacy Plans
Until the child is old enough to manage his own personal information, it is your loved ones' very important responsibility to maintain and protect the child's privacy on his behalf. Adoptive parents need to actively think through what information is 'in-house,' and what information is for public consumption. One family kept two photo albums of their new son. One, the "public" album, remained on the coffee table for viewing by all of the visitors coming to see their child. It documented bath times and park visits and other images typical of any new family. Another "private" album was for just the immediate family and included things like pictures of the child's foster family, the first meeting between the parents and child, and other very personal moments in the inception of this new family.

I suggest that new adoptive parents, including those still in the adoption process, develop for themselves what I call the Privacy Plan. They decide what information is off-limits (e.g. birthparent information, certain details about early living conditions, specific reasons the child was available for adoption) and have a plan for responding to inappropriate questions. For example, when someone asks me what I "know about" my child's birthmother or for some other information about his personal history, I’ve developed a standard reply: "That’s not my information to share." I try to keep it simple; I say it lightly and move on. People usually get the idea pretty quickly. They don't mean to overstep. Often they've just never thought of it that way before.

Some parents will be comfortable sharing some of the intimate information about their children with those close to them. Some may, in fact, share more than you might want to know about a child's personal history. Not every adoptive parent has developed boundaries about their child's privacy nor has it occurred to them to do so. But I've long been guided by the experience of one adult adoptee who recalled how much it bothered her to hear her mother talk about her adoption with strangers who approached them when they were out in public (grocery stores again). She felt that her private life was being discussed casually with people she didn't even know. But until she was old enough to articulate her own feelings, her mother was unaware that she was compromising her daughter's privacy.

Sometimes an adoptive family will encounter someone who really presses them for information, who feels they have the right to know all about a child's personal history, often because the child is now a relative. Know that, in general, unless it's a health issue or some other aspect of background that impacts how you interact with the child at present, you are probably not entitled to detailed information about the child's background before the time that the child entered the family. Much of a child's personal information can wait until such time as the child can choose to share it himself.

So where is the middle ground? The fact of an adoption is not something to be ignored or treated as a secret. Family and friends will have questions. Following are a few rules of thumb to follow when it comes to asking questions about a child and his adoption:

For Friends and Family, a few suggestions:

Not in front of the child
Critically, no matter what adoption questions you have, try not to ask them in front of the child. It's a recurring complaint among adoptive parents that people ask inappropriate questions in front of their children (as in me asking about the birthmother in front of the child). Even if you feel assured that any question you have is legitimate, the parents will thank you for asking it out of the child's presence. Remember that even a child's adoptive status is not a matter for casual conversation (i.e., "Was he adopted?"). In fact, many adoptive parents, though they may make significant eye contact or vague comments indicating a mutual recognition when they encounter other apparently adoptive families, say they try to respect the privacy of their children and other adoptive children and don't comment on or question their apparent connection with strangers.

Ask yourself: Why do you want to know?
There's an important new person in the life of your loved ones and you want to know everything about them. But before you ask a question about the child, in order to determine whether it may be relevant, one strategy is to ask yourself, "Why do I want to know this?" If you don't have a good answer, maybe it's not information you need to have. Ask yourself if you should know about things like the existence of siblings or the role of the birthfather before the child is able to know and understand it himself. Remember that it's the child's information first, even if he doesn't yet know all of it.

Don’t take boundaries personally
Do try not to take it personally if you're told, hopefully graciously, that certain information is off-limits to you. You don't mean to intrude. But parents have to let you know where their boundaries stand. It's part of their responsibility to the child. If you have questions, consider framing them so that they show you to recognize there are boundaries around some information: "Please let me know if I’m overstepping, but I wondered…"

All of the child’s information is precious
Finally, it's helpful if those who hold any private information about the child are careful not to treat it casually. It's not fodder for small talk; rather it's precious and should be treated as such. Sometimes you will have the opportunity to discuss the child's adoption with someone who doesn't know the family or the child. Remember that you show respect for the child and for adoption by preserving the child's privacy, even when you don’t have to. When it comes to protecting a child’s privacy, you can provide tremendous support to your loved ones: by understanding what information is personal, by respecting the family’s boundaries, and by protecting information on behalf of the child.

What you can do:
  • Understand the child’s right to own his own personal history, some of which he may not even yet know himself.
  • Differentiate between secrets and privacy. Adoption is not a secret. But some information about an adoption will remain private. Recognize what information is and is not necessary for you to know about a child’s background.
  • Understand the parents’ responsibility to protect their child’s privacy until such time as the child can do so for himself. Don’t take it personally when they enforce boundaries around information.
  • Refrain from asking about the child’s personal history in front of the child.
  • Demonstrate respect for the practice of adoption by maintaining the privacy of others, even when you don’t have to. Avoid sharing the family’s personal information, even with people who don’t know the family.
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  1. That is a great excerpt - I haven't read that book, and now I want it!

    It's a weird, weird feeling, isn't it? Mostly people mean well, but I do wish that some would think before they let some of the CRAZY tumble out of their mouths. So glad to hear of the lovely conversation that you had with the woman at the park - I found that as time went on, the balance shifted a lot towards more of that kind of thing and less of the insanity. Hope the same turns out to be true of your town!!!

  2. Great post Ruth. I remember when we started the adoption process that we wanted to talk to other adoptive parents, but quickly noticed that many would not even make eye contact. As we are further along in the process, we totally get it. I feel that way already sometimes. The first question anyone asks is 'how's the adoption going?'. Do they want they truth? Do they really want to know that it looks as if it will take a miracle to work out? Do they really want to know the intricacies of the Hague Convention? No, probably not. So I smile and say 'fine' and leave it at that. So I understand the closed, one-liners adoptive parents have for answering questions about their children.
    For me, I don't think I would mind being asked most questions but it is not appropriate to be asked these questions in front of the children. I can't believe someone asked you whether their parents had died of AIDS. That is just disgusting. The older I get, the more people shock me. Have strength...maybe you could imagine slapping them across the face whilst you give them your controlled, polite response;)

  3. Great post!!
    I just wanted to pop in and say thanks for your comment on my blog... and to let you know I have been following you for awhile now. I have enjoyed following your journey and candid writing. (And of course seeing the pics of your beautiful children!)

    Have a fantastic day!!

  4. Great post! We're waiting for our referral, so I'm trying to figure out where are boundaries are and be prepared.
    One side note: We often hear(from older people) what isle they can get our 2 kids from. I hear it more often when we're with their grandparents. My girls think its funny (ages5 & 7) and love it. I never took offense to it, up until I imagined our soon to be children with them. Then, I hear my mother in law use it the other day! I think that older (60+) people are using it in a good way, but as a soon to be adoptive parent, I can see how it can be taken wrong. Instead of joking back in return, I now just reply "Aren't they adorable!?!" or "They are just as sweet as they look too." If my children ask about it in the future, I'll just explain that its a compliment and they're kind of saying they wish they have/had children that behave so well and are as cute as them.
    It's annoying (I hear it at least once a week)but I'm trying to make it so that my kids look at it positively.
    I hope I'm doing the right thing! Thanks for a great post!
    p.s. my cousin and his wife recently adopted 3 boys from Columbia. Someone asked her and her response was: "In Columbia, sibling groups are usually are placed for adoption due to economic reasons" And then she added how lucky the boys were to be able to live in a foster home together with a loving set of foster parents, etc... and it totally changed the subject.
    Looking back, I'm impressed with how she didn't actually answer the question and changed the subject. Her boys weren't home yet,but she already mastered that question. (I'm going to use something similar to this once we get our referral. If we can use that on most people we know before he/she/they come home, we won't be faced with it lots when we come home. {I hope! we live in a small town}

  5. Very interesting, indeed. I like your responses to the siblings questions...that is by far the main question we are getting...from almost everyone - "Are they siblings/family/brothers & sister?" - and yes, I would be curious to know what motivates that (unless it is partly that there are three of them, and that in an of itself seems to be of great interest to everyone). Because they are our only children, I have simply been answering, "yes", but if we have more kids eventually I will have to re-think that (and already feel like I'm being asked for information that really shouldn't matter). It also bothers me when folks ask further questions which lead us into explaining (or trying to avoid explaining - which is REALLY hard to do on the spot without simply stopping talking and staring blankly at the other party) that the boys only met their sister last Christmas, as they were in two separate homes before coming to us (and might have been adopted separately in a pinch).

    One odd question we received was whether the children speak English. Perhaps because of the kids' lovely olive/tan complexions, it was assumed they were not from Canada? Interestingly, this question came from a person who is not caucasian, but who clearly is living in Canada, and speaking English quite nicely.

    One comment/question which kind of made me smile (in a nice way) came from a woman (also not caucasian, which may or may not have anything to do with her perspective) who just assumed the kids were my biological offspring - I wasn't with Geoff, so she had no idea what my even fairer-complexioned husband looked like, and was chatting with me mom-to-mom about the ages of our/my kids, and close-together pregnancies, two babies one year apart, etc. I was able to respond reasonably gracefully (I think) by stating that I wasn't sure what that would have been like, as they had only been with us for about a month. I know it might bother some to have any assumption made as to how their children joined their families, but this really was just one mom talking to another, and her "assumption" didn't really seem like an assumption at all...she just accepted that these were my kids without trying to analyze the situation in regard to how our appearance differed.

    One thing that people also tend to assume is that our kids have had a traumatic past (I know, the adoption transition itself is traumatic, but they are suggesting far more than that)...I don't want to get into details about trauma or lack thereof in our situation (which is as low-trauma as it gets), but don't really want people assuming all sorts of things about what our kids must have gone through to get to the point of being I am tempted to dispel any myths/assumptions about kids in foster care without being too personal - hmm...

  6. I love your new response! When E first came home I was so surprised by people's questions, that I found myself answering them...and then totally dying afterwards when I realized what I had done-I was not as prepared for that as I thought I was! You're doing great!

  7. I feel like a veteran with the questions because when we first started fostering 11 years ago, we often got comments and then when the adoptions came along, I was used to it. I was lucky in that in my stumbling for answers years, the kids were babies, so they didn't understand. I should say that there was a comment this year that threw even me for a loop and I didn't have a good response for, so even practise doesn't prepare you for some of the more shocking comments. We have gotten the "Did their parents die of AIDS?" or "Are they AIDS orphans?" or even "Do they have AIDS?" right in front of the kids.

    I find that now that I have been experiencing this for years, I am more able to ascertain the motives behind the questions. I do this by asking them in a polite way why they are asking, saying something like, "are you considering adoption?" I learned the hard way that about half the time, the reason people are trying to strike up a conversation and asking awkward questions is that either they or someone they love (a sister or close friend) is considering adoption or pursuing adoption. My answers to their questions are very different depending on if they fit into that category or into the just-curious category.

    Also, turning around and asking them a question makes you more human to them and they become more careful about what they say.

    The "where can I get one of those?" or "I'd like to just take you home with me" are the ones that are a lot harder to deal with. They raise huge insecurity in your kids and they require that you answer firmly and then have a discussion with your kids right then and there about the fact that YOU are their parent, no one else can ever just take them home, they are not (nor have they ever been) for sale, etc. I also learned that one the hard way when Sedaya thought that a cashier really could take her home when she kept making comments like "you are such a cutie. can I take you home?" and later Sedaya was acting out and it took me awhile to put two and two together, but we were able to talk it out.

    Sorry that my comment is a novella!

  8. Sharla, we had exactly the same reaction to a "oh, I'd love to take you home" comment. I didn't figure it out, until E. finally said to me, "Please E. no go home with other lady. Me want stay you house." We have a lot more of those conversations now, about the fact that they will never be given to another family, and that they will always be part of our family.

    re: the sibling question -- I get asked this constantly too. When I tell folks that yes, the children are siblings, they mostly say, "Oh, it's great that they could stay together" or something similar. I do think that the sibling question is rooted in the belief that siblings should stay together if possible, and that it's a benefit to a transracially adopted child to have a sibling with a common experience.

    I don't think these people mean to exclude our bio. children, but are merely happy to hear that our adopted kids could "stick together." My bio. girls certainly have never taken offense to it in any way, although they already had a sibling before E/Z arrived, so perhaps they're less sensitive to the subject than Matthew is -- that would make sense.

    This is a long (!) comment just to say: I think that our questioners are MOSTLY well-meaning, interested, friendly people who just don't know that they're wreaking havoc with our kids. There's definitely the odd ignorant, grouchy and rude person, but so far I've found that they're the exception.

    But, boy, I'd love to be able to run in for milk and bread without fielding ten questions about the ancestry, origin and life experiences of my kids! It gets old sometimes, that's for sure... sigh.... ;)