I am Mom to two amazing children born in China. We adopted Sophie -- now 17 -- when she was five. Simon was four when we adopted him; he is now 14. Based on my experience, here are eight things adoptive parents should never, ever do:
1. Tell everyone your kid's backstory.
The circumstances that led your child to being adopted are part of his or her story. It is not your story to tell and you are no better than the town gossip if you insist on talking about it with everyone who asks. While we live in a culture that encourages sharing, it's really nobody's business that your daughter's mother was an unwed 16-year-old in Wisconsin or that your Chinese child's mother left her in a hotel restaurant frequented by American tourists so you "know" she must have wanted the baby to be found and raised in America.
I am, myself, guilty of over-sharing. One of the things I have over-shared has been my children's stories. I did it with the noblest of intentions: I spent years parading my kids out, hoping to encourage more older special needs adoptions. I was wrong to use them like that, no matter how honorable my mission. I've mended my ways. Nowadays, when you meet my kids and see how terrific they are and feel a bit nosy, I will cut you off at the pass. I will gladly brag to you about their victories. But their stories? Those belong to them and I trust their judgements about who to share them with.
2. Deny that you are selfish or pretend you are selfless.
I hate when people say "God bless you" to me when they see our family. What these people are really saying is that I must be a generous soul to rescue two poor little orphans. This whole line of thinking is offensive -- not to mention totally wrong.
First of all, I adopted my kids because I wanted a family and international adoption was the only avenue left open to me to get one. It was not an act of selflessness that led to my becoming a mom; I assure you I was acting entirely in my own best interests. And second, I rescued no one. In fact, as a lot of adoptive moms will tell you, we were the ones saved, not our kids.
3. Act like they didn't have parents before you.
My children were born to other people. It is natural that they should want to know about them, who they are, where they are, why they surrendered them. It's a dark hole in every adopted kid's heart that needs to be filled with some sunshine. I am not jealous or angry when my daughter lights a candle on her birthday cake for her unknown birth mother. I don't freak out when she writes her a note and puts it away in her secret box. I tell both my kids what I honestly know about their birth families, which sadly isn't much. I don't speculate and tell them lies so they will feel better. And should my kids decide to join the legions of other Chinese adoptees who are now starting to search for their biological families, I will be by their sides supporting their efforts.
I am acutely aware that for me to gain my family, two women across the world suffered a massive loss. I can't imagine their pain. I don't know what I would say to them. But I won't ignore that they exist.
4. Expect gratitude or appreciation because you adopted them.
Just as you would a biological child, you can expect an adopted child to appreciate all you do for them, right down to driving carpool and sitting through endless dance recitals. But no, you cannot and should not expect gratitude for adopting them. They were voiceless parties to a transaction in which they were the goods being transacted. They never got a vote in what was happening to them or what their futures would look like.
I know my children think about what their lives would have been like had we not been matched as their adoptive parents. I think about it, too. In the broadest sense, I know they would have been fine because both of them are survivors. Adoption, for them, was a tradeoff. To get the opportunity of a family meant severance from their birth culture, native language, and lost access to anything and everything familiar -- food, faces, friends -- literally overnight. Gratitude can be a double-edged sword.
5. Say you were "meant" to be their parent.
Lots of adoptive parents look for connections to the child they adopted. I understand the need. What I don't understand is the callous disregard for your child's biological parents. If you were "meant" to be her mom, then why was she born to someone else? Was this just some crazy plan by God to make some poor woman in Guatemala or Korea or Kansas miserable so you could be happy?
I do believe that there are ways to convey how much we love our children. I tell mine all the time that they are the lights of my life, that I am honored to be their mother, that I love them more than I want my next breath. But I steer clear of the supernatural, divine intervention brought us together language. What brought us together was a bureaucrat in China sitting at a desk matching up parents' dossiers and orphans' files. Nothing magical about that.
6. Treat the jerks too unkindly.
I am quick-tempered and as a writer, have an arsenal of words and biting wit at my disposal. It is always very tempting to respond rudely to jerks who ask you personal questions about your kids. But before I tell you you shouldn't do this, let me apologize to the woman in the supermarket who in 2004, saw my Chinese daughter sitting in my shopping cart and thought it appropriate to ask me if her father was Asian. My reply was, "I don't really know, I never got a good look at his face if you get my drift (wink, wink)." Yes, she fled the scene before I could mop up the body parts.
I'm sorry I did that though. I'm sorry I did that for only one reason: My daughter witnessed it. While the innuendo of my words were lost on Sophie, my tone was not. Life is too short to spend time answering jerks.
People who adopt children who don't look like them will always get questions. Some of them are doozies. "How much did he cost?" "Why didn't you adopt an American kid?" "Does she speak Asian?" (Where do you start on that one?)
You owe no one an explanation. I tried to teach my kids, once I learned it myself, that their stories are just that -- their stories. They can offer as much or as little information as they want and have no obligation to answer anyone, even if it's an adult or a teacher doing the asking. Yes, teachers are among the worst privacy-invaders.
My kids and I now answer questions with questions. "Why do you want to know that?" usually ends the conversation. Or we just explain that we aren't interested in sharing with them. "I find your question personal." You'll want a camera handy to record the adult's expression when this is said to them by a five-year-old. Pretty funny.
But I do have one exception to the "don't be rude to jerks" rule. Don't ever let this one go unaddressed: "Why didn't you adopt an American child? Lots of American kids need homes too, you know."
This is a question generally asked by the ignorant. American infants are adopted at birth all the time. Older American kids sometimes become available through the foster care system -- a process many adopting families have expressed frustration with. But more to the point, your questioner is likely not at all interested in adoption information and is likely just waving his patriotic flag in your face.
7. Think of your child as your adopted child.
He is your child. Period. Every kid, no matter how he arrived in your family, is your child. Adopted children deserve to have the adjective dropped. A few of them may have issues that are directly connected to the fact they were adopted, but most won't. Everyone will fare much better once you get over trying to pin every bump on the development road on adoption. Hyperactive toddlers, defiant teenagers, kids who struggle to learn to read -- not every issue is an adoption issue and you'll turn things around faster if you don't automatically assume it is.
8. Think adoption has a return policy.
Raising kids -- biological or adopted -- is the hardest job you'll ever have. When you give birth to your child, the assumption is that you will love her and deal with whatever health and developmental issues she has. It's like that thing they say in preschool when they pass out the different colored crayons: "You get what you get and you don't get upset."
The same assumption should be true in families who adopt. Yet, there is something called a disrupted adoption that makes me kind of queasy. This is when a family gets a kid it can't handle and works through back channels-- generally online -- to get another family to take the child off their hands. The polite company name for it is rehoming.
Reuters broke a story about the practice about a year ago. Much of the blame should be placed on the lack of support these families get when they bring home kids they are clearly unprepared to handle. I also blame the adoption agencies for not sufficiently vetting families before they place kids with them.
But blame is just one thing. What terrifies me more is the idea that online bulletin boards were used by parents to advertise their unwanted children and arrange custody transfers that bypassed government oversight. What kind of damage occurs when a child has been passed around like this?
Adoption is just the means by which a child comes into your family. I don't know of any online auction block for unwanted biological children, so how was there one for adopted kids?
Many parts of the adoption process bear no resemblance to giving birth to a child. But the one thing that should be precisely the same is this: Our children are our children forever.