I've written many articles on what not to say to families like mine, families where it's glaringly apparent that the children were adopted. We've had so many negative, rude encounters -- really too many to count.
The strangers rarely see themselves as rude. They deem their questions appropriate in the name of curiosity, or sometimes even connection ("my aunt's stepmother's sister's nephew adopted a baby from China"). But the truth is, adoptive families are often blindsided by strangers' demands at the most inopportune times, like when we're standing in line to purchase items at Target, or waiting for airport security, or dining at a restaurant, or browsing for books at the library, or sitting on the beach on a family vacation. Really, no place or situation seems to be off-limits.
Because of the constant interrogations, I've grown increasingly introverted. Sometimes we'll be out in public, and I will intentionally avoid eye contact and polite conversations, knowing that inevitably, one or two people will look me in the eye for a few seconds too long and say, "So...," proceeding with a very personal question about our family. Some days, I just don't have the energy to babysit their ignorance.
It's not that I'm ashamed of my family or lack confidence in our family-building decisions, because neither of those things is true. But our children, the kids by our sides when we are approached by strangers, aren't adoption's poster children. They are people. People with feelings and rights. People whose stories aren't available for public consumption and scrutiny.
Our children are looking to us, their parents, to demonstrate to them how to handle inappropriate adults, those who attempt to pet their intricate cornrows or demand that we explain why we didn't have our "own" children, if our children are "real" siblings, how much the kids cost, or whether or not their birth parents used drugs.
The truth is, most of the time, I don't want to even begin to take on the role of adoption educator. I'm just trying to buy toilet paper while keeping my toddler from dashing off to attack an endcap of candy bars.
Many of my articles on what not to say to our family generate the same sorts of comments. Such as: "Stop getting offended. People are just curious." I'm not offended by the remarks of strangers, but I am annoyed by their blatant lack of awareness and respect for the children standing right beside me. The other most common comment I receive is, "If I see a family who has adopted, what can I say to them?"
Last month, we took the kids to a local strawberry farm. We filled two large cardboard buckets with juicy, red berries. As we were exiting our row, a white woman in the next row, probably in her 60s, was sitting on the ground plucking berries and filling her tray. She managed to catch my eye and smile. I smiled back, continuing to follow my children and husband toward the tractor that would carry us back to pay for our fruit. She didn't break eye contact, and I knew she was going to say something about the kids.
I held my breath, waiting to hear a common question ("Are they all yours?" or "What country are they from?" or "Are those your foster kids?") or statement ("Wow! Those kids are so cute. I just love little brown babies!" or "God bless you for adopting!" or "I've always wanted to adopt!"), but this woman surprised me.
She continued to smile and said to me, with the utmost sincerity, "You have such a beautiful family."
My sigh of thankful relief may have been audible. My eyes brimmed with tears and I said, "Thank you."
The woman's simple words were so welcome, so refreshing. She didn't verbally assume anything about my children, my fertility, or our intentions. She didn't thank us for "rescuing" our children, like so many others have -- reducing our children to charity cases and elevating us to saviors. She didn't attempt to touch the children's hair. She could have insisted on explanations, as many others do, but instead her words imparted grace and warmth and a genuine spirit.
In essence, she spoke from her heart.
And I was able to respond from mine.