Adam Tarosky and Tyler Jeffrey hadn’t even deplaned their infant son’s first flight when a fellow passenger, on his way to the bathroom, stopped in his tracks. “Where is he from?” the man asked the couple, who were traveling from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they adopted their son, Owen, to their home in the District of Columbia.
“Well, he’s from Tulsa,” Tarosky fumbled, “[and] he’s going to be from Washington, D.C.”
That answer didn’t satisfy the passenger, who really wanted to know about Owen’s ethnicity. As a mixed-race baby, Owen looks different from his two white dads, neither of whom is the biological father. “The way people approach that subject is not intentionally offensive,” says Tarosky, a trial attorney in the District of Columbia, “they just don’t know what’s appropriate.”
You can say that again. From fielding questions about cost to enduring critiques about childrearing, many adoptive parents – particularly those like Tarosky and Jeffrey, whose appearance gives away how they built their family – find themselves fair game for strangers’ inquiries.
“Adoptive parenting is parenting in the fishbowl,” says Anne Malave, a psychologist in New York City who specializes in adoption, among other interests. “People are fascinated by it – they’re wondering, ‘What would it be like? How could somebody give that child away? Can they really love that child? Does the child really love them?’”
More than wonder, they ask. They ask in line at the supermarket, on the sidelines of a soccer game and, yes, on the way to an airplane bathroom. “They think it’s their right to know your adoption story when really, adoption stories are really personal,” says Lori Hernandez, an adoptive mom and elementary school principal in Anaheim, California.
While Malave encourages adoptive parents to be patient with strangers’ questions and help educate the public about the process, “it’s a two-way street,” she says. “Adoptive parents have to learn to navigate this stuff, and other people have to meet them halfway.”
So before making adoptive families’ business your own, nix these 10 phrases from your conversational repertoire:
1. “Are you her real mom?”
As same-sex marriage becomes legalized and single parenting becomes more socially acceptable, adoptive families are increasingly diverse, Malave says. “It used to be heterosexual couples who adopted, and now it’s LGBTQ and single people who are adopting,” she says. Since international adoption laws tightened in the 1990s, too, more U.S. families are adopting American children of other races. “The parents have changed profoundly, and the available children have changed profoundly,” Malave continues.
For Hernandez, who’s Hispanic and whose adoptive daughter is part Caucasian, that visual discrepancy is ripe for strangers’ curiosity. “Is she your real daughter? Are you herreal mom? Where are her real parents? Do you have any real children?” They ask. “The word ‘real’ really bothers me,” says Hernandez, who answers the last question by saying, “I do, I have four. She’s real, too.”
Adoptive parenting “can be a lot harder,” says Lori Hernandez, whose oldest daughter was 12 when she joined their family, “but it can also be a lot more rewarding.” (Debra Kay Photography)
Implying that biological children are the only “real” type of children suggests that adoptive children are somehow fake, temporary or less than biological children – a particularly damaging assumption if the adoptive child hears it, experts say. (The word “own” as in “your own child” is also a no-no, Malave says.) “The biggest problem is this whole idea of them being seen as not real parents, not real families,” she says. “That’s what adoptive parents have to deal with all the time: Being seen as second-class citizens.”
2. “Why did you adopt?”
About 120,000 children are adopted each year in the U.S., according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, and about 1 in every 3 people has some connection to adoption, says Debbie Riley, an adoptive mom and CEO of the Center for Adoption Support and Education in the District of Columbia area.
But while adoptions are relatively common, the reasons for adopting are diverse. “Adoption is a very complex umbrella topic that encompasses all sorts of different kinds of families and all sorts of motivations,” Malave says. Often, those motivations are part of a painful journey, such as if a couple struggled with infertility or miscarriages. All you need to know? People adopt because they want kids.
3. “Have you tried surrogacy?”
On the flip side, questions suggesting that adoption is the last-resort route to parenthood are also unwelcome and ill-informed. “I don’t want to give anyone the impression that it’s harder or worse,” says Sean Anders, an adoptive father, writer and director in Los Angeles, “it’s just different; it’s equally wonderful.”
He and his wife, for instance, didn’t try to have a family the traditional way before settling on adoption. “It really started with a joke,” he says, about getting too old for babies, so perhaps they should adopt a 5-year-old. As they learned more about the process, the joke became reality. The couple wound up adopting three siblings, now ages 5, 7 and 10 – at once and not having biological kids. While at first parenting was a steep and difficult learning curve, Anders says, “it was the best thing we ever did.”
4. “Why was he put up for adoption?”
“Everyone wants to know the why,” Riley says. Were they abused? Neglected? Are their birth parents drug addicts? Jailbirds? But, like asking why the family chose to adopt, the answer to this question is complicated and potentially painful. “Adoption doesn’t happen because of good things,” Riley says. “Children don’t come to adoptive families if their birth families could take care of them.” What matters? They have a family now. “There is something really wonderful looking at our kids and knowing there was an alternative that maybe wasn’t so good,” Anders says.
5. “You’re such wonderful people.”
While some adoptive parents don’t mind a compliment, it’s awkward at the least. “It also puts this weird pressure on you where people are complimenting you on this thing you haven’t done yet,” says Anders, who was praised along with his wife when they talked about – but hadn’t yet acted on – adoption.
For Malave, the comment is problematic because it misconstrues why people adopt. “There’s certainly people who adopt out of altruistic reasons, but most people adopt because they want a kid,” she says. If the kids are in earshot, the comment can be more damaging, she adds. “It sets up a dynamic where the child feels indebted to the parents, and the parents feel like the child owes them something,” Malave explains.
6. “You’re being too strict.”
Hernandez’s daughter, Jackie, cycled through multiple foster homes before being adopted by Hernandez, who was her fifth-grade teacher at the time. Jackie’s traumatic childhood, coupled with her birth parents’ substance abuse issues, means she has struggled with mental illness and behavioral problems that require a different approach to parenting than Hernandez takes with her other children. “We can’t give her the freedom we’d give a child we’d raised since birth because her whole life has been different,” Hernandez explains. Comments about being “too strict” or other parenting critiques are best zipped behind lips.
7. “Isn’t she OK now?”
Before adopting, even Hernandez succumbed to the myth that adoption into a healthy family would “cure” an older child of the scars from his or her traumatic history. “I really thought all she needs is some love and a family and structure,” she says, “without really understanding truly what abuse and neglect does to a child’s brain.” While Jackie is doing well now – living at home and going to community college – the suggestion that she should be doing better given her stable family is ill-informed.
8. “How can you love a child who’s not blood-related?”
While it takes time to build relationships with adoptive children – especially older ones – parents love them just as fiercely, Hernandez says. It’s a different kind of love, she says, but “the love is just as strong.”
For Tarosky and Jeffrey, who met their baby just hours after his birth, their paternal instinct kicked in so soon it was almost shocking. “When you walk in and you hold him for the first time, that was our baby, we knew it and we felt it and it was perfect,” Jeffrey says. “It was amazing how fast those emotions and feelings and bonds are created.”
9. “How much did he cost?”
Would you ever ask a mother about the price tag of her hospital bill after childbirth? Enough said.
10. “I’ve always wanted to adopt. How did you do it?”
While this question seems innocent enough, don’t say it if you don’t mean it, says Malave, who notes that most people have thought about adoption, but only a fraction of them truly consider it. “Research has shown that [people think] adoption is a really great thing – for someone else to do,” she says.
If you truly are interested in the process, educate yourself without using someone else’s experience as the material. (If they want to share, they’ll offer, Malave says.) Instead, ask if there’s a book, website or organization they recommend as a good resource. “Adoption,” Riley says you may learn, “is a beautiful way to build a family.”