Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dodging Awkward Adoption Questions

Prior to our adoption, one of the things the adoption community had prepared me for were the questions and comments we'd get from strangers being white Americans out and about with our dark-skinned Ethiopian daughter.  I can tell you so far (she's only been home 5 months) I've actually been surprised at the LACK of comments from strangers.  

Don't get me wrong, I've gotten some looks.  And I think I've also gotten really good at avoiding eye contact when I sense someone staring and perhaps about to say something to us, thus effectively shutting them down before they begin.  Occasionally I feel bad about this because I'm proud of our adoption, generally am happy to talk about it, and there is certainly so much of God woven into our story that I know there are situations where He could use it as a witness.  But, so far my daughter has needed so much of my attention that pretty much her plus my grocery list/errand/daily mission plus the deadline of needing to get somewhere to pick up other kids at a certain time is really all I can handle and I just haven't been able to add educating strangers to my plate.

Now, I have had many, many opportunities to share our story with casual acquaintances, people I knew before our adoption, just not really well, our kids are in school or activities together, etc.  But, now sitting next to those people at kid practices or standing with them at school pick-up, suddenly I've had many opportunities for deeper conversations than the small talk we had before, which is really cool and a privilege I don't take lightly!

While, I've been surprised at the lack of comments and questions from strangers, I've been equally surprised by the number of awkward questions about our child's history from people we know.

Thankfully I was prepared before our adoption, and understood the significance of keeping a child's history, particularly the details around how they became an orphan, private.  So, I knew not to answer people's questions about things like, "What happened to her parents?"  or "How many brothers and sisters did she have in her first family?"  or one that really came out of left-field, "Were her parents murdered?!!"

The short version of why we've chose not to share our daughter's private history is because we feel it is her story to tell to the people she feels comfortable sharing with when she is old enough to do so.  Like, how would she feel if in a few years she got to kindergarten at the school where her 3 older siblings attend(ed) and everyone knew the story of how she'd become an orphan because we'd told some people, who'd told some people, and over the years pretty much everyone knew?! 

Also, just to point out the obvious, there is never a happy story behind a child becoming an orphan.  Anything that can happen to or within a first family to make a child go to an orphanage just isn't really the stuff of every day topics of conversation.  These are deep, emotional stories that are not to be tossed around lightly.

So, I've been really stumped about how to get out of these situations gracefully, because I don't want to respond rudely or make the person asking feel bad.  I know there are some in the adoption community who believe you should make people feel bad for asking these types of questions, but I'd rather go with grace, God knows I need tons of it daily!  And really I'm not sure that I wouldn't have made a similar mistake a few years ago before we learned so much about adoption.  

Also, there's been the tricky aspect that a few times the person asking is a person I really don't want to offend like a parent of one of my older kids' friends or one of my older kids' teachers!

But, I think I actually did figure out a way to get out of the situation gracefully!  Okay, well, here's my definition of "getting out of it gracefully":

1. I don't divulge any sensitive info. about my daughter's past.

2. The person stops asking, meaning they don't keep pushing for an answer and I get to actually walk away!

3.  I don't feel guilty at all later because I truly don't think I was rude or hurt anyone's feelings (which is probably way more important to me than it should be, I am a people-pleaser by nature!)

So, here's what I do to respond to any question like, "How did she become an orphan?" or "What happened to her biological parents/first family?"  

I say, "There are a lot of reasons children become orphans in Ethiopia.  Some are relinquished by birth parents for reasons similar to those we see here in the U.S.  - the birth mother was young, it was an unplanned pregnancy, they had no way to provide for the child, etc.  Also, some have parents die.  It is very sad in Ethiopia that people die of so many things that basic medical care could cure.  Did you know that in Ethiopia only 5% of women give birth in a hospital?  It's true!  So many women still die in childbirth over there, often leaving not only the newborn baby an orphan but 4 or 5 other older children!  Also, I've heard a story of a birth mother dying from a cut on her hand.  Something that here in the U.S. would only require a few stitches and some antibiotics and we'd be on with our day in a matter of hours, but that injury kills people in Ethiopia!  And leaves children orphans, or leaves them with one birth parent who now faces the impossible task of caring for a small child/baby while also working to provide food for their family in a place with nearly no childcare!  If they do not have family support, they often are forced to make a hard decision to give that child up for adoption.  Then there are cases where parents have tried for months or years to care for a child and they are either too sick or too poor to do it any longer, they realize their child will likely die if they do not give the child up or abandon it.  They make a long walk to an orphanage or if there is not one anywhere near their city or village, they leave the child in a public place hoping (and likely praying, Ethiopia is predominately Christian) someone will find the child and be able to get them to a home where they can be cared for.  I cannot imagine the agony of that decision!"

And by the time I get done with that long answer the person doesn't ask, "So which reason is it for your child?"  Really, I honestly don't think they realize I've dodged their question until probably much later and then I also think they get the message that I want to keep that private.

I happened upon this way of answering that awkward line of questioning totally in desperation in the heat of the moment, but it really works!  I've used it many times now!

If anyone reading this has asked me this question and gotten my dodging response, please don't feel bad, I truly don't hold any grudges at all.  I just wanted to share this on the blog in case it helps other adoptive families dealing with the same issue of wanting to get out of that question gracefully!  We are all in this together!

P.S.  I really want someone to ask me, "Who do you think you are Angelina Jolie?!!"  because I think it would be really fun to reply, "Yes, yes I do."  But, sigh, nobody's asked that one yet.


  1. when we adopted our first adopted child well meaning people would ask, "are you going to tell him he's adopted?" Uh, dumb questions since he's half black. Then we would get the "you've really blessed these children." It was like it was being said out of pity for my kids. Our response was always, "No, we're the blessed ones."
    Your answer is great and so is your decision not to divulge information.

  2. Bless you for giving this sweet child a home and a future! I have never adopted but I have a child with some health issues. These issues are not nearly as visibly apparent as they were when he was a baby, but when he was little, I got many instrusive questions from strangers. I don't think they were being rude either. I think they just didn't realize that my child's health issues might not be something I want to discuss with a total stranger! I also became skillful at answering the questions without REALLY answering them. I think your answer is great ... it educates while protecting your little one's privacy and dignity. I think she is very fortunate to have you as a mama!

  3. I am always learning so much here on your sweet blog. We haven't adopted, yet. However, we have triplets (plus a bonus baby) and we're constantly asked questions tha are a bit shocking and sometimes rude. A time or two I gave in to my selfishness and pride by being rude back and then felt terrible. I want to be more graceful and ultimately point to how great and loving He is and not be so easily offended. Even though your situation has different challenges than ours, I appreciate your example of how to be graceful in an uncomfortable situation.


I'd love to hear what you think!