By DEBORA JIANG-STEIN
First, this is not intended as a punch in the face to people who are genuinely curious about adoption and our backstories. Although, to be sure I have felt like punching some people at times –- believe me when I tell you that I’ve heard every single one of these remarks, as have many other adoptees. Rather, this list is meant to enlighten and raise consciousness, to educate and correct the false assumptions. Because good intentions can still produce hurt feelings.
This is my call for higher consciousness.
1. Who’s your real mother?
The one who raised me — is that not a real mother? And the mother who birthed me, she is real, too. The implication here is that my adoptive mother is not real, so please keep that in mind as you silently qualify what constitutes a “real” mother.
2. Where are you from, I mean really from?
Do you mean to say, “Why do you look like you do?” Are you feeling frustrated that you can’t peg what country I’m from, what race I am, what ethnicities flow in my blood? You’re prying, and only making it worse when you add, “But you’re so exotic, I just meant to say that.”
3. You’re adopted? Oh, I’m sorry.
In other words: How sad no one ever wanted you until you were adopted. I can’t tell you how many ways this is wrong on so many levels. The assumption, the judgment, and sometimes, if we’re transracial adoptees, the racism behind this kind of comment. No.
4. Why don’t you look like your parents?
Most adoptees wonder the same thing — why are we genetic strangers in our own families? We don’t need to be reminded.
5. Why don’t your parents look like you?
See # 4. Also, it’s just plain rude to ask this.
6. What was your name before this?
Did you ever think that we might deserve some privacy about our backstories? Not secrecy, just some good old-fashioned privacy that allows us to share the details of our story where and when we want, and with whom. We may not even know if we had a name before we were adopted. Some of us might have been Baby Girl Doe in the foster care system. Let us initiate discussion about adoption and don’t ask us at a dinner party during small talk over cheese and crackers.
7. Why didn’t your first parents want you?
Ouch. That hurts. Think about it. It’s not a wild stretch to think that an adoptee may have felt at one time or another (or always), abandoned, unwanted, confused. No? You didn’t think before you asked that question — next time, please do.
8. I bet you feel lucky.
Read: Because who knows how awful things were before you were adopted. Every adoption has its own unique backstory, and the way to inquire about it is to do so with compassion rather than the implied judgment of: “Good thing you got outta there, whew, what luck.” The backstory is almost always one of loss and sorrow for everyone involved: adoptee, bio parents, and adoptive parents. There could be blessings in the story, but please don’t attach luck to any of it.
9. What was it like in the orphanage?
Spending the early part of your life is not like spending a summer at the lake.
10. I always wished I was adopted.
To adoptees this sounds like your way of saying you hate your parents, or that you want some distance between them and you, or any other member of your biological family.
11. Are you sure you really want to know where you came from, I mean, what if it’s bad?
99.8% of our stories involve some kind of pain, so to call it “bad” is a judgment. Stop it.
12. But you were chosen.
This one makes us feel like we were mutts saved from an animal shelter.
13. Do you ever wish you could go back?
Back to what? I was born in a prison. So I feel fairly ambivalent about going back to that. But the idea of returning to your family or point of origin is complicated for adoptees.
14. You know your parents love you like you’re one of their own, don’t you?
This is just another reminder that we might be treated differently than other family members. But also, stop saying “Like one of their own.” We don’t own our children, whether adopted or not.
15. No one notices you look different from your family.
Yes, actually, they do, all the time. Especially if it’s a transracial adoption, so don’t pretend you don’t notice.
16. Well, all that’s past now.
It may be, but our stories are not then gone — as if whatever happened before our adoptions disappeared in a poof of smoke. The past lingers, just as it does for anyone. Don’t tell us to ignore our stories.
17. I bet your real mother was so beautiful.
Another ouch. We wonder this. We wonder about it all. But saying this one to me might make me cry. Maybe my birthmother was beautiful, maybe she wasn’t. Many of us will never know what anyone looks like in our genetic families.
Deborah Jiang-Stein is a keynote speaker, writer and founder of The unPrison Project, a 501(c)3 nonprofit working to empower and inspire incarcerated women and girls with life skills and mentoring to plan and prepare for a successful life after prison. She is the author of the memoir, Prison Baby (Beacon Press), which has been selected as the first book for the One Read Program in the prison system: Behind Books not Bars Program.