by Reda Hicks, Guest Contributor
When it comes to talking about adoption, people can be really tone-deaf. It’s not that they want to be, usually. It’s just that they don’t give a lot of thought to the way they are asking questions about a process that may be very foreign to them. And in the military families community, this is a bigger issue than you might think.
On a percentage basis, we are a small population nationwide. But many, many, military families choose adoption when growing their families. Maybe it’s because we travel the world and see the need more than most. Maybe it’s because we, more than most people, understand that family is what you make it.
Whatever the reason, odds are you will run across military families that are, or are considering, undertaking the adoption journey. And when that friend comes to tell you the wonderful news, there are certain things you absolutely should not say.
I’ll be honest— my family is on the adoption journey and I blog about it, so I’ve pretty much heard it all. Mostly, it doesn’t faze me. So I polled one of my online adoption communities about the things people say that most bother them.
In increasing order of angst-inducement, here are the top 5 and how best to avoid them:
- “Isn’t that expensive? Can you really afford it?”
This goes squarely in the “none of your business” column, which we understand when talking about having biological kids but tend to forget when it comes to adoption. Kids are expensive, we know this, but no one wants to equate their child with a monetary transaction.
The truth is, some adoptive families are very open to talking about costs— some of them even ask friends and family for help raising the money to adopt. But that does not mean that all military families want to talk money when they talk about growing their family. The best thing to do on this subject is be led by the family. If they want to talk about the financial part of adoption, they will do so.
Otherwise, the only appropriate time to talk dollars and cents with an adoptive family is if you, too, are looking to adopt and want help finding information about the process.
- “Won’t that look weird, your kids not matching you?”
This question sounds very “one of these things is not like the other…” and suggests you think that the family has missed something very obvious in their family plan. Whether we’re talking international or domestic adoption, the majority of kids available for adoption are from a minority heritage. Adoptive families know this when they begin the process. Which means they must have decided that matching skin tones is not important to their family equation. Which means, the question probably sounds very odd (if not grating) to their ears. Who worries about whether their kids “match” them or not? We aren’t talking ensembles or paint samples, are we?
What you might have wanted to ask and what is OK to ask where appropriate, is about heritage. Did the family choose a country (or state) for a specific reason? Was the decision driven by the desire to connect with a particular culture?
For instance, my family chose to adopt from the Philippines because that is where I met my husband and because our travels there have made us feel very connected to the people and culture of the Philippines. Ask me why I chose the Philippines. Don’t ask me whether I mind adopting an Asian baby.
- “What will you tell them about their real parents?”
No unicorns here. You’re talking to living, breathing, prospective adoptive parents. They’re real. You know who else is real? The son(s) or daughter(s) they will be adopting. When you ask questions about “real” parents or “real” children, it sounds to the family a lot like you are questioning their legitimacy. A parent who raises a child is real regardless of biology. And the same goes for the child. Totally real, regardless of biology.
And I’ll tell you another thing— this is especially touchy in families that are a mix of adopted and biological children. Those parents do not put their kids in two categories and neither should anyone else. It suggests one category might be “lesser,” when no adoptive parent believes that.
What you might have wanted to know is whether the family plans to share information with the child about their birth parents/biological parents. That is a question you can absolutely ask. Some prospective adoptive parents might tell you they’re undecided, because it’s a really hard question, very individual and personal. But that’s OK and you should say so. Real parents have to deal with tough stuff like this every day.
- “Oh, you’re such good people to give a home to an orphan!”
This one might surprise you. Frankly, it’s not something I even thought about until I was in the process. But adoptive parents don’t think “I need something charitable to do. I think I’ll take a kid off the streets.” It’s quite the opposite actually.
When you talk to families with kids, they will say they have been blessed by their child far beyond any blessing they might have bestowed on that child. Adoptive families are no different. And when we hear “you’re such an amazing person…” it sounds to us like the child is viewed by others as a burden, as a stray taken off the streets, who should be lucky for anything they get in this life. I’m certain that’s not what you mean at all, but I’m equally certain that is how it sounds to the family you are speaking with.
The solution is simple: talk about adoption in reciprocals, the way you talk about biological kids, because that is how families see it. It’s not a contest. The family is blessed and knows it. The child is also blessed and the family knows that as well. The perfect thing to say is something like:
Awesome! Your family is so lucky to have each other! This will bless all of you so much!
- “Why? Can’t you have children of your own?”
This is, by far, the single worst question you can ask prospective adoptive parents. There is absolutely no way that it ends well.
If the answer is that the family can’t have biological children, then you’ve poured salt in a wound it probably took a long time for the family to heal from.
If the answer is the family can have biological children but has decided that they shouldn’t (for genetic reasons, health reasons or otherwise), then again, salt in the wound.
If the answer is the family can have biological children and chose to adopt instead, then you’ve managed to suggest that their choice is an invalid one.
And whatever the answer is, the adoptive family would tell you that adopted kids are children of their own, so what kind of question is that?
The decision to adopt is a highly personal one. It’s a decision that families mull over and over before they take the plunge. For us, adoption has been in our family plan since the very beginning, long before we ever knew a thing about our fertility. A lot of families feel that way, which is something to be very aware of.
You absolutely can ask “what made you decide to adopt?” Just make it a question, not an accusation.
At the heart of (almost) every badly asked question is simply the desire to learn more about our friends and family. I hope that this article will help equip you with the knowledge of how to respond the next time a military family says “we’re adopting!”
But if you’re ever in doubt, if you ever wonder if you’re saying the right thing, take this family’s advice—“If you wouldn’t say it about a boob job…”
Reda Hicks is an Army wife, attorney and one-third of a remote family split between Ft. Riley, Kansas (where hubby Jake flies Chinooks for the Big Red One) and Houston, Texas (where Reda lives with their 4-year-old son, Howie and serves as senior counsel for Panalpina Inc.). Reda is part of the leadership of Military Spouse JD Network, serving as its Governance Director and is a Strategic Co-Lead of the Keep Your Promise Alliance. She is also the 2014 Armed Forces Insurance Army Spouse of the Year. Reda blogs about life, the military and the Hicks Family adoption journey on her blog, Hicks Hiking.