Fielding questions about adopting — what you should say, and what you should avoid

Guest post by Alissa
Andrew and Alissa's adoption profile book.

I love talking openly about our adoption process. In fact I love talking openly about just about anything. I’m an external processor — not an unusual trait in bloggers I would imagine.

Nowadays I don’t have to tell people that my child is adopted, as one look at us makes that pretty clear. But back before we met our darling girl this was a pretty common scenario: I’d be talking with someone I knew fairly well but wasn’t super intimate with and mention, off-hand, something about “the baby.”

“Oh!” Said person’s eyes would light up. “Are you pregnant??”

“Nope!” I would reply with a twinkle in my eye, “We’re adopting.” Always followed with a grin. Then I’d take a mental breath and watch the other person process this unexpected information.

I liked this exchange for a lot of the same reasons I don’t mind talking about our adoption now. In part because I like doing things that are different, that might surprise other people. But I also like it because I learn something about the person I am talking to, every time. Are they someone who wants to relate to my experience? Do they have their own ideas about adoption that will shine through here? How do they respond in a situation that is unexpected, such as this? I’m always curious to know — and informed by the responses I get. It’s not a test, and there is no particular response I’m expecting or looking for, but this exchange has proven a wonderful way for me to learn a little more about the people in my life.

The two three weeks before the birth of J.
Our culture isn’t quite sure what to do about adoption just yet. We don’t have a pre-written culturally scripted response for the “We’re adopting” announcement. When someone, especially a stable and partnered someone, announces a pregnancy everyone knows what to do. There is congratulating, even squealing and jumping if you’re the squeal-and-jump type. (I will admit to having partaken myself upon occasion.) If one is already a parent, then a pregnancy announcement is a good time to impart a little pregnancy wisdom, ask how far along and, if you’re close enough, talk about birthing plans and whatnot. Since pregnancy is the primary way in which people build families, when someone is pregnant we as a society generally know what to do.

This isn’t so much the case with adoption. It’s hard to know how to respond. So I thought I’d jot down some things I’ve noticed for this, both for those who know and want to support pre-adoptive parents, and for those who are in the adoption process and dread the sometimes awkward exchange that follows the “we’re adopting” annoucement.

When someone tells you “We’re adopting!”:

  • Focus on the adoption process, and be interested in and happy for that. Unlike pregnancy, adoption is always preceded by some sort of extensive planning process. For some adoptive parents that process begins by choosing not to have biological children, for others it is having that choice made for them by infertility. But that’s not what matters. By the time they’re telling everyone that an adoption is imminent, adoptive parents have all made the same choice – to adopt. And we want what every expectant parent wants: for our loved ones to share in our excitement and show interest and support in the way we are choosing to build our family.
  • It’s okay if you don’t know anything about what they are going through. If you are genuinely curious – ask! Since most people don’t adopt, it may be that the adoptive parent you know is eager to talk to someone about his or her experience. If you’re not that interested, don’t sweat it, that’s okay too. Just be happy for your friend and move on.
  • Don’t compare adoption to pregnancy. These are two different processes. An expectant adoptive mom isn’t pregnant any more than any expectant dad is. Making a lot of comparisons (it’s like you’re in your second trimester, kind of…) can imply that the adoptive experience is only valuable as it compares or relates to the pregnancy experience. A woman who is adopting isn’t pretending she is pregnant and then pretending she gives birth. She is really becoming a mother, through a different and equally valid process. Also, someone is giving birth to the child she is adopting, or has. The birth/first mother is a real person who is really pregnant, and part of the adoption experience.
  • Avoid mention of that person you know who got pregnant right after she adopted. Everyone knows someone, or someone’s cousin, or someone’s brother-in-law’s college roommate’s first wife who adopted a baby and immediately got pregnant. It’s a good story. But choosing to tell it to someone who is on the brink of adopting can imply that they don’t know what they’re doing and/or that the likelihood of an unexpected biological child is a good reason to adopt. It can also imply that adoption is a second-best option, only if you can’t have “your own.” The research that has been done shows conclusively that people who adopt after infertility are no more likely to get unexpectedly pregnant than those who do not adopt. It’s quite rare for both groups. But we notice the exceptions, don’t we? So and so adopted a child and then they adopted another child and then they raised those two children to adulthood is a much less interesting and noticeable story than the day they adopted Mikey, so and so found out they were pregnant! It’s fine to tell that story, too. Just tell it another time. That is most likely not going to be this expectant adoptive mother’s experience. That is not why she is adopting.
The happy family in February! Photo by Joshua Longbrake.

When you tell someone “We’re adopting!”

  • Know that they care about you and want to say the right thing. By the time you’re telling everyone, probably, you’ve made your choice and hopefully you have done a lot of personal work around that choice. But your friends and acquaintances haven’t been on that road with you. Remember all the questions you had, internal and external, about adoption before you knew anything about it and don’t hold your friends to a higher bar than you would have held yourself before the idea of adopting first crossed your mind.
  • Help them find common ground. My tendency is to either overwhelm innocent well-wishers with details of our process, or to launch into a sermon on whatever new piece of research or adoptive parenting advice I have added to my toolbox. But it’s hard for people to relate to a giant wave of new information. It’s easier for people to relate to things that are familiar – and while the differences in adoption are important, they’re really just a small part of preparing to become a parent. Talk about cloth vs. disposables, or the pros and cons of attachment parenting and co-sleeping, what crib to buy, or whats going to happen with time off work and daycare. You know you’re obsessed with all that stuff too, just like any expectant parent, and it’s not hard for people to relate to – or get excited about – that sort of common ground.
  • Accept that you are going to hear the story about the person who got pregnant right after they adopted and get over it. Yes, maybe infertility didn’t precede your adoption decision. Yes, it’s annoying to hear that particular urban legend repeated over and over and yes it is frustrating to hear something you know isn’t true – adopting makes getting pregnant easier – over and over. Especially if you’ve worked long and hard to grieve your inability to get pregnant and move on. Especially if you have strong personal opinions on why pregnancy isn’t for you. BUT. This is the only story many people know about adoption. This is an attempt to relate to you – you are hearing this story because someone who cares about you heard it and it made them think of you, or it’s coming to their mind now because they are thinking of you. Try to hear what’s really being said, and realize that as an adoptive parent this is just the beginning of experiences where someone well meaning who probably loves you inadvertently puts their foot in their mouth.
  • Get used to being an ambassador for difference. The way I see it, especially if your adoption is across racial lines, part of the job of adoptive families is to advocate for something different in the world. This means being someone whose family isn’t always perceived as normal, or comfortable to others. Our families are based on the idea that love is more important than biology. That’s a radical thing. We’ll be swimming upstream with that one pretty much the whole time.

Comments on Fielding questions about adopting — what you should say, and what you should avoid

  1. Thank you so much for writing this article, I will likely be passing it on to family and friends in the next couple of years as my partner and I are planning on adopting when I am done grad school.
    I was honestly wondering how we were going to tell some of those around us, as I am currently pregnant with our first, and the responses we were going to get. I’ve always wanted to adopt. Even telling people now that we would eventually like to adopt comes with some surprising (and not so surprising) responses. Thank you though for reminding me of why I want to adopt, and that it really is our decision and that we just want the support and love of those around us in the decisions we make.

    • My husband and I have one wonderful bio-kid (no fertility trouble) but have always said that if we decide to go for a second child we’d adopt. Now that our little guy is 20 months old we are constantly being asked when we’re going to have another. It really weirds some people out a bit when I respond with a) we might not have another, and b) if we do, we’ll adopt. The more I say it though, the stronger my conviction becomes. 🙂

      • Oh same here! I have a beautiful 14-month-old baby girl but I know that I want to adopt our next child. I’m very very excited about it as it’s something I’ve been passionate about for a long time. If I met the age requirement I’d start the process now but unfortunately I don’t.

  2. I think adoption is just as beautiful as having a biological child! You are giving love to a child that would have very possibly gone without. It’s amazing, giving, and brave.

  3. “part of the job of adoptive families is to advocate for something different in the world”

    There will never be change for the better in our world if people arn’t brave and different! Yay!

    • Ditto Liset!

      Like Alisa, we are a transracial adoptive family. I have had a long-standing belief that being open, honest and matter-of-fact about aspects of your life that others might find different, controversial or taboo “normalizes” things. I plan to teach my daughter the same. Someone has to be brave, someone has to go first, in order for there to be change. Our core value is love, not biology or skin color.

  4. Adoption is wonderful…I know lots of adoptive families (for all different reasons, and yes my aunt is that woman who…oh, nevermind). But I like to think that an adoptive family has the most love of all…because anyone can just have a baby, but you know a family really, really, REALLY wanted that baby to adopt it.

  5. I love this! My husband and I have discussed adoption in place for building a second child, but by the time we’re financial and emotionally stable enough to be considered candidates for adoption, I can’t imagine having another baby. But my mother in law was adopted, and I thank god for that — without her birth mother’s choice, I wouldn’t have this husband and this amazing toddler today.

    Though I admit to jumping mentally right to the, “…and then they were pregnant!” One of our adult friends was adopted, as was her older brother. Shortly after she was adopted her mother found out she was pregnant, and a third daughter was born.

    Her father was apparently loving and attentive, and died when she was fifteen. Her mother was dismissive and to this day regards her as the back-up daughter, and I think that’s heartbreaking.

  6. Great post! I know lots of people who were adopted, my two cousins(twins!) who were indeed followed by two biological children, a childhood friend whose older brother later disdained her because her bio parents were italian, and my high school friend who people say looks like her mom and her brother looks like her dad- then they get surprised to find they are adopted! Adoption stories are just as rich as pregnancy stories, I’d love to see and hear more!

  7. I’ve wanted to adopt for as long as I can remember. It’s as simple as I want kids, but I don’t want to contribute to overpopulation, I would rather love and care for kids whose circumstances mean someone like me would be beneficial to their lives (though I am fully aware the benefits they bring me will far outweigh the reverse, and am certainly not setting myself up as a martyr…). Anyway! My beautiful partner is not keen on adopting. I think that it’s partly selfish (he wants kids who are genetically a mix of us), and partly fear that he wouldn’t connect or love in the same way if they weren’t biologically ours. Does anyone have any insight into this conundrum? Should I be trying to persuade him, or is that unfair? Should he be trying to persuade me to go down the usual path, or is that unfair? …

    • I would suggest bringing up the possibility of fostering to him. You would be helping to provide a home for children in need, and your partner might see how easy it would be for him to fall in love with a non-bio child.

    • I would suggest avoiding any persuasion, but always leave both up for discussion. I personally never planned on having bio-kids, but I did plan on adopting. As an adoptee, it just seemed like a natural choice. When I met my husband, who was also a happy adoptee, I thought, “Perfect!”. Nope, he doesn’t want to adopt. He is willing to foster, but has absolutely zero desire to adopt. I don’t “get” it, but I totally support it. I think for adoption to work both parents must be 100% on board.

  8. I have been thinking about the future, about becoming and building a family with my mate. We are both skeptics and critical of many “mainstream” life choices.

    One thing that he has strongly protested against is bringing another life into the world when there is already so much over-crowding and thus suffering.

    Another, that we don’t know how good our genes are, disease-wise, and that bothers him. He definitely doesn’t want to create a life without finding out if I or he could impart a dangerous or highly difficult disease to our potential child(ren?).

    I am, at times, very very happy thinking about the probable future and making babies. I feel the ur-woman inside me saying “you need to have kids with this man, DOO EEEEET”. But then I am struck by the same thoughts as he. I don’t know… I feel it would be “more right” to adopt an already existing baby, but my brain/body tells me I need to breed. Instinct vs thought, y’know? I greatly admire people who adopt. I think you are brave and certainly loving people and there definitely need to be more of you.

    • I am in a similar situation! Here are just some things that may be helpful:

      –It’s not overcrowding “per se” that is the problem, it’s that people are Extremely wasteful with the Earth’s resources. If every single person was less wasteful, lived frugally off the land, etc., *that’s* really the solution. The solution is NOT, “just have less people being really wasteful.”
      –Re: Genes – well, not to be blunt but…everyone dies of something. There’s no “immortal” genes out there. If you “avoid” heart disease, you might get diabetes or etc. Know what I mean? There is no person who won’t, eventually, have a health problem. I do understand wanting to avoid certain diseases/hardship, but you can’t avoid all tribulations in life, amirite? (This coming from someone who has MANY genetic problems in my family).
      –Not that you asked for advice but….you could adopt First, then later, decide if you still have the urge to have a biological child from going through pregnancy. Trust me, you love ’em all the exact same no matter what their path to you was! 🙂

  9. Thanks for this post.

    You suggest asking about the adoption process, but this has been hard for me because I feel so ignorant about the process. I just feel a bit awkward, and saying “tell me about the process!” feels too broad.

    So can anyone suggest good conversation-starter questions about the process? Would it be weird to ask something like “when do you expect to meet your baby?” The process just seems to vary so much.

    • Well, since there isn’t just one adoption process you could start with something like “which route are you going to take?” or “are you using an agency, how did you choose?”

      People who want to adopt face a lot of decisions – international/domestic, infant/child/older child, foster care/private/agency. We didn’t tell people broadly until we were set on our path (domestic/agency/infant) and had completed our homestudy. Other people may tell sooner, but my bet is they have some idea which route they want to take and why. That would be a good conversation starter.

  10. What a great post. My mom started fostering babies a couple of years ago and it’s been so wonderful to see some of them be adopted by loving parents. The whole experience has definitely made me much more understanding of the process – the world needs people like you!

  11. Thank you for the advice. My partner and I have always said we would have a couple of our own and then adopt 1 or 2 kids. My younger brother is adopted and I am now raising him. Adopting children was a condition of me having kids and my partner knew it. We hope to adopt a pair of siblings so we can keep them together.

    We use to tell my brother when he was young, he is very loved because he was picked, hand-picked with love.

    But on the note on telling people, that has been interesting. People ask if we are going to have more kids (beside our 2 biological) and we respond with yes, we plan on adopting. A lot of people don’t respond very well to that AT ALL. We get judged for having more kids, people assumed we can’t have more kids and feel sorry for us, and then we get people who wonder if we are crazy because my brother has been a handful and he was adopted. He has been a handful because our parents died when he was young and not because he was adopted. Just a lot of judgmental people.

  12. Great story! It would also be great if there was a story about surrogate motherhood. One of my friends is currently looking for a surrogate, and while I’m really excited for her to have a child, I don’t know what questions I should ask. Do I tell her about baby products? Ask her if she’s close to the woman carrying her child? How do I go about planning a shower for her? Do I invite the surrogate to the baby shower?

  13. I love this!
    My husband and I definitely want to adopt. We’re not sure what that’s going to look like yet (international vs. domestic) since we’re not quite ready to grow our family yet…but we really have a heart for adoption.
    Thanks for posting this!

  14. Loved this article, and can definitely relate….

    Oh, one other thing I find annoying as a parent adopting is people asking “why not just have some of your own?” (as we already have 2 bio kids…. ummmm, our adopted son will be our own….

    Anyway, great article!

  15. I love the family photo. How you can’t see dad’s eyes and you can’t see all of mom’s face but then there all of baby. It’s not the traditional family picture you know “look here and click”, It’s more here are two people that love each other with a bundle of new life.
    I’ ll stop talking.Sorry about that.

    If I was going to adopted I’d want a teenager.

  16. Wonderful article! Adoption has been very good to my family. My mom’s older brother and sister were both adopted. My mom came along when her brother was about 18 months old, and it was quite a shock when my granny discovered she was pregnant. She and my grandfather had both been told that they were unable to have children from an early age for various reasons, so they both knew that they would adopt to build their family. My uncle actually teased my mom that while he and their older sister were handpicked by their parents, they were “stuck” with my mom. Heh. 🙂

  17. We’re having a perhaps related issue: *I’m* adopting, my husband isn’t — the baby will be the biological child of my husband and his girlfriend, who is happy to be an auxillary and biological parent but has no desire to be a primary parent. (We are in an open relationship, we are rock solid — our friends who know us, and our families, are all on board with this.) So I go to, say, pick up the new crib from the nice Craiglist person, and she asks when we’re due, and I say, “mid-March,” and she looks at my slightly fat belly and says, “Oh, congratulations!” That’ll last until my own fatness is smaller than our due date accounts for, at any rate. But then the answers will get complicated. I figure at this point I’ll manage to come up with enough info, but not too much, on the fly. It’s not like we’re hiding anything.

  18. I just ran across this post and love it. We are currently going through the adoption process (classes, home study, etc.)

    I hope you don’t mind if I post this on my blog. I will definitely link back to you!


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