Recently the web has had what seems like more than its fair share of vitriolic rants against people’s inconsiderate and unkind remarks towards adoptive parents and their children. It’s not the rants that bother me so much: people really do say some completely ridiculous and inappropriate things, especially to strangers. These posts are also a good opportunity to prepare myself for questions that may come my way regarding my daughter. And yes, some of the things that are said do not take into consideration the “Big Picture” of adoption, that there is loss involved, not just a shiny, happy family ensconced in the Land of Capitalist America.
But it’s the anger, the condescension, and the overall tone of these rants (this one and this one in particular) that have me so frustrated. Personally I don’t have the urge to scream in someone’s face when they tell me that Remy is lucky (although I had the urge to scream in the faces of several US Embassy officials in Addis Ababa while we waited for Remy’s visa clearance). I also don’t have a back pocket full of snarky responses to respond to well-meaning people. Ultimately I don’t think these articles are productive in promoting a dialogue. Nor do I think they are very compassionate.
I worked for several summers as a camp counselor with critically ill, physically and mentally disabled children. It was by far the most important, life-affirming learning experience of my entire life (other than becoming a parent). Here are two of the bazillion life lessons I took away:
1) Human beings are remarkable, miraculous works.
2) There is a vocabulary and a vernacular that develops once you have spent time with certain populations that must be learned and is not inherent.
My experience at the summer camp (Double H-look it up, it’s amazing) taught me a new lingo, a vocabulary that would not have been something I just picked up living in this society, particularly in this one which reveres beauty and youth and perfection and which shies away from death and illness (especially when it is in regards to children). And this vocabulary and terminology is always changing. My Master’s degree is in disability studies, and the dischord regarding words like handicapped, handicapable, disabled, retarded, challenged, special needs, etc is loud and ever-growing as various groups attempt to illustrate their own personal experience.
Before I began my “adoption training” to become Remy’s mom, there were a lot of things I honestly didn’t know. Some of them were common sense: to say she “was adopted” not “is adopted”, since the act of adoption came one time. But others I am still learning. Do I consider my daughter to be African-American or black? I’m still figuring it out. And for those who say, “What does it matter what her race is?”, I’ll say this: If my daughter were lost in a store and someone asked me to describe her, I would tell them her race before the fact that she is wearing a pink shirt with red hearts on it. It does matter sometimes, especially when someone could spend valuable time assuming that my daughter looks like me.
We can learn a lot from those more experienced than us in a field-ask any warrior mother or father who has helped guide their child through a battle with a childhood cancer or who has suddenly gone from an independent person to a parent in charge of an infant who will likely need round-the-clock care for the rest of his or her life. And for the record, I am not equating parenting a critically ill child to parenting a child who was adopted-I am trying to illustrate how we often don’t learn much about certain situations or populations until we become a part of one.
The way that we learn this vernacular, these things (or at least the way I learn these things) is key: I don’t want someone who is condescending or who yells in my face about something I don’t yet understand. I want someone who guides me to the right resources or helps change my perspective in a compassionate, informative manner. I truly believe that most people who ask these sometimes idiotic questions are not trying to inflict lasting harm upon my daughter’s developing psyche.
I will protect her until the last of my days (fiercely if necessary), but the way I respond to these questions is arguably as important, if not more, than the questions themselves. Do I show her that sarcasm and condescension are the way to shame people into understanding (or pretending to understand so that they can end the conversation without truly having learned anything)? Do I show her that we get angry with people who cannot grasp things as quickly and succinctly as we would like?
I definitely won’t succeed every time, but I’d like to try to teach her that everyone can learn, everyone can have their hearts opened, and that the way that real change starts is by taking the time and energy to connect with someone and helping them understand something that might have once seemed foreign to them. If someone tells me that my daughter is lucky, I’m not going to yell in her face. I will probably smile, and tell her about how lucky we all are to be in the presence of this joyful soul, and if there’s more time, I’ll try to help her understand the situations surrounding adoption a bit.
There’s a lot more that I want to say about these rants, especially about grief and loss, but I’ll stop here for now. I urge other adoptive parents to act not just defensively, but in the interest of that little person who is anxiously awaiting your response (in this matter and in all matters truly). That random stranger who makes an inconsiderate comment in passing might frustrate us, touch a raw nerve, or be the last straw in a very long day, but in time we will forget their face, the way their voice sounded, where we were when they said what they said. But we have to remember that it is our children who are the ones who are actively watching and learning from us, and it is our children in whom we want to plant the seed of empathy and kindness and patience.