I was at dinner with a friend one day when the waitress approached us. “Is that your daughter?” She asked, pointing to my then 18-month-old sitting in her highchair.
“Yes!” I beamed, forever proud of this little girl who was all mine to love. “What happened to her real mother?” The waitress asked. And I damn near choked.
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It’s easy to assume the waitress was being intentionally cruel, but the truth is, she just didn’t know any better. She posed a series of questions over the next hour that made it clear she wanted to better understand adoption, she just truly lacked the tact required to engage in that conversation.
I’ve had a lot of similar encounters over the years. My daughter and I have been approached in airports, by grocery store clerks and even by strangers at the mall who want to let me know that they have a friend, or a cousin, or a neighbor who has also adopted a native child. It's kind of like finding out your co-worker is gay, and immediately chiming in with, “Oh, yeah, this chick I went to high school with is, too! We’re still Facebook friends. Maybe I should introduce you two!”
I wish people would stop telling me that I'm a saint because I adopted.
While these situations often make me uncomfortable, mostly because I worry about how my daughter might process the words being used, I typically recognize them as moments of sincere curiosity. People just want to understand adoption, because to so many outside that triad (adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents), the idea of raising a child who is not biologically your own, or of separating yourself from a child who is, seems so completely foreign.
They just want to understand.
November is National Adoption Awareness Month. In honor of that, I asked adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents to weigh in on what they wish those outside the adoption triad knew about adoption.
It’s important to remember that no two experiences are the same, and everyone within the triad probably has something different they wish people knew. But here are the answers from those I spoke to:
“I wish people could understand the complicated web of joy, grief, happiness and sorrow that makes up the adoptive experience. Of course, it's beautiful and wonderful, but there is so much sadness that goes along with it. And all members of the triad really need for that to be acknowledged and accepted.” — Jana H., adoptive mother of one
“I wish more people knew that when birth parents place a child with an adoptive family, what they do is out of love. They don't give their kids away. And most of the time, they are still welcome to participate in the kiddo's life. There's no shame—just bravery and love.” — Kat W., adoptive mother of two
“I wish people understood that a child can love more than just their adoptive family or their birth family. We’re all one big family.” — Katlyn B., birthmother
“I wish non-adoptive folks would realize that having an open adoption doesn't mean our child will grow up confused. She's very much aware of who her parents are, just like she knows her aunts, grandparents, birth parents, etc. We're all just family.” — Christa S., adoptive mother of one
“I wish people would stop telling me that I'm a saint, an angel, or a good person because I adopted. I did it because I wanted to, not because I'm a martyr.” — Edith G., adoptive mother of one
“It is a gift, especially for the child. Being an adopted child, I thank my birth mother for the love and sacrifice. My family is as it was meant to be.” — Emma Mekinda, adoptee
“I wish people wouldn’t think they have a free pass to badmouth my daughter's birth parents just because of the situation. Do we get angry sometimes because our daughter has suffered unnecessarily (health wise)? Of course. Is it a terribly sad story? Yep. But, that's my daughter's flesh and blood. And the truth of the matter is that we wouldn't have her without them.” — Candice H., adoptive Mother of one
“I wish people wouldn't ask, ‘What if his birth parents come back?’ It's not a Lifetime movie. That's not how it works.” — Courtney B, adoptive mother of one
“I really wish non-adoptive people would realize how hard it is to be adopted. For me, my life consisted of wondering who I am as a person, where I came from, why I was given up and so much more. It's always on my mind, both good and bad.” — Siobhan C., Adoptee
“I wish people understood how much my child's first/birth mother loves him, and what it was like to be across the table from her after she signed the final relinquishment paperwork. How hard it is to know that the day your heart is filled with more joy than you ever knew was possible, it is tempered with gut-wrenching loss. You can't make that loss and sorrow go away. You can only acknowledge it, respect it and honor the most selfless decision anyone could ever make as you raise your child.” —Joan F., adoptive mother of one
“I don't like when people say that our daughter is so lucky to have us and what a nice thing we did adopting her, like she was some charity case who deserves pity. Our motivation for adopting was because we wanted to be parents. We are blessed to have her!” — Leah H., adoptive mother of one
“My husband was adopted at the age of 4 through a closed adoption. He had a sibling at the time who was adopted by another family. While attempting to locate his birth sibling, he was put in contact with his birth mother and other relatives. Finding out the circumstances of his life and adoption was very painful for him, and he chose to have no further contact. As someone who loves someone who was adopted, I see that adoption will always be a part of who my husband is, and that it shaped him into the person that he is today. It can be painful. It is not always pretty. My husband loved his parents and was always happy with his life, but learning about his birth circumstances made him so grateful that adoption was an option.” — Heather R., wife of adoptee
I have been told many times I was lucky and had gotten an infant the easy way ... I'm not sure there is a bigger insult.
“I was there waiting while my son being born and I was the first to hold him besides medical staff. So I have been told many times I was lucky and had gotten an infant the easy way ... I'm not sure there is a bigger insult. There is nothing easy about adoption! After six failed IVF cycles, a failed foster care attempt and multiple surgeries, it was just our time for the universe to bring me my son.”— Chelle Bell, adoptive mother of one
“I wish people understood that in a perfect society, adoption wouldn’t be necessary. And while we’ll never be a perfect society, we still have an obligation to take steps to reduce the need for adoption whenever possible. Adoption can be wonderful when all parties are fully empowered and supported. But when we have women placing their children for adoption purely because of financial concerns, that’s not OK. When we have agencies lying to and manipulating birth mothers to place infants for adoption, or biological families to release their kids into foster care, that’s tragic.
As long as children are adopted when their parents would rather keep them, we have to work our butts off as a society to make things better.” — Carmen M., adoptive mother of two
“I'm a child of adoption. My adoption was closed and I'm glad it was. I wish people didn't feel sorry for me ... like they feel sorry I wasn't wanted by my birth parents. I am so very happy I was adopted! I had a wonderful, loving family who waited seven long years for a baby and ended up getting me.” — Dana D., adoptee
“Adoption is just how our family came together. It's not a secret. It's not weird. It's not a bad thing. Don't whisper near my kids 'Have you told them?' 'Do they know they're adopted?' 'Do they know where they came from?'
Of course they know! They know they are loved by us and their biological families. They know their birth stories (in an age-appropriate version). Being adopted is no big deal. They know families come together in many ways. We just happen to be a family formed through adoption. My kids and I aren't scared of the dreaded family tree project that everyone talks about because they know, they don't have a family tree ... they have a forest.” — Anna M., adoptive mother of three
“I am a birth mom. One thing I wish people knew about birthmothers is that they aren't always (or even usually) women on drugs, teenagers, alcoholics or in extreme poverty. They are not incapable of providing for their child. Many would make very capable parents but for their own reasons chose adoption instead. Being a birth mom doesn't mean you wouldn't have been a fantastic parent or been able to provide for your baby.” — Danielle L., birthmother
As for me, if there were just one thing I could help those outside the adoption triad to understand about adoption, it would be this:
Adoption is complicated. And while I am thankful for how it has shaped my life every single day, I recognize that there is still a lot of pain and loss for all involved. My daughter’s other mother has to watch another woman raise her child, a child she loves very much. My daughter will one day have to come to terms with what it means to be different from everyone else she knows, and she will have to determine how she feels about being adopted, amidst the questions and whispers being lobbied her way by strangers. And I will forever have to mourn the fact that I didn’t get to carry my little girl for those nine months when I would have given anything to protect her.
Adoption is complicated. And still … I remain grateful. Because I can’t imagine loving any child more than I do the one who calls me “Mommy” today.
Photograph by: Leslie Meadow Photography