Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I'm in no real position to be giving advice...

But I'm going to anyways.

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.

So it's a common scenario these days: I'm talking with someone I know fairly well but am not super intimate with and mention, off-hand, something about "the baby."

"Oh!" Said person's eyes light up. "Are you pregnant??"

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

I like this exchange. 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'm 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, 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.

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.

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.

Okay. I'm done with my preaching for the week. Carry on, and consider yourself advised!


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  3. Very well written. You should write a brochure/book to give out to the families and friends of people adopting! :)

  4. To the previous poster- in my state the guidelines are that you must report to CPS any time a spanking is done not with the hand... so I'm not really clear what racial issue is at play here?

    Alissa- Love the post. I agree, it looks like an excellent pamphlet! Our best friends are foster parents who are open to adopting their foster children if given the option. This has led to lots of uncharted waters. Do you celebrate the new foster placement? Buy cards? Buy a present for the old and newly placed foster child? Talk about the adoption? I could go on....

    But what a sacred process!

  5. You know if we were in CA I think we'd do the foster care thing or at least try to adopt through the state. CA laws are so adoption friendly. Here in WA I called to get info on foster-to-adopt and by the time they got back to me we had completed our homestudy with our agency. It made me sad - I spent 6 years working for CPS here and I'm familiar with the need.

    Your friends are lucky to have you and Lucas, lady. :)

  6. A, a couple of days ago, I made a long reply, but my computer ate it, and I'm just getting back to it. Anyway, great post, and all great advice!