Wednesday, August 11, 2010

grace margin and the benefit of the doubt.

One of the posts I'm most proud of from pre-J, some advice on hearing someone's "we're adopting" announcement or making one yourself, is re-worked and up on Offbeat Mama today. Working on that post again got me thinking about how things are different now, when people ask us about our adoption process on this end of things. While some of the same principles apply, I think I have pulled in my own boundaries a bit in terms of my internal response to some of the common questions people ask.

In that post about announcing intent to adopt I wrote:
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.

Now that J is here my attempts to hold that line of grace take more effort than they did before we were connected to a flesh-and-blood child. For example, last weekend Andrew and I were at a party that we attend every year with Andrew's dad. This is usually the only time we see this particular group of friends, most of whom are our parents age. Many folks asked us about J, and what our lives as new parents are like. A few people hadn't heard yet, and it was fun to tell. But somehow I found myself in a conversation, losing my patience with the obviously uninformed and unaware person asking me questions. It is a familiar conversation, and for some reason I usually find myself having it with people who don't know me very well, if at all. It went like this:

Other Person: What happened to her mother?

Me: What do you mean?

OP: Was she a drug addict? Why did she give up her child?

Me: I don't share personal information about J's first mom, but she chose to relinquish J because it was the best option for her child.

OP: I have two children, maybe you can't imagine this because you don't have biological children, but I just can't imagine giving them up.


At this point another less idiotic person cut in and changed the subject, obviously embarrassed at the turn the conversation had taken.

This is the most dramatic example of this conversation that I've had so far, but it seems like the two themes of "was her mother a drug addict" and "as a biological mother of my children I can't imagine a situation where I would let someone else raise my child" keep coming up when white folks get curious about baby J. Both of these themes really piss me off.

First, I don't share personal information about J's first mom with strangers, especially not strangers who look at my child (or in this case a picture of my child) and jump to drug addict. This is hard for me, because I want to say NO NO NO SHE IS NOT A DRUG ADDICT YOU GIANT RACIST JERK. Sometimes I will, because it is true and saying nothing makes it seem like I am hiding a secret. Or because people need to know that while poverty and drugs are often connected they aren't synonymous and most people in dire economic situations aren't there because they are addicted to drugs. I usually leave off the GIANT RACIST JERK part, though. Even though there is no doubt in my mind that the assumption is racially motivated. If J were white most white people would picture her first mother as a misguided teenager. Because she is black they picture someone else entirely. (For the record, no black person has ever asked me for personal information about Z, or asked in hushed tones if J was "born healthy" or done anything to imply that she is other than beautiful and perfect.)

Second, no - I cannot imagine what it is like to have a biological child. But my inability to imagine parenting a child I have given birth to pales in comparison to the ability of any biological mother I know who is parenting her child to imagine the situation that a woman must be in to face the choice of making an adoption plan. So shut up about it - you are not every woman who has ever given birth. Your experience of biological motherhood doesn't give you any special information or special right to make judgments about anyone else, just because they have also had the experience of giving birth.

Can you tell my patience levels have gone down, since the days when I would happily field all sorts of questions about our then-future adoption?

I have been thinking about this change, and I think it has to do with the person of my daughter and the fiercely protective love I feel for her and anyone connected to her. This especially applies to her first mother, and biological family, who are not here daily in our lives to defend themselves. Despite knowing better I feel surprised when I find myself in interactions like the one mentioned above, where someone feels free to ask about information that is obviously quite personal simply because it pertains to a baby who is too young to know and a woman who must seem, to the inquirers, very far away. I am still happy to educate people, and usually to answer questions about our process and the parts of our adoption story that belong to Andrew and I, or the three of us. But I am much less willing to give nosy inquirers the benefit of the doubt, now that my daughter is here. My margin of grace has definitely shrunk.


  1. I like this post. A little well-deserved and honest anger is okay, maybe these people need to get (verbally) smacked up side the head so they can learn. Tough love and all that.

    Anyhow, miss you. I'd love to buy you coffee sometime. I've been to St. Marks a few times lately and thought of you and the fam. :-)

  2. I could barely tolerate these comments pre-placement, I can't imagine what I'd do with them now. I agree with Carrie. Or something along the lines of "I'm so upset with what you just said I can't even respond to that." On the one hand, people need to be educated about this stuff, but on the other, it just gets exhausting,and a lot of people are just nosy and not all that interested in how you really feel. I hope all this stuff can get sorted out, at least within your circle of friends, before J is too verbal and picks up on this stuff.

  3. excellent post, as is the other one at offbeat mama. it's completely natural for that margin of grace to have receded, as that fierce protection you feel is a key part of being a mama. plus it's far more concrete now that the comments concern real living breathing people you love and care about.

    it's still so outrageous to me how people somehow feel justified in making such judgments. and even more reprehensible that they would say something in front of your beautiful child.

  4. great post. i like your honest frustration. i was asked the other day if there was any drug use when referring to tee's prenatal care. always the assumption. and i am also much less patient and often quite irritated by adoption talks.

  5. Luckily, no one has been stupid enough to make such comments to me. That's right, you just feel so fiercely protective - I had to cover up his face one day cause some guy was just randomly videotaping it - without my permission.

  6. Oh,another thing. My eldest sister once asked if he was healthy because I couldn't be sure about his family history - cause well, you just never know. I replied that no child, whether biological or not, has any guarantees about their health or ability.

  7. Wow, what a rude person! Sorry you had to deal with that even one time.

  8. Love your other post and this one too. I would be tempted to say "why do you assume that" after the question about drug addiction - though I don't know if I'd be brave enough!

    I recently had a very well meaning friend/colleague - who was gratifyingly excited that we are adopting - say "oh I joked with X she'd get pregnant as soon as she adopted" to which I answered "when you've heard that joke 50 times it's not funny any more".

    I knew she'd take it nicely and I knew it was just a joke with her, but I'm saving that response for the future, for people who are NOT joking, so they see it's not exactly a remark to be taken seriously.

  9. Thoroughly agree with this post. What's really bad is our first experience with our "baby I's" pediatrician on-call was: "have you had her HIV tested yet" even though we told her that "baby I's" mother was not promiscuous. She went on to ask us "what our baby was mixed with" and when we told her she was fully AA, MD says "well most African American's are "mixed with something"....
    When my husband and I asked about our baby's slight umbilical hernia and whether there was something we should be doing to help it, pediatrician replied "most AA babies are born with "outies" " ..... and finally, On-call pediatrician goes on to ask... if our baby was "drug exposed and which drugs birthmother was on?" ..... and believe it or not there was more, needless to say we will NEVER let our baby see that pediatrician again. Here is the interesting thing, did I mention the pediatrician was not WHITE.... she was Asian. Just goes to show that racism and bias go all different directions.

  10. ugh - Melissa that is AWFUL!! I am so sorry that you had that experience! What an incredibly insensitive doctor.

    (p.s. keep an eye out for Andrew and J tomorrow! They will be looking for you all - I am working and sooooo sad to miss it. Take pics of the girls for me!)

  11. Love both of these posts Alissa! I'm sorry you had to deal with that, but I love your honesty and the way you articulate your feelings in those settings. It's amazing how well-meaning people can be so rude and not even realize it.

  12. Very well said. I too answer differently then I did before Isabel. People are just dumb sometimes and don't realize. I am getting to know a lady here and she just made the comment to me the other day that I did it the easy way and didn't have to go through labor to have Isabel. Some people just don't realize how insensitive those comments can be.

    I am very defensive of Isabel's first family. The first question people ask is how old she is, or was she a kid. When I tell them she is in her mid 20's they don't ask any other questions.