Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The real question

There is a question I have been dreading ever since we decided to adopt again. When I found out that baby S might be ours and really started to think about what it meant to adopt kiddos who share a first mother I started to think about the question again. And we had S for what seemed like five minutes before someone, I think it was the woman at the front desk of the Residence Inn we were staying at, asked it.

"So they're sisters?" She asked. "Real sisters?"

"Yes." I replied with a tired smile and kept moving toward the continental breakfast.

It happened again on the flight home. We had landed and were packing up the kids, me fumbling to get the Moby wrap back on and the baby in it and Andrew trying to hold S while blocking J's exit. The flight attendant from our section stopped on her way toward the front. "They've been so good," she said. "So I have to ask - are they sisters?"

"Yes" I said, looking in some confusion at Andrew who was doing his not-looking at the stranger talking to me thing.

"That is so sweet," she replied and turned to go. But then she stopped a couple of rows up and shouted back with her southern drawl "I mean REAL sisters, honey?! Are they sisters for reals?!"

I get it. And I think that even if my daughters didn't share a genetic connection to each other as long as they were both brown skinned we'd be getting this question. But I don't like it. I like it the least of any question that comes our way and in the past two years I've been asked plenty of rude questions by well-meaning and curious strangers. It comes with the territory and that's what it is.

The answer is many times over yes. Of course they are.  They are real sisters because Z is their first mom. They are real sisters because Andrew and I are their parents. Either of these would make their connection "real." That's not why I hate the question. I hate it because there is a presumption underneath it that this stranger has the right to know something personal about me and my children. And that "real" is the same as "biological" which is narrow to say the least. And I hate it because if I give out this information there is almost always a even more intrusive follow-up question or comment that is disrespectful to my children's first mother. I hate it because even now there are little ears and eyes watching me answer, learning from my responses, and pretty soon they will be wondering why people ask their mommy this question but no one ever asks their Auntie M the same question about their cousins Sweetie and Cub.

Mostly I hate it because while I know what the answer is, I don't have a response to the question that I am happy with  yet. I want them to be proud of all the ways that they are sisters. But I don't think it is okay, and I don't want my girls to think it is okay, for any stranger who looks at us to ask for personal information about how we and they came to be together.

This is one of the tensions of the kind of family that we are. And I thought I was pretty good at dealing with it, that I had my responses ready and my feelings about the occasional insensitive comment in hand. But this really bothers me. Why, you ask? Maybe that is the real question.


  1. I, too, get this question about my brown-skinned boys (and it really ticks me off). They are not biologically related, but - of course! - they're still "real" brothers. Like you, I am offended by the questions people think they have the right to ask. I am worried about those little ears (my oldest is now 5), and I know that the manner in which I answer is so important for him. I tend to say yes and then try to disengage as quickly as possible from the conversation. However, if someone were to press it, I tend to say "why do you ask?". I also often will correct their terminology, since I know they're asking of they boys are biologically related, "do you mean are they biologically related? Of course they're brothers" and then follow that up with "and why do you ask?". I want them to think about why they believe they have the right to ask such questions.
    It's my first visit to your blog, but I'll be back :) Also, may I just say, wow! Your daughters are so very beautiful!!!!

  2. I get this question a lot about my twins only in a completely different context. I am asked often are they "real twins" since I did IVF to conceive them. At a Christmas gathering when I was expecting, I had a distant family member say to me, "They aren't really twins since you did IVF to conceive them" I thought to myself, "What is real twins?"
    Yes they are real regardless of how they came to be. I am asked often, "Do you plan to have anymore children?" I always answer with the truth, "I could have more children, but considering the cost of IVF and the emotional aspect of it all, I highly doubt we will do it again." I always have one or two people respond with, "Oh I thought twins ran in your family. I guess not"
    Oddly enough my hubby is a twin (he has a twin brother). Yes twins are on his side of the family, but that has nothing to do with me having twins. I still ponder on the statement of "Technically they are not 'real twins'" They share the same parents. They were conceived at the same time. I carried them at the same time. They were born in the same minute. They may not look alike, but yes they are twins.
    I often wonder how my children will feel when they are older and find out how they came to be. It is something I ponder upon quite often.

  3. My situation is completely different, being a queer woman and co-parenting my partner's biological child from a long-ago relationship, but the awkwardness of this line of interrogation never goes away. Four years, five years, forever. I've gotten used to it, but it never stops being weird. Like, obviously our family's biology and lived experience doesn't make sense to someone at first glance. That's fine.

    I wish there was a culturally-imposed politeness around the subject, instead of judgement, shame, rude prying, and such a sense of self-entitlement.

  4. One more try (blogger's not being nice)

    I'm always amazed when people ask me the question, since my two boys don't look very much alike. But that's the easy question for me. I just keep repeating. "Yes, they're real brothers. Yes, they're brothers." Most people get the picture pretty quickly.

    The "polite" follow-up question that always throws me is, "where did you adopt them from?" I think it's a shortcut for people to ask what they really want to know -- if they're biologically related -- and I haven't figured out a good answer to it. I suppose a, "Why do you ask?" is a way to shut that one down, but it often seems rude.

  5. sigh. the fact that "real" means "biological" to most people is also one of my pet peeves. in my current unexpected situation i am already anticipating the "so he/she's yours...and...(while looking at T)..." thinking about questions like this hurts my heart and i sense that it hurts yours as well.

  6. Great post...today, once again, I got called 'Grandma'...to which I say "no, I'm lucky; I am her MOM." As the pale pink, gray haired mom to my lovely brown-skinned daughter, I'm just learning my way around the situation you describe. But it goes both ways, I saw a child and mother who resembled our family and I asked 'what agency did you go through?' and the mom said 'My husband is. African-American.'. YIKES! And so I try to be patient with others' questions, yet protective of my daughter and her birth mother. We are just muddling through.

  7. http://www.adoptionlearningpartners.org/conspicuous_families.cfm

    I wanted to suggest this course if you hadn't heard about it -- not because I belive you "need" it, but because it breaksdown the possible responses to these types of questions into catagories. I believe it was educational, humor, or shut them down. And really for any situation you can do this -- like a humorous response would be to prentend "pinch" the kids and say -- "They seem like pretty real sisters to me." And laugh. Educational would be -- "yes, they do share a biological mother -- but they would be real sisters even if they didn't." And shut them down would be "Yes. They are sisters, why do you ask?"

    In any case, I know you can figure it out particularly keeping your older ones feelings in mind as she gets ever closer to understanding.

    I just have one AA daughter (and I'm caucasian) so I never get the "REAL" word in the questions. But I usually just answer the truth and watch my daughter -- thus far she doesn't seem bothered by any of it (she's 5). And believe me, if she was bothered, she would say somthing! :)

  8. Great comments everyone!!

    Michelle - I just found that resource, actually! We have to complete some training hours for S's adoption and our agency has moved toward a focus on international adoptions so our social worker sent me their link as an option. I am going to take that one!

    Thinking further on this I think that one of the things that bothers me is that being open about the girls' biological relationship means I'm revealing something personal about their first mom. And average nosy-person on the street doesn't seem to default to a respectful place with that information.

  9. A, we live in the same city and are both raising transracially adopted kids. By luck or by reason of our family profile (white parents and boy plus Korean daughter) I NEVER get asked any nosy questions, and it bothers me that our experience is so different. I've never been great with snappy comebacks; does it work just to level with inquirers with something along the lines of "that's not my question to answer"...?

  10. A, I would just say "well, it's a long story . . . " and then direct them to this blog, where they will get all the details they need, along with a big fat lesson in tact.

  11. A, I'd surely ask "why do you ask" in the politest way possible. A blogger named Rachel had a post about this a couple of years ago: http://www.whitesugarbrownsugar.com/2010/12/please-dont-ask-me.html

    {I found your blog from your post on tcoyf - thank you for linking it as I've been researching adoption as I prepare myself to receive children}