telling the difference

“Wow, they look nothing alike!”

“I can see the similarities.”

“Where did she get those beautiful curls?”

“Does your husband have blonde hair?”

“Was your other daughter a preemie too?”

“How long did you breastfeed your first?”

“Such beautiful girls. But they look so different!”

“Your older daughter looks like you, but the baby looks just like her daddy!”

They do indeed look different, our girls. I’m always amused when someone says they can see a resemblance — either between Jaye and me or her baby sister. While they may come to share certain similarities as they grow up together — e.g., personalities, mannerisms, sense of humor, etc. — for now, there are visible distinctions. One has a creamy complexion with green eyes while the other has more olive tones and blue eyes, for instance. In each child, I can point to specific features and know where they came from. Yet as a blended family, I am particularly sensitive to these differences, especially when pointed out by others, even in seemingly innocuous statements. (Note: those who know our story may become the subject of another post altogether; this one concerns people who aren’t familiar with our family history.)

Like many adoptive parents, I struggle to determine the appropriate time and place to share the fact of our daughter’s adoption. While our children are too young to speak for themselves — and therefore unable to decide if they wish to share their story at any given moment — we often wonder whether and how we should respond to these observations and inquiries. This is not the first time such questions and comments have arisen, and it certainly won’t be the last, I know.

I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m so proud of our family and grateful for the unique way in which we were joined together. I don’t want either of our daughters to feel shame or guilt or confusion about how they each came to be with us. Jaye’s adoption is no secret and I don’t ever want her to think that it is. Plus, I like sharing our adoption experience and often discovering some previously unknown adoption connection when the topic arises.

But. Now that our daughter is three years old and beginning to learn about adoption, I’m drawing an even more distinct line between my experience and hers. I feel extremely protective of Jaye and her story. I want her to know that while adoption may be forever part of her life, it does not always have to define her as a person. I don’t want her labeled as the “adopted” child. She is simply our daughter, who was adopted at birth. This may sound naive or as if I wish to erase the fact of her adoption. But it’s not and I don’t. I embrace it, wholeheartedly. I only want to empower Jaye to (eventually) take ownership of her story, so she knows that she is free to tell it on her terms, or not. Ultimately, it should be her choice. Now, offering up that precious bit of information can feel like an unnecessary intrusion into Jaye’s story and life.

While of course I intend to disclose Jaye’s adoption to her teachers once she gets to kindergarten, I actually have not yet told anyone at her preschool. I may very well share, if it comes up, but I have not yet done so. At first I felt like a fraud. Here I am espousing the virtues of openness and shunning secrecy. Again, it’s no secret. But it is Jaye’s first experience with any type of daycare or preschool. Maybe I wanted to see whether she would exhibit any troublesome behavior? Maybe I didn’t want her to be labeled or treated differently? Maybe, deep in my subconscious, I was insecure and didn’t want to be judged (I sincerely hope not, but who knows?). In truth, I would be happy to talk more about our family under the right circumstances — i.e., not in a rushed moment during drop-off or pick-up. But the opportunity hasn’t really presented itself. (Believe me, I have asked myself a lot of hard questions about this…)

Another issue is that I don’t necessarily want other people talking to Jaye about her adoption until she has a better understanding of it. That’s our job, as her parents, to begin cultivating that understanding. I think these early conversations and stories require our supervision and guidance. As her parents, we are uniquely attuned to our daughter, and we will have to meet her where she is and anticipate what she is ready for, or not. I don’t think I’m ready for others to join that dialogue yet, aside from her birth mama Kaye.

So in response to such comments and questions, where once I might have explained that “we adopted our oldest daughter at birth,” I’m now more inclined to offer a simple yes or no, a smile and nod, or say “I know” or “you think so?” in response. Yet I find myself questioning whether I’m doing it right, almost every time.

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~ by luna on July 20, 2012.

23 Responses to “telling the difference”

  1. I am a teacher, and I must say, while its great to know information about our students, it’s not necessary to tell us whether a child is adopted or not. Unless there’s something we need to know about the adoption, the kid will generally tell us when they feel comfortable enough to do so. The only time I’ve heard from the parents was a recent adoption, and the child had special needs, so we needed to form a plan together. The rest of the adoptions I was told about from the child.

    I think it’s great that you’re proud of how your family came together, and if it comes up, great. But it’s like some kids are born via c-section and some natural, but they are here now and that’s what matters.

    • thanks so much for your comment.
      I love that the students are ready and able to discuss their adoptions with their teachers!
      my main reason for telling her teachers once our daughter is in (real) school is to promote awareness and sensitivity — some assignments don’t take into account more modern non-traditional families (e.g., family tree, etc.). I wouldn’t want my child to be singled out or excluded from participation. adoption-literate curricula have been developed to help schools address some of these issues.
      thanks again!

  2. Might as well question what you are doing isn’t that hwy we do most of our life raising kids. I have been very open about it but then again Maya looks not alot like us. When people say something about Benjamin, I normally do say he’s adopted, because I don’t want her to feel less of our family. Its hard but not hard, I am just goign to go with what seems to work for the kids, at this point Maya thinks its very cool and thats great, if at some point she wants to just be our daughter and not share aobut herself thats wonderful to. Because Benjamis looks alot like a child we might have had, and you have a child that you did have I can see where you are coming from. We just have to be the best parents we can be and hope not to screw up our kids too much, ha ha!

    • thanks for your comment, leah. so interesting, though it makes sense. you wouldn’t necessarily want someone to assume that he was born to you when clearly she was not. I think the key as you said is being attuned to what your kids want and need. and know that it is subject to change!

  3. I struggle with the same issue of sharing versus not sharing at times. Our daughter is 19 months and I, like you, love sharing our adoption story to promote awareness and sometimes finding that common thread with others that have been touched by adoption. Sometimes people say they see the similarities between us and then on other days I get comments like, “She must look a lot like her Dad…” I then decide how I want to respond and if it’s the appropriate time and place, I’ll share our adoption story and how much we love her birthparents, etc. It’s definitely a tough thing to figure out some days. From what I’ve read on your blog before though, you’ll do things with such grace and admiration that I’m sure both of your girls will be completely comfortable with how they joined your family—whether by adoption or birth.

    I agree with you about educating Jaye’s teachers as she grows older to be sure she feels comfortable in class with certain family assignments. I don’t necessarily think that you need to share that she was adopted right out of the gate, but maybe once the situation presents itself, then do some sharing. I think it’s important that others know some families aren’t made the “old-fashioned” way. 😉

    • thanks so much for your comment. it does seem like so many families these days are formed in other ways. it’s a tough line to walk, to tell or not. I do love learning about those common threads though. thanks again!

  4. Yeah, I hear you – you’re never quite sure if sharing your adoption story with people is appropriate or not. The Precious and I look alike so occasionally I get caught up in the “Oh, where did you deliver” sort of thing and I just hate blurting out “He’s adopted” to random people. On the odd occasion, I find out that others have adopted as well – that happened earlier this year. But you know what? the only person who needs to really know the adoption story is your family. It’s not a template to be used as a yardstick for appropriate childhood development. I suppose it may come up in some sort of school family history project or something one day. But until then, “Oh, you think so” is just fine if you ask me.

    • thanks for this. so interesting when there actually IS a resemblance. and then they start asking you all about your birth story and breastfeeding and all those other issues that made me not want to join mom’s groups. what I find especially fascinating is that even in this day and age, people often seem unable to comprehend diverse mixed race families. for ex., when your husband is out alone with the precious, do people assume he is adopted rather than the product of you two? or maybe in vancouver people are a bit more open minded than elsewhere. I find most people are just plain ignorant. le sigh. xo

      • A man once asked hubby, “Where did you get him?”. Hubby replied gruffly, “My wife!”. Doorknobs everywhere I’m afraid.

  5. I think that people say a child looks like a parent in order to please the parent. When there is a genetic relationship, some people feel a sense of connection in noticing “grampa’s nose” or “gramma’s eyes”. Strangers make these comments because they are trying to make a connection and compliment you. My experience is slightly different as I gave birth to my DE children, but I have received these same comments. I stick with “Do you think so?” or “I think that they look more like their father.” My children know the truth of their origin, but I have no desire to educate the public. Perhaps it is selfish, but I don’t want to expose my children to the comments of strangers.

    • thanks for your comment. it is interesting, the comments about resemblances. I realize some strangers are just making conversation, acknowledging the little ones. I never make such comments to others unless it is absolutely clear the child is the spitting image of the parent. even then, it’s kind of odd, like you’re saying, look, you have your very own mini-me!

      I find the donor gamete issues so interesting. it’s much easier to “conceal” from the public, since you gave birth to them. I don’t know what I would do. I can see how you’d want to protect your children from the ignorance of others though.

      • I’ll also add that I have mixed feelings about the donor issue re: telling. as I said before, I can see how you’d want to protect your kids from the ignorance of others. but one family we know used DE and does not necessarily intend to tell their children until some indefinite point in time, because they don’t want them talking about it with others. I don’t know how you drop that on a kid later. it’s like when teenagers finally found out they were adopted and every thing up until then had been a lie.

  6. This is a very interesting post. We are a transracial family built through adoption. When I am the one parent with my daughter, I have had people comment that our eyes look alike…or people mostly try to be very diplomatic…”she must take after her father” and i have, once or twice, reponded..yes, and I never even met the guy! however when my husband and I are with our daughter, it’s so very obvious that we are connected by choice…our daughter’s Mother’s choice. At that point, sharing our adoption story depends on many variables..genuine interest, time, energy, if our kid is running off in the opposite direction…just like the power inherent in sharing stories of abortion, I believe there is something to be gained by sharing our wide-open adoption story. Increasingly, I agree with your point about how I want our 3 yo to understand her origins. She listens closely, more than we know…so casually telling her story, within her hearing, is not something I do as much anymore. She deserves a more personal narrative.

    • I love this comment, and your reply about how you’ve never even met her father. serves people right for being so snarky and intrusive to begin with!

      I agree there is power in sharing the story. we’ve raised a lot of awareness and busted some myths about open adoption in particular by talking about our experience. but you’re right, our children pick up on so much. SO much. our daughter hears EVERYTHING. and they DO deserve more than just a casual “hey, we adopted her!” reply.

      even when we’re among friends in our adoption group — where we tend to talk pretty intimately about many aspects of our experience — I am far more reluctant to delve into detail within earshot of our daughter. but then it’s because she still doesn’t yet have a full understanding of her story, and that’s not how she should learn it.

      thanks again!

  7. In college I babysat a 6 year old girl. One day we walked by a double stroller and she said that she and her brother used to have a stroller just like that, and how people would always ask if they were twins. She laughed, “We are two years apart, AND we are both adopted, from different parents!” To her, the age error was equivalent to the birth origin error.

    • yes, kids take things at face value and have far fewer hangups than adults do about this stuff, I think. I’m sure the assumption about her age was as much an affront as anything. 6yos can be so snarky! (and just think, you’ll have TWO at the same time!). heh. thanks for your comment.

  8. When my husband, Mea and I are out together, people automatically assume that she is our biological daughter. My husband is black, and I think for the most part it’s a natural thing to assume. Adoption has been a topic of many discussions, particularly lately with Mea.

    Now, I did tell her pre-school teacher about her adoption, and her pre-school teacher ultimately ended up being her Kindergarten teacher, so she already knew. It does make it a bit easier, particularly when they did do activities like family trees, bringing a photo from when they were babies, etc. Mea was so upset about the brining a photo of herself when she was a baby, she was 13 months when she came home, but to her she wasn’t a “real” baby. I was able to get a few photos from her foster mom, to keep in her baby book.

    • I’m so glad you were able to get some photos of mea as a baby. that’s got to be so hard for kids in foster care and those adopted some time after birth — ie, the lack of information and tangible connection from those early days and months after birth. so sad.

      thanks for your comment!

  9. You have an interesting situation with two kids, one biological, on through adoption who could both be biologcially related to you. Whereas we have a rather obvious case of adoption. Even so, people like to assume a biological connection or any kind of connection. I think it makes them feel better – they can piece the puzzle together better. People frequently say that my son looks like his dad but really the ONLY thing they have in common is brown skin. Mark has poker straight hair and is Asian. I think it is normal for people to assume your girls are born to you and sometimes the breastfeeding etc.. as just entry ways into parenting convos. But I totally see how complicated it is to answer. I’ve also stopped offering information unless pressed just like you. On the flip side, I’m reading a ton to Theo about adoption and indicating which of his friends were adopted … he really still is quite clueless. We’re in a greyish area where the kids can’t really speak for themselves, need us to bat/protect them but like you said, we need to stand proud around the fact of their adoption. As you can see I have very little of value to add here but it’s only recently that I’ve realized how complex having kids through adoption that look like you or having one bio/one adopted can be. Lots to think about as always!

  10. Such a lovely, thoughtful post. As your daughters get older, it will be easier to explain to them the nuisances of different contexts. There are some contexts in which I am very proud to identify my children as bi-racial (and bilingual, and usually it is in the context in which they can in fact fully participate in a conversation in Chinese although it is clearly beyond my language ability). However, I have grown increasingly defensive of the random strangers trying to guess their racial/ethnic identity. I would say that at least once a week someone stops us on the street and tries to pinpoint their racial identity (my children have a Chinese father and blond hair. They get a lot of attention when we are out). I realize that these are innocent, often friendly conversations but I am finding them increasingly inappropriate as my daughter gets closer to preschool and more and more obsessed with pink/princesses/beauty in a very limited sense. I realize the context is very different, but I just wanted to write that it gets easier to explain different contexts. Yes, to talking about race/adoption with close friends in a loving context, no in an-do-they-look-like-you rude question on the street.

  11. We don’t really have the option of not discussing adoption, given both that I am unlikely to be our daughter’s biological mother and that she’s always been in class with her fair-skinned twin brother. I found I tackled it quickly with both parents and children so that I was suggesting the language to use and directing the conversation to a certain extent. Now that she is in elementary school, I see her answering questions very straight-forwardly and I am so glad she feels that power. She is very proud of her Haitian heritage and I can’t tell you how much I hope that continues, but I know we’ll face some hard times and some hard discussions someday. Just thinking out loud as none of this applies to a family that isn’t so obviously touched by adoption like ours.

  12. an interesting post. even though it is quite clear that our eldest child is adopted i too struggle with what to say when and how to answer inquiries. it’s a delicate balance. As you mentioned i think this will be a life long struggle.

  13. I am an adopted child. I am now 22 years old, and I would have to say that my parents handled it amazingly. There was never a time I can remember now knowing that I was adopted. I have always known. My parents read adoption books for kids to me. It was, quite frankly, something I was proud of. It made me unique from all the other kids. I remember being in kindergarden and wanting to share it as my story for show and tell one day. All my friends knew it, their families knew it, my teachers knew it, and I was proud of it. Now as a grown up, I am still proud of it. I felt that my parents being so open and proud of me being adopted was an excellent way to handle everything. It made me proud to have been adopted and proud to have a family who wanted me so much. I would just recommend being so open and proud about it with your daughter, and there is nothing wrong with a little three year old running around telling people she was adopted. You don’t want her to grow up with questions as to why some people don’t know, it just creates more questions in her mind.
    Hope this help,
    Kelsey

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