The first step is to penetrate the clouds of deceit and distortion and learn the truth about the world,
then to organize and act to change it. That's never been impossible and never been easy. ~Noam Chomsky

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Public Scrutiny

The waiting room at our clinic in the Children's Hospital is always an interesting experience.

You know that special way that four year olds have of asking questions?

"um, um, um? Uhhhm, whyyy does she? Uhm, I have a question. Um, why does SHeeee have...?"

Oh no, here we go I thought. Cue the question about whether or not she's mine. Or why her skin is brown. Or why we don't match. Or where she's "from." I've only had the question from one other four year old and my answer was embarrassingly weak. So I'm fluttering through files of possible answers in my head when this particular four year finally spits out the question.

"Why does she have pierced ears?????" (With a withering glance over to her own mother and a small touch of her finger to her lonely undecorated earlobe.)


What can I say? I read posts like this one, written by adoptive mothers about their battle with unwanted questions so often. This post and it's 60+ comments cause me to think hard and often about how I can prepare for intrusive or over curious children and adults. It also makes me examine my feelings about questions we might receive in public.

But the thing is, and I don't mean to diminish the frustration of others or minimize their experiences, we really don't get unwanted questions. Or stares. I used to look for them all the time. Remember my White Mama post? My eyes darting around the mall just waiting for judgement or over-curiosity?

Not us anymore. I wonder how to account for this? The fact that I can count on one hand the number of times I've been asked about Ariam's adoption, skin color, or story in the past 9 months. (Once by a small boy on the playground and a couple of times by curious Ethiopians at the airport.) Is that a realistic representation of the trans-racial adoption experience?

We do get stopped, by white and black families alike, and told how beautiful Ariam is. We've been told that she's so well-behaved, has beautiful skin and hair, has a lovely smile, or that WE are so lucky. Ethiopians tend to skip straight to asking what part of Ethiopia she is from and what her name is (and do we know what it means.) And while I guess some families might not even enjoy this type of interaction (because in some ways it is a reflection of the fact that she looks different from us) I don't mind it.

If you are reading this and are not an adoptive parent, I think the number one thing you can do with your curiosity, if you absolutely must make a comment to a family you don't know, is fuel it into an honest compliment. If the family wants to share more information with you, they may. If not, then you have not caused harm by stopping to compliment or smile.

For whatever reason, we've experienced a reprieve from invasive questions. Even from aquaintances and our church community. All of whom I'm sure feel some degree of curiosity to know MORE than what we have shared, but who are discreet enough to keep from asking overly personal questions about Ariam's story or her adoption experience. And I am thankful. It's really allowed us to become one family unit, without fear, without anxiety or feeling always on guard.

What has been your public experience with your child?
Do you get frustrated when people ask personal questions? Do you get more questions from strangers or from aquaintances?

Is everyone out there as irritated as the author of the blog I linked to? I'll admit to being rather surprised by her animosity.

She looks so grown up these days. Can I buy a pill that will keep her little?


  1. I think people are just curious. We get asked all the time if G was adopted, or the "assumption" that she was adopted. The only time it bothers me is ridiculous questions from family members comparing her to other people with brown skin and using stereotypes. My boys are proud that she's Ethiopian, and they love to talk about it. I think that if she sees that I am comfortable talking/sharing with others about it, she will be too.

  2. Well, I read the post and the comments and as a non-adoptive parent, it makes me feel like I now have no clue what I can/should ask, or if I should ask anything at all. Maybe, like so many things, I should wait till a story is offered, rather than trying to extract one.

  3. Korana - actually I read the post link and comments and felt the same thing! It wasn't my favorite post - felt so prickly. Maybe time will change my feelings but right now I feel like friends and family can ask anything they want! And strangers and aquaintances aren't going to anger me if they ask something. I'd just hope they can think through their words first and come up with something they themselves wouldn't mind answering. (Not everyone thinks before speaking so that's just a good rule of thumb.)
    As an adoptive parent I felt a bit confused by this mother's irritation. BUT I'm wondering if it could be a regional issue. In Denver people are polite and kind. As we know well, in DC people are more blunt and sometimes less kind. So maybe an adoptive family's patience is worn more thin depending on where they live??

  4. I've had some nosy obnoxious questions, but not as many as I expected. I do get a lot of compliments on how adorable my son is. Now, he is the most adorable boy on Earth, I'm certainly not arguing that, but I suspect that a lot of it is really about people seeing him as a novelty. I have friends with small children who are Nigerian and they do NOT get this sort of reaction in public. So while we get positive comments, they do concern me a bit. It's amazing too how much someone's attitude and tone matter when they ask 'is that your child?' I don't mind if there is a context, but it's annoying if we're just walking down the street and a total stranger stops to ask 'is that your child?' Not as annoying as the elderly woman who asked 'is that a little adopted boy?' I so wanted to say something like 'no, it's a platypus.' Depending on my mood and vibe I get from the asker, sometimes I'll say 'yes, this is my son, I adopted him from Ethiopia,' or I'll just say 'yes, this is my son'.

  5. We get far less attention than I thought we would...possibly because we live in a pretty diverse place where families like ours are not that uncommon. But I do still - over a year later - have those very same thoughts you describe in the other post! Compounded by the fact that I came home with a friendly, outgoing, and inquisitive three-year-old who asks a million questions when we are in public and says "hello" to just about everyone - would make it hard to be inconspicuous even if our skin did match.

    PS - I live in Boston, a city not known for its polite and kind residents...

  6. Barbaloot - UGH. I can't believe the elderly woman said that. Yick. And I also am horrified the people would just stop to ask if he's your child. WEIRD. Some people are SO WEIRD.

    So I think you are right that sometimes compliments are due to novelty. And I was highly on guard for that at first. But now I think it has more to do with Ariam smiling and saying hi to everyone. It invites a certain amount of interaction. If the comments were always on her hair or skin then I'd more likely chalk it up to fascination with white parents/brown child. But the compliments are often along the line of "you are so lucky to be parents to such a great little girl" or "your daughter must bring you so much joy." Both of which validate us as her parents without question and are compliments to her. Am I being naive?

    We received a hair/skin compliment from an African American family at the mall a few weeks ago and THAT surely didn't bother me. ;)

    But really I'm making too much of this. The majority majority of the time we are in public I do not feel scrutinized and we receive absolutely no stares or comments.

    If/when you comment leave the name of your city. I am curious!

  7. yeah, this one is complicated alright. I find that my view on this has shifted quite a lot - I'm much more patient about questions than I was, say, a year ago. I must say - I felt like that post you linked revealed more about her own insecurities than anything else. (Hope that's not too harsh). Iv'e been meaning to blog about this too. Perhaps I shall. Did you read the post this week about this sorta thing over at 'the wonderful happens?' Definitely worth a read! (Would link, but don't know how in comments!)

  8. I read the post you gave the link to and I have to admit that I completely relate and feel her anger. I struggle very much with how angry I've become at what seems like a constant barrage (sp?) of questions and comments directed towards my family. You name it, I've answered it. I've written a couple of posts about it, but have tried hard to be positive and did not post some of the nastiest comments that have been said including several racial slurs directed at me while I have been with my boys. (

    It has gotten to the point where (beacause of previous comments) I struggle to be nice to a nice person, who really is being well-meaning, but short sighted and not thinking. And that is where I have to take a deep breath, count to ten, try to be gracious and use it as an educational opportunity for everyone involved. It doesn't serve anyone well to respond in anger.

    I guess at this point in time, even if it is well meaning, satisfying someone's curiosity about how we became a family is not the first thing I want to talk about with someone I don't know at a soccer game, at the doctor's office, at the grocery store, at school registration, at swim lessons, etc... It really does seems to happen everywhere, all the time.

    Susan O
    Longview WA
    Mom to 2 amazing Ethiopian boys

  9. I know I've written this to you before... but I could have totally written this post. I've been pondering this topic recently and considering a blog post of my own. We've only been the recipient of 1 or 2 inquiries that I would put in the rude category, but don't we encounter rude people even without the adoption factor? Some people are just rude. The vast majority of inquiries/comments from people have been very positive and/or just curious. I feel like I've "gotten over" the potential awkwardness of being a conspicuous family; I think I've chilled out and even welcome the attention. I mean, God put our family together, part of our destiny as a family must be to "stand out in a crowd" and it must be for a purpose. I refuse to waste my energy on getting offended.

  10. I always love reading these posts about what people think and say and truly I think its something only us in the adoption world understand.

    You know what is really funny I don't get these comments a lot. People with me are trying more to fish with how many men I have had these kids with or are they from 2 or 3 marriages because my kids are 24, 22, 7, 6,6 and 4. Last year this lady at summer camp said to me "well at least my kids are from one marriage". Usually I always have a good comment but with that lady I couldn't close my mouth. I just wanted to slap her but chose to walk away. Yea I agree with the one commenter, people are just rude in general and don't think what they say.

  11. We have had our 2 Ethiopian kiddos home for just over a month now, and I have to say that both my husband and I have been pleasantly surprised at how little attention we get when we are out in public. I was on guard at first and kind of looked for it, but it faded quickly as I realized that people seemed to react to us like any other family. Maybe its because our kids are a bit older (5 & 6) or maybe its because we live in southern California where there are lots of different types of families. Either way, its nice because I'm not great at thinking on my feet and usually only come up with the "right" response after the moment has passed.

    People do ask questions, but they are polite and I went into this whole thing expecting questions. It's not like we can hide the fact that our kids are adopted and we wouldn't want to if we could. I guess I fall on the "I'd rather take advantage of the opportunity to teach someone a bit more about adoption if they're curious," side of the fence.

    My husband and I also chose to adopt as our "Plan A", but I figure most people assume that we are infertile and our kids are our Plan B. This just makes me chuckle at peoples' assumptions. I am sure I make similar totally inaccurate assumptions all the time at no harm to anyone.

    Just my two cents. Thanks for the link to the other post. I read that blog too but somehow missed that one.

  12. I agree that it might depend where you live. We're in St Louis and our daughters are biracial. If I'm out alone, I get the side eye a LOT because I look like a teen mom with two biracial kids and the old white ladies at Target aren't always impressed by me.

    My personal favorite though is the few times (oh yes, it's happened more than once) when someone has told David how good he is to have taken on me and my two children.

    We do get a lot of very lovely, kind comments too though. Or people who just smile at us. That's always lovely. I am curious how it will change once we have five kids and three of them are African (Ugandan and Sesotho)!

  13. Kait, I had to laugh at your comment-only because I get this ALL the time! The dirty looks from the older generation unless my husband is present-and if he is present, it is what you mentioned or a comment about what GOOD people we are for taking 'this' on.

    I will say that we also receive many wonderful comments on what a beautiful family we have and I do appreciate that although as I mentioned before, I'm already holding my breath and preparing myself when someone approaches us due to previous experiences.

    I do believe that where we live has something to do with it. Although we live just an hour outside of Portland OR, our town does not have a lot of diversity and most folks earn their living working in a factory. For the record, we are considering moving to an area that has more diversity.

    Loving all the different opinions and food for thought...

  14. I think you should all move here with us! (Although Denver is sadly lacking in diverse African American neighborhoods.)
    We do however have a large Ethiopian population!

  15. Hi! This is Amy from Treasures in Jars of Clay. Ariam is a doll.

    I read the comments and had to laugh. It totally depends on my mood. We get nonstop questions and comments (mostly positive) and I think it ties into "twin intrigue" as well as the girls don't look like me. Most days I can politely answer and keep moving, other days I just get so annoyed by the CONSTANT attention. I just want to be normal. It feels normal to me but I have to keep realizing that it doesn't feel normal to my community. Usually when people start out the conversation, "where are they from" I just say my hometown and keep moving. :)

    As far as Kinky Curly goes, it is a total experiment! Also, from what I have read, it needs to be used with Kinky curly shampoo and detangler. It isn't really a good combo product as it reacts to different ingredients and can cause build up. If Ariam's hair has been crunchy or sticky, you are using too much. The curling custard takes a long time to dry (over an hour) and you need to use it on hair that is dripping wet or it will be crunchy. I just kind of messed around until I found the right amount for their hair. There are youtube videos linked through the Kinky Curly site that were helpful. I do not like the styling spritz and it doesn't help, so I am not sure what to do on second day curls. Ideally, the curling custard would be used in bath, immediately after detangling, but because we do bath before bed, we just spray it down in the morning and then put it in.

    Hope this makes sense!
    Amy G


Some of my very dearest friendships have been made through writing this blog and reading blogs written by other adoptive families. Comments help to facilitate and grow relationships and I welcome any written with positive intentions.

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