Questions from Strangers: A Mom’s Response

November 21, 2016 adoption realities, Kelley B., questions from strangers, trauma 2 Comments

Just a few months ago I was at our local children’s hospital checking in for my son who was to have surgery that day. The lady that was taking my information was busy asking all the normal questions we parents get from medical professionals. My son was not by my side but a good distance away, playing in the waiting room with the other kids who would be undergoing surgery that day.

I think it was the question of his birth country or events surrounding his birth that lead me to tell her that he had been adopted from China several years ago. She finished up all the paperwork, had me sign a few things and then asked what I wanted it to say on my name tag for the day. Did I want “adoptive mom” or just “mom”?


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I sat there a bit taken aback, we adoptive parents get asked a lot of questions, and we get comments. Over the years we accept that’s just par for the course when your family looks the way ours does. This one, though, I had never gotten. And frankly I never thought I would. I politely but firmly said, “Well, I am his mom – so “Mom” is just fine.”

Now I know this woman likely did not know how not ok this question is to ask an adoptive parent. Likely – in her attempts to be politically correct or sensitive to legal guardians etc. – she was trying to be polite. But in her attempts to be “correct”… this mama felt a bit slammed. I got up from my chair a feeling like a deflated ballon.

A wave of sad raw thoughts suddenly rushing through my mind. It wasn’t her fault. I don’t blame her at all. But that doesn’t change the fact it still stung. I also was not going to explain to my seven year old son why moms name tag said anything less than just “Mom”.

I let that moment wash over me for the rest of the day while I helped prepare my son for surgery, then waited just like any other parent for her child to wake up from surgery, and then held him when his heart wrenching sobs turning into rage in the recovery room. I gave my pre-rehearsed “spiel” to the nurses who tried to comfort him in any way they could. “No – nothing will help but time and a bit of space.”

This is a child from deep heart-shattering trauma. And this is exactly how he sounded, this is how he sobbed, three years ago when he was handed to us in a humid stuffy government building in China. It is very much his “go to” way to cope with the scary, with the unknown. My husband and I have learned what helps, and the crying rages have gotten less, they don’t happen as often and thankfully don’t last as long as they use to. But nothing really helps except to be there by his side and let him cycle through.

It’s in these moments where we are reminded once again that our children that have joined our family through adoption still have deep wounds of hurt. We more than signed up for this when we choose the path of adoption to grow our family. We take this on because it’s a part of our children. We take them just as they are because they are our children.

I am their mom. That doesn’t mean we dismiss the mothers they had before we came along. We honor those “first moms” in our home. They are spoken of often in our family. Our kids will never be urged to not speak of their birth parents. We don’t know much of these precious birth moms that gave our three children life, but we honor them and their decisions to give our children a life beyond what they could provide.

So nurse lady – I am mom. Just being labeled plane ol’ mom is an honor and perfectly fine with me.

One moment, one statement from an innocent person can have a ripple effect in anyone’s mind. Words can and do effect us – even those uttered innocently.

This is especially true with adoptive parents. When my husband and I started our journey of adoption five years ago we never anticipated becoming somewhat of a “poster family” for adoption when we go out in the world. Getting a thicker layer of skin has been a must but also learning to be empathetic to those who just have questions and truly want to know more about adoption has had to find a place in our hearts also. I am not always the best at my responses. Over time I have gotten better. Some days y’all, it just depends on my mood or the situation the questions or comments are given. Is my adopted child around? Is he or she in earshot? Then even more reason to be sensitive in how I respond. Keeping my responses positive while trying to keep my children’s stories private can sometimes be very tricky.

Recently I have discovered I can kindly correct those who may ask a question with the terms we adoptive parents would be perfectly ok with not ever hearing again. You know the “Are they REAL siblings?” or the dreaded “Do you have any REAL kids?”

Those have to be the top two we have been getting here lately. My husband I have adopted three children from China. We ourselves are not Chinese, so you can imagine that we get our fair share of remarks. My response to the two questions above have been something like, “You mean biologically related? No, they are not.” But that depends on who is asking. Is it a medical professional? Then I am going to be more honest and forth coming. But is it someone I just met? When asked if the three China kids beside me are “REAL siblings”? Well, then I respond with “They are now!” often enough to satisfy the person. A handful of times I have gotten “Well, you know what I mean…” Yeah, I know what you mean. And I answered your question.

The response for “Do you have any real kids?” for me can be anywhere from “Well, all my kids are real…” to “You mean biological? Yes, I have two biological and three through adoption.” Again – it all depends on the context in which these questions are asked. I have found that – if I just calmly re-state the question with the right terminology – this diffuses the situation and satisfies the person asking.

There have been some really hard moments, though, where I just straight up lost my breath and had to have a conversation in my head so that I would not break down in sobs or start to blow steam out of my ears. Once, in our neurologist’s office, I was waiting in the line to check out and leave. In tow was my newly adopted two year old and my nine year old, both from China. There was a little girl in line in front of us around the age of six or seven. I saw her look at me, look at the two kids with me, and then a look of complete confusion came over her. “Dad! Where is their mommy?” she asked. The dad politely replied. “Right there, she is standing right there,” motioning to me. “No! No! That’s not the right mom! No! Where is the real mom?” She shouted this several times. All the while the look of embarrassment took over her sweet parents’ faces. They obviously were in shock that their child said this, and had no idea how to respond beyond what they had already told her.

Y’all – it took all I had to bend down, look into her eyes, and utter, “You know what? You’re right, they don’t look like me. But I promise you that they are my children. They look different because they came all the way from China to be my children. Isn’t that so cool?” I really don’t know how I got that much out. I wasn’t mad at all, just terribly sad. I had just gotten finished with a two hour appointment with my daughter who had suffered what we believed to be her first seizure the night before. My hands were full of pamphlets on epilepsy and a prescription for rescue meds for if and when she had another episode. To say I was overwhelmed would have been an understatement.

The dad kindly looked at me and with wide eyes whispered “Thank you!” and ushered his now satisfied daughter out the door. The office lady at the check out was mortified for me and commented sorry and that she can’t believe that happened. It wasn’t her fault. Kids are naturally curious. They are brutally honest. This sweet child just saw a mommy and two kids and in her mind we didn’t match. I walked away thinking at least those parents now possibly have a reason to discuss with their children how some families look different.

Sometimes people just don’t know what to say, I get totally get that. But when situations like this come up for our kids it’s a great time to educate and prepare them. It can be a simple, “Families don’t have to match, we don’t all have to have the same color hair, or shaped eyes to be family. God brings children into families sometimes through the momma’s tummy but sometimes its through the gift of adoption,” depending on the child’s age and maturity.

Now before you get all “Bravo! Good response mama! Way to go!” – know that I believe in my heart that response was not me but God giving me the calm words that day to diffuse a situation that could have ended up with me in sobs on the floor.

There have been several times when my patience is all out for the day, my kids have run me ragged, we have had our fair share of fits for the day, and I am just weary. We mamas all have those days right? But then I get asked “Well, are you kids even related?” And well, I am just out of kindness for the moment, and all the response that person got that day was a simple “I am not doing this right now,” and a quick departure from the conversation before anything else could be uttered. I knew that if I stayed there I could not have followed up with anything nice, nor educational, for that matter.

We adoptive parents don’t always have the best answers to questions about our families. I have often walked away from a conversation and said, “Shoot! Why didn’t I say this? Or I shouldn’t have said that!”
 But I am sure there are those that also walk away from conversations with us, adoptive parents, asking themselves the same.

Being in public with our family – that doesn’t look like a typical family – sometimes has its challenges. But overall, I kinda dig that we look different. It gives us an easy in to talk to those we encounter about adoption. And it’s also lead to some sweet moments. “Your family is beautiful. You’re so blessed, what an awesome family you have,” have all been uttered to us at random times and I smile so big and so proud when this happens. We have even had our meals paid for by complete strangers and I completely break down each time that has happened. Because on each occasion, it’s been during a time when money was short, or times we were struggling. Those sweet precious acts of kindness reminded us that God sees, and he is there.


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I would like to think one day I can find a balance between sharing too much, educating, and being honest with those around us who are curious to know why we adopt, and why we do look different. I hope and pray my responses will honor my children, their birth family, and their journeys. And I hope that when my adopted children are asked who I am they will say – “That’s just my mom.”

KelleyNHBOSig



2 responses to “Questions from Strangers: A Mom’s Response”

  1. A very helpful article for both families built through adoption and those they meet. Everyone knows someone who belongs to an adoptive family so they should put themselves in our shoes.
    I was in the same place as you 20 years ago. My children were born in Brazil. My comeback to nosy questions was “Why do you ask?” Said in different tones of voices depending on my mood and what I thought of their question.
    Bless you as you raise all your children!

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