Mother’s Day: What to Say (and Not Say) to Adoptive Mothers

A short time ago I was introduced to my new visiting teacher at a Relief Society activity. This was our first face-to-face meeting, and it shortly became clear that she was unaware that I am a mother by adoption. Within just a few minutes, she said all of the items on every “Things to not say to an adoptive family,” list, then she added some more (mostly unintentional), yet cutting digs. I left the meeting early.

The Obliteration Room

In the following days, friends and I cried, laughed and commiserated at some of the common  -hurtful at worst, and silly at best-  things people say about adoption. It quickly became clear to us that adoptive Mormon families experience additional (probably unintentional) comments and questions along with the standard (probably unintentionally hurtful) adoption comments. There are quite a few “what not to say to adoptive families” lists floating around the internet, but I have yet to find one that reflects some of the comments that occur within the church. Thus, with the help of other Mormon adoptive mothers, I was inspired to make something positive out of something that was scary and hurtful.

 

Please note: This list is not reflective of every Mormon adoptive family. PLEASE add your own thoughts in the comments section, so we can all do a better job at supporting every kind of family.  

 

What to Say:

“Congratulations!”

You’d say it to a family who just welcomed a birth child, so say it to us, too. It is a huge accomplishment to see an adoption all the way through. Quite often, we deal with several governmental organizations (sometimes in more than one country!), each who want our time, money, and proof of a variety of very personal things in order to process our adoption application. Proof may include detailed and repetitious home inspections, invasive gynecological exams, psychological evaluations of us and the children already in our home, worthiness interviews, and complete financial disclosure. It is a very personal (and draining!) experience for the adoptive parents. It is really, really hard and often takes years. Congratulate us. We earned it.

 

“When can I drop off a meal?”

I have heard of some thoughtful visiting teachers who organized meals for the new adoptive parents. This did not happen for us, but it would have been extremely helpful. I think the Compassionate Service leader in the ward did not think of meals for us because we adopted toddlers, rather than infants. But our children were traumatized, and we spent just as many sleepless nights with crying children as do the parents of newborns. Indeed, the night terrors from their past and other issues kept us up nights for a good 3 years. Some meals at the start of this adventure would have been a huge blessing, and would’ve shown you cared for us and our new family.

 

“I love seeing your family!”

Some people don’t seem to think of us as a family. They seem to think of us as temporary guardians and when the children are grown, they will “go back” to find their “real” family. We are their real family. When the adoption involves LDS Family Services, you can bet that we are going to be, or are already sealed in the temple. The court order of final adoption makes us a real family. The temple makes us an eternal family. When people act or say things that suggest our family is lesser, it only serves to show that those individuals think of biology the primary or only factor in creating eternal families. News flash: Biology does not make an eternal family; temple ordinances do.

 

“I love how your child _______*  like you!”

(*has the same sense of humour/dresses/loves math/shares/likes the same foods, etc.)

My husband and I happen to look like our adoptive children. When they first came to us, we liked it when people said, “They look like you!” We still like it! But. When people say things like, “I can’t believe…” and “They even have the same…”  and “It’s hard to tell they are adopted because…” We know God’s hand was in our adoption, and we know it is a miracle. But when you point out that you are constantly surprised that we look alike, all it serves to do is highlight the fact that you don’t see us as a family that is meant to be together. My family is not a freak show. If you can’t believe your eyes even after you have seen us again and again, keep it to yourself. In other words, “They look like you” is okay, but “I can’t believe they even have the same ears as you,” is weird.

 

Along those lines, friends who have adopted children from different ethnic backgrounds have even more weirdness. They meet people who seem to only be able to point out how much their children don’t look like them, or they try to search for physical characteristics that don’t exist.  In the end, all it serves to do is to point out that we are not a biological family. We already know that. Tell us that you see us in our children’s actions. We are raising them, and we love it when the positive things we do are reflected in the beautiful souls we get to parent.

 

“Is it okay if I take a photo of your child?”

A great rule for all children is to ask permission to take a photo or post a photo online. But sometimes at church, people can become a little too familiar and make presumptions about “my primary class.” This can create huge problems and hurt for primary teachers and parents alike, especially when it comes to adoption. Some adoptions prohibit posting online photos of a minor child, or have limitations or bans on photos of the children during the placement process or after for safety reasons. Don’t disrespect any parent by photographing or posting photos of their children without permission. Period.

 

“Tell me your child’s birth story?”

You and I must be very close friends if you’ve asked me this question, and be assured, in most cases, I want to share it. I was hurt when my children’s adoption was final and no one … not a single person…. asked for our “birth story.”

Camille Pissarro (French, 1830 - 1903 ), Two Women Chatting by the Sea, St. Thomas, 1856, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Camille Pissarro (French, 1830 – 1903 ), Two Women Chatting by the Sea, St. Thomas, 1856, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

I finally mentioned this hurt to a kind friend, who immediately apologized, and said she was thrilled to hear my story. She asked me to share it when it was right for me. To be clear: she knew that the experience was as powerful and personal as birth. She did not ask me at a Relief Society activity, passing in the hall at church, sitting a row away from me in a crowded Relief Society before the lesson started, or the first time she met me at visiting teaching. She asked me to share a personal story on my own terms, when I felt like I could share something that profound with her. (To this day, I testify that after the adoption was granted, the hug my husband and I shared was the most unifying, intense soul-connecting moment in my life. I have no doubt that God was there. Mine is a sacred story and I feel it is sacrilegious for you to ask to hear it in an impersonal setting.)

 

But: Please don’t expect us to share every detail with you. Many people think it is perfectly acceptable to ask about where our children’s biological family are, why they chose adoption, and other information.  That is none of your business. It is gossip. Don’t play that game.

 

And lastly, don’t presume we “had” to adopt. No one held a gun to my head and made me become an adoptive parent. I chose to be a parent this way. Sometimes we have biological children before or after we adopt. Sometimes we don’t.  We may or may not tell about our infertility roller coaster ride if there was one, but don’t presume there is a backstory, or that the backstory is any of your business.

 

“Would you like to share your adoption story at my baby shower?”

 

Thank you for asking! I might say yes. I might say no. I will always be grateful
that you asked and recognized that the miracle of my family is just as powerful as the miracle of giving birth the traditional way. Would you also like some advice on motherhood? Awesome. I have some! Often adoptive parents are required to take parenting classes, and have close contact with child psychologists because many of us had to go through weeks, months and years of prep work in order to adopt. Many of us went through post-adoption placement counselling where we learned about normal kid stuff, in addition to adoption-challenge stuff. We researched the best way to parent so we would be ready. Thus, we are a wealth of knowledge about children. Please invite us to share.

 

 

What NOT to say to a Mormon Adoptive Family

 

“Your adopted child has a different kind of genealogy to do!”

 

Um. No. This statement, and those like it cause spiritual as well as personal hurt.
lookingIn one swoop, the person who said this just informed my child that they don’t belong in our eternal family, even when we have been sealed. This person has challenged the concept of the sealing ordinance, and focused on bloodlines as the defining factor for genealogy work. They have just informed my child that they alone must research a blood line that they may or may not be able to locate, which in turn, might imply that my child is an eternal orphan. Not only is that NOT true, it is NOT cool.  Our family is Mormon. We are the culture of eternal families; looking at family as limited to biology is wrong.

Along those lines, let’s debunk something. The reason so many sappy adoption movies involve a child searching for their birth family is because that is so uncommon. It is an anomaly. Most adopted children are very happy, and have little desire to seek out some birth line to which they do not feel connected. My child has agency. Don’t presume to know what an adopted child will or won’t choose in the future any more than what a biological child will or won’t choose in the future.

“You’ll have a child of your own now.”

 

Um. My adopted child is my own. And maybe we will get pregnant, but maybe we won’t. Maybe we will adopt again. Or maybe we feel our family is complete now. Just as saying, “Did you plan that pregnancy?” and “When are you having another baby?” are impersonal and judgmental, so is “you’re going to get pregnant now.” Stay out of my bedroom and my body.

 

“For those who aren’t blessed to have children …”

Check your words. I am blessed. Even before I adopted my children, I was blessed. I don’t feel comfortable with people telling me I am not blessed, do you? i.e. “Too bad you weren’t blessed with brown eyes.” Ouch.

Mostly, adoption is described as a “final option” in many fertility miracle stories, such as this:

“We suffered from infertility. Finally, we submitted our adoption paperwork. Then the Lord blessed us and we found out we were expecting!”

Short slaps are still slaps (hint: adoption is a blessing), and besides, the story remains unfinished—did this person give up on adoption? Did the spirit guide them to quit? Or was this something else? This is how this story could be better:

“We suffered from infertility. Finally, we submitted adoption paperwork because we wanted so much to be parents. Shortly thereafter, we found out we were pregnant! After such a long, hard battle with infertility, we decided to focus on the pregnancy 100%. In time, the spirit directed us away from adoption and we felt peace with this decision.”

So much nicer, and it finishes the story! But mostly, just remember that we are blessed. Hugely so! Just because my blessing doesn’t fit the same mold as your blessing doesn’t mean it isn’t a miracle.

 

“Oh, I love adoption! But it’s not for me. We’re going to have a family of our own.”

Um. “Our own.” Whose family do you think I have?

 

“Your child would behave better if they had been with you from the start.”

 

Most recently, this was said to me after my 5 year old took a CTR ring that she found on the floor of a friend’s house. (The irony!) This is a normal part of child development, and has nothing to do with her adoption. When you state, (possibly as a means to excuse or even compliment me on my moral uprightness), that her moral and ethical behaviour is a result of her background, you are stating that the fall of Adam does not apply to her, that she has limited agency—and mostly that I am a bad mother. My child is normal. She might have adoption-related issues, but unless you are a child psychologist, I am the one to point out any special issues regarding her moral, social or ethical development. Not you.

 

“Your child is so lucky to be adopted!”

 

Maybe so. To be sure, I am the lucky one. And the person who says this has just made a presumption about the birth family. In many situations, the birth family is lucky to be able to place a child with someone they trust so they can go and do the things the Lord has in store for them at this time. The negative presumption surrounding the origin of my child is not flattering in any way. Don’t say it.

 

“Why did the birth mother not want him/her? What was *so wrong* with the biological mother that she could even think about giving away her child?”

This is so wrong on so many levels. However, because the church often teaches that women have an innate sense of mothering, the concept of giving a child away darkly contrasts a narrow presumption of women’s divine role only as mothers. So. First of all, women are called to do way more than just be mothers. Second of all, to place oneself in the Christlike position of clear and utter selfless love, and to follow the spirit in choosing a home for a most precious child, is spiritually superior to most people’s understanding. In the majority of adoption cases, birth mothers do not abandon their children. They want more for their children than they can give, so using the epitome of Christlike love, look into adoption as an option. They are thoughtful, good people. Sometimes they have a back story of addiction, abuse or whatever led them to the place they are in. Whatever the background, it is not our’s to judge. Any way you look at the above, the thought process, and associated statements are narrow-minded and judgmental.

 

“Didn’t they have any babies?”

This plum statement is offered when people notice that your adopted child is a child, rather than an infant. What they have failed to notice is that this is the 21st century, and children are not lined up in shop-style orphanages where you go and just “pick one out.” We believe the hand of God brought our child to us, and us to our child. We fasted and prayed for this. Many of us have been in foster-care to adopt programs. Some of us are genetically related to the child, though did not give birth. Others of us knew our child was for us, but had to wait for government approval and programs and visas and red tape to be processed to bring him/her home. You don’t know my story, and frankly, only God does. We are grateful for our children, regardless of their age. God chose who and when to bring to us, we didn’t. If you have an issue with that, I direct you to your knees for whatever answer you might be seeking.

 

“The adoption won’t be final till you’re sealed.”

This is like saying, “You won’t feel like a real human till you lose weight.”  You already feel like a human (I hope), and we feel like a family. To say this can be hurtful to tender feelings who went through a lot to become a family. Plus, this statement makes a lot of presumptions about temple recommend status, testimony of the temple, and the terms of the adoption. I suspect the reason you said this is because you want to celebrate with us if and when we go to the temple. And you might even want to attend the sealing with us. But this is not the way to invite yourself, nor is it the way to encourage us to invite you. For some of us, your words may actually dissuade us from seeking the temple.

 

 

“Where is their real mother?”

 

I’m standing right here. Where is your child’s real mother? Think about that question. What if someone asked you that, and you responded that you were your child’s “real” mother. But they wouldn’t stop- and kept pressing, sometimes laughing, sometimes becoming impatient, then on the verge of agitation– demanding to know: where is their real mother!  Feels threatening when the question is leveled at you, doesn’t it? And, because you are the real mother (biological or adopted), it makes you go all mama bear and run and protect your child, doesn’t it? Me too.

 

 

 

What are your thoughts on this? Have you ever experienced any of these statements, or similar? Please share in the comments below!

Spunky

Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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10 Responses

  1. isabelle says:

    Thank you for this.. I can be ‘not-so-bright at times’, and it would shatter me to know that I’d hurt beautiful people.. Big big big massive hugs ♥

    • spunky says:

      Dear Isabelle,
      Even the closest of friends and family members have said the “wrong” thing from time to time. It’s okay. It’s when the same person says the same thing again and again, or someone we meet for the first time expects us to describe something very personal that it becomes painful. The difference is when you make an effort to learn and be more sensitive. <3

  2. Rachel says:

    This is so important. Thank you.

  3. AmySo says:

    I loved everything you said, except this sentence: “Most adopted children are very happy, and have little desire to seek out some birth line to which they do not feel connected. ”

    Having recently been reunited with the son I placed for adoption, this idea frustrated me. He didn’t seek me out because he was unhappy—that, too, is a trope of cheesy adoption movies. He didn’t act out of unhappiness but curiosity. He sought me out because he wanted to know more about his birth families. The desire to understand about a biological bloodline and happiness are not opposites.

    • spunky says:

      You are right, and I am sorry about the poor wording. My statement was based on academic studies of adopted children. Seeking one’s earthly bloodline does not equal unhappiness. Although our adoption is closed, I maintain contact with the birth mother for this purpose– I want my daughters to have the connections they may desire in the future, and answers about their medical family histories. (an adopted friend often lamented that as a mother, she didn’t know her biological family medical history and that worried her. These are the little things that do make a difference and need to be kept in mind for those who might not know their birth parents!)

      Thank you so much for commenting, I am very grateful that you added your voice. <3

  4. EFH says:

    I like reading such posts of people who have had a different kind of story than mine. It is hard for me to sometime know what is a good question and what is not because (although what you have listed here seems like not good questions) this qualification is in the eye of the beholder/receiver of the question. Consequently, I feel very unsure of what to ask to someone (this goes beyond adoption and infertility topics) and how to, especially when they do not know me well yet. So, all I hope is that as I think a couple of times about what comes out of my mouth, the receiver of my questions can also be easy going and inform me when I cross the line but still be open to a conversation with me so I get to know them. But I do agree with you – no one should doubt the validity and the integrity of your family. You are a family and that is final.

    • EFH says:

      I will give you an example: Just yesterday after I posted on my FB a post honoring women as mothers but also beyond motherhood, a friend of mine lamented that women who struggle with infertility should be mentioned in the statement. For me, I feel that the issue of infertility of my friends is private and I cannot name it specifically on a post. I speak about nurturing beyond motherhood and that includes all women. But some people believe that statements should be specific and that is where it gets complicated for me . It is difficult to say something that all adopted families will like or that all women struggling with infertility will appreciate. There is diversity in feelings, thoughts and moods even among those two groups as there is among women who have children. So, it is a fine line and guiding people on how YOU want them to talk to YOU on a particular issue is key to building positive friendships.

      • spunky says:

        I absolutely agree, EFH! People make mistakes, and that is okay. It’s the repeat offenders, when they have been told they are close to, or have crossed a line, that are the most hurtful. I think that the woman who was assigned as my visiting teacher presumed that I would tell her all of my “problems” and personal backstory at first meeting. After she pushed a point that I had brushed off, I told her, “It is considered offensive when people ask that of adoptive families.” There were others in the group, and the group stopped asked the question. But she cornered me privately and kept pressing, asking about the birth mother, with the reasoning that she could not comprehend “giving away” a baby and asked where their “real mother” was. I replied that I was the real mother and walked away. In retrospect, I think she was trying to get to know me– but it was so sloppy and aggressive because the concept of adoption was so foreign to her, it was a hurtful mess. She won’t make eye contact with me now, which makes me feel sad, yet still unsafe.

        Like you, the complication regarding specific statements – in my case– specific to the birth mother— seemed like an attack rather than about care. This is the issue: when we can’t include everyone, exclusion can feel like an attack. It is complicated. And personal.

        I love your statement, “guiding people on how YOU want them to talk to YOU on a particular issue is key to building positive friendships.”

        You are right! Thank you so much for your thoughtful and living comment.

  5. Ziff says:

    Thanks for sharing these, Spunky. My impression is that a lot of the things on your “what not to say” list arise from similar assumptions about biological connections being real and family connections made through adoption being somehow lesser. Just thinking out loud, I wonder if I as someone who might say these hurtful things might do better if I reconsidered the fundamental issues like this one, and then my tendency to say hurtful stuff would be naturally reduced (and my tendency to say helpful supportive stuff would be naturally increased).

    • spunky says:

      Amen and amen, Ziff! Adoption is a happy thing, even if in the past, or in some lackluster daytime soap opera movies it is portrayed as a complicated, hurtful or lesser way to have a family.

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