Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Adoption Etiquette - Installment 1

Adoption touches 10% of American families. That's a pretty big number, so chances are that you have a family member or friend who was adopted, has adopted, or has made an adoption plan. Not so long ago, adoption was this hushed topic that people didn't mention in polite company. Many adoptees were never even told the truth about their own life stories.

Thankfully, the face of adoption is changing. Open adoptions mean that birth families can proudly display their child's crayon drawings on their fridges and cheer them on at a soccer game. Scrapbook stores have entire corners dedicated to stickers and embellishments made to celebrate adoption finalizations, and match day phone calls. The internet makes it easy for waiting adoptive families to find support through others in the same boat. The movie Juno gave voice to teen birthmoms, showing the main character as a real, likable girl who made an adoption plan after an unplanned pregnancy. As adoption moves out of the shadows and into the sunlight, there's another piece of the puzzle that needs to be addressed, and that's adoption etiquette. The world at large is really starting to embrace adoptive families, and I sure hope that same support will soon be extended to birth families as well. Yet, despite good intentions, American society does not teach us what to say when it comes to adoption, resulting in a lot of awkward exchanges and hurt feelings. I'm going to start a series of adoption etiquette posts to help bridge the gap.

"So my best friend/brother/cousin told me that they are adopting! What am I supposed to do? How can I support my loved ones during this very exciting/anxiety-filled time? What should/shouldn't I say?"

1. Be excited and positive! A family is growing, and that's cause for joy, not alarm. Do not tell adoption horror stories. That's like telling a pregnant woman about miscarriages and stillbirth statistics. Ask questions, show interest, be happy! They need your celebration and support just as much families built "the traditional way". Tell them they'll be great parents. Tell them how much life is going to change. Treat them as if they're expecting, because THEY ARE. Simple, right?

2. Respect their choice. Don't criticize the hopeful parents' choice of agency/attorney, domestic/international, infant/older child, etc. So many people asked us why we were choosing infant adoption when there were older children in need. (And to answer that question bluntly, we did not feel financially or emotionally prepared to help an older child overcome the issues in their past. We thank God there are families who are able to do so, but we are not among them, at least not yet.) What a stab to my heart and a guilt trip. You don't ask a newly pregnant mom why she is reproducing instead of adopting a special needs child. There are so many choices in the world of adoption, and adoptive families have to do a lot of soul searching to make the personal choice that's right for them.

3. Don't ask about the money involved. If you are sincerely interested in adopting yourself and would like to get an idea for financial planning purposes, that's one thing. But adoptive families are not purchasing a child, and it's not cool to ask about the fees the same way one would ask a friend if she got a deal on that handbag. Especially not in the presence of an adoptee. Very uncool.

4. YES, you can throw a shower! I am very disappointed to see that etiquette websites encourage not to throw baby showers until after the baby is placed or the adoption is final (Um, adoption finalizations take about 6 months. It would be really nice to have some onesies before then!) Ask your loved one what they want. Yes, adoptions can and do fall through, but waiting families are expecting a child. If you wait until after the baby is placed, the parents will have to buy all the necessities themselves. Most of the adoption fees do come at the placement, so outfitting a nursery and buying an entire layette by themselves can be a real hardship for many families. Pool entry is a great time to throw a shower. Offer to store the gifts for them if they'd rather not look at them during the wait. I loved having the nursery ready before the Nugget arrived - when the wait got particularly rough, I would sit in there and pray/imagine our baby-to-be. For other families, that would be a nightmare, so ask. When it comes to older child adoptions, a welcome party would be incredible - especially with practical gifts like shoes, clothes, school supplies, towels and bath toys, fun toiletries, and books...but bear in mind that an older child will probably be overwhelmed from the transition alone, not to mention having to meet many new strangers and presents, so keep the guest list short and stick to an end time, or try to throw it for parents only just before homecoming.

5. Do not belittle adoption. Don't suggest surrogacy or fertility treatments; if your loved one has already chosen adoption, they've thought long and hard about their options, trust me. Don't say, "I bet after you adopt, you'll get pregnant." Don't even tell true stories about this. Sounds innocent, right? To adoptive parents (yes, we're a sensitive bunch), it's a subtle dig that the gold standard is a bio child.

6. Do not joke that they're taking the "easy way out". No, we don't get morning sickness or labor pains, but adoption is an emotionally gut-wrenching process. We take time off work to complete mounds of paperwork and attend required classes. We are picked apart and dissected in every way by social workers. We have to beg friends and neighbors to write us reference letters. We have to prove to the world that we'll be fit parents (while we watch news stories about child neglect). We have to be fingerprinted and background-checked like criminals. We wait for an uncertain amount of time, having to be ready to drop our entire lives at any minute, our hearts thumping with each phone ring, that this could be it. We prepare our hearts for a specific child, yet know that we could lose it all in a flash, that the country could close or that the birthparents could have a change of heart during the grace period. We know if that happens that we have to put on our strong faces and be ok with that. The easy way out? I don't think so.

7. Please don't ask about our fertility issues. Believe it or not, some adoptive parents are fertile. Some aren't. But if we want to talk about it, we'll bring it up.

8. If you have other questions, ask! It's natural to want to know more about the process, and most adoptive parents will be happy to tell you what they're doing to bring their child home. The milestones are certainly different - dossiers and dear birthparent letters instead of ultrasounds and belly measurements - but the nervous happy preparation for parenthood is the same.

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