The American family is probably a more diverse unit than ever in the history of our nation. Gone are the days where “real families” were comprised of a TV version of a white mother and father, and two or three blond-haired blue eyed children, who belonged to both parents. The divorce rate is only part of the reason for mixed families, and possibly the least noticeable. After all, when two people who have children from previous marriages combine households, they often are still both white or black. Children in combined households can thus blend well when viewed by the outside world, and no one is the wiser as to who the biological parents are. As it should be. After all, whose business is that?
But when families have a mixture of different races and shades, it can be for a multitude of reasons. Maybe each parent is of a different race. Then the children could be lighter or darker skinned, resembling Mom or Dad or neither even though they are the children of both. Sometimes a child is the mom’s from before she married her husband, either from when she was a single mom or from another marriage. The child may not resemble the other children at all, or her husband. Other situations can result in various mixes, such as foster children, adoption, or cousins living with aunts and uncles who have taken them in, either temporarily, or permanently.
Grandparents often are the guardians of their grandchildren, and become the parents in the eyes of both the children and the themselves, since bonding and dependency will naturally occur in such cases, particularly with very young children. Other times, a mother will give birth to her child in her late forties, so it will often be mistakenly assumed by onlookers that she is lugging around her grandchild and not her child.
These cases don’t even take into account single parent households, or same sex parents, which can be complex family units. But this article is not about those cases, or even about divorces where everybody still matches enough to blend in. It’s about cases where the children stick out. Children who do not blend in with their families may not at first sense that something is off kilter; in fact they never would if some of the public would just keep their thoughts and their staring eyes to themselves. (Disabled people are also familiar with such circumstances).
My own story stems from the adoption of our two sons, both from South Korea, both adopted as infants. Times may have changed in the last 25 or so years, but I don’t think people have. I’m going to illustrate this by pointing out some of the questions that were asked of me and my husband, usually by complete strangers when we were out in public with our young sons.
I’ll start with an incident that occurred more than once. These were more humorous than insulting, because they demonstrate that people are not only nosy by nature, but can be insensitive to the feelings of others as well. We always had a good laugh when these types of situations happened.
Our little boys were quite the talkers. Our oldest was talking in complete sentences before his first birthday, and his younger brother caught up quickly. When they were both still toddlers, we would often get variations of comments from complete strangers who would approach us in stores and restaurants or other public venues:
“They speak such good English!”
“Can they speak Chinese?”
“How did they learn American manners?”
I was waiting for someone to ask me why they weren’t using chopsticks. But we tried to keep our composure and explain that they never really had heard any other language except English, having come to the states as babies. Then, invariably, we’d get the response, “Oh they are adopted?” (“Um, no, we kidnapped them from a Korean family in Canada and smuggled them through the Windsor tunnel.”)
The worst question any person, whether someone known to us or a stranger could ask was, “Are they real brothers?” I heard the question so many times that I had accumulated a list of snarky comebacks in my head. But because I was too young at the time to be brash, I kept quiet and responded more kindly than I wanted to. For anyone to ask if two children are “real siblings” – and of course the questioner really means, “biological siblings“, but can’t even think of the correct wording, the person is not being considerate, but simply nosy. Of COURSE they are real brothers. With adopted children, or mixed families with combined households, etc., why would someone ask this question? What difference does it make?
How hurtful to have my sons within earshot hear me say, “No, they aren’t biological brothers. We got them at different times.” So I would usually just lie because it wasn’t really lying. “Yes. They are real brothers.” But I wanted to simply stop after “real”. “Yes, they are real.” (“Would you like to poke them with a fork and see if they yell?” Or, “No, they aren’t really real. I actually have to unscrew a plate on their backs each night to remove and recharge the batteries.“)
A friend of mine who had also adopted children from Korea was asked by someone if her husband was Chinese. She told me about the incident when I explained to her that I had been asked the exact same question by a man in a grocery store. I told her that I just said, “No”, and walked away. But she said to the nosy person, “No, but I had a wild night in Seoul last year!” and she laughed crazily and walked away, leaving the astonished person staring at her with mouth open. I wish I had thought of that!
Several people had asked me a question that was very inconsiderate and frankly, prejudicial. “Why didn’t you adopt an American baby?” (Of course, they meant a “white” baby, because if my sons would have been adopted from Ireland, I surely wouldn’t have been asked that question). In retrospect, I should have responded, “He is American. He became a citizen last year.” But ignorance is usually followed by more, and would have resulted in a follow up question resembling, “No, I meant a baby from a mother in the United States instead of a foreign country.” When I did get the previous question, I usually responded with a reply like this: “Well, we didn’t want to wait years, and we didn’t want a baby coming from an alcohol or drug situation. Korea doesn’t have those problems with their babies up for adoption.” That usually worked for most of the curious except those who perpetuated the ignorance.
My own godfather, my Dad’s cousin by marriage, was angry that I adopted from Korea since he thought my son looked like a “Jap“. Suffice it to say, that conversation was the last one I ever had with that man.
As our sons grew older, the questions didn’t stop but they became whispers or were asked when they weren’t around. “Are they curious about their real mother?” (“Yes, yes, they are, since I’ve been their fake mother since they were babies!“)
Please stop and think before you ask anyone, be it a family member, a friend, or especially a complete stranger about their adopted or step-child or children. It may seem like an innocuous question to you, but what you ask, and in particular your choice of words can be very hurtful to the person or people who are raising the child. Because the “real” parents are the ones who raise the children. If you really have to say something, the best thing to do is to smile and say, “What a cute little boy!” (or girl), just like people do when the child is the same color as the parents.
People adopt children for many reasons. But mainly because the children fill a void in their lives. We never felt like we were doing our sons a favor by giving them a life that they might not have had in South Korea. We don’t know what alternate scenarios “might have been”. But what we do know for certain is that we are the ones whose lives have been blessed. And any adoptive parent will tell you that adopted children are loved at least the same as biological ones. All blood is red. We are so glad to have had the experience of raising and loving our children from the other side of the world. They were and are our sons.