Five Things You Should Never Say to an Adoptive Mother

Posted on

A few weeks ago during a break at my team’s cheerleading practice, my co-coaches called me over to the front of the gym to ask me a question.  They wanted to know if I find it insulting when someone says that my daughter looks like me.  I will explain my response below but when we finished our short conversation, they suggested I post a blog on this topic.  They said some people want to know when they are saying something rude to an adoptive mother; they all wanted to know more.

So, I listened and here it is.

Let me be clear.  I know most of the time when someone makes one of these remarks, their intentions are completely innocent.  I know it is hard to understand what makes these comments rude when you haven’t experienced adoption.

Before Anthony and I adopted Rosemarie, we both said things that I would find insulting now.  For example, we weren’t sure if we adopted a boy if we should name him after Anthony.  We thought perhaps it didn’t make sense for the baby to be a junior if he wasn’t our biological son.  I am appalled at that thought now. It is so entirely ridiculous that I wish I could go back in time and hit myself for thinking it.  Oh, and with whom did we share these completely offensive thoughts? Just my adopted sister-in-law.  No biggie. (So sorry about that, P.)

I wish I had known how rude that comment was.  Of course, we were entitled to our thoughts.  We were entitled to our journey to where we are now but that doesn’t mean we had to share these ideas with an adopted person.  I wouldn’t preach about the unnaturalness of infertility treatments to a person pregnant via IVF.  Of course, I am not against IVF but even if I was, I would keep my comments to myself.  Why?  Because it would be mean to share them.

Some of you may read this list and think I need to lighten up.  You may feel that I am being too sensitive. You are entitled to your opinion but please know the vast majority of the reasons I hate hearing these comments is their effect on my daughter, not me.  If you are a parent, then you will understand why I am willing to be seen as whiny or sensitive. You will understand that protecting my daughter is far more important.

Five Things You Should Never Say to An Adoptive Mother

  1. Did you ever meet her real mother?

    Why, yes, I met her thirty-two years ago.  I meet her every day in my bathroom mirror.  I am her real mother for heaven’s sake! And as her real mother, I can’t help being insulted by your use of this language (So much so, that I found it necessary to revisit this topic even though I already discussed it in a previous post.)

    Please stop using this terminology. I do not want my daughter to hear this language.  I don’t want her young mind to become confused, or worse, worried.  Adopted children often fear their families aren’t permanent, that an adoption can be undone and they will lose the family they know and love.  The mention of this mysterious “real mother” could exacerbate this fear and confuse my daughter who believes I am her real mother.

    Rosemarie knows she was adopted; Anthony and I have told her all about it since birth.  However, she knows the woman who gave birth to her as her birthmother.  That is one of the terms we adoptive mothers prefer.  Some families use others like tummy mommy or first mother. Whatever term a family chooses, I can pretty much guarantee it will not be real mother.

  2. Was her birthmother young? Did her birthmother have other children? Was her birthmother married? or any other question about her birthmother

    I don’t mean to be rude but Rosemarie’s birth story (or any other adopted child’s) is nobody’s business but hers.  And, even more than that, it isn’t my story to tell.  As much as her birth family has changed my life in every way, the story belongs to Rosemarie, not to me or Anthony.  At only three years old, she cannot tell me how much of the story she wants to share with others and what details she wants to keep all to herself.  So, please, don’t ask these questions of adoptive parents.  It only creates an awkward moment when we have explain why we can’t answer.

    I cannot speak for all adoptive parents.  I’m sure there are some that are willing to share details of their child’s birth story and that is their decision.  However, if you aren’t sure, it is definitely safer to just not ask.

  3. My sister’s cousin’s teacher’s daughter adopted a baby and then she got pregnant!

    First of all, calm down there, Lord Helmet.  Secondly, sigh.  If I’m being perfectly honest, this comment angers me.  Not always.  Not when it is said with a sense of awe or simply to share an amazing story like couples who end up with “twins”: one biological child and one adopted of the same age.  I find these stories fascinating. I am bothered, though, when it is said with the intention of comfort, when the speaker really means “Don’t worry. You can still get pregnant. You can still have a biological child.”

    In September 2010, Anthony and I had just begun the advertising stage of adoption. We were certified to adopt and were now in the search for a birthmother whom we would find through advertising—newspaper ads, online profiles, and simply word of mouth.  For that purpose, we created business cards that we could give out to family and friends and, if the opportunity arose, strangers.  I spent hours on Vistaprint choosing the perfect design, days picking our most appealing picture, and weeks discussing a catchy slogan.  It was Anthony who came up with it in the end: Too much love for only two of us.  The shipment arrived with stacks of the straight-edged cards neatly packed in small white boxes.  Each of us placed a small pile in our wallets just in case we met someone who could help.


    A few days later, at the wake of friend’s relative (No, it wasn’t exactly appropriate but I was desperate back then.), I met an older woman.  She was friendly and seemed kind and mentioned that she worked in the office of a Staten Island OB-GYN.  I smiled and worked up the courage to pull a business card from my wallet. For the first time, I told a stranger about me and Anthony and our search for a baby and I handed her our brown and blue card with a smile.   She took the card and glanced down at it for a moment.  Maybe she said she would keep an eye out for us. I’m sure she put the card in her wallet or purse.  But what I remember most is that she wasn’t all that interested in our adoption quest.  Instead, she leaned in closer to my face.

    “Ya know, my daughter had a hard time getting pregnant.   She decided to adopt and three months later. Poof! She got pregnant. “

    She nodded and smirked as she spoke. “You never know,” she said.

    No, she did not mean any harm.  She wasn’t trying to be hurtful but this type of statement is rude for more than one reason:

    • It implies that adopting is second rate, a last resort.  In truth, yes, it is probably the last resort for most people.  Most people probably try like hell for a biological child before turning to adoption.  But once those same people adopt, they are flabbergasted by the fact that they waited so long.  I know people outside of the adoption world can’t understand this; you simply don’t get it until it happens to you.  But I swear that it is true.  So when you meet someone already on the adoption path, it just isn’t kind to act as if they can still be saved from the horror of adoption.
    • You really don’t know why some people choose to adopt.  For some women, pregnancy is not a possibility whatsoever.  There are women like me whose bodies can’t handle the strain.  There are women without a uterus, women who don’t ovulate.  There are even men and women who simply choose to adopt because they’d rather give a home to a child in need of one rather than bring another child into the world.  For many of us, “you never know” doesn’t make sense because we do know, and we’ve chosen and embraced our path.
  4. She looks just like you.  You don’t even have to tell anyone she’s adopted!

    I don’t mind at all when someone says my daughter looks like Anthony or me.  I obviously think she’s beautiful so that’s quite a compliment.  And that is our typical go-to comment when we meet someone’s children, right?  I do it constantly. “Oh, I think she looks like her husband.” and “She is your clone.” are things I have often heard myself saying.  I personally am not bothered by this comment about my daughter.

    What does pose an issue is the second sentence that often follows. “You don’t even have to tell people.” “No one even has to know she was adopted.”  Why? Why would I not want to tell people?  Why would I not to share the most amazing and important success of my life?

    To imply that I would want to keep Rosemarie’s adoption a secret implies that there is something wrong with being adopted.  No, I don’t tell every stranger, each one that comments on her nose looking like mine (poor thing) or her light eyes despite my chocolate brown, that she was adopted.  It just isn’t necessary every time.  But sometimes I do.  Sometimes I smile and say, “That’s so funny you think we look alike. We adopted her.”

    And why are there times I choose to say it? Because I want Rosemarie to know that there is no shame in being adopted. I want her to know that I am proud to have found her in this massive world of seven billion people. I am proud that somehow after months and months of almosts and over miles and miles of country, we found each other.

    And why don’t I say it every time?  Because it matters but it isn’t the only thing that matters. We are an adoptive family but our family is about so much more than adoption.  And Rosemarie was adopted but she also builds “birthday cakes” made of Legos, loves to sing but can’t carry a tune,  squeals a long high-pitched “Hi” each time she sees a baby, and wants to play basketball but can’t dribble a lick.  She is a complete and total person; her adoption is only one part of who she is.

  5. IMG_0710

  6.  How could her birthmother give her up?  
  7. There are many things wrong with this question.  As I said earlier, it’s really not a good idea to ask any question about an adopted child’s birthmother.  On top of that, the term “give up” is problematic and I discussed as much in that earlier post.

    The biggest issue with this question, though, is its connotation, the way it implies that by choosing adoption, a birthmother is doing something less than honorable, something that deserves reproach.  I’m sure there are some birthmothers who choose adoption for the wrong reasons, for there are bad people in every social category and even good people make mistakes.

    However, when Anthony and I were still searching, we received almost fifty phone calls from prospective birthmothers.  Almost every single one of them was considering adoption out of love.  Almost every one explained that she couldn’t afford to care for another baby or couldn’t give a baby the life it deserved.  If you were able to talk to birthmothers at the moment they must make that decision final and sign away their rights, you would hear about the overwhelming anguish they feel.  If you watched episodes of I’m Having Their Baby, the reality show that follows a birthmother and adoptive parents until the baby’s birth, you would see this anguish in real time.  You would see the pain and the tears and the torment. Birthmothers break their own hearts for the good of their children and they deserve great respect.

    Beyond this, this question paints Rosemarie’s birthmother in a negative light and I cannot allow such a thing.  I have no idea what feelings Rosemarie will have about her birthmother.  I am sure they will be complicated, and I know I will never attempt to sway those feelings toward the negative.  As her mother, I will allow her to feel her own emotions and I will always let her know how grateful I am to her biological mother for giving me the greatest possible gift.



Well, there you have it.  I am by no means the final authority on this subject, but I would suggest you avoid saying these five things to an adoptive mother.  And just to balance things out, here are some things that are totally cool to say to me as an adoptive mother:

  1. Where do you adopt her from?
  2. Did you wait a long time to find her?
  3. What was the adoption process like?
  4. How lucky are you.
  5. Wow, you’re pretty.

Of course, be sure to refrain from #’s 1-3 until after the parent has mentioned the adoption, specifically if the child is present.  These days, most adopted children know their story but we don’t want anyone pulling a Chandler Bing.