Adoptees face so many difficulties and hardships that non-adoptees do not even consider. When we decide to share that we are adopted with you, we deserve an empathetic response. We should be able to steer the conversation, and non-adoptees should listen. The five statements and questions below are responses we get all too often. When holding space for an adoptee sharing their truth and experience, please avoid gaslighting by staying far away from these 5 things.
1. “You don’t look adopted.”
Some adoptees, myself included, do not stick out as the adopted kid in the family. (Although, I am a transnational adoptee from Brazil, my skin is white and so is my adoptive family’s.) When an adoptee discloses that they are, in fact, adopted, they are sharing an intimate and complicated part of their lives with you. I’m not sure why the impulse is to tell us you couldn’t tell. What I do know, it’s an invalidating response, that further erases our truth.
So please, don’t tell us how much we look like x, y, or z person in our adoptive family. We probably don’t see it that way. It is painful to grow up simply imagining which features you might share with members of a biological family. Knowing your hands are shaped like your father’s or you share a similar body-type with your mother are aspects of being a family that adoptees do not grow up knowing, for the most part.
While we are on the topic of being able to blend in as a member of an adoptive family, it is worth mentioning that in the US, adopting a white baby is more expensive than a baby of any other race. Google it. Also, transracial adoptees have done painstaking work to highlight their experiences, so I suggest doing some research about the experience of adoptees who grew up outside their race, written by the adoptees themselves, not adoptive-parents.
2. “You were chosen!”
Oddly enough, those that bear witness to our stories will often tell us that adoption is so special because out of all the children out there to be adopted we were chosen to be a part of our adopted families. Even as a kid, I called BS on this.
First of all, a large majority of us were adopted because of our parents’ infertility issues. Sounds like second choice to me. We were adopted because we were the next fresh out the womb, healthy baby ready for adoption. Many of us were adopted because we matched the race of our adoptive families. Nothing beautiful or special about it.
Also, chosen for what? Adoption trauma? To wonder where we came from? Forced to battle gate-keepers to find out the truth about our identities? If you engage with adoptee communities online, you will quickly find that most of us do not feel like being adopted meant winning a golden ticket.
3. “Adoption gave you better life!”
Adoptee communities commonly say we were given a different life. Being separated from your biological family, whether at birth or later is trauma. Adoptees are more likely to experience serious mental health issues, struggle with substance abuse issues, and four times more likely to die by suicide than our non-adopted counterparts. (Again, this is all google-able information.)
While adoptees are not a monolith, and some of us may believe we were better off adopted, you have no idea if our life is better than something we never experienced. Adoption, in and of itself, regardless of the circumstances of our biological parents, puts our psychological health at risk. Every single adoptee I have ever met in my life, again, myself included, have been in inpatient treatment for mental illness, substance dependence, or an eating disorder. We were all adopted at birth.
Consider the seriousness of the challenges we face as adoptees before suggesting that we have been saved from the life we may have had if we were not relinquished. So again, telling us we have a better life, or we have been rescued, or we are lucky is an erasure of our truth.
4. “Do you want to meet your biological family?”
Simply put, it’s none of your business. Adoptees have an array of extremely valid feelings towards their first families. If we want you to know whether we are in reunion with our biological families, searching, or not interested in knowing, we will tell you.
For me, personally, I am a pretty open book, and have shared aspects of my story publicly. Hell, I did several episodes of DC and CM about it. However, I choose when and where and with who I tell my story. Some adoptees searched and found their biological and were rejected. Others are so angry and hurt about being relinquished that we don’t want to search. Some of us searched to no avail, or only to find that our biological parents are deceased.
I have been asked about searching so casually by people I hardly know. It’s not a casual question. It is extremely personal to each adoptee and takes emotional labor to answer. Like I said, if we want you to know how we are feeling about reunion, or if we are in reunion, we will tell you.
5. “Adoption saved you from abortion!”
Yep, we get told this. I’ve been told this. When adoptees come forward with how adoption has affected us, when we tell the truth and it is not a sweet story, when we are angry about all we have endured, for some reason, all empathy is lost and people say, “Your biological mother could have had an abortion.”
Well, anyone’s mother could’ve had an abortion. Also, adoptees have abortions too. Your stance on abortion is irrelevant here. If a person is spilling their soul to you, about how they have been hurt so deeply by adoption, telling you of the trauma and hardship they lived simply by being adopted, and you say, “At least you weren’t aborted,” I suggest you watch Brené Brown’s video on empathy before you engage in any more human interaction.
How do I talk to an adoptee sharing their truth?
If you are confused about how to be an empathetic listener, watch that Brené Brown video on empathy. Instead of telling us it could be worse, or about a happy adoptee you know, meet us where we are at. Know that we have experienced something you have not, and we’re the experts on what it is like to be an adoptee. Listen more than you talk, do not bring up counter points. In a world that tells us how beautiful adoption is over and over again, while narratives are often controlled by adoptive parents, and adoptees are told how they should feel, it is brave and radical for an adoptee to share their truth with you.
Alé Cardinalle | LSW | Adoptee