With more than 1.2 million children living with at least one adoptive parent in the US, there are more adoption-created families out there than one might think. With so many of us affected, it’s not unthinkable to provide biologically created families with adoption sensitivity education in hopes to create adoptee allies.
Adoptee allies are non-adoptees who stand up for adoptees and create space for the normalization of adoptive families within the predominant biological-family construct. They help lessen the emotional loads adoptees carry because they advocate for us and step in at just the right moments.
And adoptees get put on the spot a lot. While I won’t speak for every adoptee’s personal experience, I can guarantee you that we all share collective experiences. Especially when non-adoptees find out we’re adopted. One of two responses generally happen upon hearing we’re adopted and it’s hurtful to us every single time. I will briefly unpack and then offer responses we’d much rather hear.
“You’re adopted? WOW! Do you know how lucky you are?!”
This response perpetuates two unfortunate narratives that adoptees have been trying to dismantle for decades. The first is that it asserts that adoptees can only feel lucky to be adopted because it excludes the vast and complex emotions we actually feel. It dismisses our loss and goes straight to the ‘adoption is beautiful’ construct which doesn’t warrant us the space and time to grieve the hard emotions. Another layer hidden in ‘do you know how lucky you are’ is the assertion that our proper emotional response to our luckiness should be gratefulness to our adoptive parents. This sets the stage for the second narrative, adoptive parent saviorism. ln a nutshell, it’s the prioritization and elevation of adoptive parents in the adoptive triad, which decenters adoptees, whom the construct of adoption should actually serve. Please learn about adoptive parent saviorism if you are unfamiliar. Seeds of saviorism are planted in the subconscious of adoptive parents and continue to grow with statements heard like the one we are discussing. There is great danger in adoption triad relationships when the adoptive parents believe they rescued/saved their child.
You’re adopted? Who is your REAL mom and dad?
This one is generally asked by non-adoptee school-aged kids. It’s dismissive and asserts that our adoption-formed families are fake and illegitimate. It makes us feel less-than their biologically created families, whether it’s intended or not. The word ‘real’ is triggering to adoptees because words are rarely neutral, having the power to elevate or cut down others. The word ‘real’ is painful to adoptees because it reminds us that predominant society still believes that blood is the determining factor of whether families are considered legit or illegitimate; real or fake.
As an adoptee and adoption professional, I often hear, “Okay, so now that we know what not to say, what do we say?” I put together 5 tangible things an ally can step in and say when they witness an adoptee being questioned about their family. We get really tired of the two responses above, so thank you in advance for advocating for us.
Below are 5 things I wish someone had stepped in and said on my behalf when I was repeatedly asked throughout my entire life about my ‘real’ family.
1) “Families are families no matter how they are formed.”
This validates that adoptive families are just as valued, accepted, and ‘real’ as biological families.
2) “You don’t have to answer that insensitive question about your family.”
This ally statement says, “It's inappropriate for anyone to invasively ask questions or make remarks about the construct of someone’s family.” This gives us the choice to respond and validates that we don’t have to.
3) “You don’t owe anyone private information about yourself or your family, in the same way that I do not owe anyone any private information about myself or my family.”
This inclusive and affirming statement can be helpful for adoptees to hear because it normalizes our family structure and reminds us that ALL families are similar in some ways. No one in any family construct has to share anything about themselves or their families if we don’t want to. This is also powerful because it reminds us of our permission to keep our stories to ourselves, without apologizing for not giving pieces of it away while under pressure.
4) “You hold the power when people ask you about being adopted because YOU are the expert, and they are not.”
An ally that reminds us that we are empowered in the most daunting of situations where we are endlessly put on the spot is the best kind of ally. With power comes choice and adoptees have options (learn about the W.I.S.E Up method if you are unfamiliar).
5) “If you ever feel like talking about being adopted, I can learn how to be a safe space for you and anything you share will stay confidential. I won’t pry, but please know I am here for you.”
This is honestly a dream response that tells adoptees l feel seen, respected, and most importantly less lonely and isolated. To know there are non-adoptees out there who don’t want to simply question the legitimacy of our families, but who care about our perspectives and are willing to listen and become educated feels validating and one step closer to belonging rather than cast out.
If you’re adopted, thank you for sharing your stories (always on your terms). Adoptee voices have fueled healthy ethical changes within the adoption community over the past 20 years. This is great for us in the adoption world (it’s easier to push for change when it is relevant to us). However, we have required very little change from the non-adoptive world we are living in, which is why adoptees are still dealing with the same old insensitive responses mentioned above.
If you’re not adopted, thank you for taking steps toward becoming our allies. We need you. Non-adoptees can help adoptees by normalizing all families. I’m a huge proponent of the saying ‘when we know better, we do better”. Thank you for learning about our families. Thank you for including us and for advocating for us. knowing you will step in allows us to keep moving forward without taking so many steps back.
Dawn, adoptee and Adoption Caseworker