Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Are We Guilty?

Anyone who's read recent posts here knows that I'm struggling with the "politics of the public". My "adoption journey" has pretty much followed a pattern: have an idea about something. Read something that butts up hard against said idea. Think-think-think (like Winnie-the-Pooh). Strongly reverse original opinion. In a sheerly Orwellian move, deny I ever held the first opinion, especially to my wife.

So, I ran across this Oprah article. It coincided with some posts on some boards and with a few of the essays in A LOVE LIKE NO OTHER. It smacked me for a loop, as it had never occurred to me that a child's story was "private". Brit can't even keep her junk private. What's private anymore?

I pretty much fully envisioned blabbing my child's entire rich, compelling story, whatever it will be (still waitin' on that referral), to every Joe Wal-Mart and Bettie Target who crosses my path.

This is the path of the unjust. This will get me banished from Oprah-ville (testosterone will also cause banishment, but I digress).

So, mostly out of fear of spending the rest of my miserable life shivering for want of Oprah's beatific grace, I pondered. I asked the smartest birthmother I cyber-know. I almost convinced myself that there's something to this PRIVACY thing.

Then, I ran across the following, from Amy's utterly charming blog, ETHIOPIA OR BUST. They currently have an endearing slideshow of the moment they got their referral.

It was kinda late, and, after I read it, I rambled in her comment section. I found myself having an actual OPINION. It came from the heart and it came all the more freely for the fact that it was just some rambling comment, to be passed over, on someone else's blog, rather than taking front and center on my own.

So, here's a chunk of Amy's post, addressing the "O" magazine article:


I was reading an article today in the April addition of Oprahs magazine. The article is called 8 Things NEVER to Say to an Adopted Child. The article is written by Elizabeth Cuthrell. Her and her husband are white and have adopted two girls from China. After reading the article I am guilty of doing many things wrong when I see interracial families. She states that she used to stare at interracial adoptive families and kind of follow them with her eyes, not because she was judging them or disapproving, but because she was approving and thought it was neat. She said that familes would catch her staring and she would "smile warmly in an effort to convey her support."(Guilty) She said she now realizes that those families do not need her support and that what they do need is for people to not notice, or at least not make a big deal of noticing. She said that she "Now understands that frequently interracially adopted kids and their families long for privacy; just to be treated like any other human being whose history the public does not assume it knows or assume it has the right to know." She went onto share some stories of people approaching her when she is with the girls and asking very bold, inappropriate questions regarding the girls backgrounds. For example:
Where did you get them?
How much did they cost you?
Is their father Chinese?
Do they speak English?

So, I am guilty. Just last week we were at dinner with Josh's parents. This white couple with a cute biracial baby boy walked by. I smiled at the parents, nudged Josh, the whole bit. The mother stopped because she thought I had said something....I had not said anything, but then told her that her son was beautiful. I said, where is he from? (Yes, I am an idiot) She said, he's biracial. She smiled and walked away. She was very sweet and kind. The only reason I asked where he was from was because I was so hoping he was from Ethiopia. Now I know she was secretly hating me and my nosiness. I now realize that clearly where he is from is none of my business. I don't go walking up to cute white babies asking where they are from.

Elizabeth Cuthrell went on to write:
"Someday I hope we will live in a world where racial or familial differences don't matter because well have achieved the understanding that one kind, or one way, is not necessarily better than anothers. As for now, I fear we routinely call unneeded attention to these differences. For example, why are Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise's kids described as their "adopted kids?" Why aren't they just identified as "their kids?" Or why did the press write that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were expecting their first child when they already have a son and a daughter? We don't refer to how biological children become a part of their families, so why do we point out adoption?"

I sort of can feel this a bit. We have been asked about when we are going to try again to have biological children. It sometimes feels like others value biological children more. Right now, at this moment, today.....I don't know if I ever want to have "biological children." My heart is bursting with love for Silas. That is really all I can think about now.

The following is my comment:

I'm struggling with something similar on my blog, in which various experts have recommended that a child's story of origin is theirs and theirs alone, and, if asked if the kid still has a first family or not, or what the child's story is, you are supposed to basically tell people it's none of their business.

I find the Oprah author and the author to which I was responding both, frankly, full of it. That's my gut, but I'm open to being proven wrong.

I think that the world is not going to be particularly easy on our kids, and the more they see their situation being treated with honor and honesty and respect -- as DIFFERENT, but still GREAT -- can only embolden them to "own" their story.

To make it "private" to me is tantamount to shame. Or, worse yet, acting like they AREN'T different, when, in fact, they ARE. The problem comes when different equates with "less than". I think that, for a multi-cultural country, we are all pretty slow to realize that "different" means "a unique perspective" and "fresh insight", and that getting to know "different" people is a great way to broaden your horizons. So, I can't imagine, (unless someone is out-and-out racist) ever being "put off" by any questions, no matter how ignorant, because it's an opportunity to share our reality and experience with someone else. If we all do that, all the time, "different" won't be something to fear or "keep private" anymore.

So, will I be the worst adoptive father ever? Weigh in!


Brian (dad to 3) said...

Here's my theory:
1) Don't tell anyone anything you haven't already told your child. Got a baby? Well there's no better time to practice talking about adoption than when they can't walk away.

2) When they're old enough, tell the questioner to ask the child. It really is their story, so they should be able to choose to share it or not. You're right that it shouldn't be treated like a secret, but it's still up to them to how much and with whom they share.

jayme & jon said...

I have a few opinions on this subject. First, I definitely agree with Brian that we should never share information about our children that we haven't yet told our children. I would never want some random detail about my child's life to come from anyone other than myself or my husband. I want to be there so that I can answer any questions, provide support, or clarify details.

Our twins are only 11 months old, but from the first day that they were with us, we've told them their story. Right now, it's more like a bedtime story, and we've left out some of the more sensitive details, which we plan to introduce as our kids grow older.

In my mind, there is a big difference between information that is secret and information that is private. Their story will be discussed within our immediate family, and it's my hope that talking openly with our children about their history will eliminate any shame that might otherwise be felt.

Secondly, I think as adoptive parents, we need to consider *why* people are asking questions about our child's background. Does every random Joe really need to know? I guess I feel that although their story is not a secret, it should only be shared with utmost discretion, and preferably by my children themselves, as it really is their story to tell. And if I wouldn't share personal details about my own history, then I certainly shouldn't be sharing the details of my child's history.

just my two cents.

Carrie said...

Thanks for getting me thinking about this. I posted my thoughts on my blog.

A Voice said...

***clap clap clap***
I think you're on the right track! I agree that others should not know more of the child's story then the child does, but I also think we (Americans/adults/adoptive parents) can get too full of ourselves and think *everything* is negative or about our "different" situation. Sadly, our children are going to need thick skins... teaching them to get angry and hurt every time someone innocently (if ignorantly) asks questions about their "differences" is counterproductive in my opinion.

sssnoo said...

First - I have 2 bio and 4 Ethiopian adopted kids, the first 2 home for 10 years, the second 2 for 8 years.

My opinion has evolved with time. At first I was an open book - so proud of my kids and so wanting others to know what great, strong survivors they are. Now I have learned to see the world more through my childrens' eyes.

Privacy is not about shame or teaching your children to hide information for negative reasons. It is about helping children who have experienced total loss of control over just about everything in their lives that they control the telling of their story. My children are all different and have had different needs for privacy at different times in their lives. Some are more private than others. My role is to recognize their needs and respect and support their wishes.

I love to stand out - my life is about standing out. My kids just want to be invisible at times. They get so tired of the questions - they just want to be kids and not the poster children for international adoption. I have learned to respect those wishes.

Yes my childrens' stories are amazing and yes I want the entire world to know how wonderful they are. BUT - I have learned restraint and respect for them and now help them find the words to politely let others know that they have pushed beyond the bounderies my children want respected.

I think many cultures value privacy more than most Americans. The Ethiopian immigrants Iknow are certainly often taken aback by what is seen as American brazenous. I think cultural sensitivity and awareness includes understanding how to detect and respect others' personal privacy bounderies. Just as it is ok to tell your story, it is ok to keep it private.

Just the other night my kids were having a riotous conversation at dinner about the stupid questions they receive. It is interesting to sit back and listen to their experiences - my journey has been more about my evolution than it has been about imparting particular views to my children. I definately am a different person than I was a decade ago.

I hope my perspective helps. Sorry for the typos...


Amy said...

I like your perspective, and I agree with you, but I have a couple questions:
What about stuff like, the child is HIV+. Should that be kept private? Or, if the child was abandoned by his/her birth parents because of a birth defect or medical problem. Should that be kept private? Or are these simply more opportunities to educate people? Is it wrong to use our children's history as an educational opportunity for others, or is it good, because we are teaching our children to accept the facts and to present them as such, without shame?
What if they're teased because of some sensitive piece of information?
Am I carrying it all too far?
Just trying to figure it all out... Thanks!

sarah said...

I agree that there is a difference between private and secret. I want to keep our baby's story private simply because I don't want him to hear his story from a young cousin who overheard it somewhere before he can hear it from us. Even though there's not much information it is HIS information to share as he wishes, not ours.
In terms of questions from the public..I took an online course; "conspicuous families" that dealt with this issue. I found it very helpful. For now I will answer those questions and try to educate people, but when our baby is here and a little older the way I handle it will depend on him. Maybe he does not want to be the center of attention all the time, in that case I will brush them off...

erin said...

I agree with Brian, and most of the other commenters. Private and secret are different. In fact, when people ask us about our boys' story, and I tell them we're going to wait until the boys can tell it to them themselves, I also mention that it's not a secret. It's just that it's their story to tell, and they've lost so much already, at least we can keep this for them. Maybe they'll share it by way of their lifebook and the pictures we take while in Ethiopia. Who knows how it will evolve. We just want to make sure they have a say in telling their own story. I always saw it as a way of respecting them and their history.

Also, I don't mind when people ask. I love to talk about adoption, Ethiopia, how things have changed over time in the adoption world, etc.
And when we don't tell people, pretty much everyone agrees that it's not a bad idea, that they just hadn't thought of it that way before.

good discussion fodder, for sure

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