Should you label your child as adopted?
I was sitting in the sandbox with Katie as she busily tried to cram a handful of sand into her mouth. “Katie, give the sand to Mama; don’t eat it. That’s yucky.” Katie dutifully dropped the gritty clumps into my hand. “Mama,” she said. “Katie,” I sang back to her. “Mama, mama, mama,” Katie chanted to me. It was her favorite word. “Yes, love, Mama’s right here.”
We had company that day – there was another mother with her baby in the sandbox. I noticed her look curiously from me to Katie, then back at me. She watched us, taking in my dark-brown eyes and even darker brown curly hair, then openly staring at Katie’s incredible blue eyes and pale-gold hair. I knew what was coming. The mother could not help herself. “Where did she get those blue eyes?” she finally blurted out.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been asked this question. I live through this scene in waiting rooms, on store lines : everywhere. I watch as strangers examine my daughter and me, unable to reconcile the physical differences. I answer to their curiosity: “Is your husband blonde?” “Who has the blue eyes in the family?” “Wow, you are awfully little to have such a big daughter. Is your husband big?” Some days I just find it easier to reply with, “My mom has blue eyes,” rather than explain to them that her birth mother is actually the one to credit. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed; I just don’t feel the desire to reveal Katie’s personal situation to strangers.
Katie was in foster care when we adopted her. Before getting to her door, we had lost a baby, suffered through fraudulent birthmothers and birthmothers who rejected us. We traveled back and forth by airplane to Katie’s town 14 times before we were able to bring her home. Is this something I really want to get into with people I don’t know?
When my husband, Andrew, and I are out in public with Katie (and now our two biological younger daughters), we often see families with children that are instantly recognizable as adopted: Usually it’s two Caucasian parents with Asian children, although there are certainly many other combinations of parent and child. The population at large sees these children, notes that they are of a different ethnicity than their parents, and deduces that they are adopted. But since Katie is the same ethnicity as we are, people do not assume she is adopted. And yet she looks so different from us that people stare and try to make sense of it.
Their scrutiny makes me feel like I have a secret, and as time goes by, Katie, too will bear the burden of the secret. A little Chinese girl with Caucasian parents is not carrying around a “secret” about her adoption – her situation is already assumed. By contrast Katie will continuously be evaluating social circumstances as she grows up, deciding whether or not she wants to disclose the fact that she is adopted. Since she’s still young, I frequently make the decision for her. And I struggle with it.
Each time people ask about Katie’s blue eyes, I know the answer is far more important to the impressionable child standing next to me than to the inquirer. It’s a delicate dance: I do not want Katie to feel the stigma of being different yet I want her to embrace her uniqueness. If I avoid telling strangers the truth, will she feel as if it’s something to be hidden? Studies show that it is healthier for adopted children to acknowledge that they are adopted and to accept that they are different and have special emotional needs, but Katie should not think of herself as my “adopted daughter” – she is simply my daughter who happens to be adopted. How do I show her that it is okay to be adopted without constantly labeling her? I do not know the answer.
Perhaps Katie will be blissfully well-adjusted, regardless of how I answer these questions. And perhaps Katie will spend years in therapy, struggling to accept her adoption. The dance continues, the choreography always subject to interpretation, to refinement. As we dance together, moving and leaping through space, I am confident of what matters: I am her Mama, and she is my baby.