What to say when someone tells you they're adopting

Thursday, January 20, 2011
I ran across this great blog article that I wanted to share. When I got pregnant, people (including me) went crazy! Lots of congrats and excitement all around. Now that we're adopting, not so much. That being said, those close to us (well most) are just as excited as if we were pregnant again, but for those that don't really understand our loss or our reasons behind adopting, I'd like you to read this. It's from Offbeat Mama, but is written by Alissa back in August. It's kind of long, so you may want to just touch on the highlights. It also addresses those of us that are adopting and what we should expect as well. Enjoy!

Fielding questions about adopting — what you should say, and what you should avoid

I love talking openly about our adoption process. In fact I love talking openly about just about anything. I'm an external processor — not an unusual trait in bloggers I would imagine. Nowadays I don't have to tell people that my child is adopted, as one look at us makes that pretty clear. But back before we met our darling girl this was a pretty common scenario: I'd be talking with someone I knew fairly well but wasn't super intimate with and mention, off-hand, something about "the baby."

"Oh!" Said person's eyes would light up. "Are you pregnant??"

"Nope!" I would reply with a twinkle in my eye, "We're adopting." Always followed with a grin.

Then I'd take a mental breath and watch the other person process this unexpected information. I liked this exchange for a lot of the same reasons I don't mind talking about our adoption now. In part because I like doing things that are different, that might surprise other people. But I also like it because I learn something about the person I am talking to, every time. Are they someone who wants to relate to my experience? Do they have their own ideas about adoption that will shine through here? How do they respond in a situation that is unexpected, such as this? I'm always curious to know — and informed by the responses I get. It's not a test, and there is no particular response I'm expecting or looking for, but this exchange has proven a wonderful way for me to learn a little more about the people in my life.

Our culture isn't quite sure what to do about adoption just yet. We don't have a pre-written culturally scripted response for the "We're adopting" announcement. When someone, especially a stable and partnered someone, announces a pregnancy everyone knows what to do. There is congratulating, even squealing and jumping if you're the squeal-and-jump type. (I will admit to having partaken myself upon occasion.) If one is already a parent, then a pregnancy announcement is a good time to impart a little pregnancy wisdom, ask how far along and, if you're close enough, talk about birthing plans and whatnot. Since pregnancy is the primary way in which people build families, when someone is pregnant we as a society generally know what to do. This isn't so much the case with adoption. It's hard to know how to respond. So I thought I'd jot down some things I've noticed for this, both for those who know and want to support pre-adoptive parents, and for those who are in the adoption process and dread the sometimes awkward exchange that follows the "we're adopting" announcement.

When someone tells you "We're adopting!":

  • Focus on the adoption process, and be interested in and happy for that. Unlike pregnancy, adoption is always preceded by some sort of extensive planning process. For some adoptive parents that process begins by choosing not to have biological children, for others it is having that choice made for them by infertility. But that's not what matters. By the time they're telling everyone that an adoption is imminent, adoptive parents have all made the same choice - to adopt. And we want what every expectant parent wants: for our loved ones to share in our excitement and show interest and support in the way we are choosing to build our family.
  • It's okay if you don't know anything about what they are going through. If you are genuinely curious - ask! Since most people don't adopt, it may be that the adoptive parent you know is eager to talk to someone about his or her experience. If you're not that interested, don't sweat it, that's okay too. Just be happy for your friend and move on.
  • Don't compare adoption to pregnancy. These are two different processes. An expectant adoptive mom isn't pregnant any more than any expectant dad is. Making a lot of comparisons (it's like you're in your second trimester, kind of...) can imply that the adoptive experience is only valuable as it compares or relates to the pregnancy experience. A woman who is adopting isn't pretending she is pregnant and then pretending she gives birth. She is really becoming a mother, through a different and equally valid process. Also, someone is giving birth to the child she is adopting, or has. The birth/first mother is a real person who is really pregnant, and part of the adoption experience.
  • Avoid mention of that person you know who got pregnant right after she adopted. Everyone knows someone, or someone's cousin, or someone's brother-in-law's college roommate's first wife who adopted a baby and immediately got pregnant. It's a good story. But choosing to tell it to someone who is on the brink of adopting can imply that they don't know what they're doing and/or that the likelihood of an unexpected biological child is a good reason to adopt. It can also imply that adoption is a second-best option, only if you can't have "your own." The research that has been done shows conclusively that people who adopt after infertility are no more likely to get unexpectedly pregnant than those who do not adopt. It's quite rare for both groups. But we notice the exceptions, don't we? So and so adopted a child and then they adopted another child and then they raised those two children to adulthood is a much less interesting and noticeable story than the day they adopted Mikey, so and so found out they were pregnant! It's fine to tell that story, too. Just tell it another time. That is most likely not going to be this expectant adoptive mother's experience. That is not why she is adopting.

When you tell someone "We're adopting!"

  • Know that they care about you and want to say the right thing. By the time you're telling everyone, probably, you've made your choice and hopefully you have done a lot of personal work around that choice. But your friends and acquaintances haven't been on that road with you. Remember all the questions you had, internal and external, about adoption before you knew anything about it and don't hold your friends to a higher bar than you would have held yourself before the idea of adopting first crossed your mind.
  • Help them find common ground. My tendency is to either overwhelm innocent well-wishers with details of our process, or to launch into a sermon on whatever new piece of research or adoptive parenting advice I have added to my toolbox. But it's hard for people to relate to a giant wave of new information. It's easier for people to relate to things that are familiar - and while the differences in adoption are important, they're really just a small part of preparing to become a parent. Talk about cloth vs. disposables, or the pros and cons of attachment parenting and co-sleeping, what crib to buy, or whats going to happen with time off work and daycare. You know you're obsessed with all that stuff too, just like any expectant parent, and it's not hard for people to relate to - or get excited about - that sort of common ground.
  • Accept that you are going to hear the story about the person who got pregnant right after they adopted and get over it. Yes, maybe infertility didn't precede your adoption decision. Yes, it's annoying to hear that particular urban legend repeated over and over and yes it is frustrating to hear something you know isn't true - adopting makes getting pregnant easier - over and over. Especially if you've worked long and hard to grieve your inability to get pregnant and move on. Especially if you have strong personal opinions on why pregnancy isn't for you. BUT. This is the only story many people know about adoption. This is an attempt to relate to you - you are hearing this story because someone who cares about you heard it and it made them think of you, or it's coming to their mind now because they are thinking of you. Try to hear what's really being said, and realize that as an adoptive parent this is just the beginning of experiences where someone well meaning who probably loves you inadvertently puts their foot in their mouth.
  • Get used to being an ambassador for difference. The way I see it, especially if your adoption is across racial lines, part of the job of adoptive families is to advocate for something different in the world. This means being someone whose family isn't always perceived as normal, or comfortable to others. Our families are based on the idea that love is more important than biology. That's a radical thing. We'll be swimming upstream with that one pretty much the whole time.



  1. what a wonderful post!!!!!!!!!! thank you! i have so many friends that are adopting right now (and we are discussing it as well).

    motherhood is so amazing no matter the "what or how"....

    so excited for you as you and your hubby take this journey... :D (((hugs)))

  2. I like this post. In my experience talking to people I get the "maybe you'll get pregnant after adoption" comment approximately 90% of the time. It's starting to piss me off because in my mind that comment belittles and demeans my child-to-be. Ooh, I feel a blog post coming on!

  3. Great post! Love it! I am so very excited for you two and the whole process!

  4. great blog...oh and dont forget the tons of "do you know what you are getting into?" why yes i have had 7 years to figure it out, or "your life is going to change, hope you are ready" thanks i pretty much am
    and my all time favorite is about the fact that we have an open adoption "why would you do that, that just seems weird to me" ok so that is obviously not for you.

    anyway--i love being an advocate for adopting "older" children and have had several couple now decide to go the adoption route through foster care because of our experience

  5. this is a GREAT list of things..sigh..there is just no common sense anymore, why are BLMs constantly having to come up with "lists" to get people to have compassion?? I look fwd to reading your journey xoxo

  6. Great post! My sister has an adoption in the works for their little girl in Guatemala who is now three (the process has been PAINFULLY long) and they just brought home their second daughter from a domestic adoption in July. This list pretty must is perfect!

    ICLW #8

  7. Great post! We are just beginning the adoption process and are just in the application process. We are so excited though, and I think this post is good for me to gain better perspective on what those around us may be thinking. So many people have been supportive, but I'm sure there's a whole other group out that who a) doesn't understand it and b) doesn't understand why I'm so open about it and have made so much of it public knowledge. Just like IF it is important to learn how to field responses, and I think this post did a great job of it :) Happy ICLW!

  8. Thanks SO much for sharing this...I wish more people outside of the IF community would read it and be more informed about adoption.

    Happy ICLW!

  9. This is a really insightful post. Thank you so much for sharing it.

    Here from ICLW

  10. This is such an incredibly awesome post and I'm so glad you have shared it all with us.

    Sending you lots of *hugs*

  11. Our son was born in Vietnam and we brought him home at 11 months. Even before we brought him home, people asked if he were planning to teach him English.Fast forward four years and we still get a similar question. He has a speech delay and often doesn't respond at all when spoken to be strangers. At least 50% of they time they look to me and ask if he speaks English.

    The point is, insensitive and outright stupid comments just keep coming!

  12. I found people to be VERY supportive of us adopting. Although that could have been because I had a very close circle that we told.

    What a great post! There are so many that are not supportive, especially if the child is very diffent than the family and there are pre-conceived stereotypes.


  13. Stopping by for ICLW. Great post. I'm always curious about what people think about adoption, especially people who don't have any experience with it. My parents adopted my brothers when I was 4, but they started the process when I was about 2. They talked very openly with us about it, so it seemed so normal to me.

  14. What a great list. I find it so exciting that many people make their families in many different ways.

    Not long ago, I was at a friend's party. I was talking with some of her friends, who are essentially strangers to me. Two of these friends are a lesbian couple who were telling me about the process they're undergoing to have a baby. It seemed like a story they've told many times. I said, "Congratulations. That's really exciting news." And the way they both responded to me was like I was one of the first people who started the conversation that way.

    I think no matter how a baby is joining a family, the first thing to say is, "Congratulations!" Because however a baby comes, it's awesome news.

  15. I can't believe some people would say the things mentioned in this post. How crude and insensitive! But it is good that you write about it, obviously some need it. Happy ICLW!

  16. Thank you for this really useful post. I haven't encountered anyone yet who's adopted from birth (either it's not as common in the UK, or I simply don't move in wide enough circles) and it's really interesting to read the points and think about what I might say...because I'd love to ask some interesting and hopefully not too intrusive questions.

  17. Oooooh I love this post! Thank you for posting it. I may very well have to use parts of it. :)