September 2, 2015
I have read maybe a hundred lists. The lists people post just to inform everyone else in the world, to make sure we’re not committing serious faux pas against each other. “10 Things to Never say to Adoptive Parents,” “The 7 Questions Every Foster Parent Hates to Answer,” “5 Gifts No Teacher Wants to Get,” “The 8 Worst Things to Say to a Single Person,” “The 12 Most Annoying Starbucks Customers,” “The 4 Most Offensive Things You Can Say to an Accountant.” There are lists for every category of person out there, each detailing the kinds of statements and questions that are just beyond rude to say or ask.
I find myself reading them all, because I am genuinely interested in how people want to be related to. I want to know what speaks love to them and what speaks hurt. And yet I feel the one lesson to be learned from reading all those lists is this: No one wants to hear anything from anyone ever.
When someone asks me “Are all those kids yours?” when I’m out with five children, I don’t feel offended. I’m not sure why those lists tell me I should be offended by that question. Five kids is a lot of kids. But according to those lists, I would be within my rights to put on a fake sweet smile and tell the questioner to go screw himself.
Sometimes the people asking those questions are actually being rude or tactless, but I think most of the time they just want to connect. We’re not all foster parents or teachers or baristas or accountants. We don’t know the inside lingo for each of those demographics. We don’t know that the word “own” suddenly becomes excruciatingly painful for an adoptive or foster parent to hear, used like this: “Does your foster/adopted child get along well with your own kids?” I mean, how could someone be so heartless? The list-writer huffs, “They’re ALL my own kids, regardless of who birthed them.” However, some foster parents WANT the distinction. It hurts their biological kids to not hear a distinction. Or, like in our case, it upsets the foster child. Our girl wants everyone to know she has a family who wants her back. She’s with our family, but we’re not her family. Granted, it makes more sense for this distinction to be painful for adoptive families, but I’ve talked to enough to know that sometimes it takes a while to lose that distinction when there are biological children and adopted children in the same home, and even some adoptive parents have a hard time letting go of that phrase–“our own kids”–because their biological kids are blood of their blood, bone of their bone, and like it or not, it can feel different for a while. It’s not clear-cut when talking to people whose only children are adopted either–maybe they adopted because of infertility and the question of whether they’ll have their “own” kids someday feels painful, but maybe they adopted because they had a niece or nephew in need of a home and they DO intend to have children biologically someday. The person who asked the question shouldn’t be faulted for wondering, and some adoptive parents are only too happy to answer. Telling the world that you can’t ask that question makes everyone feel that they’re stepping on eggshells all the time, because even within a certain demographic there are nuances to who feels offended by what.
Those lists purport to help everyone on the outside understand how to relate to everyone on the inside, but everyone on the inside may not feel the same way, and after reading so many of those lists and trying to wrap my brain around all of them, in some ways I feel less confident than ever talking to those people now. I want to ask them for their stories or interact with them in a way that will make them feel cared about, but I’m worried that I’m going to misjudge the exact place they’re in in their process of adopting/fostering/dating/teaching/accounting at the moment, and I’m going to let the wrong word slip and they’re going to go commiserate with their support group later about the jerk who hurt their feelings that day.
The problem is that the writers of so many of those lists act like “How DARE other people be interested in our personal lives?” or “What is WRONG with people that they don’t innately understand these things?” They want to go to Target and not have anyone notice or care that they’ve got 7 kids of different ethnicities in tow, they don’t want to deal with the annoyance of people who can’t possibly understand what the ins and outs of their daily life look like, they want everyone to mind their own damn business. But then there are so many people in the world who are lonely, and they wonder why people won’t reach out to them. You know why people won’t reach out? Because they’re scared to! Because they’re afraid that maybe they’ll somehow say the wrong thing and end up the subject of an angry “Things to Never Say” list that goes viral on the internet the next day.
You know what, Starbucks baristas? I ORDERED A HALF-CAFF LATTE ALMOST EVERY DAY OF MY LAST TWO PREGNANCIES. I had no idea that was annoying. I’m sorry. Teachers? I’m sorry I’ve given you homemade goodies at Christmas. I’ve seen lists now that tell me you all hate that. Families with adopted kids/foster kids/bi-racial kids/step-kids/Irish twins? I’m sorry I’ve asked you what the story is, because apparently that’s not my business. And who knows how many other toes I’m inadvertently stepping on? There’s probably a list out there, “1000 Things Bloggers Should Never Write About,” and this is one of them.
But for everyone out there wondering: I’m not offended when you ask me questions, even if you ask in the “wrong” way. People are sometimes kind of apologetic when they ask about our girl. That makes me sad. They’re interested in our life, they’re interested in her life, they want to make a connection. I want that too. So, keep asking questions. Ask me about her. Ask me why we started fostering. Ask me whether or not we think we’ll keep fostering after this. Ask me what’s been hard and what’s been rewarding. Ask me why we retained her in school this year. Ask me if we planned to have a baby while we were fostering. Ask me if we plan to have more now (we don’t). Ask me about our other kids, about why we homeschooled a few years ago, about why we don’t anymore. Ask why I birthed one of our kids at home. I don’t think you’re being rude unless you say “Hey stupid, why did you do a home birth?” or “What kind of a jerk parent are you to keep your foster daughter back in school?” There’s a difference between questions and insults. I don’t care if you’re a stranger at the grocery store, a new friend I’m meeting for coffee, or someone who just stumbled across my blog. Ask me, and I’ll answer. And because I care about you and want you to know that I do, I’m probably going to ask you some questions too.