Friday, October 31, 2008

Offending Parties

My wife, the kids, and I were at a going-away party a few weeks ago for one of my wife’s best friends, Gloria, who was moving away with her husband and daughter. Most of the partygoers were either total stranger or acquaintances we hadn’t seen or talked to in several years. Typically, my wife and I have different attitudes about seeing old friends – more specifically, old friends who don’t know we’ve adopted multiracial children. My wife gets excited as she sees these events as opportunities to introduce the kids. I see these events as chances for people to confuse small talk with intrusive and endless prying.

The host’s house overflowed with strangers. I’d been separated from my wife for a while, which meant I had to wander through the house alone and bounce from one mundane conversation to another. The kids were playing in the backyard and I kept checking on them through the window, hoping they’d provide some excuse to leave. I didn’t want them to get hurt, but getting sick would do nicely.

After what seemed like forever, my wife and I met up. She threw herself next to me on the sofa and gave a big sigh. “I got cornered into talking about adoption.” Her voice sounded drained of emotion. Apparently, an old friend had cornered her into a panel-like discussion. Questions had been asked about infertility treatments and agency fees. The jury had concluded with our favorite, “Can we get together later so I can ask you more questions about this?”

“And you asked her not to, right?”

“Of course not.” She started rubbing her forehead. “I just said sure.”

“Do you really think she’ll call you?”

“No way.”

“How did the conversation even start?” I asked her.

“The same way it always does. She said, ‘I didn’t know you guys had adopted your children? I think it’s so great what you’re doing. My husband and I have always talked about adopting but we want to have our own kids first.’”

I rolled my eyes and gave my wife a comforting little back rub. I didn’t ask for any more details because I knew how the rest of the conversation went. We’d each had it countless times.

I wish I had a dime for every time someone said this exact statement to us. Typically at parties or other social events, it’s only a matter of time before we encounter someone who can’t think of anything to say and, unable to cope with the awkward silence, will pull something totally ridiculous like this out of their behind.

The struggle we then encounter is deciding how to react. Do we ignore the person and try to change the subject? The times my wife and I chose this path always left us feeling cheated. We saw it as a missed opportunity for us to educate the person.

Having committed that something had to be said, we now faced the challenge of which part of the statement to address. The first part of the statement, “You guys adopted your children?” was said with a bit of a surprise, as if we’d hidden this vital piece of information from them and had cheated them from knowing the truth. You guys won the lottery? It’s not the initial surprise that bothers me. I can’t really blame anyone for being shocked. My wife and I received similar reactions from our own family when we told them about our son. A family member who shall remain nameless said to us, “Why don’t you just want to adopt someone from our own race?”

“What you’re doing is great,” was the pseudo-encouragement we’ve heard all the time. It suggested that we were the boy’s saviors. I found this dangerous because it appealed to my vanity. This tempted me to accept their admiration and admit to myself, “Yes, I should be recognized for all that I have done for him. I applaud your insight.” But I have to check my ego and remind myself that the boy saved my wife and me a lot more than we saved him. He saved us from a childless existence and gave us the gift of parenthood, a gift we’d desired and labored over for years.

The next part of the statement – “We’ve always talked about adopting” – gave me a mental image of the couple fantasizing about their future. They’re discussing potential jobs and cities to live in. At some point, one of them might suggest adopting and the other might say, “Ooh. I’ve always had a heart for the orphans from another country.” Then the subject moves on to where they will vacation next summer and what they’ll be eating that night for dinner.

The final part of the statement, “Our own kids,” disturbed me more than the rest. The unintentional implication was that our kids are not our own kids because we didn’t biologically produce them. Calling them out for this statement would be too easy to recover from. I imagined them saying, “I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant to say.” But I didn’t want their apology. I wanted them to see me as just another father. I had just as much snot on my shirt as any other father and deserved to be treated as such.

It might be easy to allow people’s unenlightened remarks to make me cynical and bitter. I’d probably give in to these feelings were I not self conscious of my own ignorance. As my wife told me about the comment, I didn’t think, “How ignorant.” Rather, I thought, “Have I ever said something like that?” I started thinking about stupid things I’d said to people who were too gracious to rebuke me in the moment.

I recalled an incident that occurred when Gloria got engaged. There was a lot of talk among our friends about how big her ring was and how her fiancé had been saving for an engagement ring since he was a teenager. I had never really looked at engagement rings before so when Gloria showed it to me, I simply said, “It’s not that big.” I can’t recall her reaction once these words had vomited from my mouth. At the time, I just tried to make a joke and when I didn’t get the reaction I sought, I moved on.

It wasn’t until months later that I gave the comment some much-needed analysis. My wife and I had been dating for a while and Gloria kept finding ways out of going on double dates with us. After several refusals, I decided that she didn’t approve of me. In trying to figure out why she didn’t like me, I was forced to look within and I thought back to the incident with her ring. Remarkably, I stood by what I’d said and justified it, thinking, It was just a joke. It shames me that my initial thought wasn’t, She should have reservations about her best friend dating this horse’s ass.

At the going away party, as my wife and I sat on our host’s couch, the party raged around us. I stole a glance at Gloria who had been bombarded with conversations since we’d arrived. I thought again about her ring and considered the potential questions she’d probably been asked about moving.

“How are you going to get all your stuff there?”

“Are you worried about finding a doctor for the baby?”

“Is it expensive to live there?”

“How can you say goodbye to your family?”

I looked at my wife who hadn’t said anything for several minutes. Her head rested on my shoulder suggested to me that she was as content as I was to ride out the rest of the party on the couch. “Do you want to leave?” I asked her.

“Do you?”

“I can do whatever.”

“Me too.”

I’d seen first hand Gloria’s capability to withstand stupidity. Seeing her patience and grace with others gave me a hint of inspiration. If I can’t be that nice, well then I can at least just pretend to be as nice as she is.

We got up from the couch and spent a moment surveying the crowd, as if anticipating who would be the next perpetrator. Someone made eye contact with me and smiled and I immediately reconsidered my eagerness to give patience and good manners another shot. I smiled back, pulled at my wife’s arm, and whispered, “Let’s get the kids and get out of here.”


duello13 said...

I really enjoy your blogs and thank you for expressing many of the same experiences I have as the adoptive parent of an African-American 18 month old girl (and a retail manager). Your pictures are adorable.
Anyway, I just finished reading Chicken Soup for the Adopted Soul. I know, sound cheezy. But it was quite fun and inspiring to read others stories.

Billy said...

To duello 13
Thanks for reading!
I don't think the Chicken Soup books are all that cheezy, I've submitted a couple of my stories to them and I'm in final consideration for one of them. You have to look hard for like-minded people who will understand because there really aren't that many.

Mary Beth said...

loved reading this..after every party my husband has to listen to me unpack the insults of the night..the unintentional ones of course..but you've gotta it so's just an opportunity to check OURSELVES......i could go on and on..just wanted to chime in..been there....well written..encouraging.thx!

S said...

Interesting perspective. I just read a book that deals with some of that talk, "The Family of Adoption" it would be nice to have more people read that so they would not say ignorant remarks.

Kirsten said...

So glad your blog was referenced on Adoptive Families. My husband and I are fortunate to have three wonderful children, two of which we adopted (domestic) at birth. Our 21 month old daughter is bi-racial and our 20 month old son son is not. To anyone that actually looks at them, it is obvious they are not twins. The obnoxious, stupid and just plain insensitive comments we have received over the last two years blow us away. Your blog and others posts have helped me gain some perspective- thanks! Perhaps I can find it in me to stop with the sarcastic replies, my latest favorite when I am alone with them and get asked is, "no, two different fathers and they are a month apart".

Your article to be published in the magazine had me in stitches. It has become a game for me to see how I can casually start a conversation with strangers and end with receiving hair care tips. Why do I not feel comfortable just straight up asking people for help. When we travel and come across African American families, I somehow feel judged that we shouldn't be raising a child of color. I always think her hair is being scrutinized . . . in reality I have never been given a reason to feel that way. Just like your experience in church was perhaps not what you had thought it would be upon entering. Thanks for helping me to see my own shortcoming.

When we adopted Ellie and Sam, I thought all these issues would be easy and so far they have been when we don't lose sight of why we chose adoption in the first place. We wanted to create a family and all of us in the family have a lot of love to give one another. We also don't care what people think as long as our children are okay. It may be too simplistic of a view, and I am sure as they get older we will have many hurdles, but as long as we face them together, we trust it will all work out. That being said, I have noticed our daughter at 21 months starting to notice skin color. For some reason I never thought that would happen - how silly am I. Our six year old noticed everything when he was her age, why would I think it wouldn't register with her? Please keep writing, because I need to keep reading!