Before we met the babies, before we knew anything about them, I spoke to a group of friends who had adopted the previous year. I asked them if there was anything they would have done differently in their adoptions, if they were doing it all again. One told me: "I wouldn't have been so quick to tell people everything we knew about our baby's background". The other one agreed, saying "In our case, I wouldn't have been so quick to tell people that we didn't know anything, because it turns out that is a pretty big thing to tell, too".
We took this to heart, and J and I agreed, long before we got a referral, that we would keep all of our child's information private. We're glad we made this decision. Our reasoning is simple: it's not our story to tell. If the babies want to share, later, they can do that. If we do it now, and they wish we hadn't, we can never un-tell. Information only goes in one direction.
And so we brought the babies home, determined to stick to this.
"So why were they adopted? Did their real parents not want them?" a friend asks me casually. I draw in breath. Does he have any idea what he is asking?
I think about my babies' story, and I suspect not. Their story is not unusual for an international adoption. But stories that end in adoption are never happy stories, are they? I wish I could tell my children a story about their beginnings that wasn't going to cause them pain. But any story that ends with 'and then we took you home on an aeroplane' is going to start with something pretty difficult. Our children are too young to understand any of this yet, but one day, one night, they probably will lie awake wondering "Did my real parents not want me?" I feel sick at the thought, and I feel angry that my friend has been so casual.
I try to imagine anything in this man's life that might be a similar source of pain. I know he had a difficult breakup, a few years ago. He's never talked about it. Maybe I should ask him about that. Maybe I should ask him for details about why his girlfriend left. Was it because he had gained weight? Was it the back hair? Did she find him boring? Maybe I should think of every painful possibility, everything that keeps him awake at night, and use them to scrape my fingernails down the blackboard of his mind. Scritch. Scratch. And see whether he thinks that's an appropriate topic for small talk. But even that wouldn't really be equivalent, would it? Because he could tell me to shut up, or refuse to answer. No, I should strap him in a pram, gag him, and then ask his mother about it. And then see how he feels when she tells me everything she knows.
Okay, Claudia, calm down, I tell myself. You know he meant no harm with his question. And honestly, it seems that very few people do. It would be easier to shut these conversation down if the person asking was being rude, but most aren't. They might be asking about a painful thing, but their intent is not to cause any pain. Some people want to know about the babies' story because adoption is an interesting social experiment, and okay, they are a tiny bit nosy. Some people want to know because we are stuck making small talk and they have run out of things to say. Some people want to know because we are in the queue in the supermarket and they are just passing the time. Lots of people want to know about the babies' story because they genuinely care. Whatever the reasons, it does feel that pretty much everybody wants to know.
This means that sticking to our resolution not to talk needs committment because it is hard. It's incredibly difficult to refuse to answer a straight question. It's very socially awkward, because it implies the question was rude and Miss Manners will tell you that letting another person know they have been rude is, well, rude. It sounds trivial, but try it - it's not easy. And this social difficulty of refusing to answer is one of the big reasons we decided not to tell anybody at all the whole story, not even the grandparents.
Okay, maybe we had a specific reason for not telling the grandparents. When we started our adoption process, we hardly told anybody. We did tell some family members, making it clear that they weren't to tell anyone else. And yet, one of them did. And I've forgiven her*, but I've learned something too - other people don't care about our personal information as much as we do. Every degree of separation tends to make people fractionally less determined to keep what's private, private**. So I would remind prospective adoptive parents that before you decide to tell the proud grandparents-to-be everything in your child's referral packet, know this: your parents' friends will ask them, all interested and concerned, about what happened to that precious baby before it was lucky enough to get adopted by you. They will not mean any harm by this, but they will do it. And unless your mother has nerves of steel, it's unlikely she will be able to find a way to deflect the question because, well, it seems so rude. And then your mother's friends Raymond and Darlene will know, and maybe your cousin Jeanette, and then Jeanette's children. And after a few of these conversations, the person at the end of the chain has no committment at all to your children's privacy and it's just an interesting story to talk to their hairdresser about. And maybe your children won't mind about that, but maybe they will. I much prefer knowing that my parents, and J's, are saying "well, I just don't know what happened, Raymond and Darlene, because my freakish child refuses to tell me". I'd much rather be my parent's freakish child in this situation than my children's unthinking parent.
I think the point I'm making here is that I find it very difficult to politely, cheerfully put down a conversational roadblock when people start asking these questions, even though I'm extremely motivated to do it. If you want any privacy at all, I would advise thinking twice before expecting family to make this same committment.
And then there's yet another layer. When I think about the schools that our children might go to, I realise that they will probably be in the same year group as the children of a few of our friends. This concentrates my mind somewhat. As I watch people interact with their growing children, I realise that most people will tell their kids pretty much anything they ask. So I know that if we tell our friends what happened to our children, why they needed new parents, then their children will know as soon as they are old enough to ask the questions. I think it's a very rare person who can say "well, honey, that's an interesting question but I think that might be L and I's private information. We don't really need to know, do we?" I love my friends, but I don't think many of them are quite that rare.
And you know what? I don't want my children's friends, or even their cousins, knowing all there is to know about them. When I think about my children in a school playground, I don't want the other children to know things about them that would hurt. I feel like the bare fact of being adopted is enough to contend with. And being transracially adopted is more than enough to contend with. Personal details, the whole history, the what and when and why, the hard and scary stuff, that seems like too much.
I probably haven't made it clear enough that we don't want the babies to be ashamed of their story, or to think that it is a secret. Privacy and secrecy are two very different things, and it's the first one that I'm aiming for. I want them to be able to talk about these things to people that they trust, but I want them to be the ones who make the decisions about who deserves that trust. I don't want this to be a cloud that hangs over us; I don't want to be always hovering over them saying 'No! Don't say that! You might wish you had kept that private!' But neither do I want to regret that it was me who spilled all the beans when they are dealing with the fallout.
Because here's the thing: I don't get to decide how the babies are going to deal with their losses, and their story, in the future. I hope I can support them as they do deal with everything, but it's not up to me to decide that they aren't going to find some bits of their story hugely challenging. Origins can be an enormously important part of self-concept, and I can only imagine how hard it might be for them to work through all of this as they grow up. As if puberty isn't enough, kids, have fun dealing with this too! No, seriously, you're welcome. If it was me, I think I can guarantee I'd have gone crazy. But here's the other thing: these children aren't actually genetically related to me. There's a very good possibility that they won't inherit my tendency to overthink everything, and who knows, they might not inherit my tendency towards obsessive privacy either. My decision to keep their story private is definitely coloured by the fact that it is what I would have wanted done for me, if I was in their shoes. But they may be happy to share their story with everyone. Hey, they may just be happy**.
They may be. They may never see privacy about this as an issue. But I don't get to decide this in advance. I don't get to decide that they aren't going to want to keep their story to themselves, or at least restrict it to their close friends. And so I feel that it's just not my place to tell it. That's their decision to make. In the meantime, I'm keeping my trap shut.
And yet people continue to ask. I think that lack of respect for privacy about the babies' history stems from a lack of understanding about the losses involved in adoption. I think - okay, I hope- that if people understood what they were really asking about, they wouldn't ask. If they realised that they were asking for access to information that's actually very personal, they would be much less likely to do it. "This isn't really a suitable topic for chit-chat!" I want to say, but I never do. Because I know that honestly, I'm no different. I'm sure that I ask inappropriate questions about other people's lives, and they are endlessly patient with me. If it was my friends adopting, not me, I'm sure I'd want to know what happened, why these babies, where are their real parents?
So I'm facing my friend, and I reply to his question by saying what we always say. Big smile first, then: "I hope this doesn't sound rude, but we've decided not to talk about the babies' story to anybody else until they are old enough for us to talk to them about it first". And he looks at me a bit funny, but he shrugs his shoulders and says "Fair enough."
And really, I think it is.
*Honestly, I have.
**Ruth left a comment a few posts ago with her own harrowing grandparent tale, which kind of made my hair stand on end. So this one is definitely not just me!
***And speaking of happiness - you've got about 12 hours left to enter the giveaway!
To reward you for making your way through all of that, here is a gratuitously cute twin pic.