Thursday 21 October 2010

The One With All The Privacy

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.


  1. Really wishing you had written this BEFORE we blabbed everything to the grandparents. Had not thought about what they would say to their friends in a moment of pressure. Yeesh. So what next? What do you do when it is all out there and your kids know someday that you were the original source of all that is out there? Therapy? Should we start saving?
    PS. What size are the twins' noggins? (that's heads in American) I was just informed that Ari's head is ginormous by our doctor. Wondering if all Ethiopian baby heads are larger than American baby heads?

  2. Oh no, I wasn't meaning to make anybody freak out! I've got to go to bed, but that's a really good question, A. I'll type out what I'm thinking tomorrow when I wake up! (And probably someone else has good ideas too).

    Just time to say that YES, our babies have enormous heads. So do I, so I kind of like that we have this in common :) When they find it difficult to buy hats, I will be able to sympathise.

  3. I'm going to share this- hope you're cool with that! If I could've written a post on this....I would have said EVERYTHING you just said. So instead of re-writing an extremely well thought out and insanely wonderful post, I'm just going to direct my friends and family your way! ;) -Bridget

  4. Great post. As you know, we are dealing with this issue too. Very, very complicated. Oh, and I would never tell my parents the whole story because they have lots of friends and they have cocktail hour nightly! Not something I want dissected by folks I hardly know while they sip their Chardonnay.

  5. Oh how I do very much like this post.


  6. Unfortunately, my dad went with me to visit J's first family. And while I was out back grinding some coffee (seriously, we were there for a long time) he asked some questions that I didn't even know about until he told me later that night. All that to say, I kind of wish *that* hadn't happened.

    And also, how do you even deal with the nosy people who continue to prod even after you've given them the 'that's private and not something that I want to share' talk? Honestly, I've had more than one person then start speculating aloud about how, since I answered in the way that I did, it must be X but wait, maybe it's Y, or is it Z?


  7. You are absolutely right not to tell, it's not your story to tell if you want adoptees to trust you and know they can rely on you for confidences and respect for their lives.I hope you spread the word far and wide and find some really good answers to the nosy questions
    Would very much like to link this post if I may, it is such a hopeful post, you're on the cusp of that turning tide!No photos next hey?

  8. Another beautiful and thought-provoking post.
    I like the differentiation between secrecy and privacy, too. Important to note because secrecy can often imply shame and privacy is just, well, private.
    I'm an over-sharer by nature (hello? blog?) and with my infertility treatment I felt it was my duty to be the 'face of infertility' and I never kept treatments secret. Now, if we'd decided to do donor gametes that would have been an entirely different story but obviously we didn't go that road. But the mister and I have talked extensively about this topic you've brought up and we have made the same committment...and the reminder about the grandparents is a great one so THANK YOU.
    Your point about intent is also well made...most people aren't trying to cause harm but it's easy to see how it could spiral. And honestly...most people, if they really thought about it before they asked, would realize it isn't likely the happiest of answer/circumstances and they should just let it be...but most people are just so curious by nature.
    Thanks for the pic!

  9. I hate, hate, hate how people with their casual curiosity feel like they can just ask a question that can leave my daughter battered and bruised.

    Good post Claudia.

  10. There's nothing wrong with saying "I don't know" to a question too :-)

    Because really, if one didn't witness something, it's hard to actually know the true details of an event.

    I was presented to my parents by my adoption agency as a nameless, unwanted baby whose mother just wanted to "move on" with her life.

    When I reunited, I learned that I had actually been a named (and named after very special family members), very wanted baby whose mother chose adoption because she was made to feel unworthy to parent me by my agency and who never "moved on."

    I grew up making a lot of assumptions about myself that weren't true based on what information I *thought* I knew.

    Other individuals, both domestic and internationally adopted, tell similar stories. Being able to say "I don't know" instead of holding word of mouth as absolute fact would have been beneficial to me growing up. It just never occurred to me.

    And I totally agree. It's the adoptee's story to tell. The details aren't anyone else's concern really.

    People's questions, when directed to adults, do not necessarily bother me. Adoption for many of us is an invisible thing we carry. Standing alone, no one can tell I'm adopted. No one asks. No one enters into dialog about adoption. And when this does not occur in society, no one learns proper social rules as to how adoptees want to be treated, and how to approach things respectfully. People also go off of assumptions and stereotypes (sometimes they've already made up their minds about all adoptees being unwanted and are looking for an answer to challenge that), rather than asking and getting good information. I encourage questions but people ought to know that certain information shouldn't be shared with them and that it shouldn't be asked in front of children. Letting people know how to be respectful without making them feel ashamed for asking (meaning they won't ask anything again and won't learn anything) is a fine line to walk.

  11. I agree this post is a keeper and should be required reading for any parent currently in-process of adopting.

    I will admit it kept me awake last night. Feeling very much like a failure for not being so strong fro my boy...for getting caught up in the moment and being excited and not holding true to my original "We will not share the story with ANYone." Because when we backtracked a bit and told everyone we shared info with...that it is private and not to be shared...well, some people got it (I think) and some did not. We visited my in-laws and on the coffee table was our boy's referral paperwork for all to see. While I am very happy they are so excited for their new grandson and are literally screaming from the rooftops in joy, they didn't fully understand our strong desire to keep the information private.

  12. You know what I think? I have a lot of mental energy that I put behind some of the decisions I make in regards to our adoption. The mental energy, my overthinking, is big. Really huge. So that is why it is pretty easy for me to get slightly bent out of shape about things like privacy or why we chose Ethiopia, the names we might choose, how I decorate the nursery.....yes, I am a little neurotic (which is fine by me), but I just want to ease this little into life. Because life can be tough and cruel. I want to do the very best job I can do. So, to me, that's what this blog post is about, the energy you put into this decision, people have no idea you are even giving it a second thought. It's very odd, when you are out among the world who has no idea what worries go along with adopting a child and doing right by that child. It's just odd. Thank goodness for certain friends and wonderfully smart blog writers whom I just don't know if I would make it through without.

  13. Thank you, Claudia. I hope you don't mind if I cross post this.

  14. Just stumbled across your blog for the first time today. Very interesting post.

    Whenever I have seen children who were obviously adopted I always feel the need to ask whats going on because it is so unusual. I am a very outgoing person and its hard for me to contain my curiousity. Assuming most people who ask this question are like me, hopefully you can take comfort in the fact that they most likely have no idea this is offensive. We simply have not given it any thought.

    I think you're doing a great job of handling it. Next time someone asks that just try to remember - they most likely have no idea they are being rude.

  15. Thanks for this post. We are currently waiting for a referral. We really agree with your thoughts. Our situation is that we have 3 biological children. We have wrestled with what information we will share with them. On one hand, we do not want to feel like we are keeping secrets from them, but also feel like asking them not to share information is a lot to ask a 6, 9, and 10 year old. if we can't depend on our parents under pressure from their friends to give info, we can' expect our kids to refrain. So, we're still thinking over here, any insight would be great....

  16. Just yesterday I had stranger ask me if 'the twins were mine or adopted.' I smiled and said 'both-they were adopted and they are mine' and I walked on. But she found me and started to backtrack 'I just wondered cause your blonde and they aren't...' My bff was w me and later commented that she thought maybe i was a bit too sensitive, that the stranger meant no harm. And she's right. she meant no harm whatsoever but I would hate for the twins to hear this comment and think they are an either/or thing. I need/want to come up w answers to these questions that protect my kids but educate somehow. So the people who don't mean harm can realize what they are doing/asking and maybe won't do it again. Any suggestions out there?

  17. You are much stronger than I. So many great points here. And the one that I haven't thought much about is how much my personality, and my beliefs about sharing info come into play here. I am a sharer by nature. I purge all guilt and shame by talking about it. My gut instinct is privacy = secrecy and secrecy = shame.
    For me the weirdest time yet was when our agency set up a situation in our parent training classes that was predicated upon us sharing info about our kids. All the parents besides my husband and I shared. This became awkward when the social worker said "Why aren't you sharing?" She them said "Oh, it is a good idea to keep your kids' stories private." Hmmmm I've been meaning to blog about this. So I will shut up now.
    Thanks for this post. More to think about.

  18. Very tough subject. I feel good and terrible about my successes and failures in this area. I am sure I am not alone. Thanks for the great post!

  19. NO UNRINGING BELLS. yes. i wish we hadnt' told our parents, but i will admit, we pretty much held a deep jewish and catholic kind of guilt over them if they ever breathe a word. adn we talked about it about twice a week to remind andrew's mother who has not much filter, for months, until he came. and it's probably time to remind her that just becasue time has passed doesn't mean it's ok to say anything.

    we always say "it's his story to tell and we don't share it with people."

    most folks don't get it, but that's not my problem. once again, i am soooooo with you.

  20. first I have to thank Heidi for linking to this post. Gosh, I wish I had read it a year ago. I will go forward armed with this. Something I struggle with always. Thank you for this post.

  21. Claudia

    These are all such good thoughts - thank you for thinking them and for taking the time to articulate them so well. We've of late been thinking through similar themes as they relate to IVF and the inevitable "how many did you transfer" question. All of the details are so no one else's business and you have a great point about how as the news travels outward, it is protected less and less. Your two babies are so lucky to have someone so thoughtful and loving as you as their mom.


  22. Oh how I have missed your over thinking (and I mean that in a way because I have been away from the blog world, not because you have not been over thinking). I'll let you over think on that one for a bit. (-;

    I have nothing of value to add except to say that you are a beautiful, strong, and amazing woman and mother.

  23. Wow, thank you so much for sharing this! We are currently 6 months into the wait for a referral for a child from Ethiopia, and you brought up several things I had not thought of yet. This post will help my husband and I make a better, more educated, thoughtful decision about how to handle the information we get on our daughter!

  24. Wow. What a much more articulate way to explain exactly how my husband and I feel. So glad I saw a link to your post.

    I will now be officially obsessed with you.

    My son's story is a fairly straightforward one but still one we don't feel like sharing. Most of my friends are satisfied with, "It's not our story to tell." But I brace myself for those that aren't. Of course, I have no problem whatsoever telling people to mind their own business.

    Hope you don't mind melinking to your post.

  25. Visiting from La Bicileta.

    We have foster to adopt children, who we adopted when they were 4 & 6. They are now 6 & 8. Our now 8 yr old is sharing things about her history that I didn't think when our therapist advised us to tell her parts of it, she would share. I wonder when kids consider what the outcome will be of sharing this info? I feel for her because I don't want her to get hurt by not choosing who to share this info with, because at 8, she has no clue how to share it.

    So now we are having conversations about who we share info with, but she resents it and feels it's her info to share. But seeing her get hurt, and talking to her about the hurt, I think she's finally starting to get how kids can be mean and sharing the info is not good.

    The other thing we face, is the kids in her class don't believe as we have always told her, that she can actually have 2 sets of parents, us and her birthparents. I am hoping to ask the teacher about doing an adoption presentation to her class. But then she talked about what she wanted to say, none of it I would have presented to her class. So then we had to have a conversation about what I would go over, and again stressing we need to be careful who we share our information with, and having to detail in great detail, just exactly who to share with, and who not to.

    It's a very sensitive topic and one close to any adoptive parent's heart. I think you will be prepared when this comes up with your children and it will be hard to go over with them, but I think you will find your way. It will be hard, but also a moment to share together.

    We too, have not shared much with our families, and that came back to bite us when my MIL suggested that 6 yr old (who is special needs) did not need Special Ed class and didn't understand why we'd want to put her in one. I realized we had never told MIL why she would be special needs because we didn't feel we should share it, but now it's becoming apparent due to some of her needs/issues that have come up, that we need to share.

    It's a fine line between those that need to know and those who are curious.

    Thanks for a good post.

  26. They are adorable.
    Thank you for posting this. I don't think I have ever asked this question, but I can say as someone who isn't well versed in the world of adoption it is something I hadn't thought about from the child's side.
    I guess I was more thinking about the happiness of the adoptive parent for getting the opportunity.

  27. I absolutely love Amanda's suggestion. I appreciate the respect you have for your kids and their stories. You're a wonderful mom :)

  28. I have shared too much with people in the past, hoping to motivate others to positive change, and it has come back to bite me.
    ON THE Other-extreme, people who don't share anything, how would anybody bond with them? I think it would be very alienating to be around people being very secretive.
    If I see their kid is special needs and the parents aren't admitting anything or addressing it---I'm washing my hands of the whole thing.

  29. Great post -- one that I'm bookmarking!

  30. I wanted to throttle the dentist the other day...oh, the questions she asked in front of my children! I felt like asking, much is your mortgage? How much do you have in your savings account? Have you ever been unfaithful to your husband? Because, really, the questions are along those lines in terms of privacy.

  31. I'm reposting a link to this because my husband and I just finished our second adoption, meaning our second child is home, and we've been getting these questions again. I understand if you say no but I'm terrified you'll take down your blog some day and this post will be lost and you said it better than I could, so - would you mind if I copied and pasted the whole post as long as I link back to the original and give you credit?


Over to you!