For some of us adoptees, talking about our adoption story can seem a bit intimidating—especially if the person we’re talking to is a new acquaintance or someone you don’t talk to often. There are a lot of different perspectives to consider and many different questions that could arise from that conversation. Depending on how comfortable you are with talking about yourself, this situation could range anywhere from an exciting opportunity to an anxious interview. Consider some steps and tips, both from my own experience as an adoptee and what I have observed in the experiences of others. I hope something here may help out anyone else who is struggling to have this conversation.
Step 1: Opportunity
Sometimes, the first step to figuring out how to talk about something is learning when to talk about it. There won’t always be a proper time to bring up the fact that you are adopted. I can sometimes go several months into a new friendship or relationship before the topic is brought up. This isn’t because the subject is unimportant, it’s just a fact of life. Your coworkers, boss, teachers, and even many of your friends don’t necessarily need to know that you’re adopted (in most cases). Even when you start to talk about families, most adoptees I know will just use “mom” or “dad” (as opposed to “adoptive mom/dad”), so other people are usually none the wiser. However, that may not apply to you, and there will eventually come a point where people notice a difference. They might meet your family and realize you look different, or you might only have photos of yourself at a certain age as opposed to baby photos. This is where they will either ask a question that leads into your adoption story, or you may choose to clarify that you are adopted.
Another opportunity that may present itself is when a conversation begins where having experience with adoption may be beneficial. For example, in a creative writing course I took in college, a classmate wanted to write a story about a character who was adopted. During the peer review stages, I was able to talk about my own adoption with them and address some of the points they could work on. We talked about using the correct terminology, what struggles adoptees can face, and what could realistically happen in regard to the character’s biological parents. I’d like to think that the exchange was intriguing on both ends—my classmate learned more about the adoption community, and I learned what adoption can sometimes look like from an outside perspective.
One last situation to look for is, of course, when it is necessary to whatever it is that you are doing. However, these situations are generally less likely to come up on a regular basis and they’re usually in more professional, sometimes individual settings. For example, you may need to talk to a doctor about your medical history or fill out some official paperwork that requires that clarification.
While some people may prefer to disclose the fact that they’re adopted right away, in my experience, most people will wait for one of these situations to arise before revealing that fact, not necessarily because they fear the subject, but because, for adoptees, it is the norm. Those who are not adopted may find the experiences of adoptees fascinating, but for most of us, it’s just–our life. It’s what we have grown to know.
Step 2: Assessment
So, you’re in a place where you do need to talk about your adoption. Where do you start? A good place to start might be finding out how much the other person knows about the adoption community in general. Does this person know about adoption from experience, or are they going off of misconceptions they heard? Is their knowledge up-to-date, or does it seem like their experience might be from a while ago?
Sometimes, you can figure this out through the way they talk about it. People who have been through the adoption process will usually talk about their own experiences with it, and they will likely be using the correct terms. On the other hand, people who have not been through these experiences will often use very vague phrases that trail off, such as, “So are your parents…?” and “Do you know…?” This is probably their way of trying to ask a question while still being afraid to offend you. They also tend to use incorrect terms, like referring to your biological/birth parents as your “real parents.”
If you aren’t sure how much they know, you can usually just ask them what their experience with adoption is (if any). Having that background knowledge can help you decide how much you need to inform them. If they have a decent amount of adoption experience, you can probably just go on with your story smoothly, and they will understand. If they have limited information though, you may have to explain certain aspects in a deeper way. Try to keep in mind that for the majority of people, adoption is something they have only heard about from media stories, and not all of those are particularly good representations. There are a lot of misconceptions about adoption out there, and those who don’t have much experience with adoption often look to those as sources for information.
You can read more about why adoption is seldom talked about.
Another thing to assess—something that often goes overlooked, in my opinion—is whether or not the person is coming from a place of kind interest. I would say that at least 90 percent of the encounters I’ve had were meant to be kind. Even if people used terms that I didn’t like, I could tell that they came from a place of inexperience, not hate; and they would use the correct terms once they learned. However, there is always that last 10 percent that seems to approach the subject with a rather disdainful tone. They came in multiple forms over the years: from school bullies who continually made harmful remarks (“Your real parents must have wanted to get rid of you”) to older people who refused to learn (“Yes, yes, but I’m talking about your real family, dear”).
If someone seems genuinely interested in your adoption story and shows a willingness to learn new things about both you and the adoption community, you know you’re about to have a good conversation–the kind that makes both parties think critically and connect to one another. However, if someone comes off as rude when speaking about it, and they refuse to try learning about it, that is a recipe for frustration.
Step 3: Options
Now that you are in a situation where you know the person’s background knowledge and attitude, you have a choice of how much to tell them. Believe it or not, you do not always have to provide every single detail to a person; whatever you choose to share is up to you, and this may vary from person to person.
Say you run into one of the genuinely kind, interested people mentioned above—you might feel comfortable sharing your whole story with them. It might be a friend or someone else you trust who is asking, and that level of comfort may make it easier to talk about. The people who have experience with adoption also tend to make talking about it feel less like a lecture you have to give and more like an opportunity to connect.
If you’re talking about this with someone who you trust, but in a more professional circle (coworker, teacher, doctor, etc.), then you might still provide the whole story, but you may not include every detail. You can give them a quick overview as opposed to the novel (if that makes sense). It might be beneficial for them to know the general points of your adoption, but getting into the gritty, emotional details might be overstepping some boundaries.
However, for those who you do not trust—people who have proven they may just be there to antagonize you and your story—you might consider not telling them much at all. Like I said, whatever you want to share is your choice. While it is important to inform others about the adoption community, and while talking about it is a good way to form deeper connections with others, nobody is entitled to something as personal as your adoption story. If you feel like someone will only use it to hurt you and is unwilling to change their attitude, then you have the right to politely decline.
Step 4: Connections
Alright, this might be more of a tip than another step. Something that helped me during conversations with others was to relate the topics to pieces of pop culture. This can be used in both a relatable sense (saying that your story is similar to that of a fictional character’s) and in an educational sense (pointing out some criticisms for a piece of media regarding adoption). I have found that when they’re uncomfortable, people respond well to hearing comparisons to either fictional or celebrity stories. This particularly goes for people who are less familiar with adoption in general.
Of course, you will have to use your own discretion, as the media will not completely align with everything. But that is what I mean when I say you can use it in an educational sense. Bring up a piece of media to get started, which takes the edge off, then introduce both the relatable parts of it and the parts that need improvement. Doing this acts as a more natural segue into your conversation; when talking flows naturally, everyone feels more at ease.
Here are some suggestions for adoption movies if you want to check that out as well. It also includes a link to books and other pieces of media.
These topics can be intimidating, especially depending on what your adoption experience was like and how others may react, but that shouldn’t stop us from talking about it. If you would like to connect with others in the adoption community, consider reading and/or participating in some of the public forums.
Mahli Rupp was adopted at 9 months old. She is an avid reader who loves to write and attempt other arts such as drawing, painting, and singing. She is almost always willing to share her experiences in adoption and answer questions whenever she can. Mahli will begin college as an English major and hopes to use her writing skills in whatever path her life brings. When she isn’t huddled in her bedroom with a good book or movie, you can find her hanging out with friends or in a bookstore.