August 31, 2010

"What is in a name?"

It happened again last night. You would think I would be used to it. You would think as much as I think about it, rehearse what I would say, and run through endless come-back possibilities it would not catch me off guard. But it does. And then I nervously find myself explaining away, answering the question behind the question, giving more information than I wanted to give. And when I walk away, as usual, I kick myself over and over again. For the last three years this question has bothered me, bewildered me, and frustrated me more than any of the intrusive, offensive, tactless, and ignorant questions we have been handed.

We are a little bit famous in our small town. We are “that” family. People may not know our names, but we are recognized wherever we go. There are not many families like ours in our community, so we get waves, smiles, dirty looks, you name it. But like other “famous” people, we seem to have traded our privacy for the right to be a family. Adoptive parents, especially obviously adoptive parents, will tell you that there is open season on questions that, in any other context, would be considered inappropriate: “How much did he cost you?” “Why can’t you have biological children?” “Why did her birthmom not want her?” “Aren’t you afraid of how he will turn out?” “Do you know who her REAL parents are?”

Because I believe most people operate out of a lack of understanding of adoption, a desire to show interest, and a basic ignorance of the whole process, I have self-appointed me as an adoption educator. I field most of these questions with a smile, hoping to leave the exchange having taken one more step in my quest towards adoption awareness. As my kids get older and can understand the questions asked, I approach those exchanges more cautiously, trying to teach them how to respond appropriately as they listen. But…there is that question, that one question that stirs in me feelings that go deeper than education, politeness, or promotion. It started with Noah’s arrival. It is not really offensive, tactless, or ignorant. In fact, most people ask in genuine interest and wide-eye innocence. To be sure, many of my friends have asked. But each time I hear it, there is a pain in my heart that makes me catch my breath: “Are they brother and sister?”

What does that mean, to be brother and sister? How does that strange, wonderful relationship happen? Is it in the sharing of DNA and the splitting of genes? Is it in the growing up together, laughing, playing, and fighting? Are they mutually exclusive? Can one not exist without the other? I know what the person is asking: Are they biologically related? But that is a very different question, isn’t it? Every time I’m asked the question I am reminded that our society claims to see adoption as a truly viable option to form a family, but still only as second best. These are two children being raised by the same parents, under the same roof, and who share the same last name. What else do they need to qualify to be considered siblings? Yes, they are brother and sister! And they happen to be biologically related as well.

Time after time I vow to simply answer “yes” the next time the question comes and let the person asking figure out what that means. Time after time I find myself explaining: “They have the same birthmother.” Inevitably I get angry with myself and I think about the day when we have a third child who does not share DNA with Isabel and Noah. What will I say then?: “Well, these two are brother and sister, but this one is not”? Is NOT? If they are not brother and sister, all three of them, then they are not really my children and if they are not really my children, then what is adoption but a fantasy? Maybe by the time baby number three comes along I will finally have learned to quit blubbering like a fool when asked and simply, resoundingly, and decisively say: “Yes, yes they are.”

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