Friday, February 22, 2008

Now I'm Gonna Get ME a T-Shirt that Says Don't Ask

ETA: I have totally cooled off, and have realized the merits of having a cup of tea with honey before hitting "publish." I am, however, leaving it here so anyone who wants to can continue the conversation (minus my rantiness, I promise).

A comment on Paula's blog has me outraged, and because I respect Paula so much I am not going to respond to it there, but vent about it here. It isn't just a vent, though. Letting these things go isn't just not taking the bait, and it isn't "giving" more in the discussion (more on that below). Not saying anything seems like tacit agreement. That's hard, because while there is value in saying the unpopular when it protects the rights of the unempowered, here I'm just going to say something unpopular, and I'm not saying it in defense of an unempowered group (adoptive parents indeed are the most empowered, by any measure, of those affected by adoption) but in defense of what's just true. I just can't be magnanimous; this IS about my family and me.

Paula writes about her objection to "Made in China" t-shirts and "Family Made in America with American and Guatemalan parts." In brief, my own position is that these t-shirts are offensive for the way they commodify human beings -- or perhaps remind that adoptees are in fact treated like commodities (setting aside for the moment that we commodify ourselves and others everyday in myriad ways).

But one comment addresses the defense of "Yes we ARE family" t-shirts:

"The reason people ask so many "rude" questions about adoption is because it's a horrible thing to do to someone"


"People ask questions because really it horrifies them that some poor family on the other side of the world lost a child"

To be fair, the poster was not including Paula in the category of people who have done horrible things to first families. Still, even if you are a progressive, reform-oriented adoptive parent (I am) how is that cool?

That is just plain NOT why those rude people ask the questions and it is delusional to think that those questions come from any place of concern or empathy for anyone involved.

While I have a great deal of empathy for my daughter's first family (and I think that's incredibly clear throughout here), when someone walks up to us and asks if we are really a family it doesn't affect her family on the other side of the globe. It directly affects a three year old and a six year old who adore each other and whose relationship has just been invalidated.

I defended my husband's Abbat-a-Daddy t-shirt (note: none were imposed on my daughter -- in fact I don't believe imposing messages on my children at all so while I'm an ObamaMomma you'll never see a slogan on my children at all -- well, okay, they do have I heart NY t-shirts but they really do heart it) on Margie's blog some time ago, and I won't do it again here. I also enjoyed iBastard's t-shirt counterprogramming. It was a very funny attack on a very not-funny problem.

I am for open, empathetic dialogue between adoptive parents, adoptees and first families. And Dawn has said that on subjects of grief and disempowerment adoptive parents have far more to give (which makes many adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents hurt but which acknowledgment also makes communication possible).

But I will not give on this and I feel betrayed by the pass that notion is getting from other people:

Like it or not, people who ask if my children are both my children are NOT thinking about first mothers when they ask it. They are NOT thinking we are horrible for the reasons you (or even WE) want them to think we are horrible. In my experience, people around us think about my daughter's first family when I ask them to or make them. The reality is that on this matter I am my daughter's mother's only and best ally.

People who ask if they are both mine are nosy and rude. Sometimes they want to know if my children have two fathers/if I'm easy (because that would make me horrible and scandalous). They sometimes want to know if I'm a foster parent (because that might make me horrible for taking money to raise someone's children or heck, for taking longer in the grocery line -- which was my experience when the comment was clarified). They sometimes want to know how I could love a child who doesn't match me or how I could form a multiracial family in this world (which might make me horrible or might make me a saint), or how I could love someone not born to me as much as I could love someone born to me (which since they love their own Little Junior Copy with all their being might just make me crazy). Yes, random people have asked about my daughter's first mother -- they've asked if I'd heard about Angelina Jolie's daughter's birthmother who wanted her back. Everybody loves a scandal. They only ask nuanced questions, empathetic questions or the questions that MATTER when I force them into the position to really think about loss.

[ETA: A friend suggests that the reason people ask these questions is that families like ours threaten their sense of order. I think this is a wise observation -- our family suggests the non-necessity of the normative living arrangements of the biological nuclear family, even if one is unaware on a conscious level. It's kind of like the sentiment that state-sanctioned gay marriage "threatens" the integrity of the marriage between a man and a woman.]

The best reason to reject sloganeering t-shirts is that nothing important can be reduced to a t-shirt or a bumpersticker. "Ask me about the complexities of adoption and how we as an adoptive family all have to live with the co-presence of loss and gain, pain and joy, while acknowledging that for my daughter's family there may be only pain combined with some relief that at least she is safe"?

Not too catchy. So my daughter wears t-shirts that say "Superstar" (her choice) or t-shirts that don't say anything.

Lest we give the general public more credit than we give adoptive parents for caring for the mothers and fathers and grandparents and aunts and uncles of our children, >Nobody honors my daughter's first family by asking in front of my three year old and six year old if we really belong together.

Edited to ask: (I'm starting to wonder after reading comments here and elsewhere if people think they would be helping my daughter/other adoptees/preventing adoption by pointing out the obvious/our "mismatch"?)

Maybe we should get t-shirts that just say "Don't ask."


KimKim said...

I responded to your comment at Paula's blog. I'm sorry I upset you, I always liked you and still do.

abebech said...

Thank you so much for responding with equanimity to what is so clearly a rant on my part! I really admire your willingness to engage without backing down!
I have more to say in just a bit . . . but for now, thanks.

jena said...

I feel like I have learned so much today... you are one of those that I have learned from!

Michelle said...

You know, your post reminded me of when I was young and people would ask me if I was adopted or why my "mother" was so much older than me. I'm not a TRA, but the age and physical differences between me and my a-fam are noticible.

I atually liked it when people asked me. Only because there is much pretending when you're adopted - people asking why something was different made me feel real. I knew I was different fomr them and did have a family somewhere. The questions validated my expererience. I mostly felt uncomfortable not by questions, but by pretending.

I understand your point though.

abebech said...

I can understand your point Michelle! In our case, there's no pretending. She does know that she has an extended family (and not somewhere but where) and she knows that her beautiful looks and her buoyant personality must surely come from them. She seems to know she is both/and (though what's really going on in a three year old's brain is partially a guess.) I think there will be a difference when my daughter is older and can decide how she wants to respond. And again, it's less the questions than the assumption that there's anything empathetic behind the questions.

BethGo said...

My response is more to the t-shirt, less to the adoption stuff.

My younger son was born without a left hand. I know people who have bought their limb difference kids t-shirts that say stuff like "Dude! Where's my arm?" to wear in public for the same reason. To diffuse the staring and rude questions and whatnot. I decided I couldn't do that to my baby. He is not a billboard and it's not his job to put strangers in their place with a t-shirt slogan.
My husband and I do work very hard to approach people who stare directly. "Do you have any questions? You look like you have something on your mind?" We explain simply that this is the way our son was born and that he is ok. We also know how to shut people down with a look when they get out of line with our boy.
Golly, I could write a book about this but I won't as it's your blog (and it's a good one too!).
But you know, as far as people being rude...I've decided that's their problem. I refuse to let it cloud the way I feel about my kid.
If he wants to wear a t-shirt saying something humorous about his difference when he is old enough to make that choice, we will discuss the pro's and cons and go from there when the time is right.
But I get why people do it. I get it but I just can't do it myself.

Paula O. said...

As one who has spent a lifetime being asked - and has heard her parents being asked - all of the "nosy", "rude" and "just curious" questions - I agree with you completely that it very much affected me and often left me feeling that I had to defend my standing in the family and refute their implications that our family was abnormal simply because of my existence.

I never doubted my parents love for me or my relationship with them, but the constant questioning from others left me feeling very vulnerable and insecure about seeing as a "real" daughter or a legitimate child of my parents - - and being of a different race certainly did nothing to help assuage those fears as a child.

And as an AP, I also agree that for most everyone who inquires about our son (or to be more accurate - makes assumptions about him and his history), loss on the part of his Korean parents is not something that readily (if ever) enters their consciousness - the questions are much more pointed in a way that seems to want to affirm what they are thinking about adoption - much like the examples you cited in your post. This is consistent with how many people still approach me as an adoptee - loss is just NOT even on the radar screen for so many when they think about adoption.

And I agree completely on your thoughts about sloganeering t-shirts!

abebech said...

Beth, that's a great comparison. I, too, will support whatever way my daughter wants to handle it when she's old enough to decide -- but I won't do that to her.

Paula, thanks so much for your comment and your perspective. My greatest concern is the effect these questions, whatever-meaning, have on my children AS children -- my concern over the t-shirts comes from the same place.

Anonymous said...

I think most people are simply curious. And we now live in a society that believes that "knowing" is their right. So... they ask.

I don't blame those that buy the t-shirts. It does get tiring to have people constantly ask you about your family and a t-shirt seems like the easiest way to get people to leave you alone.

Recently though, we were at the doctor's office and the nurse made several comments about how my daughter didn't look like my boys. I ignored the obvious hints for information though. I felt that by telling her that my daughter was adopted I was doing exactly what a t-shirt would do.

1. answer questions that were none of her business no matter how innocently asked.

2. make my daughter and her life a matter for public discussion.

Just because people ask doesn't mean we have to answer.

abebech said...

"we now live in a society that believes that "knowing" is their right"

You are absolutely right -- thanks for adding your thought. This is why I like turning the tables . . . and/or not answering.