If you have ever been a new or expecting parent, you have probably experienced the temporary insanity that comes over people who are hearing the news for the first time. I'm talking about the psychosis that causes people to say odd and offensive things about you and your child. They may call into question the child's parentage: "That baby doesn't look anything like you. Are you sure it's yours?" Or they act as if babies come with exchange policies: "You had another girl. Didn't you want a boy?" Or they are downright rude: "A baby? Can you afford that?"
Adoptive parents are not immune to this syndrome. When my husband and I announced that we were adopting a child, reactions varied from sheer disbelief --"Stop kidding around; you know you don't want children." -- to the incredible --"You're adopting? Can't you get one of your sisters to have a baby for you?"
Adopting a child is like becoming pregnant. It not only obscures the line between you and the new human you are expecting, but it also blurs social boundaries between you and the outside world. As a pregnant woman may be subjected to strangers fondling her belly in the grocery store checkout line, adoptive moms are subject to unsolicited and unwanted advice.
For example, when we were awaiting our daughter, a woman collared me at a New Year's Eve party.
"I heard you're adopting a baby from abroad," she said.
"Not a baby," I corrected her. "A toddler."
I had always known this woman to be a warm, motherly person, so I prepared myself to accept her congratulations. Instead, she said, "Have you prayed about this?"
In the South, when someone asks if you have prayed about something, it means they disapprove of your behavior, and if you had spoken to God about it, he would have clued you in to your mistake.
"Yes," I said, trying to keep a straight face. We were six months into the process. We had completed a 200-page application, paid a non-refundable cash deposit, endured the scrutiny of the Department of Human Services, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Homeland Security. Had we prayed?!
"Yes," I said, "We have prayed."
"Have you considered a domestic adoption?" she asked, undeterred. "There are a lot of sibling groups that need homes."
She said this with a sense of purpose, as if she knew of a sibling group that would be perfect for us. She capped it off with, "Can you get your money back?"
Were we really having this conversation? Was she really suggesting that we cancel the contract with our current adoption agency to follow her lead on a sibling group?
I grudgingly answered, Yes, we had considered sibling groups, which turned out to be cost prohibitive for us. And No, we couldn't get our money back. Adoption fees are paid for services, not for the child, so you can't just cancel the deal and get your money back.
"Well," she said, shaking her head disapprovingly, "I hope you know what you're doing. Keep me up on things. And remember, I'm available for babysitting."
Later that same year, I was confronted again, this time by a dentist. Dr. Nichols is a plane-flying, large mouth bass-catching, Fox News junkie with a larger than life personality and a penchant for talking openly to his patients. He's also a very good endodontist, which is why I was visiting him that day.
When he heard about our plans to adopt, he said in his booming voice, "You're brave. Adopting from another country like that, you don't know the medical history. You don't know what you're getting." Then, sotto voce, "My friends just adopted from China."
He said this in the same tone one might say, "Some of my best friends are black," as if knowing someone who adopted from overseas made him an authority on the subject and excused his insensitive behavior.
"My friends just got a little girl from China and they don't know anything about her," he said.
I was shocked into silence, which he took as an invitation to explain why it was important to know the child's medical history.
"For example," he said, "I have a friend, he's 40, and I really feel for the guy. His dad dropped dead of a disease at 52. Dropped dead! And they don't know what killed him because his mom wouldn't let them do an autopsy."
"Maybe the mom did it," I said.
He made an expression of disgust and continued his story.
"...And on the other side of the family... ." I tuned him out as he droned on about some other guy dying of a malformed aorta.
He placed a tent and splint on my mouth and urged me to participate in the conversation. "I can understand more than you think," he said, booming again.
I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep. He gunned the drill and directed his diatribe toward his assistant.
Suddenly, he gasped. My eyes flew open.
"Are you having it AIDS tested?" he asked, pausing the drill for a moment. "You know AIDS is epidemic in Africa."
I rolled my eyes internally as he launched into an AIDS lecture, inflating the actual numbers and startling his young assistant.
"Don't the Africans know where AIDS comes from?" the assistant asked.
"No. They're ignorant," he said. "People get offended when I say they're ignorant," he said to no one in particular. Or maybe the comment was meant for me.
"Ignorant just means they're not educated," the young assistant said. "There's a difference between ignorant and stupid," she said.
If she had asked me, I could have told her that ignorant is sitting around talking about something you know nothing about. Stupid is asking me to respond with a drill in my mouth.
The mother of all reactions was from a female physician who had known me since birth and who disagreed with my decision to begin a family in late middle age. Unaware of her attitude, I had telephoned her to ask for a written character reference to include with the adoption application. I had expected her to express pride and delight at our decision to become a family. Instead she said, "When are you planning to retire?"
Much like the phrase, "Have you prayed about this?" this question was loaded with disapproval, especially when she delivered it in the voice she reserved for telling terminally ill patients to get their affairs in order.
"Retire?" Was she asking about my financial situation? "I don't think like that," I said. "My goal is to have a job I like doing and can do indefinitely."
I outlined some of my prospects and reminded her that my husband was also employed.
"When is he going to retire?" she asked.
"He's in his 30s." Exasperation was creeping in. "He has time."
"How old are you?" she demanded. I told her, and while I sat holding the receiver, my mouth literally hanging open, she ran through a litany of mothers she knew who died before their children graduated from high school.
Suddenly, a startling sound erupted from my mouth.
"ANGHHHHHH ..." I yelled into the phone, imitating the sound game shows use to let players know they missed the question. "That's the wrong answer!" I said. "The right answer is, 'I'm happy for you. I think you'll make a great mother.'"
She was startled, and rightly so. Because when someone approaches you with news of impending parenthood, unless it's your pregnant teenager, the only thing you can politely say is "Congratulations!" Keep your opinions about finances, health, death, and impending psychological doom to yourself. Just say "Congratulations," and let everyone get on with their day.
(The names have been changed because maybe you know some of these people.)
Hal Hutchison, M.Ed.
Hal Wofford Hutchison, M.Ed., is a former columnist, writer and editor for the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette newspapers. She has also been a secondary educator, and a university counselor and administrator. She lives in Little Rock, Ark., with her husband of 23 years and their daughter.