How I respond to adoption questions like, are they really yours?

paintbrushes together with lots of colours

By Diane Bonina

“Are they really yours?” the harried young woman behind the register at Target asked me. Her blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail and her fingernails were painted a pearlescent blue. She cracked her gum as she rang up my items.

My children and I had arrived in Florida a few hours earlier. We were stocking up on formula, diapers, and whatever else a mom needs when she is traveling with three small children who are four, two, and six weeks old. 

Undeterred by my silence and forced half smile, the Target cashier asked her question again. As I loaded several packages of Huggies onto the conveyer belt, I looked at my children, trying to see them through her eyes. My daughter wore a turquoise sundress and white sandals, dark bangs framing her delicate face, shiny black hair falling past her shoulders. My boys had on matching outfits, crisp blue cotton shorts and blue tees emblazoned with neon red fire engines. The older one smiled brightly at me, his eyes sparkling below a puff of dark hair. The younger one was asleep in his car seat, which was propped on the red plastic seat of a shopping cart. He looked so small in his tiny fire engine shirt, so peaceful in contrast to the hectic buzz of the store around him. 

I felt certain the cashier saw none of that, that all she saw was three children of three different races.

It is all many people see when they see our multiracial family. My husband and I are both white. We adopted our daughter from China and our older son, who is Black, from Chicago. I gave birth to our younger son, who is white. To the Target cashier that day, my children were an anomaly, a conversation starter, a segue to small talk to get her through her shift. 

There are many ways I could have responded to her prying question, but I chose a simple “yes.” I knew what she meant, but she had asked if my children were really mine, and my two older children were looking at me, waiting for an answer. They were both capable of understanding any response I might give, and to both my children and to me, they were most certainly real and most definitely mine. 

“No, I mean really, are they really yours?” she said, tearing off the curled receipt the register had spit out. “Like, you know what I mean.” 

“They are really my children,” I said.

She finally seemed to realize I was not going to change my answer no matter how many times she repeated her question. In that moment, I didn’t have the energy or desire to explain my family to a stranger, nor did I want to field the endless stream of questions and comments I knew would follow. Why did you adopt them? Couldn’t you have children “of your own?” You are so wonderful to adopt them! I had come to hate that last comment, which was code for the notion that only someone incredibly gracious and kind would want my children. It suggested they should feel lucky or grateful, two things I never wanted them to feel in connection with their adoptions.

I get that people are curious when your children don’t look like you. I don’t begrudge people their curiosity, but I have never understood why they feel entitled to blurt out whatever pops into their minds. It is tempting to respond flippantly, but I don’t. Yes, I find the many questions and comments intrusive and annoying, and I firmly believe my children’s stories are theirs to tell, not mine. I can only hear, “Your family looks like the United Nations,” so many times before wanting to scream. It takes every ounce of restraint I can muster not to respond with a harsh lecture when people ask me questions like one I was asked when my daughter was an infant: “Did you have to pay extra to get one so cute?” Yet I do my best to respond with authenticity.

When our children were young, the questions caught me off guard. I often bumbled, overshared, or said nothing at all. Then I’d lie in bed at night, replaying moments in my mind, wondering what I should have said. Although I didn’t feel strangers were entitled to information simply because they had asked questions, I believed my children—who someday soon would be old enough to process my answers—deserved thoughtful responses. For their benefit, I wanted to avoid awkward or uncomfortable encounters. For them, I wanted my answers to be honest, accurate, and not unkind. I wanted the questions—annoying as they sometimes were—to be teachable moments for my children. 

Eventually, I stopped caring whether my responses satisfied those asking the questions and instead focused on whether my answers achieved my objectives. I wanted to model positive behavior for my children, teach them what I wanted them to learn about adoption and race, protect them, preserve their privacy, and educate others in a way that would benefit my children and other transracial adoptees. I began to use the many questions as practice, learning to share only what I felt comfortable sharing and to shut down conversations when they became too much. I learned to use my responses to educate others about adoption and to encourage intelligent dialogues about race. 

It initially surprised me when outsiders seemed to view our multiracial family as a puzzle to be solved, but just as I have grown accustomed to stares from strangers, I have come to accept their questions. I have learned to answer them with responses consistent with my goals. 

And sometimes, when I am asked why, I respond with my own question: why not?

Diane Bonina is the mother of three grown children, two of whom joined her family through transracial adoptions. She is a writer and former lawyer who is currently working on a memoir about belonging to a multiracial family. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their dog, Gatsby. Feel free to ask her questions about adoption or race if you run into her. You may also connect with her on Twitter at @bonina_diane or Instagram at @boninawrites.

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