When Judy Stigger and her husband decided to adopt, they chose children who very obviously didn't look like them.
"If you're a very private person, this is probably very hard to do because people are curious and do ask how much the baby cost and whether or not that's one of those crack babies," Judy Stigger says. "The questions are amazing that people feel free to ask."
People asked those questions because the Stiggers are white. And in Chicago — almost three decades ago — they adopted two children who are biracial.
Judy Stigger had to decide what to say when those questions came up.
"People would say, 'Do you have any real children?'" She would turn to her adopted son, Aaron, and say, 'No, I just have this plastic one,' and Aaron would hold his arms out and say, 'Ta-da!'"
"We almost were going to take that show on the road," adds Aaron, who is now 26.
In an interview with Steve Inskeep, Judy and Aaron Stigger begin a series of Morning Edition conversations about adoption in America.
Judy Stigger says she and her husband Bob never doubted whether they would go through with the adoptions.
"I think we had a conversation that said, if we do this, this means we will only live in certain kinds of neighborhoods. ... It would color, to use the verb, friends that we would have. We understood it had some implications."
While they didn't lose any friends as a result, there was a relative who didn't accept the adoptions. A grandmother "was embarrassed that the neighbors might see these children at her home," Judy says.
"She was a woman with a bit of a tongue, which I had up until then always enjoyed. But I wasn't sure I wanted to expose my kids to what she might say. So we didn't involve her in our family anymore."
Aaron says he first noticed the difference between him and his family when he was 3 or 4 years old. He was looking at his adoptive father's comb "and the comb doesn't go through the afro very well. .... I wanted to have the little waves that white people get in their hair when they get it all wet."
The difference never became difficult to deal with, Aaron says.
"My dad was always my dad, and my mom was always my mom. The only time it became an issue was when I'd bring new friends home from school."
The conversations would go something like this:
Friend: "So your mom's white?"
Aaron: "Well, yeah."
Friend: "Oh, so your dad must be black."
Aaron says he would agree with the friend "because my birth father is black, so I wasn't technically lying."
Aaron says his mother "would make sure I had black friends," and his parents talked with black parents. And occasionally, his family marked the African-American holiday of Kwanza.
"It wasn't really celebrating Kwanza," Aaron says. "It was more so that they put forth the effort to expose me to these things that they weren't used to doing."
Aaron was curious about his birth mother, and they reunited when he was about 12 years old. On one visit, Judy says, she watched as Aaron and his birth mother walked away together.
"They just sort of had the same swing to their walk," she says. "It affected me much more than I thought," Judy says. "I thought, that's part of who he is. I realized that I still had all these images in my head about my right to be his mom that I needed to get worked out .... and that he was fine, and he was mine, and it was OK that he got his walk from somebody else."
Coping Advice for 'Conspicuous Families'
Judy Stigger is director of international adoption at The Cradle, a private, non-profit, Illinois adoption agency. She helped form an affiliated educational group called Adoption Learning Partners, where she created the content for an online workshop called Conspicuous Families: Race, Culture and Adoption. The course was designed to help families who may be considering, or who have already made, a transracial adoption.
Following is advice from the course for adoptive parents about how they should respond to intrusive comments about their transracial adoption.
Consider the spotlight. Children in conspicuous families often feel like a spotlight is shining on them when intrusive questions are asked. When you respond, make sure that whatever you say affirms both your child and your family as a whole. That will take the spotlight off the child and put it on the family, where it belongs.
Observe your child before you respond. There are many ways to respond to an intrusive question or comment. Before you answer, consider your child's mood and temperament and think about how he or she might react to your response.
Your speech about the advantages of international adoption may be informative, but your cranky toddler may not be in the mood. And your humorous answer about your child being left by space aliens may seem funny to you, but not to your shy adolescent.
Protect your child. Questions that seem like harmless curiosity to you, may be hurtful to your child. Think about what your child hears and listen to the intent as well as the words of a question. And listen to your answer as well. Your child will be as sensitive to the answer as to the question. Be sure that your response does not reinforce a negative message contained in the original comment.
Empower your child. Watching you respond to difficult situations will help your child respond to similar situations. When you respond to intrusive questions, vary the answers you use. If they've heard you give many different responses, they know that they too can supply the right answer, when necessary.
There is no way for you to know how you'll deal with these kinds of situations until they arise. Some people see them as an opportunity to explain the joy they've found in adoption, while others see an unwanted intrusion into their private lives. However you feel, you will encounter these types of comments, and you need to find responses that will work for you, your family and your child.