Dear Tricia: What would you do? I’m glad you asked.

WARNING! Adoption-related rant ahead.

It’s unfortunate that we must maintain a separate genre of manners entitled Adoption Etiquette, but we must.

Frankly we additionally should have Big Belly Etiquette, Wheelchair Etiquette, Birthmark Etiquette, and Yes-that’s-my-real-hair-color Etiquette, because people have lost all self-control when it comes to curbing their insatiable appetites for details of other people’s lives. Now, if you are a woman with enormous fake breasts, artfully-drawn eyebrows, and a unicorn tattoo on your lower back, don’t go all, “That’s right! That’s right! People should keep their eyes to themselves!” because of course there’s a prurient interest in your…um…thought process. I’d like to know what you were thinking, too. Besides, this blog is mostly about me.

In order to do my share of community education, I will present to you a number of awkward situations which result from actual encounters I have had, followed by a range of advice that caters to specific circumstances. Please adapt as necessary.

#1. A person you have just met, who is a friend of a friend of a friend, tells you that your children are beautiful, then adds, “Thank you for what you’re doing for the world.”

Your first thought, obviously, is that she is being sarcastic because you did not recycle the bottle of wine you just polished off. But what she really means is that she’s grateful to you for rescuing street urchins, bringing them into your home and teaching them to eat with spoons.

It is not your responsibility to disabuse the person of this notion, as it is extremely unlikely that she will be convinced. However, it is absolutely your job to vouch for your children’s well-earned place in your family. So you say, “They do much more for me than I’ve ever done for them,” which makes you sound like a bride of Christ but is in fact true, because they have taught you the definition of family and unconditional love and how to make a Zhu-Zhu pet canopy bed from a pillowcase, and all you do is cook them Easy Mac and occasionally put clean sheets on their beds.

#2. You’re sitting at the park and a woman says your children are gorgeous, and you say thank you. Then she says, “I mean, really. They’re exquisite,” and you think, “Oh, no, here we go. She thinks they are exotic pets.”

She doesn’t let you down. “What’s their nationality?” she asks.

This is very tricky because we have two issues here: the first is the failure of the questioner to understand the definition of “nationality,” which references the nation to which a person belongs. My children’s nationality is American, which gives them the right to say mean things to people who annoy them. What she really wants to know is my children’s ethnicity, or where they were born, which leads to the second issue, which is why do you want to know? And by the way, your eyes seem set too close together. What ethnicity are you?

I realize that people are just curious. We’re all curious. I’m dying to know why your son has brown eyes when both you and your husband have blue eyes but I’m not going to ask because it’s none of my business.

My standard answer for people to whom I have a social obligation to be civil is this: “Well, they’re American, but they were born in Guatemala and Vietnam, if that’s what you mean.” This is the most thoughtful response because it teaches the person a new word while answering the question without having to say, “What an idiot,” under your breath.

But if it’s some whoseydinger in the grocery store, I just say, “American,” and smile tightly, and move purposefully toward the dairy aisle. It makes me sound a lot more prone to having an “I’m proud to be an American” bumper sticker than I am, but it feels right.

#3. You’re in the grocery store with your toddler, and someone says to you, “Wow! She looks just like Dora the Explorer!” It’s true that we all appreciate Dora and her cousin Diego teaching our children a bit of Spanish. It’s adorable that they can tell me, “Yum, yum, yum! Delicioso!” when we have a nice meal. And the Tyrant does have the same haircut as Dora because she won’t let me brush her hair so I have to keep it short. But I cannot be appreciative that someone thinks my adorable little girl looks like a pudgy cartoon character with a bulbous oversized head and helmet hair. Do I tell you that your husband looks like Homer Simpson? Even though he does? No, that would be rude. If I described him at all, it would be to say he looks like Karl Rove, who at least is a real person, albeit one without a beating heart.

So your response is a tight-lipped smile, brief eye contact, and flaring nostrils. That will frighten the commentator enough that he or she will add, “She’s adorable!” and possibly shave a few months off the inevitable psychological treatment your child will undergo as a teenager.

#4. You’re out somewhere with your children, who are arguing over whose imaginary ice cream cone has more scoops, when a woman says to you, “Are they yours?” and you say, “Yes,” and the woman says, “Are they related?”

First, resolve the fighting. Take away all of the imaginary ice cream cones, hold them behind your back and threaten to throw them all away. Then add an extra scoop to each one and return them to their rightful lickers.

Then take an imaginary rock and throw it at the head of the woman. It’s imaginary! So you can do it!

When she regains consciousness, say, “They are all my children.” If you can, walk away quickly. But if you’re in line to pay for yet another case of juice boxes and can’t give up your spot, she might persist with, “Oh, I know! But are they really siblings?”

This is the fun part. Utilize the tight-lipped smile we discussed in Situation #3, lean forward toward the woman’s ear, and whisper, “Are you fucking kidding me?” Do this very quickly so that you can resume your normal posture and will look completely innocent when she calls security.

See? Manners can be entertaining, too!

For more advice on issues ranging from adoption and parenting to how to make your children smell clean without bathing them, feel free to write.

Peace out.

3 responses to Dear Tricia: What would you do? I’m glad you asked.

  1. karen says:

    Brilliant, Tricia. Do you have any advice for people who stare at my autistic son and try to quickly lower their raised eyebrows while mustering a weak, empathic smile? I’ve never had anyone say, “What’s wrong with him?” out loud but it’s always on their face.

    • Tricia says:

      Why, yes, Karen! Of course I have advice! It involves spit, a remote controlled smart machine, and tear gas…..xoxo

  2. Margaret says:

    another brilliant essay! I led a couple of workshops when the girls were small, I think I called it “Smart Answers to Stupid Adoption Questions”…. yours are better. You could have a 3rd (4th? 5th? I’ve lost count of the many jobs you juggle – writer, mother, teacher, trainer ) career on the adoption circuit.
    FYI, the questions do diminish as they get older. My favorite was always, “Where did you get them?” – usually asked in the grocery store, as if they were available on aisle 13…. xxoo

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